Chief Executive invites EPC to influence Engineering Council review of UKSPEC

At this year’s EPC Congress, Alasdair Coates’s invited the EPC – as the representative body of engineering in higher education – to input to the current review that is being undertaken of UKSPEC. Following a representative EPC consultation Professor Sarah Spurgeon, EPC President, submitted a formal response to the consultation, thanking the Chief Executive of the Engineering Council for his invitation.

To summarise the position of EPC:

1. We wholly support and endorse the current UKSPEC.

2. We strongly and collectively assert that the current problems with accreditation may be wholly attributed to inconsistent implementation of UKSPEC across the Professional Engineering Institutions (PEIs). Indeed, inconsistency across different panels from the same PEI were also flagged as a serious concern. Our consultation heard many examples of panels focussing upon issues that are nothing at all to do with UKSPEC.

We hope very much that the current review will tackle this problem to ensure we can all work in a supportive environment to render engineering educational provision fit for the future.

A document that reports the outcome of our consultation can be found here.

If you would like to input into the review of AHEP, please email accreditation@engc.org.uk directly.

New Approaches to Engineering HE: The Six Facets

New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education is on ongoing initiative that the EPC is running in partnership with the IET, with Professor John Perkins presiding as Chair. The aim is to encourage innovation in the sector’s approaches to policy, pedagogy and practice

The initiative was launched in May 2017 at a landmark conference held at the IET in London on innovative approaches to the teaching of engineering in universities in the UK and globally.

One year on, the EPC hosted a round table meeting, at which the EPC, IET and senior HE stakeholders – including several vice-chancellors – met to take soundings on what we are calling ‘the Six Facets’ of innovative engineering higher education.

The Six Facets are common themes drawn from the papers presented to the New Approaches conference (the proceedings of which can be read here) that address fundamental problems: skills shortages; the shifting nature of engineering, the workforce and the demography of the student population; promoting inclusion and diversity.

While the EPC isn’t seeking to impose the Six Facets on anyone – that isn’t our role – we have identified these as key indicators of an innovative and adaptive response to today’s challenges. Universities can use them as a marker by which to judge their progress and as an inspiration for further development.

The Six Facets

Incorporating creativity into science: To reflect developing industrial needs and to attract a broad range of applicants, engineering programmes should enhance and emphasise the creative and innovative nature of the work of engineers. Although maths and science are important, they are a necessary but not sufficient part of the required skill set.

Broaden the diversity of students: The image of engineering means that women and ethnic minorities are far less likely to apply to study it. The emphasis (and the perception in schools of an emphasis) on maths and physics as a requirement to study engineering at top engineering schools also restricts access to the subject. This is especially true in physics where the proportion of female students at A-level is particularly low. Opportunities to increase the diversity of engineering students by proactive steps to address the image of engineering and the barriers to entry should be explored.

A strong emphasis on project work: Students engage and are enthused by authentic and relevant engineering experiences. In engineering, a primary vehicle for this is the design project. However, it is not sufficient that these are only in the latter years once sufficient grounding in theory is achieved. They should be from day one and spread throughout the degree programme to develop skills and encourage active learning.

Industry engagement in design and delivery: It is vital to work with industry to frame the skills graduates need and highlight to students their relevance and importance. This is particularly important to encourage students to enhance their transferable and employability skills.

Experience of the workplace for students: The formation of the professional engineer is a process; one that involves education, training and experience. In an ideal world these are not separated. It is incumbent on academics and industry to work together to develop programmes that bridge the separation between university and work in a way that provides equal opportunities for all students, regardless of background and career aspirations.

Greater interdisciplinarity: Modern engineering challenges and the global issues that most enthuse our current cohort of students will not be solved by any one discipline, but instead by teams of engineers from across the disciplines and non-engineers, bringing together their skills and expertise to create innovative solutions. We must prepare out students for this with appropriate experiences, such as undertaking complex projects in interdisciplinary teams.


There has been a lot of support for the work of the EPC and IET so far and we will now be looking for  exemplars from across the sector. If your work exemplifies one or more of the Six Facets, please contact the Chief Executive with your thoughts.

There will be a further meeting of stakeholders in the autumn – this time the invitees will have more of a national policy perspective and we will explore what the Government, OfS, employer groups and other policy stakeholders could do to change policy to promote the Six Facets.

Invitation to host the EPC Annual Congress 2019

 

DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS: 4th June 2018

Proposals are invited from higher education Engineering departments to host the 2019 Engineering Professors’ Council Annual Congress.

‘Hosting the 2018 Engineering Professors’ Council Congress was a great way to showcase the University’s work to a wide range of experts in the field as well as to the professional bodies in engineering.  Our staff and students gained a lot from explaining their approach to engineering education and research, and we were also able to explore new collaborations to broaden the reach of our engineering activities.  We were delighted to welcome the EPC to Harper Adams and hope that other universities taking the opportunity act as the venue for the Congress will gain as much from the experience as we have.’
David Llewellyn, Vice-Chancellor, Harper Adams University (hosts of the 2018 Annual Congress) 

The Annual Congress is the flagship event in the EPC calendar, an opportunity for engineering academics from across the UK to come together to explore policy and practice and to network.

Hosting Congress is a unparalleled opportunity to showcase your institution and region to the engineering academic community.

Download guidelines.

Download the form for submitting a proposal.

In 2016, the Congress was held at the University of Hull as a prestigious addition to its preparations as European City of Culture. In 2017, the Congress was held in Coventry attracting a host of high-profile speakers and delegates. This year’s Congress at Harper Adams University boasts not only a fantastic line-up of speakers, but also an exciting array of social and educational activities ranging from off-road driving in quad bikes and armoured vehicles to opportunities to explore the latest in cutting-edge agricultural technology.

The Congress usually takes place in April or May (although it has sometimes taken place in September) and lasts two days with a reception on the evening before the Congress formally starts.

The host institution nominates a Congress Convenor who will become a member of the EPC Board for up to three years (2018, 2019, 2020) and who, with guidance from the EPC executive team, will lead the organisation of the Congress, including determining the themes and scope for the Congress, and the speakers and events.


Please email the completed proposal to Johnny Rich, Chief Executive, no later than 9th May 2018: j.rich@epc.ac.uk. For enquiries or to discuss a proposal, please do not hesitate to contact him.


What is expected from the host

The host institution (host) would be expected to provide:

  • an academic of suitable standing to act as Convenor and other staff resource as necessary to assist planning the Congress;
  • suitable function rooms such as a lecture theatre and smaller break-out rooms, as well as space for networking;
  • catering for the Congress;
  • possibly accommodation, particularly, for early career staff delegates to the Congress who may be provided free accommodation in student residences;
  • management of the Congress during the event;
  • financial accountability in accordance with the financial arrangements (see below).

There will be some support from the EPC executive, but it is advisable to ensure that the host can provide conference support staff as the smooth running of the Congress will primarily be the Convenor’s responsibility.

The Congress usually attracts up to 100 delegates, but the numbers have grown in recent years and the host should be able to provide for 150.


Selection process

The process for selection as host involves submission of your proposal to the EPC Board, which will conduct a vote. The basis for its decision is entirely at its discretion, but they will take into account issues such as the nominated Convenor, the suitability of the facilities, the arrangements for costs, the geographical suitability (although the EPC is keen not always to be restricted to big centres of population), the suggested activities such as Congress Dinner venue and other attractions, and other arrangements to ensure the smooth running of the Congress.

The host institution must be a member of the EPC. We would particularly welcome joint proposals from separate institutions to host jointly, such as two engineering departments at separate universities in the same city.


Financial arrangements

The suggestion for the financial arrangement between the EPC and the host forms part of the proposal. The EPC will seek to minimise its risk and, if possible, would like to generate a surplus from the event to contribute to its own in-house costs in running the Congress. However, the quality of the event and its appeal to members will be of greater weight in selecting the host institution.

That said, it may be helpful to provide as guidance the following arrangement that has been used in the past. The EPC would hope that the host would aim to meet at least this arrangement:

Costs may be divided into three categories as follows:

  • ‘External costs’: ie. costs that will genuinely have to be met, such as catering, external venue hire, student ambassadors, etc. The EPC would guarantee all these external costs and, if necessary, would pay them up-front. In any case, the EPC would be liable for these costs.
  • ‘Internal costs’: such as staff who are already employed by the host. The host would guarantee these costs and, in the event that registration income was insufficient to meet them, the host would be liable for them.
  • ‘Internal fees’: where the only cost to the host is a notional price that it sets internally – room hire, for instance. Once the two types of costs above have been met from revenue, 75% of any remainder may be used to defray the host’s internal fees and the other 25% will be due to the EPC to defray our internal costs and fees. After the host’s internal fees have been met, any surplus would be split equally.

The proposal should make it clear whether the host proposes to manages the bookings process and receive the registration fees or would prefer this to be handled by the EPC. If the host receives the fees, after the Congress it will be expected to provide a full account of income and expenditure (outlining the categories of expense as above, if that model is used). If the EPC receives the fees, the host may invoice the EPC for costs in accordance with the agreement. In either case, the host will be expected to agree with the EPC a full budget for the Congress at the earliest opportunity (and before substantial Congress planning) and would not be entitled to incur costs on behalf of the EPC outside the agreed budget without separate agreement.

While the host will be responsible for setting the registration fees and packages for delegates, these must be agreed in advance with the EPC. These should not include a more than 10% increase on equivalent packages for the previous year. A significant number of places for early careers staff (not more than 5 years in an academic post) should be made available at the lowest possible rate (including, ideally, some complimentary places).

In some years, the host has acted as a major sponsor of the event contributing to the costs or not passing on some or all of the costs it incurs. Any such support would be acknowledged and the EPC will seek to support the host’s objectives in sponsoring Congress. Any other sponsorship revenue will normally be retained by the EPC or used to offset the costs of running the Congress.


Download guidelines.
Download the form for submitting a proposal.

Please email the completed proposal to Johnny Rich, Chief Executive, no later than 9th May 2018: j.rich@epc.ac.uk

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DATA BLOG: The state of engineering? Not too shabby

The supply of skilled engineers may not yet be being met by the education pipeline, but the evidence base required by the sector to make sound strategic decisions is met in abundance within the annual Engineering UK: The State of Engineering Report. Having worked with HE data for a very long time, I feel gifted to be presented with such a complete showcase of context, policy and data analysis covering the full engineering lifecycle.

I have lost count of how many university meetings I’ve endured where planners’ careful analyses of institutional data and sector benchmarks meet academics’ equally considered deliberations about definitions, interpretations and nuances in the data. Often, those on the ground delivering the programmes don’t recognise the student, staff or survey information presented to them, and the discussion descends into whose data is right, how to present it differently, and which upstream process has failed in order to bring us to here!

What this report gives us is a collective and comprehensive insight into each stage of the engineering skills pipeline. It’s a baseline, tried and tested over many years, and a practical springboard to more detailed analyses, specific research and, most importantly, evidence-based decision-making and strategy formulation. This is the coordination between activities and evidence – analogous to the sector’s explosion of engineering initiatives – which enable academics and policy-makers alike to navigate this complex landscape.

What this systematic presentation of evidence is not is common sector practice. It’s an engineering slam dunk. So, let’s practice what we preach and truly help ourselves to make best use of our resources as a community and tackle the skills shortage more effectively. Let’s take the evidence and continue the conversation.

To download the report, access supporting Excel resources which includes further detail not in the report and read a think piece by the EPC Chief Executive on why Engineering HE must deliver employability not employment visit the Engineering UK website (see p225).

Statement on strike action over USS Pensions

As the EPC represents both institutional members and individuals, we cannot directly take sides in supporting or opposing the current strike action. That said, we understand this is an issue of profound importance to our members and to the future of the Engineering HE sector and hence it is an issue on which EPC should not remain silent.

The EPC believes universities should try to maintain the conditions of employment under which academics were originally employed. That includes pensions. Many academics – and engineering academics in particular – forgo potentially better salaries and conditions outside academia because of their commitment to teach the next generation and to push back the boundaries of understanding through research. Universities cannot and should not take this dedication for granted. Ensuring that the sector continues to attract the brightest and best to academic positions is the right thing to do for the academics’ sake, for the benefit of students and for the country’s engineering skills needs.

We hope the dispute will be resolved speedily and welcome the efforts by, for example, the Director of Imperial College London, to have an independent, expert-led discussion informed by evidence with the employers accepting their existing risk in the meantime.

For the time being, this is the only statement the EPC is in a position to make. However, we would greatly appreciate it if members would like to make their thoughts known by commenting below or contacting the Chief Executive so we can continue to adopt a representative and informed position.

Getting to and staying at Harper Adams University

Welcome to the EPC Congress 2018. We’re delighted you are thinking of joining us.

Harper Adams University is well serviced by local rail and road networks. We will be scheduling shuttle busses to and from Telford Central for key trains (please note, this is not an on-demand service). Further details will be provided nearer the time.

A limited number of on-campus en-suite rooms can be booked with the EPC on the conference booking page. Once these are reserved, or if you prefer to stay off campus, please book all other accommodation directly. Corporate rates are available.

Travel directions and campus maps

Local accommodation

 

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DATA BLOG: UCAS Engineering applications down but applications from women up

UCAS’ latest application data released today gives us a first glimpse into this Autumn’s enrolments into HE (15 January deadline).

Applications to Engineering (totalling 144½ thousand) are down by 1.7% since the same time last year. This includes a decline in applications from the UK of 2.5%, not the increase in home grown talent required to reduce the skills shortage, ensure a home-grown skills pipeline, and deliver the Industrial Strategy.

This fall is both:

  • greater than overall decline in applications (-0.9%);
  • and only the second drop in Engineering applications at this point in the cycle in the last ten years; January 2012, when the introduction of tuition fees tangibly shook applications sector-wide, saw a 1.3% drop in Engineering applications.

The overall data shows there has been a rise in international applications including a 3% rise from the EU – which some have read as a rush to study here before Brexit. But, no rise for Engineering applications from within the EU (-1.7%).

Engineering applications from outside the EU are up, by 1.2% (from 26,520 to 26,850 applications). That said, non-EU international students applied for almost all the subject groups in greater numbers (there were almost 40% more applications to Computer science courses from non-EU students than there were last year, and 16% more applications to Biological sciences). 

But, it’s not all bad news. At 1 in 5 (or 19.1%) women are better represented in Engineering applications that at any point in the past 10 years. Progress, especially for those applying from England. This is also boosted by international applications, the EU in particular from where over ¼ of applications to Engineering are made by women.

I’ve downloaded the data available, so if you have any specific questions or want precise figures for your reports I’ll do my best to advise you. Please note only domicile and sex are available by subject in this set of data and bear in mind that I work part time!

UCAS’ analysis report can be found here

DATA BLOG: New year, new data? Can aging stats really help today’s strategies?

Last week, UCAS completed its suite of 2017 data when it published detailed stats for last autumn’s undergraduate admissions to the UK’s largest universities and colleges. But while the accepted applicant data reaches us only four or five months after the event, the applications were generally made around seven months earlier. So, as we enter the crucial months of the 2018 recruitment cycle, only now is UCAS data giving us a snapshot of what happened up to a year ago.

Then we have HESA data. The first release of HESA’s official student enrolment data for 2016/2017 also came this January. Now we have ‘new’ data relating to the previous year’s UCAS cohort; that is, those enrolling at our universities in Autumn 2016.

But while these figures may seem hopelessly out of date, the trends behind the numbers are still highly relevant to our work in the coming months. (And trust me, I know from experience how much work goes into collecting and collating both sets of outputs!)

Over the coming weeks I’ll be updating the HESA student data on the EPC website and sharing some of my favourite engineering soundbites with you.

For example, did you know that one-in-three Engineering and technology students in 2016/2017 were international (32.5%) with one-in-four coming from outside the EU (24.9%)? HESA has published an introduction to their student (and staff) data on their website highlighting an increase in the number of students in higher education, a decline in part-time students, and over a quarter of first degree graduates gaining a first.

And a reminder of the UCAS engineering trends for last year…

  • Most subject groups had a reduction in applications, with applications to Engineering holding their own of sorts by decreasing by just 1.6% in 2017.
  • Relatively speaking, it was a good year to be an Engineering applicant, as acceptances to Engineering fell by a relatively smaller 0.6%,
  • Overall, the odds of successfully applying to university are at their highest level for nine years.
  • Between 2008 and 2017, the proportional change in acceptances to Engineering makes for healthy reading.
  • Any surprises that nearly 5 men were accepted for every woman in Engineering (4.9:1)?

UCAS also publish data reports plus downloads on their website.

Nomination for REF 2021 Engineering Panel

The Engineering Professors’ Council is a nominating body for the Research Excellence Framework and, as such, we have been invited to nominate members of the engineering panel.

If you would like to be nominated by the EPC or would like to propose someone to be nominated, you should find all the details you need below. For anything, please contact the EPC Chief Executive Johnny Rich.

Please note that although the Funding Council’s deadline for the EPC to submit our nominations is 20th December 2017, the EPC has its own procedures to follow and so, any proposals must reach us by midnight on 4th December 2017.


What are the nominations for?

The EPC has already submitted its nomination(s) for the Engineering REF Panel Chair. The EPC is now seeking to nominate individuals to be:
  • additional main panel members (with expertise in leading, commissioning or making use of interdisciplinary research, leading research internationally, or senior level experience in the commissioning, use or wider benefits of research)
  • sub-panel members and assessors (including practising researchers, individuals with expertise in commissioning, applying or making use of research, and interdisciplinary advisers).

How to propose someone for nomination by the EPC (including proposing yourself)

Please complete the form at this link (www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/EPCREFNominations/) no later than midnight on 4th December 2017. If you are proposing someone else, please ensure that know that you are proposing them, that they understand the level of work involved and that they are willing to undertake that commitment.  (Please read the section below on ‘What does it involve to be on a REF expert panel?’ and the linked documents.)


How the EPC will decide whom to nominate

The Research, Innovation & Knowledge Transfer Committee (RIKT) has determined the procedure for nominating and will decide whom to nominate. It is likely that several individuals will be nominated, but that may not be everybody who applies to be nominated, nor even everybody who applies to be nominated and meets the criteria.

RIKT have agreed a selection panel of three senior academics representing a range of institutions, disciplines, backgrounds and experience. After the deadline (4th December) they will review the applications for nomination and assess how well they meet the EPC’s criteria and those of the funding bodies. The selection panel will then decide who to nominate, bearing in mind the need to maintain diversity across the range of nominees.

The following criteria will be used by the RIKT selection panel:

To be nominated by the EPC, any individual:

  • Must be research active with publications in the current REF period;
  • Should be known to Engineering Professors’ Council Board – ie. they should be able to demonstrate active engagement in EPC activities and be a member of staff at a university that is a member of the EPC;
  • Should have some of the following attributes:
    • Already served on an RAE/REF Panel;
    • Extensive experience of assessing research quality (e.g. chair of University Research Committee, internal University Research Assessor);
    • Evidence of awareness of REF requirements;
  • Should show evidence of unbiased support for the Engineering Higher Education Research Community (for example, having served on Education/accreditation committees of PEIs, Editors/Associate Editors of International Engineering Research Journals, etc);
  • Should have acted as an assessor for EPSRC or other major research funders.

Just because an individual meets these criteria, it does not mean they will necessarily receive the EPC’s nomination.

We have been urged to nominate individuals to cover the full breadth of engineering research interests and from a diverse range of backgrounds, institution types and geographical region. We would be particularly keen to nominate individuals from groups previously under-represented on assessment panels, including women, people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, and people with disabilities.

The Funding Councils have also told us “We would like to receive nominations of individuals who have served previously on REF or Research Assessment Exercise panels, as well as those for whom this would be a new experience. Heads of HEIs may not be nominated as panel members.”

We know that the number of applications to be nominated is likely to far exceed the number that the EPC can reasonably nominate and that we won’t be able to nominate some highly able candidates. The RIKT selection panel’s decision however will be final.

Regardless of whether the EPC is able to nominate them or not, we would encourage applicants to seek nomination from other nominating bodies without waiting to hear about the EPC’s intentions. Not only is there no limit on the number of nominations an individual can have, it is also likely to improve their chances if more than one nominating body has put forward their name.


Can I be nominated by more than one nominating body?

The EPC is just one of a number of nominating bodies recognised by REF.

We have already received a large number of  proposals for nominees – far more than we can reasonably nominate. Indeed, sadly, not only will we not be able to nominate everyone, we probably won’t be able to nominate everyone who meets our criteria or the Funding Councils. Furthermore, the schedule for our selection process probably won’t allow time for you to approach another nominating body after we have advised you of our selection panel’s decision.

With that in mind, we suggest that, if possible, you contact other nominating bodies to seek their nomination as well. Not only is it permissible to be nominated by more than one body, our understanding is that it adds strength to applications if they are.

What is the background to the selection of the REF Engineering Panel?

The REF is the system for assessing the quality and impact of research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs). It was first conducted in 2014, and replaced the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The REF will be undertaken by the four UK higher education funding bodies: the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Scottish Funding Council, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland.

The REF exercise will be completed in 2021 and the results will be used by the four funding bodies to drive their allocations of research funding to HEIs. It will also provide useful benchmarking information and reputational yardsticks, and provide accountability for public investment in research and demonstrate its benefits.


What does it involve to be on a REF expert panel? 

The REF will be undertaken through a process of expert review. HEIs will be invited to make submissions which will be assessed by 34 subject-based expert sub-panels, working under the guidance of four main panels. Further information on the panel structure, the roles, responsibilities and workload of panel members and the Funding Councils’ criteria for appointment can be found in the publication ‘Roles and recruitment of expert panels’ (REF 2017/03).

High-calibre panel chairs and members who command the confidence of the academic community and wider stakeholders will be essential to the success of the REF. The four main panel chairs have been appointed (their details are available at www.ref.ac.uk) and the Funding Councils are currently in the process of appointing the sub-panel chairs.

Individuals who are nominated will need to confirm that they are willing and able to serve as a panel member, before their names and contact details are put forward.

A guide for research users taking part in the REF is available here.


Confidentiality

We will treat any information supplied to us as confidential as far as possible and proposals for nominations will not be made public, however, the EPC reserves the right to make public the names of individuals that we do choose to nominate. That decision will be taken by RIKT.

Please also be aware that proposals for nominations will be circulated among the members of RIKT who are currently as follows: Nathan Gomes, University of Kent; Stephanie Haywood, University of Hull (EPC Vice-President); Simon Hodgson, Teesside University; Barry Lennox, University of Manchester; Long-yuan Li, Plymouth University; Linda Newnes, University of Bath; Eann Patterson, University of Liverpool; Johnny Rich (EPC Chief Executive); Alan Smith, Sheffield Hallam University (Chair); Sarah Spurgeon (EPC President); Tony Unsworth, University of Durham; Tanya Vladimirova, University of Leeds. On behalf of the EPC executive, Vicky Elston and Stella Fowler act as observers to the committee.


Further information

Further information about the REF can be found on the REF website at www.ref.ac.uk.
To promote someone for nomination now, please complete the form
before midnight, 4th December 2017

 

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Party Conferences 2017

From Johnny Rich, EPC Chief Executive…

The Party Conference season is an opportunity to bend the ears of politicians, policymakers and thought leaders at a time when they’re relaxed and open to a lively discussion of ideas.

For that reason, we like to try to get to the main parties’ conferences, but not to the big set-piece speeches that make it on to the news. The real opportunities to influence the discussion take place in the fringe – the cavalcade of presentations, round tables, panels, receptions and other formal and informal events that take place in and around the conference venue over the course of the few days that the political parties descend on their host cities.

This year, we’re attending both Conservative and Labour Party Conferences and I’m delighted to report the highlights…

Labour Party Conference, Brighton

The most interesting event at the Labour Conference in Brighton was an invited round-table discussion hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the UPP Foundation. UPP had published research on the ‘brain drain’ that operates away from regional universities as graduates move to larger cities – particularly London – in search of work.  How then can we better support the aims of the Government’s Industrial Strategy by ensuring universities contribute to their locality economically and culturally?

The main recommendation from UPP’s report was the need for graduate accommodation, but the discussion ranged more widely: the need for R&D spending in the area; business spin-outs; spin-ins (companies setting up partnerships with university departments); industrial links with students through placements and work-related learning; innovation centres; supply chain; etc, etc, etc. I couldn’t help feeling – and so I said to the meeting – that what we’re talking about more than anything is the impact of engineering departments as key drivers of higher education’s regional (and national) impact.

Another important fringe event was a UCU-sponsored panel with Gorden Marsden MP (Labour’s shadow universities minister), Shakira Martin (NUS President) and Sally Hunt (UCU’s general secretary). This was a debate on the funding of HE and tuition fees in particular. The political climate feels ready for change. At the last election, Labour’s policy to axe fess was a vote winner and the Government is looking for an approach that’s politically acceptable to their ranks and which defuses the issue.

Before the Labour Conference, chancellor Phillip Hammond had already floated the possibility of reducing the fee cap to £7,125 and lowering the interest on repayments and, during Conference, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said they were willing to support the  Government with good proposals. McDonnell may just be being canny rather than kind. He is staking a claim on any movement by the Conservatives as a victory. The political bomb of fees will still be primed as the Conservatives are cornered into either a total climbdown or allowing Labour to say they’re on the run, but aren’t going nearly far enough.

At the Fringe event, Marsden was keen to point out that the issue is not just about fees, but about repayments and, importantly, maintenance. The question is, however, will any political movement in this area put further financial pressure on the funding available for high costs disciplines like engineering?

Conservative Party Conference, Manchester

The Conservative Conference kicked off with a slew of policy announcements about student finance in England (which some commentators were rushed out so they’d be something for the PM to say on the Andrew Marr Show on the first day of Conference). There were three main points: the freezing of the fees cap at £9,125; the raising of the repayment threshold for student loans to £25k; and a major review of HE funding.

The first two of these are going to cost the taxpayer around £2Bn a year and there is fear the Treasury will try to claw some of this back through cuts elsewhere to the higher education budget. Furthermore, while fees of £9,125 may seem steep to students, they are still lower than the cost of running most engineering degree programmes. There is talk of finding ways to reduce the fees for cheaper courses; that would put pressure on the ability of universities to cross-subsidise engineering.

I was at the Conference for the Monday only. By then, the “major” HE funding review had shifted from an announcement to a description of business-as-usual. At an LSE-backed fringe event on the sector after Brexit, Jo Johnson, the Universities & Science Minister, looked distinctly irritated to be asked about the review. Would it a be a full independent commission (like the Browne Review) or an internal DfE review? “We always keep the system under review”, he insisted. And then he repeated that line. Twice. And then at other fringe events too.

But by Theresa May’s now notorious speech-cum-Frank-Spencer-impression on Wednesday, the review was clearly intended as an initiative with a specific start and end: “We will undertake a major review of university funding and student financing. We will scrap the increase in fees that was due next year, and freeze the maximum rate while the review takes place.” There are many possible explanations for the inconsistent messages: Jo Johnson is being kept out of discussions relating to his brief; the policy is being made up on the spot; or, more charitably, flags are being raised while expectations dampened in order to flush out the appetite for a review.

Ultimately, promises that the PM makes at the lectern will probably trump the Minister’s softly-softly remarks on the fringe, but that depends how long she keeps her job and in the meantime, since the Conference, there has been radio silence from Government on when the review might take place or what form it might take. 

At another LSE-backed Brexit-related fringe event – this time on skills gaps – the Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis made a fleeting visit to justify the continued inclusion of international students in net migration figures by repeating the Government’s line that they have to include them because of UN definitions. While this may be technically true, it doesn’t explain why they need to be included in net migration targets which the Government still insists it will reduce to “tens of thousands”. (The latest figures were over 300,000.)

While justifying the definition of international students as immigrants who the Government is seeking to limit, Lewis also said that there is “no cap” on them. He extolled the benefits of international students and indeed expounded the necessity of attracting them to fill skills gaps, particularly in engineering.

Meanwhile, there was an enlightening juxtaposition of comments from two other speakers. In a display worthy of ‘Just a Minute’, Economist Vicky Pryce explained in the clearest terms I have ever heard the economic case for immigration, including, among other benefits, that since the 2008 crash, it had enabled high levels of employment and resilient growth without expected levels of inflation, because this hadn’t been accompanied by wage increases. Meanwhile, Conservative MEP Syeed Kamall described how people in his constituency feel that wages and opportunities have stagnated. Therein lies the rub behind Brexit: immigration does benefit the nation – indeed, it’s essential to plug our skills gaps – but long-term benefits for all are felt as short-term deprivation by some.

Elsewhere at the Conference fringe – at events on access, excellence, skills gaps, etc – the mood was distinctly less triumphalist than the Labour Conference – anyone would think the Tories hadn’t just been returned to power at election in May. Comments directed at speakers tended to be combative rather than rousing. Perhaps the die-hards were staying inside the ‘secure zone’ (where only the party faithful and those with big lobbying budgets are allowed to venture), rather than braving the challenges of the policy wonks beyond.

Even so, if the Labour Party’s trip to the seaside felt like a band of cockroaches who’d just been told a nuclear winter was coming, the Tory Conference felt more like penguins huddling on a shrinking ice floe.