Academic Publishing, Trends in Publishing

Finding the truth: Fake News and Academic Publishing

“Fake News” was the “word of the year” in 2017 (according to Collins Dictionaries).  It was a buzz-phrase that sprang up the information sector in 2016, when the US presidential election acted as a catalyst.  Its importance is increasing in a world where the extent of democracy and true freedom of speech varies hugely across the globe. The Collins definition says that it is “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. While this phenomenon has existed since the earliest broadsheets were published, it has had a much bigger impact on the psychology of today’s society than those of the past. Now Social Media is a major source of information for many, Fake News can be disseminated and spread much more quickly and widely; moreover, today’s Social Media consumer tends to be less and less worried about the sources and accuracy of the “information” s/he reads. Paradoxically, those who read news no longer trust the media – a recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report said that 49% of readers don’t trust the news sources they use, even though they have chosen these sources themselves! – but this seems to make no difference to their popularity.

You may feel that popular journalism has always been a shade scurrilous, but ask how may affect Academic Publishing. In 2016, The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) published an infographic on How to spot fake news; a closer look reveals that all eight fact-checking points are very relevant to Academic Publishing.

Fake News presents some fundamental challenges to Academic Publishing, an industry that relies on accuracy and integrity of information as the central justification for its existence. Academic Publishing needs to be robust, transparent and meticulously well-researched, because it drives innovation, public policy, and the entire academic discourse. However, Fake News has a big impact on the sector and the opinions held within academia, since misinterpretations of research results can quickly be spread as “facts”. One very prominent example of this was the measles outbreak in Brooklyn, New York in April this year which caused a local public health emergency, because it had been preceded by widespread misinformation about a (non-existing) link of childhood vaccination to autism, with the result that fewer children had been vaccinated. This “information” was based on a study which was already been proved a fake, withdrawn and the author sanctioned, but was still being spread widely on Social Media.

Again, this is  not new – tabloid newspapers have long based their business models on selling biased research data or exaggerated interpretations to the public – but the power of rapid dissemination and concomitant general lack of interest in sources exhibited by the public at large has allowed Fake News to spread more rapidly, even within academic circles. Publishing is the central route to academic preferment.  Unfortunately, therefore, Academic Publishing sometimes lends itself to fraud practised for unscrupulous personal gain.

The world of Academic Publishing relies heavily on Peer Review as its main mechanism of preventing Fake News; there have been frequent examples of publishers having to retract journal articles because of fraudulent peer reviews, as an examination of the blog Retraction Watch, which tracks scientific integrity, can demonstrate.

In response to such malpractice, fact-checking sites like and have been established, to help readers to verify the integrity of academic content. is a fact-checking site dedicated to Academic Publishing which uses annotations in a very effective way and also allows plugs into blogs and news sites.

The switch to Open Science provides another opportunity to prevent Fake News from contaminating Academic Publishing, because the whole OS publication process is open and transparent, meaning that fraud can be detected at an earlier stage.

There is a demonstrable need not only to educate students, but also the wider public, in information literacy and critical thinking. Websites like NimblyWise are attempting this, but take-up is not wide-spread and their reach to the wider public is limited.

Academic Publishing is therefore not immune from Fake News.  Society’s trust in published work without questioning its authenticity holds far-reaching implications. Clearly there is an urgent need for an improved system that can de-incentivise (and possibly prevent) the production of Fake News, provide education in information literacy; and offer a trusted forum to enable Scientists and Academic Publishers to stay in an active dialogue with the public.

Conferences, Pedagogical Resources, Students, Universities

The ABT Conference 2019 – Student Workshop

(Picture of the ABT Conference Student Panel, (c) Alan Staton, Booksellers Association)

Six international students took part in the student workshops at the ABT Conference 2019.  They were respectively from Mexico, The Netherlands, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Indonesia.  The workshop was run twice, so that all delegates could attend once (it ran back-to-back with a publisher / bookseller workshop).  It was moderated by Louis Coiffait.

Much of the discussion focused on textbooks.  The students agreed that the purpose of a textbook is to impart knowledge, rather than introduce controversial or exploratory ideas.  Simplicity of approach is therefore key to success. “You have a student who wants to know something; don’t put it in a complicated way.”  The layout and structure of a textbook is also extremely important.  Textbooks should be constructed in an accessible way; and although the definitions included in them probably don’t change much over time, students would appreciate it if the practical examples are updated regularly, to maintain currency and interest.  Worked-through examples, either in the book or on a complementary website are extremely important in some subjects – e.g., Business or Engineering.

Asked what kinds of learning resource they used other than textbooks, the students said they started by looking at core articles for which references were supplied in the resource lists, then selected follow-up references in order to grasp “the big picture”.  “The Library guarantees access to a lot of publications not normally available.”  (This meant material not available via Google or Google Scholar.) One of the students, an Italian, said the choice and range of materials available for students to access from the Library in this country is much better than in Italy.  Here it’s “brilliant, wonderful”.

Most of the students agreed that they should not have to pay extra for resources over and above their tuition fees.  For international students, the point is of particular importance, because many of them pay higher fees than home-grown students.  Some had borrowed family money to study in the UK, which would have to be paid back eventually.

Asked about discovery, all agreed that they would like discovery systems and publishers’ search engines to replicate Google; and they would also like publishers to produce more ‘how to’ video clips of the type found on YouTube. 

The students were also asked how they knew they could trust material they just found on the Internet, as opposed to via the Library or conventional publishers’ sites.  “You get to know which ones are most tried and tested; and students talk to each other about them.  I struggled with Maths two years ago.  I found a website that gave good explanations and clear examples and operated at my level in the subject.”

Louis asked them when they felt lecturers were or were not helpful.  Opinions on this varied, from “Textbooks are a guide only; the role of the teacher is most important”, to “Some lecturers tend to over-explain” and “Sometimes you need to go through the whole book to search for the keywords they’ve mentioned”.  Some lecturers fail to put an author on the reading list and then mention them extensively in the lecture – so the author and his or her work is “lost in the wind”. 

Asked how much they would be prepared to pay for a textbook, they suggested that £30 was a “manageable” price for a book they really needed.  “£50 is too much, even with discount.”  However, two of the students said that if a book was more expensive but contained more worked examples, they would then buy it.  Accompanying answers to the questions or worked examples are also vital: “If there aren’t answers provided, I don’t look at the questions.”

Tables of Contents came in for some criticism.  “The explanations in them aren’t detailed enough.  It makes me frustrated when they don’t describe what’s actually in the chapter.”  Short textbooks were almost universally preferred.  The students felt that book length could be cut down considerably by omitting details of the provenance of a concept and how it evolved – though one said that maybe such information might be more interesting in later years of study.  “An engineer doesn’t need to see the history of what he does, but I guess that, for the Humanities, there is a need to draw a lot more connections.”

None of the students regretted choosing to study in the UK, despite the expense.  “It’s a great country – in education, it sets a very high standard.  I’m from a developing country.  There are people needing these types of materials in my country, that are accessible to them.  They want a real textbook that is relevant for them.  Publishers might think this is obvious, but maybe the message hasn’t got across.” However, these students didn’t necessarily think that textbooks would be the key resource of the future, as they still are of the present.  “It is really difficult to be able to say that this is the form / shape / structure of the material I will always want to buy.”

Finances, Policy, Universities

HE and Student Finance: The “Augar Report” – what’s in it?

“Post-18 report” or “Augar report” – there has been talk about this long-awaited report in the HE sector for a while, and it played a pivotal role in the discussions at the ABT Conference (see our last blog post). Yesterday, it finally was published, but what is all that about??

Last year, for the first time in more than 50 years, the government commissioned a review into student finance to inform the sector. The report was conducted by an independent panel following an initiative by businessman Philip Augar, and was originally expected to be released in February 2019. With much delay and long awaited, the “Review of Post-18 Education and Funding” was finally published on May 30th. 216 pages long, it gives a wide variety of recommendations (50 in total) and considers many details that affect student finance and the cost of Higher (and Further) Education. What’s remarkable is that it includes all post-compulsory education funding, so covers both HE and FE.

And one of its most important conclusions is that Further Education is in much greater need of support than the Higher Education sector. A new mission is needed for Further Education, and it needs solid financial backing. The three main recommendations for this sector are the protection of the title “College” (just in line with that of “University”) to enhance the knowledge of its meaning in society and a certain quality-control, a creation of a coherent network of colleges across the UK that deliver skills (focussed on levels three to five), and a substantial increase in funding.

On apprenticeships, the main recommendation is a growth in degree-level and level seven apprenticeships, though acknowledging the expense of that route. One suggestion is to limit the funding for apprenticeships to those apprentices who do not already hold a degree-level qualification. The panel sees a need for Ofsted to assume responsibility for assessing all levels of apprenticeships.

The recommendation that Higher Education should reduce the tuition fee cap to £7,500 (and then freeze it until 2022/23 before increasing it in line with inflation) has made the national news over the past 24 hours. The recommendation also says that the income gap should be closed by the increase of teaching grants by the government, and should be adjusted on a subject-level basis, according to the cost of each subject. According to the report, the funding for widening participation should not be taken out of a proportion of the student fee (the current system), but instead a funding system comparable to the schools’ Student Premium should be introduced. Using this method, a university would receive its grant based on the actual intake numbers of socially and economically disadvantaged students.

On the wider topic of student finance (which affects all above-mentioned kinds of non-compulsory education), the basis of the recommendations is that the tax-payer should be covering a smaller proportion of the student finance system. Based on research conducted by the Department of Education that suggests that people would prefer higher monthly repayments and a longer repayment period in return for lower fees and lower interest rates (surprisingly!), the recommendations say that there should be zero interest applied during the study, that the repayment threshold should be reduced (to median non-graduate salary) and that the repayment period should be extended to forty years. There are also suggested changes to interest rates and the lifetime repayments to avoid those who earn more later in their careers being penalised.
However, the most interesting recommendation for the sector is perhaps the re-introduction of maintenance grants of at least £3,000 per eligible student. The panel also recommends that the expectation of parents’ contributions (of families of higher income) should be made clearer, so both students and parents know what kind of financial support a student could or should expect from their parents.

Overall, the report has been conducted in a mindful way, with awareness of current pressures on student finance, addressing the needs of Further Education and a sense of detail about university finance. Whether the report reflects the realities faced by students and universities and supports their interests more widely is another question. Whether any of these recommendations will be carried out, given the current political climate, is an entirely different issue.

The full report can be downloaded from the website.


Highlights from the ABT Conference 2019

The ABT Conference 2019 was held in Kenilworth on 9th and 10th May.  It was chaired by Louis Coiffait, the newly-appointed Head of Policy at London Metropolitan University.

Louis Coiffait

Louis also gave the opening keynote talk, which, like his address at the 2018 conference, was entitled The Shipping News (capturing many changes that have taken place in HE over the intervening 12 months).

Before giving his presentation, Louis introduced Lynne O’Neill, the current (but, sadly, outgoing) chair of ABT.  Lynne said that although publishers and booksellers appear to operate by different rules, they are pursuing the same goals, and do need to work together.  The long-term prospects for both industries are encouraging, although in the short term Brexit brings with it continuing uncertainty.  UK Higher Education institutions retain their high reputation, but UK researchers are being excluded from EU projects; and the question needs to be asked whether we can still demonstrate the benefits of a university education to the young. 

Louis said that students were now truly at the heart of the system: the Office for Students [OfS] puts students first, whereas its predecessor, HEFCE, acted as something of a buffer for universities.  There have been many reviews and reports: Augar is just the latest of a long line.  There is a big risk that universities will get pulled in two directions: teaching vs research.  What does the government want from universities?  Economic growth, to take the UK to the OECD average; HE “market choice” – new providers, more competition; and “fair” value for money, for both taxpayers and students.

Jackie Labbe, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at de Montfort University, talked about Subject-level TEF and How it Works.  She said that, like TEF itself, subject-level TEF is still metrics-driven, but the reports are more narrative-based.  The key to success for universities is just to present the facts as they are: “Don’t rationalise; don’t justify; don’t argue”.  At de Montfort, most of the subject-level TEF activity took place centrally and was led by senior management.  De Montfort was one of a handful of universities to pilot subject level TEF, beginning in the academic year 2017 – 2018.   In the first year, the pilot experimented with 2 models: Model A, by exception, which looked at 12 – 13 subjects that didn’t achieve Gold status in the general TEF; and Model B, which took all subjects offered at the university aggregated to 7 subject areas.  Along with most of the other pilot institutions, de Montfort felt that neither model was particularly successful.  In the second year, more local expertise was introduced, in the shape of course leaders.  Model C was added – this involves a 5-page narrative statement based on 9 metrics.  It was agreed this worked better.  Many challenges still remain, including mapping ‘hybrid’ subjects to specific courses or programmes; obtaining engagement, especially from students; reconciling competing demands within the university; and measuring student outcomes – i.e., understanding what success looks like.  Jackie concluded “Some form of subject TEF will survive, but probably not Model A, B or C.”

Jackie Labbe

Becky Roberts, Customer Insights Manager at Cambridge University Press, and Stuart Webster and Dr Andrew Ashwin, respectively Digital Solutions Manager and Head of Publishing at Cengage, shared with the audience some of their recent work in Changing Pedagogies: the Challenge of Developing the Right Resource Materials.  All concluded that understanding pedagogical needs in a rapidly changing HE environment was a complex process.  Not least among the challenges is the need to partner with third parties.  The traditional textbook publisher provided core, curated content with little outside input; now change is the name of the game and publishers must work with ‘Ed Tech’ and ‘Learning Science’ companies.

Becky Roberts

Sofie Wennström, Managing Editor, Stockholm University Press and Analyst, Stockholm University Library, gave as the title of her talk The Deal-Maker and the Content-Creator: the Academic Library as Transformative Agent for OA.  She said that in both roles she had developed a user-centric approach, delivering to users what they need when they need it. Sweden, which is one of the leaders of Open Access in Europe with its BIBSAM project, takes many of its publishing goals from the EU.  These include making everything available on EOSC; adopting creative commons licensing to preserve author rights; working towards no embargo periods and 100% OA; and updating electronic platforms and formats to allow TDM.  When implementing these initiatives, there is a definite bias towards STM subjects and the article format.  Open Access for journals articles in the sciences is common and accepted.  It is more difficult to engage with AHSS subjects because they don’t get the research funding to support OA; and then there is the question of monographs.  Sofie said the change to OA monographs would be much slower for the Stockholm University Press; but there are other players who already have a good track record here: for example, UCL Press and the University of Amsterdam Press.

Sofie Wennström

Linda Bennett of Gold Leaf, who has been the conference’s programme director for the past eighteen years, offered key points from the Sage / Gold Leaf Pedagogical Report and said this would be her farewell to the conference in an official capacity.  More details about the report can be found here.

At the Academic Book Trade Awards ceremony which followed the conference dinner, Oxford University Press won Ingram Publisher of the Year and Blackwell brought home all three Macmillan Study Skills awards for booksellers: Chain Bookseller of the Year, Academic Bookshop of the Year (Blackwell, South Bridge, Edinburgh) and Bookseller of the Year (Clare Pepper of Blackwell University of Kent in Canterbury). The Ingram Rep of the Year award went to Lucy Pink of Taylor & Francis, and “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari (published by Vintage) was awarded Academic Book Week Book of the Year. 
The BA’s outgoing CEO Tim Godfray was given the Outstanding Contribution Award for his career of over 30 years working in, with and representing the bookselling community.
The after-dinner speaker was Bec Evans, who talked about the techniques of making ideas happen and how to learn from failure which are the topic of her most recent book, “How to have a happy hustle” (published by Icon Books).

Andy Stephens, FCA, Director of Finance at Loughborough University, took as his subject University Finances … on the Brink?  He explained how the finances of a medium-sized UK university work.  Loughborough – which was awarded Gold in the TEF last year and is the Sunday Times University of the Year this year – has a turnover of £320m, 18,000 students and 3,800 staff.  He said that, contrary to popular belief, the university sector operates on a very small margin, despite which this is getting tighter; among all universities there is an increasing reliance on tuition fees as the government withdraws funding; and it is a false assumption that university income is supplemented by research, as most research money has to be spent on the project it is intended for. Furthermore, any increase in the student population will “massively dilute the student experience”.  There is also a 5% decrease in the home student demographic, but as a country “we haven’t exactly put out the Welcome mat for overseas students”.  The upshot is that some universities will grow at the expense of others; and some will be hobbled by debt, the result of unwise past investment decisions.  However, the current climate offers universities the chance to take stock; to examine and challenge the way they do things; and to diversify and explore new ways of attracting income.

The overall themes of the conference were collaboration – between different stakeholders – and efficacy – the perennial holy grail to prove the link between academic resources and academic achievement.

Please look out for the next post, which will summarise what was said at the conference workshops.

Pedagogical Resources, Pedagogical trends

The Sage / Gold Leaf Pedagogical Report is published!

The Sage / Gold Leaf Pedagogical Report was the brainchild of Kiren Shoman, the Editorial Director and Head of Pedagogy at Sage Publishing.  She conceived of the idea of this study when we asked her to contribute to a more specific survey on the impact of the TEF that we were preparing for the Booksellers Association in advance of the ABT Conference 2017.  Kiren was ahead of the curve among publishers in understanding that pedagogical resource requirements at UK universities were undergoing a sea-change; and that it would be vital to the future success of students, academics and publishers alike to begin to map it as it unfolded. 

Sage commissioned the study in the summer of 2017.  From the outset, Kiren decided very generously to publish the report and to make it available free of charge to all interested stakeholders.  Originally the plan was for the study to cover the academic year 2017 – 2018, but relatively early after work began it became apparent that the first semester of the academic year 2018 – 2019 should be included as well, as not all the universities who participated in the in-depth part of the study were able to accommodate the earlier dates. 

The methodology we used was both comprehensive and ambitious.  The primary research consisted of three national Surveymonkey surveys, for students, academics and librarians, which as far as possible mirrored each other; in-depth semi-structured telephone interviews with academics and librarians at each of the five participating universities; and six student focus groups.  This was complemented by extensive desk-based secondary research which involved consulting journals, books and more ephemeral publications, such as articles on specialist websites, to gain as well-rounded and well-informed picture as possible.

Sage and Gold Leaf are particularly indebted to the participating universities.  We have promised not to identify any individuals (except the project ‘champions’) who contributed to the research, but we are proud to be able to name the universities: the University of Edinburgh, the University of Greenwich, the University of Huddersfield, the University of Nottingham and the University of Surrey.  At each of these universities one or two project champions very kindly agreed to support the research by explaining it to their colleagues and helping us to set up the calls with academics and librarians and co-ordinate the student focus groups.  They generously gave a considerable amount of their time in order to achieve this; and without the champions’ help, the study would certainly have foundered right at the beginning.  We would like to put on record our very sincere thanks, both to them and to all their colleagues and the students who took part.

In common with Sage, we believe that this report makes a very significant contribution to the understanding of this rapid period of change in UK Higher Education.  We have discovered during the course of our work that many of the changes we have identified and explored in the UK also apply more widely to tertiary education in other countries. We therefore believe that the report will be useful to interested parties everywhere; and we hope all the readers of this blog who download it will find it both useful and enjoyable.

The report can be found at

Learning from Libraries, Libraries

Learning from Librarians – The RCP Library

Gold Leaf Library Portraits, Part 1

Libraries matter, more so today than ever before. They are places for information, meeting and learning spaces, community hubs and much more. Gold Leaf frequently works with libraries across the globe, and like many of our clients, we can sometimes forget how diverse, unique and special each individual of these places are. This series is providing a focus on individual libraries: quirky and interesting, tiny and massive, ones with a long heritage and ones that are very new, those with particularly interesting, collections, architecture or stories to tell. For this, we are looking forward to interviewing many fascinating people who make these places so very special.

Library of the Royal College of Physicians

(Picture of the RCP Library Reading Room, (c) Jonathan Perugia,

Please give us your name and describe your role.

My name is Julie Beckwith and I’m head of the Library, Archive and Museum at the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), London. I have strategic responsibility for the RCP’s collections of rare and current books, archive and manuscripts, silver, portraits and medical instruments with the help of a hard-working team of 16. There are eight staff in the Library team including a library manager, a rare books librarian, an e-resources specialist, a systems librarian, reader services librarian and colleagues who provide valuable support for collections development, document delivery and office management.

Why did you choose to become / what do you enjoy about being a librarian?

I  didn’t plan to be a librarian at all. I really wanted to be a nurse and then thought about studying history but was offered a place on a library course. I have never looked back and my current role has given me the opportunity to combine my interest in healthcare, history and libraries.

I enjoy the variety of work and particularly researching, meeting people and answering queries. You never quite know what you’re going to be asked next (or by whom) so each day can be very different. One of the very first things I ever did in a Library was to fill dishes with Branston pickle ready for a lunch; I was recently involved in commissioning a tapestry by the Keiskamma Trust for the RCP’s 500th anniversary and organised a celebration featuring the Keiskamma Music Academy. Last year I worked with the Royal Academy of Music on a new music commission by composer Joseph Howard, played by brass quintet London Metropolitan Brass on the actual anniversary. So not everything has been about books and journals!

Please describe the RCP library and its aims. (How big are the library holdings, how many staff do you employ etc.)

What was then known as the College of Physicians was founded by King Henry VIII in 1518 to regulate the practice of medicine in the City of London and 7 miles around by licensing those who were qualified to practise medicine and prosecuting those who weren’t. The aim was to protect patients from unscrupulous individuals who did more harm than good. More information about the RCP’s current vision and aims are on our website (link below).

Now with more than 55,000 printed volumes, both historical and current, as well as thousands of electronic resources including ebooks and ejournals the Library was established by the first president, Thomas Linacre. Most of the original collection was lost in the Fire of London in 1666 but a bequest from the first Marquis of Dorchester came to the College in 1688 and we have continued to acquire new items by donation or purchase since then. With the Dorchester collection came a significant number of non-medical books covering topics such as religion, mathematics and astronomy, all appropriate for fellows who were required to be knowledgeable about all things, not just medicine.  We have been digitising some of these, most recently as part of a commercial partnership with publisher Wiley. We also have collections of clinical material and topics of interest to the RCP to support members and staff in their work. This is increasingly electronic. In addition, we aim to keep a copy of everything published by the RCP. A separate Medical Education Resource Centre supports the staff developing education courses and the doctors who attend these. By developing and preserving these collections we maintain more than 500 years of the organisation’s history while supporting the work of the RCP’s global membership today.

Together with the archive and museum teams we promote the collections through related services, events and exhibitions. The professionally qualified and experienced staff that make up the department work closely together, bringing a wide range of individual skills, expertise and knowledge together to create member, staff  and public benefits –  from high-profile, award-winning  exhibitions to accessible collections and a range of services.

Our aims are to

  • ensure the long-term preservation and sustainability of our collections
  • expand and develop our remote services eg e-resources, digitisation projects
  • make sure our collections are fit for the future
  • increase member and public engagement eg promotional activities
  • improve the visitor experience.

What makes the RCP library a special place to work?

A fantastic team, a variety of interesting and challenging work, opportunities to work with other organisations and to be involved in all sorts of activities – from private views of exhibitions to celebrating the RCP’s 500th anniversary and of, course, the superb collections.

What does the RCP library offer to its readers and researchers?

As well as the collections mentioned, the Library offers a range of services such as expert literature searches, inter-library loans and document delivery. We provide access to tools that help members keep up with research, we offer skills training and research space. In addition, the library team offers an enquiry service, answering enquiries not just about the library but about the work of the organisation. Apart from our e-resources we are digitising many items in our historical collections to make them more widely available. A weekly blog provides opportunities to focus on particular items in or aspects of the wider collections and we look for opportunities to show them to visitors to the building, for example in exhibitions or perhaps at one of our ‘Museum late’ events. 

Are there any special collections or projects you are particularly proud of?

It’s quite a challenge to pick out particular collections or projects as there is such a range to choose from.

What are the particular challenges you face at the RCP Library?

Libraries everywhere continue to face challenging times. They are often undervalued and the perception by some that libraries are not needed because everything can be found online is frustrating. Libraries are not just collections of printed materials – they are so much more. They have knowledgeable and skilled staff, they are spaces for social activity, interaction, culture and engagement and of course, research and learning.  Many are open to the public and are free to use.

For the RCP Library, one of the challenges is to ensure members know what we do and how we can support their work. Alongside this is demonstrating value, making sure services and collections are relevant, interesting and properly resourced and keeping up with advances in technology.

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know (about yourself or the RCP library)?

I believe strongly in the value of libraries and reading and spaces such as museums, galleries etc. to health and wellbeing.


Royal College of Physicians website:

Library web pages:


Wiley digitisation project:

The RCP Library Reading Room can be found on the top floor of the RCP main building at 11 Andrews Place, London NW1 4LE. It is open to the public (research appointments are required to view historical collections) and can be visited Monday – Friday between 10am and 5pm.Please check website before visiting for occasional changes to opening times.

Finances, Universities

Bums on Seats: Regulating the UK Higher Education Sector

Gold Leaf carries out a great deal of research in and around universities, both in the UK and in many other places in the world.  An issue that several of its recent research projects has highlighted is the heightened competition to which the HE sector is now being subjected globally.  In the UK, this was largely caused by the decision taken by recent governments – of both main political persuasions –  to create a ‘market’ within the HE sector; unfortunately, in the minds of students and their parents, it has also become linked with the rapid hike in fees that took place at around the same time.  This has had the unforeseen (and presumably unwanted by the government) effect of causing some students to believe that they are ‘paying for’ their degrees – i.e., paying for the actual grades they are awarded, not just the tuition fees.

It is perhaps unfortunate that during the same period the activities of HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England] were wound down, as HEFCE was replaced by the OfS [Office for Students].  A certain hiatus resulted, as the OfS seemed to be relatively slow in getting into gear and for a while little regulatory work seemed to be being carried out in the sector.

This has now changed.  The OfS has flexed its muscles by publishing a series of important reports and directives, one of the most recent of which is entitled Financial Sustainability of Higher Education Providers in England.   The report states that, as part of the registration and ongoing monitoring process, all higher education providers are now required to demonstrate to the OfS that they are financially viable and sustainable. 

Some Vice-Chancellors of even well-known and very well-established universities may have quailed at learning this, as their seeming failure to be able to balance the books has frequently been dissected by the Press over the last two or three years.  The OfS doesn’t explain its methods, however – there are many kinds of capital, for example, not all of them tangible, and it doesn’t say which kinds are acceptable in boosting universities’ perceived solvency – but it does say “our analysis suggests that the sector overall is currently in reasonable financial health”.   Better news than might have been thought, then. But, sounding a greater note of caution immediately afterwards, the OfS adds that “the general picture masks considerable variations in financial performance between individual providers”.  Not really a surprise, but perhaps some Vice-Chancellors should start quaking, after all.

Although some providers are predicted to do less well next year than initially expected, the OfS says that this is mainly because the forecast growth in student numbers has been over-optimistic in the short term; but apparently universities’ student recruitment ambitions now stand a greater chance of being realised.  Of the 183 registered UK HE providers, 122 are assuming growth in student numbers of more than 5% – the students are expected to come from the “UK, EU and overseas” – in the next four years.   The OfS notes that most of these providers are not reliant on this projected growth to reduce their projected costs (i.e., their calculations are not based on what economists call ‘margin’) if their student recruitment ambitions are not met, so the OfS will continue to monitor them closely for financial stability.  Good news for students and their parents, then.  Vice-Chancellors still under pressure!

However: “Collectively, providers forecast the number of overseas students to increase by approximately 56,000 full-time equivalent (FTE)(20.7 per cent). Fee income from overseas students is projected to rise by £1.7 billion (37.9 per cent), suggesting an anticipated increase in the average fee charged to overseas students. The government’s recently announced international education strategy aims to support the sector to increase the number of overseas students.”  Is this a cunning element of the government’s Brexit plans?

Almost as an afterthought, the report acknowledges that the higher education sector continues to face uncertainties, “including the UK’s future relationship with the EU; potential changes in government policy following the review of post-18 education funding; and as a consequence of student choice following a continuing decline in the 18-year-old UK population to 2020.” 

Aside from the fact that the last statement appears to blame the decline in 18-year olds by 2020 on “student choice” (were the first-borns so obnoxious that they deterred their parents from providing siblings?), the report fails to inspire confidence.  The cautious optimism it demonstrates in the face of almost certain adversity seems almost reckless.        

Nevertheless, it is an interesting document: it produces some useful financial detail about where the university sector in the UK is heading, and as it is only 23 pages long, offers both information and entertainment (infotainment?) at the expense of not too great an outlay in time. 

The report may be found at