It may well not be on your radar,  but the Central European University in Hungary, led  by Canadian intellectual  Michael Ignatieff, is under threat from Hungarys populist leader Viktor Orbán.  In  April this university – a beacon, it has to be said, of democratic values in Central Europe – was the subject of a law  passed  that aims to close it down  next year.  Ignatieff should know by this  Christmas whether he has a job there  or not, in 2019.
Ignatieff has become  a central figure in the battle against populist, deeply conservative, reactionary politics in Eastern Europe. If Orbán wins this battle , it would be the first time that a member of the European Union dares to legislate an attack on the academic freedom of a university in Europe. Can the EU really stand by and watch this happen? Probably.
Ignatieff argues, persuasively  that academic freedom is a core European value and a right that protects us all, not a privilege of the professorial elite, as it is sometimes misrepresented. His description of universities as important “counter-majoritarian institutions”  should resonate . He sees them as just as   vital to society as a free press and an independent judiciary, in counter-balancing majority governments.
Ignatieff  had  assumed, naively perhaps,  that Hungary, relieved of its  soviet yoke and now a member of the EU, would be receptive to liberal ideas,  values and ,of course,  education . The CEU  might  create a cadre of students who could  absorb these values.,  go out into society and help transform the political culture. Eastern European universities had been churning out bureaucrats and scientists schooled in the finer points of marxist theory,  and the primacy of the state and the collective . Surely a new Hungarian   elite, now members of the EU and  cherishing its values   and  accessing US and Hungarian accredited courses – would be created espousing the values that  most support  in the west . Quite a few of them, understandably , when given the chance, saw their futures in Paris,  Berlin and London but the CEU  nonetheless still   quickly developed a cosmopolitan and diverse international student base.  Until recently  this worked pretty  well .
Ignatieff is painfully honest in his analysis of the CEUs  predicament  “What we did not see coming at CEU is that we trained the liberal democratic transition elite, but we trained the elites that lost. In Hungary the post-1989 liberal democratic elite were pulverised in the elections. We are now facing all the consequences of having trained the elite that lost.” “The liberal transition story we believed was that we would move from liberalisation of the market to inevitable liberalisation of thought to inevitable liberalisation of politics, with universities as a kind of battering ram in the charge towards liberal democracy. Suddenly we weren’t allowed to have a dual legal American identity, which meant we couldn’t issue American accredited degrees in Hungary because local Hungarian universities were jealous of the fact that we could award United States masters and PhDs. They saw it as our competitive advantage and the national bourgeoisie supported by the state wanted to ‘level the playing field’.”

It is the case that authoritarian regimes ,whether in  Europe , Russia or China,  dont see Universities as products of the Enlightenment and bastions of freedom of thought and expression, cultivating individuals in pursuit of  the truth . Instead, Universities are there to serve the interests of the state, not the individual,   to sustain   public administration, to control their future bureaucracy and to provide skills  for the economy.  They are not interested in liberal values. And local  traditional universities, of course ,do not want any troublesome  competition.
Ignatieff says “ All of these regimes are trying to create what used to be called a national bourgeoisie, attendant on subsidies, state support, state contracts, state education. So these are regimes that use education to create a national bourgeoisie which will in turn support them to the degree that they depend on elections at all. And this electoral base supports this kind of regime because it supports migration control.”
He  is almost certainly right that they dont  want a multicultural, pluralist future. So, control of universities is part of an attempt to re-engineer these societies and to defend them as mono-ethnic societies controlled by their own state-supported national bourgeoisie.

This is all the more shocking because Hungary is a member of the EU . The EU stands for democratic values and is  supposed to be keen on sharing, defending and  promoting  these values. Its part  of the deal for  being a member of the club.  One reason why Turkey has found its application for admission to the  EU kicked into the long grass  is that it doesn’t quite get these values under its authoritarian   leader Erdogan,  who is culling universities of  everyone who doesnt overtly  support him,  his world view and his party.

But Hungary is being allowed to ignore the  EUs   values. One has to ask, Why? And lets hope that a slightly more worldly wise Ignatieff , and the CEU,  are   still   there  well    into  the New Year and beyond.  But they need help from EU political establishment, and they richly deserve it.




The transition from primary to secondary school is known to be worrying for many pupils. They have to adapt to a more challenging school setting with different academic structures and expectations. They have to interact with new teachers and peers leaving behind what is known, secure  and routine . A significant minority of pupils experience a range of difficulties in adjusting to secondary school ,evidenced by a drop in performance, unreliable attendance, behaviour problems and increased anxiety.

But its often forgotten that the  social and academic challenges for pupils are just as real in the transition from secondary school to college and Higher Education. Young people are moving from one familiar learning environment to another very different one, requiring a different set of skills.  For example: self-belief, self-reflection, resilience,  critical thinking, independent learning  and,  crucially, management of expectations.

Many, particularly from the most disadvantaged cohort, are ill prepared for it.

A recent Roundtable this month,  hosted by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of University of Buckingham , chaired  by Mary Curnock Cook,  looked  at the issues affecting students   in this transition. Sir Anthony  said that in his over 20 years of running secondary schools it had become very clear to him that there was a signal lack of connectivity and understanding between the secondary and Higher Education sectors. Schools don’t think that what happens in Universities has much to do with them, and vice versa.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  Research for his booklet for the Social Market Foundation ’Solving the Conundrum: Teaching and learning at British universities’ revealed very low levels of knowledge and interest from HEIs in what is actually happening in schools. Dr Harriet Jones, of UEA,  has developed a particular interest in students transition from sixth forms/colleges to Universities, developing  Pre-University courses for students  which are used in over 300 schools to help prepare  students  for this transition.

Dr Jones said there was an obvious   chronic mismatch between what students expected from university study and what they actually experienced.  Surveys have shown that students, before they go to university, really don’t think  much about the academic challenges and transition that they face and what skills they may require to cope with their course work at university – instead, they think almost entirely about the social transition.  You have to understand young people’s perceptions and expectations to have a deeper understanding of the nature of the challenges they face in transition.  For example, a survey referenced by Dr Jones ,  found that 80% of those young people surveyed thought that all their university work would get personal feedback from a tutor and a similar percentage thought that a tutor would look at the first draft of their work.  So, differing expectations are a consistent and widespread problem.  Other Surveys, including the NSS, make it abundantly clear that young people believe that Universities are not delivering what they expected they would deliver.  This disjunction between their expectations and what they actually experience, needs to be addressed pro-actively.  A better and deeper shared understanding between students and universities has to be developed. .  They need to be informed – ie, this is what will happen in your first year and this is how you can  prepare for it. . Sixth formers are not being told what university is like and how it differs from the school learning environment.  In schools they are programmed to be taught by teachers to pass the test and exams.  The system is assessment driven.  That is what they are used to and prepared for.  At University it’s a  different learning environment. More of a partnership model where individuals need  agency and self-efficacy,   working with their tutors to develop as learners, needing  more  self-motivation  and initiative  and without the disciplined structure afforded by a school environment.

So, if there is a different approach to teaching and learning why don’t we better prepare young people for it?  And who should take responsibility? The answer is probably both schools and universities.

There are worries that a lack of funding in schools, colleges and sixth forms  is serving to narrow the curriculum offer,  further making it  even less likely that pupils will have the skills they need when they arrive in higher education. So there is surely scope  for universities to  step up to the plate on this and perhaps dedicate  some of their outreach funds to address this challenge.

Through Pre-University study courses and support in the first year at University there are a range of interventions that can help. But we first have to acknowledge that a problem exists. The Brilliant Club  has been doing some interesting work in this area. In seeking  to increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds (those on Pupil Premium etc) progressing to highly-selective universities , it mobilises the PhD community to share its academic expertise with state schools through its Scholars Programme and Researchers in Schools,  running academic enrichment programmes. Students do apparently get a real sense of what will be required of them from people who have been through the process who act as mentors.

Dr Jones suggested that good sixth form preparation for HE, might include, for example

  • 3 A Levels
  • An Extended Project Qualification (EPQ)
  • Core Maths
  • Pre-University skills course


Much  more clearly needs to be done . To be fair some universities are already on  the case, but  the time has come for a more structured systematic  and coherent approach.  It  needs more  leadership from  the sector,   resources and  political backing,   to gain real momentum .



Choosing your A-level (or equivalent) subjects carefully is vitally important – especially if you have aspirations to study at a leading university. Universities look for students who not only have good grades, but grades in the right subjects for the course they want to apply for. Ministers frequently stress the importance of social mobility, and the need for the most disadvantaged to access the best universities, yet too many, because of poor,  or no,   guidance in schools, are choosing subjects that limit their opportunities to apply to the top universities and their courses  and  to  ease  their access to  the professions. Guidance remains a post code lottery , and delays in the governments Careers strategy are not helping. Ministers love talking about ladders of opportunity,and creating rungs on this ladder, but what happens too often is that young people start the long climb then  find that the rungs above them  are missing.

The government’s current policy is to promote and incentivise participation in the so called facilitating subjects at A level.  Indeed this is a 16-18 Accountability Measure for 16-18 providers ( that  applies to A level students only) . A student must have achieved three A levels, of which at least two are in facilitating subjects, at grades AAB. The percentage of students achieving this measure is shown for each provider. These subjects are known as ‘facilitating’ because choosing them at advanced level leaves open a wide range of options for university study.

The facilitating subjects are biology, chemistry, English literature, geography, history, physics, modern and classical languages, maths and further maths and Classical/Modern Languages


The Classical modern languages that  will count towards the AAB in 2016 16-18 Performance Tables indicator are: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek (Classical), Greek (Modern), Gujarati, Irish (second language), Italian, Japanese, Latin, Modern Hebrew, Panjabi, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, Urdu, Welsh (second language)


In 2016, 50.6 per cent of A level entries were  in facilitating subjects, a slight drop compared to 50.8 per cent in 2015 shadow data.


Please also see Russell Groups ‘Informed Choices’


And DFE 16-19 Accountability Measures: Technical Guide For measures in 2016 and 2017


Missing from  all the debates over the Higher Education and Research Bill  is the issue of Two Year Degree courses. . The government is keen to encourage the development of two year degree programmes , to respond to demand and to offer more flexibility, innovation  and choice to students. Always popular with mature students, there is growing evidence , not least from a recent consultation, that debt sensitive  young students who want to enter the job market earlier  might find it more attractive to get  a bona fide degree after two years rather than three,  and pay around £18,000 as opposed to £27.000.

But the government needs to incentivise both private and state funded Higher Education Institutions to do this. As things stand the institution that has done more than any other  to put  quality assured, two year degrees on the map is the University of Buckingham but its students can only access £6000 loans each year  (£12,000 in total )although the course fees are much more than that . Now thats not  fair. State funded students can access £9000 loans and obviously the institutions have their fees capped at that (going up to £9250 this year). But why would an HEI be keen to move to two year degrees if its going to lose out on one years tuition fees?  (ie it will get £18,500 as opposed to £27,750 tuition fee income ) The answer is to offer  parity between the private and public sectors and reform the fee structures for two year courses, so that state funded institutions can charge more for two year courses  and students on private courses can access bigger loans, so  that providers in both sectors  are incentivised to deliver these courses. The Competition and Market Authority has recommended “that the Government should examine how degrees structured in an alternative way could be supported by introducing more flexibility into the yearly funding rules. Whilst we note that accelerated degrees would still need to operate within the aggregated funding cap, there may be scope to allow more innovation whilst still maintaining public expenditure controls. Such degrees would still need to meet the baseline level of quality.”

Pam Tatlow, the chief executive of MillionPlus, has added her voice  (Times Higher 9 January 2017) saying that  CMA was right to point out that there was a clear disincentive to expanding accelerated-degree provision. The Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson is also keen , but needs to put incentives in place if its to happen.


As the Times said in a Leader on 4 January ’Lord Pattens claims that the  Higher Education bill threatens universities’ autonomy are overblown . He fears that it would inject the state into research appointments and funding decisions hitherto taken by academics, and would undermine the value of British higher education as an export.’ The main threat to exports has nothing of course  to do with this Bill, but a lot to do . instead, with our visa policy,  the hostile narrative  engineered by some politicians and inclusion of students in migration figures . As for Brexit, yes, it will present significant challenges  and  remove the source of some  funding but it will also incentivise universities to  forge  new  research alliances, seek new  sources of funding  and  to become more global in their outreach.( Big , prestigious   research rich Institutions  such as Imperial College , London ,already get 86% of their research funding from outside the EU)

Opposition to the Bill is coming from vested interests which always seek to protect the status quo, which, in practice  is  producer interests   masquerading  as concern for all the HE sector. Resistance to change has always occurred when any reforms have been mooted. Whether it was during the creation of new ‘Red Brick’ Universities back in the 1960s  or when the old Polytechnics sought university status. This is no different

The new reality is that the consumer is king. Student’s access to high quality information is vital if they are to make informed choices, as is  more accountability of institutions to students . Universities must be more open about the information they give and how much their degrees are worth in the job market, as well as  give more reliable destination measures.Too many students are paying for poor quality degrees that have no currency in the job market and which are not  even rated highly by academics themselves.   Of course universities are not just about gaining qualifications for the job market, but  that is at least  a  significant part of what many students expect from Higher Education .

Also, introducing new flexibility so students can change courses and institutions with the idea of Credit Accumulation and Transfer, will help in the UK’s drive to improve flexibility in higher education courses and ensure that new types of students from diverse education backgrounds are able to access relevant offerings

The balance between the research function and teaching at universities has long been weighted heavily in favour of research , to the detriment of the student offer and teaching quality. The quality of teaching in Higher Education remains, overall, poor and patchy. More competition  in the sector will lever performance and innovation and  force universities to  monitor and respond  more quickly to shifting demand, and the student voice, in a way that too many  HEIs are currently failing to do.  . The Bill gives an opportunity to address this imbalance and places the needs of students not academics first. The TEF will help achieve this.

The Office for Students is to replace the obsolete Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce). It would speed up the process of accrediting new institutions with the right to award degrees while giving the regulator the power to revoke that right from universities that fail to make the grade. The government’s goal which is sound is to widen the access to higher education while maintaining teaching standards through closer scrutiny. This is sound.

A diverse supply side in the sector, opening up competition will improve choice for students, drive innovation, and force institutions to raise the quality of both their academic and pastoral offers  to students. Of course the market needs robust regulation and the Bill makes provision for this. The US Higher Education sector with many private providers is acknowledged to be the best in the world , so we must open our minds to the possibility of more private operators entering the market, both for profit and not for profit

Sir Anthony Seldon said in a Times letter (4 Jan)’ For too long the sector has been dominated by the producer interest in higher education, ie the academics and administrators rather than the students, whose interests lie at the heart of the proposed legislation. The bill introduces long-overdue regulatory reform and highlights the importance of excellent teaching. The bill stimulates innovative thinking that will underpin, not undermine, the success of our university sector.’ He continued ‘If Lord Patten and others wanted to help British universities, they should be campaigning harder in the House of Lords to make visa applications easier for overseas students; they should be fighting to improve the dire mental-health position of students and, above all, they should be working to improve accountability while extending, not restricting, competition. Brexit is a reason not to delay, as Lord Patten argues, but to forge ahead.’

All this said, the Bill must guard against a potential danger of weakening standards, less effective quality control and consequent damage to international reputation and standing.  The government should be absolutely committed to maintaining the highest standards in the sector, both in maintained and private provision, ensuring that the new risk based regulatory system safeguards quality while improving competition and choice.

The sector is overly  keen to turn ifs guns on the private sector, and ‘profit making’  which is largely a distraction , from its own problems, which too often include ,  poor teaching, poor accommodation, poor tutorial support,   poor pastoral care, grossly over paid Vice Chancellors, poor  value added links with businesses and employers, ,  and a failure to acknowledge, or   respond to ,shifting demand and to meet  the aspirations of their students.

Sudents are beginning to look at  how their tuition fees are being spent, and they want value for money.

It is  no accident that its a private, independent , not for profit  University in the form of the University of Buckingham that consistently tops the league table for teaching quality and student satisfaction.

The House of Lords, with no democratic  mandate,  should take note  of all this before it seeks to undermine the very  purpose of a Bill that has  safely navigated  its passage through the Commons.



Universities are about the communal examination of ideas
There is a new intolerance that is sweeping higher education in the US and UK. Its an intolerance of words, ideas and images. Andrew Anthony expressed it thus “ a zealous form of cultural policing that relies on accusatory rhetoric and a righteous desire to censor history, literature, politics and culture.” A new vernacular is developing around this of ‘Safe Spaces’, ‘no-platforming’ and ‘ trigger warnings ‘. Worryingly, many universities, rather than defending freedom of speech and expression are doing the opposite. Allowing a new culture of censorship to develop.
Research by online magazine Spiked, shows that 80% of universities, as a result of their official policies and actions, to have either restricted or actively censored free speech and expression on campus, beyond the requirements of the law. However, it transpires Students’ own representative bodies are far more censorious than the universities themselves.
An obsession with protecting people’s feelings has, over time, begun to trump other values. Including it seems the values of the Enlightenment and the exercise of dispassionate, secular reason, on which the foundations of world class universities were built. This seems to have combined with social Medias considerable capacity to give currency, organisation, effect, and faux credibility to minority radical views. (There is scant evidence that a majority of students sympathise with these views-an HEPI poll for example this year found a majority of undergraduates agreeing that universities should never limit free speech )
But there is a push back underway. Earlier this year ,Professor Louise Richardson, Oxfords Vice Chancellor said : “We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable about and what it is about those ideas that they object to. And then to have the practice of framing a response and using reason to counter these objectionable ideas and to try to change the other person’s mind and to be open to having their own minds changed. “That’s quite the opposite of the tendency towards safe spaces and I hope that universities will continue to defend the imperative of allowing even objectionable ideas to be spoken.” (Daily Telegraph 16 Jan 2016)
More recently in  a  speech at Melbourne University (14 September Sir Robert Menzies Memorial Foundation Lecture)- Baroness Amos, Director of SOAS, offered a robust defence of free speech on campus. She said “Universities are about the communal examination of ideas”. Adding that “ As the next generation of intellectuals, while you have a duty to test and critique the boundaries of scholarship, you also have a duty to ensure respect for others as these boundaries are tested. The debate will only ever be as good as the space it is given. Argument and disagreement are all part of the course to finding solutions. It is only through the interplay of constructive and engaged examination, that we can progress in our understanding and knowledge of the world. As leaders in higher education – the key sector of society which provides such space across the world. I feel we have a duty to preserve and protect free speech. It is a duty I hold dear.”
But as Lady Amos points out ,as others have her before her “ it must also be recognised that these rights are not absolute – these are rights that need to be exercised with due regard for others – with respect.”

When universities stop being about confronting new and challenging, perhaps even dangerous, ideas, and instead become self-censoring spaces in which students are  protected from ideas that might offend , and in which acceptable views, and speakers, are defined ( by a self-appointed illiberal  elite), , and others banned, not only the pursuit of truth is imperiled but the very purpose of universities is  undermined.



Look at the facilitating subjects-they do help


Its worth reminding ourselves, just occasionally, that Universities are independent and autonomous organisations and so are responsible for their own admissions decisions. The social mobility and access agendas, and the work of the access regulator OFFA can sometimes muddy the water on this issue.

It has been made clear by Russell Group universities (ie the self-appointed elite) that if you want to maximise your chances of admission to their universities they rate some qualifications as more rigorous and robust than others. The term  Facilitating subjects  is now often used when discussing admissions to HEIs.

Facilitating subjects are a group of subjects that the Russell group of universities identified in their Informed Choices publication that are usually considered to be helpful and/or required for particular courses at their universities. Informed Choices says that pupils need ‘ to have clear information about how the subjects that they choose to study in the sixth form or at college  can affect their options at university and their chances in life. That way, they can make well-informed decisions.’

Such openness and transparency by universities can, it is thought, help applicants and advisers understand the prior qualifications needed or preferred by applicants to specific courses.

Informed Choices says.. ‘some university courses may require you to have studied a specific subject prior to entry, others may  not. However, there are some subjects that are required more often than others. These subjects are sometimes referred to as facilitating subjects’.

Subjects that can be viewed as ‘facilitating’ subjects are:

• Mathematics and Further Mathematics

• English (Literature)

• Physics

• Biology

• Chemistry

• Geography

• History

• Languages (Classical and Modern)


Informed Choices -a Russell Group Guide to Making Decisions about Post 16 Education-  2012