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Daily News Update




Johnson denies claim that tuition fees hit the poorest

Universities and science minister Jo Johnson has defended the government’s tuition fee rise in the face of a critical assessment from the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

An IFS report, Higher Education funding in England, published on 5 July, said that students from the poorest 40 per cent of families were graduating with the highest debt, at £57,000 for a three-year undergraduate degree.

This increase in debt has coincided with a change in policy in 2015 that saw maintenance grants replaced by loans. Students from the richest 30 per cent of families, who will not have needed maintenance grants, accrue around £43,000 of debt by comparison, the think tank said.

The IFS also found that some 70 per cent of borrowers are unlikely to fully pay back their loans and many will be repaying into middle age.

Defending the policy on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Johnson said that the expansion in student loans had enabled many more young people from lower income backgrounds to attend university—which would not have been possible under previous systems.

He said that as so many borrowers would not be paying back their loans, this amounted to a subsidy from the state for their education. 

Johnson's view was echoed by Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, and one of the architects of the previous coalition government's tuition-fee policy.

Hillman argued on the same Today programme that the student fee system was working and enabling high-quality universities in the UK to provide “great opportunities” to students. This costs money, he said.

The IFS report also highlighted that the loan repayment interest rate will be increasing from September 2017 to 6.1 per cent, which will make student loans closer to commercial loans. Such a move will also make any future sale of the student loanbook a more commercially attractive proposition.

Asked if the rate increase would be reviewed, Johnson would not directly answer the question. Instead, he reiterated that the UK had a “very effective student finance system that enables more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university.”


UK > Universities


Dandridge turns gamekeeper as first head of Office for Students

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, has been appointed to lead the Office for Students.

Dandridge will take up the role at the higher education regulatory body on 1 September after eight years at the helm of the vice-chancellors’ group UUK.

The announcement was made on 5 July by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which will be wound up when the OfS is formally established next year. HEFCE said Dandridge would bring a strong legal background to the post along with a track record on equality and diversity as a former head of the Equality Challenge Unit.

Julia Goodfellow, UUK president and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, said In a statement published on the UUK website, that Dandridge had been at the helm of UUK “during some of the biggest changes the sector has seen”.

These included the vote to raise the cap on tuition fees in 2010 and the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

“Nicola's knowledge of the sector, her political astuteness, her calmness under pressure and her inspirational leadership will stand her in good stead in her demanding new role,”​ Goodfellow said.

Dandridge will join Michael Barber, the former education adviser to Pearson, who has been appointed chairman of the regulator.

UUK has begun the search for a successor and expects to make an announcement ahead of its annual conference on 6 and 7 September.


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UK > Charities & Societies


MQ sets the pace to get the most from UK health datasets

The mental health charity MQ has funded four data-science projects in a move to connect the UK’s healthcare, morbidity and administrative datasets to bolster mental health research.

The successful projects, announced on 4 July, have each been awarded £50,000. They are the first to be funded under MQ’s Data Science programme, which was launched this year.

Neil Balmer, head of communications at MQ, told Research Fortnight: “The UK has some of the world’s most complete healthcare, morbidity and administrative datasets. However, at present these resources are largely unlinked and have not yet been optimised for use in mental health research.

"Data science has the ability to make a huge difference in how we understand mental health, helping researchers piece together evidence about the treatments that work for which people and why."

Rina Dutta, from King’s College London, will investigate how to better understand suicide warning signs in children. Dutta will link around 180,000 anonymised electronic records of young people aged 10 to 17, collected by schools, to health and hospital records. 

Robert Derubeis and Zachary Cohen, based at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, are working to create an algorithm that predicts when psychological therapy is likely to be effective.

Miranda Wolpert, director of the Evidence Based Practice Unit at University College London, will be trying to improve the targeting of treatments to a young person. To do this, Wolpert will be combining datasets detailing demographic information on the types of services used by children and their success rates. 

James Walters, a reader in the division of psychological medicine and clinical neurosciences at Cardiff University, will explore whether the physical health of an individual with schizophrenia is affected by their individual genetic risk factors. Walters will link genetic samples from people with schizophrenia to NHS and other public data.


UK > Innovation


Space agency fears loss of policy influence

The UK Space Agency has warned that its position as the UK's space policy hub could be at risk due to changes to national R&D policymaking bodies and uncertainty over Brexit.

The agency has reiterated its ambition for the UK to win 10 per cent of the world's space market by 2030. But in its annual report and accounts for 2016-17, published on 28 June, the UKSA says that “change and uncertainty” in UK innovation and research could jeopardise its policy role. 

The creation of the umbrella body UK Research and Innovation is likely to reduce the agency's prominence in the UK's space community, it says.

In the report the agency confirms its commitment to commercial operators being able to launch small satellites and offering sub-orbital spaceflights from the UK. 

However, it has marked this goal as "high-risk". The reasons for possible failure include failing to adequately support industry, inaccurate forecasts for demand for such services and hurdles in upcoming legislation. 

Graham Turnock, chief executive and accounting officer at the UKSA, said the agency was compiling information on the possible impact of Brexit on legislation, regulation and funding arrangements, which it will use to feed into Brexit negotiations. 
Nonetheless, the agency says in the report that the UK's space industry is in good health, having doubled in size in 12 years. Turnover has risen from £6.3 billion in 2004-5 to £13.7bn in 2014-15.

In 2014-15, expenditure on space R&D in the UK was £415 million, according to the report. A comparable figure for earlier years was not published.


UK > Careers


Scottish government seeks chief scientist for health

The Scottish government is looking for a chief scientist for its health department.

The purpose of the chief scientist, health, is to identify and promote healthcare research.

The incumbent will help to shape a research strategy for the NHS in Scotland and will carry responsibility for “one of the larger” research budgets within the Scottish government.

The government says this is a unique opportunity to have a direct influence on strategic policy outcomes affecting the future of Scotland.

The three-year, two day a week secondment is based in Edinburgh.

The closing date for applications is midday 28 July.


Europe > Politics


‘Keep UK in EEA,’ report recommends

The EU should aim to keep the UK inside the European Economic Area when the country leaves the bloc, a report for the European Parliament has said.

The report, which was written by the think tank Bruegel for the Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and published today, said that EEA membership “is the option that best preserves the benefits to the EU of the UK’s EU membership”. The UK is due to leave the bloc in March 2019.

Membership of the EEA would make the UK’s future relationship to the EU similar to that of Norway. It would provide full membership of the EU’s single market, but would not necessarily entail membership of the EU customs union, leaving the UK free to pursue its own international trade agreements.

Bilateral arrangements, like those between Switzerland and the EU, “are clearly inferior to EEA membership” in terms of their ability to ensure legislative and regulatory consistency, the paper said. A free-trade agreement, which is the option the UK government has said it will seek, is even less beneficial in this regard.

Participation in the research Framework programme is “somewhat independent” of these options, with 16 countries having secured full participation through association agreements despite having different varied arrangements with the EU. However, the paper warned that the EU’s relationships with its major trading partners involve both cooperation and competition, and that the future balance of these with the UK remains unclear.

The Parliament is not directly negotiating with the UK on its future relationship with the EU, but it will have a say over the terms of the UK’s exit and of any future deal.


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