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2019: The year that was


The biggest HE stories in the final year of the 21st century’s teen age

As we start a shiny new decade, the Research Professional News team takes a look at our top higher education stories of 2019.

Unclaimed student loans

A chance encounter with the Student Loans Company led our assistant editor Chris Parr to discover almost £30 million of overpaid student loans lying unclaimed in government bank accounts. Between 2009-10 and 2017-18, more than 513,000 graduates in England overpaid their student loans as payments were not stopped until the end of each tax year.

Around £300 million in overpayments was collected and a Freedom of Information request revealed that £28,460,095 had still not been collected by the time Research Professional News broke the story in August. National news coverage by the BBC, the Guardian and the Independent newspapers helped to spread the word.

MP’s university cash

As pre-election restrictions led to government bodies taking what felt like a vow of silence when it came to promoting their work, one publication caught our eye. The parliamentary register of members’ financial interests, which was slipped out in December as would-be MPs battled to keep or take seats, showed that Conservative MP for Morley and Outwood Andrea Jenkyns gets £25,000 per year from the University of Bolton to lead the National Centre for Higher Education Policy.

Further sleuthing revealed that while Jenkyns has been paid by the university since July, the centre does not show up online. The Guardian newspaper picked up on our investigation, while Jenkyns assured us that the centre will open in 2020.

Plagiarism promises

September saw us go undercover in a bid to expose essay mills offering services they claimed would get past popular anti-plagiarism software Turnitin undetected.  Doing our best impression of a masters student with an essay to write about Chinese politics, we discovered that for £117.92 we would receive the essay and a “plagiarism report…from Turnitin/WriteCheck, so you have an assurance that your work is 100 per cent customised”.

Research Professional News chose not to name the company and found several more offering services that they said would get past Turnitin. We put the claims to Turnitin, which said it “continuously monitors all of our services for inappropriate use and acts swiftly to deactivate accounts from our platform that are in violation of our licensing agreement”.

Stuck on reviews

The higher education world leaves 2019 the way it came into it: waiting for the conclusion of the Augar and Teaching Excellence Framework reviews. The independent review of post-18 education, led by Philip Augar, was published to much excitement in May as university and college leaders pored over the review’s recommendations, muttering nervously about what the impact of a fee cut to £7,500 would be.

But after a semi-interesting appearance in front of the House of Lords science and technology committee, attention turned from Augar review itself to how the government would respond to the recommendations in the review. As the government had a few other tasks to deal with, like setting and missing Brexit deadlines and holding a general election, we are still waiting. The political disruption also meant the Teaching Excellence Framework review, led by dame Shirley Pearce, remains unpublished at the close of 2019.

Enhanced monitoring

The Office for Students turned one in 2019, and it celebrated by putting more than half of the higher education institutions on its register under enhanced monitoring, which involves asking for additional data/information or an investigation of specific concerns where a provider is at risk of breaching conditions of registration. When Research Professional News wrote about the scale of enhanced monitoring in May it covered 194 of 350 registered institutions. Affected universities are scrutinised more closely and must give extra information to the OfS.

The iNews website picked up our story and Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the regulator, later told Research Professional News the high number of institutions under enhanced monitoring just meant the OfS is “doing [its] job properly”. The latest OfS board papers published on 20 December show that 261 of 388 registered institutions are now under enhanced monitoring.

Spare room?

Delays to new purpose-built student accommodation at the start of the new academic year saw hundreds of students forced into temporary lodgings, sparking a national conversation about the state of student housing. Universities and science minister Chris Skidmore met with housing providers, universities and union representatives to discuss the problems and how they could be fixed.

After we published an in-depth exploration of the highs and lows of the student housing market, a fire at a student accommodation block in Bolton in November put the issue back on the national news agenda. Education secretary Gavin Williamson told all vice-chancellors to review fire safety procedures, but the buck was passed back to government as four unions joined forces to demand that flammable cladding is banned from student accommodation. Expect housing to remain an important issue in 2020.

Deficit woes

The end of the year is usually marked by a flurry of financial accounts being published. In February we decided to take a look at universities over the border in Scotland, and we found that the majority had reported a deficit. Nine out of 15 revealed that they were in the red, with accounts showing deficits ranging from £11.1 million to £1.7 million. Our story was picked up by the iNews website, which gave it front-page treatment. Keep your eyes peeled for an update on how Scotland’s universities fared in 2019.