Policy Watch

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Policy Watch is our regular policy update service, covering national and international developments in the world of education. We try to keep things simple, sharing the latest news and information with you through weekly updates, monthly summaries, papers and events.

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About Steve

As head of UK education policy at Pearson, Steve’s been running the Policy Watch service for almost 20 years. He’ll keep you informed on all things education, along with the rest of his subscribers – there were more than 10,000 at the last count!

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  • Policy Eye - week ending March 27 2015

    Yesterday MPs shook hands with the Speaker and trooped out of the Chamber as the 2010-2015 Parliament drew to a close.

    The week summed up

    Formal dissolution takes place on Monday and both major Parties head off to the campaign trail pretty much neck and neck.

    For the moment, much of this week has been given to getting as much sorted and out before purdah begins and restrictions on government activity kick in. In education there’s been a barrage of announcements, reports and updates which can be broadly filed under three headings: funding; qualification developments; and future strategy. Here’s a summary of each.

    Under funding, perhaps the most worrying area at present is that of adult skills training, essential for tooling up the country for economic revival but facing sustained cuts. Provider allocations have perhaps not been as bad as originally feared but as has been remarked before, the quest for a sustainable investment system based on employer and individual contributions, remains a key task for an incoming government. Schools too could face difficult times if, as the IfS predicted in a report this week that ‘spending will fall by 7% in real terms’ over the next five years. As for HE where this week 2015/16 allocations were confirmed, uncertainties over the impact of lifting the cap on student numbers and recruitment of overseas student numbers among other things, continue to trouble the sector as HEFCE’s latest health check indicated.

    On qualification developments, Ofqual has been busy this week updating on progress in the current reform programme but two other areas have also hit the headlines. One is the qualification framework for adult learning, the son or daughter of QCF in other words, which is now out for consultation until 17 June. And the other is Functional Skills, given a thumbs up in another report this week but in need of some support and attention. All three areas will need some attention after the election.

    Finally, future strategy and two important but battle weary areas namely 14-19 provision and adult vocational provision, both in the spotlight this week. The former had both the CBI and a think tank calling for further reform and the latter is now the subject of a major new consultation which will complete in the summer and set the direction for the next five years.

    The new government won’t be short of things to do.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Morgan rejects heads’ independent curriculum body.’ (Monday)
    •  ‘Cost of a degree is not worth it, says Oxford bursar.’ (Tuesday)
    •  ‘Colleges say’ swathe of cuts’ threatens adult education.’ (Wednesday)
    •  ‘School budgets facing significant cuts.” (Thursday)
    •  ‘Media studies survive but leisure studies don’t in final cull of A’ levels. (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Business Secretary who launched a hefty consultation about the future vision for adult FE as it strives to deliver its dual mandate of skills training for the workplace and second chance opportunities
    • The BIS Dept who confirmed that HNs would remain under their current (HE) funding regime but that some of the rules around Advanced Learning Loans would be relaxed  
    • The Education Secretary who responded to growing enthusiasm for an independent curriculum body by arguing that ministers should retain responsibility for curriculum decisions because they could be held to account
    • The  DfE who published a discussion paper on Academy chain performance suggesting two measures, one value-added and one improvement-based
    • Workload Challenge. (Spoiler alert: major change should only be brought in at the start of the year)
    • The DfE who updated its statutory guidance on careers provision
    • The HE Power List of top movers and shakers for English HE in 2015 which had George Osborne at No 1, Theresa May at No 2,  the Gen Sec of the Chinese Communist Party at No 6 (because of the importance of Chinese students to HE) and Vince Cable at No 10
    • James Dyson whose Foundation has donated £12m to Imperial College London to help set up a School of Design Engineering
    • Dame Ruth Silver who has been appointed to chair a Scottish Government Commission into access to university
    • Sir Paul Nurse who will lead a review into UK research funding especially around science
    • Stephen Munday who will chair a new group looking sat how to implement the Carter Review recommendations on the quality of initial teacher training 
    • HEFCE who published agreed funding allocations to universities and colleges for 2015/16 and followed this up with its regular financial health check of the sector
    • The BIS Dept who published an evaluation of the FE Commissioner’s ‘quality’ intervention process and found it now recognised and working effectively
    • Ofqual who launched a consultation on a new regulated qualifications framework as it prepared for life after the QCF
    • Functional Skills, back in the news this week as the review into employer and learner needs was published recommending that they should be seen as genuine alternative, rather than stepping stone, qualifications
    • Fact checker the Conversation who examined whether the Coalition really had created over 2m apprenticeships and concluded that while this was factually correct in terms of registered starts, questions remained about exactly what constituted general on the job training and what constituted a genuine apprenticeship
    • The government who issued operating guidelines for the proposed new database of post-16 courses, due to be launched this autumn
    • The Foundation Code, a set of principles designed to strengthen advice and guidance for young people which was developed by eight leading education bodies and launched this week
    • Ofsted who reported on a survey of school leaders’ views on inspection and claimed that many found it useful in helping make improvements
    • Ofqual who issued further regulatory guidelines this week on a number of 2016 subjects and updated the position on many of the remaining GCSEs, AS and A’ levels
    • The CBI who called for ‘a full review of 14-18 education’ to be on the list of things to be done in the first 100 days of an incoming government in May
    • The think tank IPPR who published another report on 14-19 education also calling for a review of 14-19 education focusing on its purpose and end product
    • The think tank Reform who also published a report on schools in this case arguing that improved performance can come from working in supportive strategic groups
    • The Institute of Fiscal Studies who looked at school funding in the light of different Party commitments and suggested that at best cuts of 7% might be expected in the future and at worst 12% depending on pension, pay and NI increases
    • What childcare is on offer, something that primary and secondary schools are to be required to provide alongside performance table data.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “Kids think there are 2 job options: what Mum does and what Dad does.” @virginmedia
    • “50 mile school run: the price I’m willing to pay for the best school.” @edon tap
    • “Nick Boles: FE policy has been based on instincts and prejudice.” @FEontap

    Acronym(s) of the week

    •  CGHE. The new Centre for Global Higher Education, to be led by the UCL Institute of Education with the Universities of Sheffield and Lancaster and providing a focus for research into HE and future directions
    •  FRQ. Framework of Regulated Qualifications, successor to the QCF.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “If I’ve taken one thing away from my time so far it’s the fact that everyone has an opinion on education.” Nicky Morgan on life as Education Secretary
    • “The system of Functional Skills is not broken but could be improved.” The core conclusion from the latest review into Functional Skills
    • “Although the commitments made by the three main UK parties are subtly different, they could all imply real spending per pupil falling by 7% or more between 2014/15 and 2019/20.” The Institute of Fiscal Studies on the cold winds of funding reality
    • “To borrow an analogy: Ofsted becomes the hygiene inspector and peer review provides the restaurant critic.” The NAHT’s Russell Hobby on reforming the school inspection system
    • “It’s not clear how much capacity the academy chains have to hammer up results even if the early ones were a success.” The BBC’s Chris Cook on measuring Academy chain performance.

    Number(s) of the week

    • £3.97bn. How much HEFCE is allocating to universities and colleges for 2015/16 for teaching, research and other funded activity
    • 190,000. The number of adult learning places that could go over the next year as a result of cuts according to the Association of Colleges
    • 89.7%. The number of young people entering university from state school last year, a new high
    • 81%. The percentage of school leaders who, in a survey by Ofsted, reported that inspection helped them improve by identifying strengths and weaknesses
    • 33.1%. How much more women can earn if they have two or more A levels in STEM subjects according to commissioned research from the DfE.

    What to look out for next week

    • Parliament is dissolved (Monday).
    read more
  • Pocket Watch - Which way for adult voc ed?

    What’s the future for adult education and training?

    Sir Andrew Foster’s unloved middle child, the subject of a major report ten years ago calling for a new vibrant skills system, finds itself a decade on, facing a major funding crisis leading to questions about its very future.

    ‘Adult education could disappear by 2020, colleges warn,’ just one of the striking headlines this week. Yet at the same time the government has launched a major new review of adult vocational learning built around a vision that sees this country as a leading international player in this area, Ofqual has launched a consultation on a new more flexible qualification framework following the QCF and two of the prime products in adult vocational learning, namely Functional Skills and HNs, have been given the thumbs up to continue as they are albeit with developments. Is this therefore one of those cathartic moments that the adult vocational sector often has to go through as it prepares itself for a changing set of conditions or is it something more? The developments this week offer what could be seen as some hopeful pointers. 

    Four latest pointers

    1.    Vision. Essentially a drawing breath exercise after a period of change and economic upheaval, the consultation exercise launched by BIS this week aims to bring clarity and purpose around what it calls the ‘dual mandate’ of adult voc learning, namely providing for the skill needs of employers and individuals and secondly, providing second chance opportunities where needed. Arguably this remit hasn’t changed but the operating conditions have, where three factors have gained prominence. First, the requirement to ensure all young people reach minimum standards in English and maths by age 18, second the growing importance of high-level technical skills and of a recognised learning route for these and third, a shift away from central to local planning and funding. Each of these feature in some shape or form in policy priorities for all of the major Parties in the coming election and point to where the vision is heading  

    2.    Qualifications or more precisely qualification frameworks. Securing a balance between a secure quality assured system and one which offers flexibility for employers and learners has been a source of debate for some time and the current trend, evident in recent reviews from UKCES and the Commission on Adult Vocational Learning let alone Ofqual itself, has been to try and simplify by focusing on general principles, defined outcomes and employer engagement. Ofqual’s  consultation on a new regulated framework post the QCF, builds on this trend: “what will matter in future will be whether qualifications can be shown to be good, not whether they are designed to tick boxes.” The key drive here is market responsiveness, not new in itself but given new urgency by the demand for skilled talent and concerns about social mobility. The new framework aims to help both facets   

    3.    Functional Skills. The quest for credible alternatives to GCSE English and maths has been a long one but according to the latest report published this week, Functional Skills which have been around now for over five years and are widely used, could fit the bill. There are issues about how they are viewed, (as stepping stones or as alternatives,) about how employers view them (87% of those familiar with them value them but only 47% admit actually to being familiar with them) and about some content and assessment but the hope is that a new government will cement their support

    4.    HNs. Finally a quick word about Higher Nationals, where the government confirmed this week that they would remain under HE funding rules thereby continuing to provide an important vocational route as higher level vocational progression becomes more important.

    read more
  • Pocket Watch - School policy lines

    Head teachers have called for greater stability in the school system, Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt wants an end to the ‘alpha male’ male approach to education reform while the DfE has issued further guidelines intended to moderate the impact of change under its Workload Challenge protocol but none of this has deterred the rush to get announcements out before Parliament is officially dissolved on Monday.

    If the latest ones are anything to go by, then four issues seem likely to dominate arguments over schools policy as the election campaign gets under way. This is how it’s all looking.

    Four school policy priorities

    1.    Funding. Labour and the Lib-Dems have already made some running here by claiming they would protect budgets up to age 18. At the moment, this is total budgets rather than per pupil costs so could come under strain as numbers rise and costs of pay, pension, NI are factored in. Most commentators have concluded that under any of the Party’s plans, schools will still face cuts and it’s clear from last week’s Budget that the government is looking for further efficiencies. Broadly as the Institute of Fiscal Studies has argued, school funding is now more distributive, more goes to disadvantaged schools although this leaves open the question of what will happen to the pupil premium after the election. There’s also the issue of the national funding formula with the professional body ASCL arguing recently that there are still great disparities between best and worst funded schools. MPs debated schools funding two weeks ago and the Schools Minister confirmed the formula was on course

    2.    School types. The Prime Minister of course recently announced that a future Conservative government would aim to introduce 500 more Free Schools and in its response this week to the Education Committee Inquiry into Academies and Free Schools, the government clearly saw such models as instruments to help schools innovate and improve. Tristram Hunt in his ASCL speech last weekend confirmed that Labour “would end the existing Free Schools programme” but went on to argue in many ways for a more expansive model, one that would enable ‘innovators’ from abroad to come and work with local schools. The bottom line would appear to be adherence to a more accountable set of criteria

    3.    Curriculum reform. The issue that has been surfacing for some time here is whether there should be an independent, perhaps profession-led body to take a lead on advising government on curriculum reform. The Lib-Dems for instance have proposed an Independent Standards Authority. Nicky Morgan’s recent response that such decisions should stay in the hands of democratically-elected reps, i.e. MPs, may have taken some of the sting out of the argument but the bigger questions around innovation, autonomy and the management of change remain

    4.    The profession. All Parties have been keen to demonstrate their support for teachers while at the same time suggesting further reform is necessary. Tristram Hunt went so far as to tell the ASCL Conference that raising workforce quality “was without doubt the most important task of central government in a 21st c education system.” He has proposed a new dedicated “school leadership institute” along with new Leadership Partnerships between schools and businesses, a CPD based career progression path and “a gold standard qualification for heads.” The Conservatives have also backed CPD with a new fund and a new expert group to draft standards. They’ve also backed the College of Teaching.

    read more
  • Policy Eye - week ending March 20 2015

    It’s been Budget Week of course and with Parliament now just one week away from dissolution and the launch of the election campaign proper, there’s been a lot of interest in what sort of Budget it would turn out to be. 

    The week summed up

    The Chancellor of course promised ‘no giveaways and no gimmicks’ and in the event there weren’t many surprises either.

    The headlines have been full of the Budget and its implications this week with the Institute of Fiscal Studies and its Post-Budget Briefing emerging by common consent as the real winner. Their analysis of what is fast becoming the core issue at present, namely the extent of proposed cuts in the next Parliament and what impact these might have on public services is worth reading and can be found here. The Chancellor has argued that graphic stories of ‘deep cuts’ are off beam and that “we want to take a more balanced approach and would not put all the cuts in government depts.” That may well be true and may offer some succour to FE whose Dept faces some of the biggest cuts but as the IFS concludes, until we know exactly where the cuts are to come from, it’s difficult to be sure. Elsewhere, Fraser Nelson’s ‘Budget 2015 explained in ten graphs’ offers another interesting and easy to read perspective on the key Budget issues. It’s published in the Spectator and can be found here.

    As for education, summarised in an accompanying Policy Watch one-pager, it hardly featured at all. Schools may have been interested in the Budget’s big book comments on balancing out efficiencies and cost measures, FE may have been interested in the Apprenticeship Voucher and local growth announcements, while HE may have been interested in the postgrad funding and science and innovation statements but ‘may’ is the operative word given detail in each case was pretty sparse. It’s the Spending Review later this year that will bring us the detail.

    So with many of the commentators acknowledging that we’re in for ‘a rollercoaster ride’ with the nation’s finances one way or another, the Education Committee’s valedictory Report, one of  a large number of Reports out this week, offers another rollercoaster ride, this time through education over the last five years. It looks like we’re heading for some bumpy rides.

    Top headlines this week

    •  ‘Funding gap costs poorest funded schools 40 teachers.’ (Monday)
    •  ‘Margaret Hodge not confident public funds safe in private colleges’ scheme. (Tuesday)
    •  ‘Teacher stress levels in England soaring, data shows.’ (Wednesday)
    •  ‘Almost half of English universities plan to recruit more students after cap is lifted.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Hunt wants overseas innovators for England’s schools.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    •  The Chancellor who encouraged Britain to walk tall as he issued his sixth Budget Statement
    •  The Leader of the Opposition who argued that the Budget would exacerbate Britain’s problems rather than solve them
    • Danny Alexander who presented an ‘alternative’ Lib-Dem Budget the day after the Budget promising a fairer way to cut the debt by squeezing more money out of tax evasion
    • Nick Clegg who told his Party’s Spring Conference that his two proudest achievements in education were protecting the schools budget and introducing the Pupil Premium
    • Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who recommended that a close eye be kept on funding for alternative providers in HE as the Committee concluded its second witness session on the matter
    • Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt, calling for a new approach to curriculum reform and for education innovators across the world to come and set up schools in England
    • The Competition and Marketing Authority who published guidance for HE providers and students on their rights and responsibilities under consumer law including for example, the importance of providing ‘clear, accurate and timely information'
    • The Education Committee who published a summary report reflecting on its achievements over the lifetime of this Parliament and in particular its work on helping to close the attainment gap between the most and the least disadvantaged young people
    • The ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, the subject of a summary report by the Education Committee which called for much greater co-ordination between agencies overseeing schools
    • University costs, the subject of a global survey by HSBC which reported that Warsaw and Lisbon Universities respectively were the top two ‘cheapest’ European places to study
    • Digital vouchers, being introduced by the government to help simplify the funding regime for “apprenticeships and to give employers greater purchasing powers
    • Getting better at managing their own money and spotting good deals, the main reasons why people want to improve their numeracy skills according to research commissioned by the charity National Numeracy
    • Jan Hodges who is to step down next month as chief executive of Edge, the body that promotes practical and vocational learning
    • The Institute of Fiscal studies who examined how school funding had been distributed over the last two decades and found that much of it had helped fuel a rise in non-teaching staff
    • The College of Teaching for which the Prime Minister promised to provide financial backing
    • Enrichment vouchers, proposed in a report commissioned by the Sutton Trust as a way of helping disadvantaged young people gain the sort of extra-curricular experiences that more advantaged young people often enjoy
    • One-stop services, online tools and extra help in schools, among the recommendations in a government commissioned report on improving mental health services for young people
    • The professional body ASCL, holding its annual conference this weekend and calling for a national fair funding formula
    • The think tank Civitas who published a book of essays looking at the diverse and sometimes arcane system of secondary school admission
    • The Compass ‘Group’ whose final Report into a new system of education called for a more expansive vision of education that enables the potential in individuals to be unleashed
    • Science in schools, the subject of a worrying report by the CBI and Brunel University suggesting that in primary at least, science has become less of a priority with over 30% of schools not providing the recommended two hours of science education a week
    • CfBT and the British Council whose latest report on language trends in schools found that, as with science (above,) time for language teaching was in danger of being squeezed
    • GCE and GCSE Dance, Music and PE for which the latest subject guidance and regulations were published by Ofqual
    • 'Would you support all teachers being qualified?’ One of a number of questions asked of UKIP’s education spokesman in the Guardian’s series inviting questions of each of the Party’s education reps. (The answer:’ if I had the choice whether my kids were taught by an outstanding but unqualified teacher with 20 yrs experience or a borderline NQT, I’d choose the former’)
    • Professional passports, what teachers in Wales will be given to record their professional development
    • Middle leader positions along with Special Needs, the posts that schools often find the most difficult to fill according to research by NAHT Edge
    • King’s Leadership Academy in Warrington, announced this week as the winner of the top award for helping develop pupil character
    • A new online tool, funded by the DfE, which is to be developed to help schools search for and recruit the governors they need
    • Tests for four year olds, criticised by early years experts in a letter to the DfE calling for teacher-based assessments to be used instead
    • Early years provision and funding, the subject of a major new report from the Nuffield Foundation and the subject of a new 5-point programme intended to test out new approaches
    • “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” One of the favourite Shakespearean quotes (from All’s Well That Ends Well) cited by teachers during this week’s Shakespeare Week.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “David Cameron: I don’t spend enough time going to parents’ evenings.” @TelegraphNews
    • “Nicky Morgan: Being academic isn’t enough in the modern world.” @Schools Improve
    • “Stop looking for heroic principals, says leadership expert.’ @TES
    •  “I’m a recruiter and I couldn’t navigate all the 350,000 job websites. How can we expect young people with no careers advice to? “ @Schools Week

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • DDCED. The DfE’s Due Diligence and Counter Extremism Division which the Education Committee recommended in a report this week should be given a higher profile 
    • SGOSS. The Governors for Schools Organisation who with the Employers’ Taskforce, are founding members of the Inspiring Governors Alliance.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “We produced more than 30 reports and held nearly 200 evidence sessions as we sought to recommend changes to government policy that would help close the gap.” The chair of the Education Committee reflects on their work over the last five years
    • “If the last five years were about doing what was necessary, I want the next five to be about doing what is possible.” Nick Clegg rallies the troops at the Lib-Dems Spring Conference
    • “Employers must be in the driving seat when it comes to apprenticeship funding, so we welcome the announcement of the voucher system but await further details.” The CBI director-general on the proposed new funding system for apprenticeships
    • “A challenge.” Getting 16 yr olds and above interested in studying languages according to the latest languages survey by CfBT and the British Council.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 2.5%. The growth forecast for the UK for 2015, up .1% on the previous prediction
    • 1.86m. The number of people out of work in the UK in the three months up to Jan 2015 (743,000 in the case of young people aged 16-24) leaving the number in work at an all-time high
    • 1 in 10. The number of 5-16 year olds suffering from a mental disorder according to latest government research
    • £4,208. What an average secondary school in the lowest funded part of the country will get per pupil next year compared to £6,297 for a school in the highest funded area according to research by ASCL
    • Just over 3%. How many exam grades in the summer 2014 series were changed following an appeal, according to a report from Ofqual
    • £6.70. What the new hourly National Minimum Wage will be from Oct 2015, up 3%.

    What to look out for next week

    • Government response to the Education Committee Report on Academies and Free Schools (Monday)
    • Skills Minister Nick Boles helps launch the new Centre for Vocational Education Research (Tuesday)
    • Reform seminar with Alison Wolf on the role of second chance education (Tuesday)
    • Final session in this Parliament of Prime Minister’s Question Time (Wednesday)
    • Pearson/Policy Exchange event with Alan Milburn on Education’s role in promoting Social Mobility (Thursday)
    • Potential Sky TV interview session with David Cameron and Ed Miliband (Thursday).
    read more
  • Pocket Watch - Education and Budget 2015

    Whether it was to help Britain ‘walk tall’ and ‘keep the sun shining’ as the Chancellor claimed or it was something that ‘people won’t believe and don’t trust’ as Ed Miliband claimed, this week’s Budget was more about “sticking with the plan” than pulling rabbits out of hats.

    When it came to education, there were some honourable mentions of Apprenticeship Vouchers, Local Growth arrangements and postgrad support and in the big Budget book itself, reference to school efficiencies but that was about it, leaving many in the education sector distinctly underwhelmed. ‘A missed opportunity to boost skills,’ as the adult education body put it, while the teacher union NASUWT bemoaned the ‘lack of recognition of the crisis in education.’

    Of course this final Budget before the general election was always going to be defined by the forthcoming campaign and the Chancellor who notably used the word ‘choose’ seven times in his opening comments was helped by a bunch of encouraging figures on employment, growth and inflation but for the world of education, the key issue remains the impact of further cuts. The Chancellor carved out more room for manoeuvre by lowering his initial target of a surplus of £23bn the end of the next Parliament to one of £7bn by 2019, but it still leaves, as even the independent experts of the OBR highlighted, ‘a rollercoaster’ ride for public services with sharp cuts likely for the next three years, some of which will have to come from Dept spending. For the moment, these were the main education bits in this year’s Budget.

    Budget 2015: Education headlines

    • Public Spending. Total Managed Expenditure (TME,) that’s the money set aside for Dept budgets and some annually managed areas like welfare will continue to fall at the same rate up to 2018/19 as the last five years. There’s considerable debate about whether, given the failure to meet earlier targets, this means sharper cuts as the OBR and IFS claim or more of the same as the Chancellor claims. Specific Dept Expenditure Limits for 2015/16 have already been set, those for 2016 and beyond will be set in this year’s Spending Review
    • School efficiencies. The government is concerned about the differential in costs and efficiencies between schools which can range from £200 per pupil to over £1,400 per pupil. It will therefore pilot this year a cost comparison tool and introduce new management information and benchmarking tools allowing parents to compare school spending
    • Mental health. Amid growing concerns about the importance of this issue among young people, the government will invest £1bn over the next 5 years into developing new access standards and further funds into the access to psychological therapies programme
    • Apprenticeship funding. Confirmation that the government will test out its proposed Voucher model this year with a view to roll out from 2017. Further detail awaited
    • Local Growth and devolution. Continued support for stimulating growth throughout the country through the Northern Powerhouse project, Greater Manchester Agreement and extended Enterprise Zones and Hubs. Of particular interest is the incorporation of skills planning in the devolved powers to London and Sheffield
    • Science and innovation. Continued support for Innovate UK, Catapult Centres, Smart City technology and further funds to support ‘cutting edge’ research and innovation
    • Postgrads. A package of measures, following concerns by Universities UK and others about a decline in postgrad numbers, that include income-contingent loans up to £25,000 to support PhDs and research masters and a review into funding for postgrad research.
    read more