Where is the government going with Higher Education?

There is rising speculation and ‘advice’ for the government coming from many different quarters. It is fuelled by the failure of any response to Augar in the budget and no account taken of the costs of Higher Education (HE). There is also scant evidence of any concession to equality and fairness as the sole objective seems to be to reel in the growing costs of the student loan system. Opening HE to more students in an unregulated way, with no regard for the country’s needs, seems to have been rejected even though a Conservative administration instigated it. It is clear there will now be a big push for ‘skills’ training and diverting would-be students away from our universities using a variety of schemes. If this is done badly, without due regard to fairness and equality, it will set back the aspirations of those of lesser means by a generation or more. The government should then expect a new ‘Red Wall’ to be constructed out of the ruins.

It seems there is a fierce ongoing debate amongst Higher Education (HE) observers about what is coming down the political pipeline from the Department for Education (DfE) and the Government covering Higher Education in England.  The speculation surrounding the mystery about why Higher Education, and an expected response to the Augar report, was not in the budget is now reaching absurd levels. On the one hand, observers such as David Kernohan of  WONKHE are predicting a ‘white paper’ by the end of this month. Others, including Nick Hillman at the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), say this is just not possible in the time.  Both WONKHE and HEPI are very experienced and keen observers of government and their policies, so it is odd that they both seem to have such opposing views.  They seem to have sneaked a peek over the fence of the DfE and seen very different things. The uncertainty surrounding this important issue is damaging to universities and students alike and must be addressed ‘soon’ as the Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan, promised just before the budget.

Could both views be right?

Strange as it seems, this might be correct.  The government finally responded to Augar in January of this year with its ‘Interim Conclusion of the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding’ setting out its policy geared to Further Education and Skills. This was rightly pursued further in the recent budget. The ‘Skills and Post-16 Education Bill’, outlined earlier in May, originated in the House of Lords and is making its way through the parliamentary process. Currently, it has reached the second reading in the Commons.

The timeline and background to this move is important. Michelle Donelan survived the cull of ministers at the DfE in September and Further Education (FE) was formally gathered under her wing alongside universities in a clear strategy signal. She had been a ‘stand in’ for FE since 2019 (Michelle Donelan to cover minister’s FE role’) but now she has the role in Cabinet (Donelan is Minister for Further and Higher Education’. FEWeek 24th September 2021). This means that she has had ample time to work on both HE and FE. More than some might expect and there is no doubt that plans for a new strategy in HE must be well advanced. HEPI is correct, it takes time to generate a white paper. WONKHE is also right that a white paper could be well advanced in its formulation.  Radical changes to HE should trigger another Bill through parliament but would probably get a rougher ride than the ‘Skills and Post-16 Education Bill’ under way now.

Occam’s razor and the evidence.

The principle of Occam’s razor might apply in that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The government has a plan, and it is on the way. Indeed, Donelan made it very clear at the Education Committee the day of the budget that a response to Augar was coming ‘shortly’ with “Shortly means very soon”.  One must assume a certain level of honesty in promises from the government, although, how long is a piece of string?

What is odd is the absence of ‘leaks’ that show things are moving quite as fast. It seems speculation is being fuelled by very little evidence of any movement on Augar from the government. Two pulls may be causing some delay. Firstly, there are likely to be different views (aka a row) in government about how to cut the rising cost of student loans. Secondly, restricting student numbers and imposing more costs on students and families will damage their chances in an election. Cutting fees could equally sink some universities at the wrong time. Timing is therefore more of an issue than preparedness, as pointed out by David Kernohan of WONKHE this week.

However, it is worth considering what has been done and what was promised. The Augar report was very long and comprehensive and looked like it would require major reforms to be enacted. The government may well be wise to do this in stages and appears to have put the ‘skills agenda’ arising from the Augar recommendations higher on the agenda.  FE and skills reforms are coming first and similar HE reforms should follow hot on their heels. But with the evidence skewed by the pandemic it would be wise to reconsider options as TEFS pointed out before the budget was released.

Skills a higher priority.

Donelan stated from the outset at the Education Committee on budget day that her main priority was ‘skills’ (see transcript). There was little detail about what would happen in Higher Education and the role of universities. However, what little there was in the budget papers later the same day seemed to herald some radical changes were on the way.  It noted that,

“The government will set out further details of the Higher Education settlement alongside the response to the Augar report, which will be published in the coming weeks”.

The interim response to Augar back in January offered some clues about what might be coming ‘soon’.

“We will move towards modularisation of higher education in order to provide a truly flexible system that provides more opportunity for upskilling throughout people’s careers, as recommended by the Augar Report. We will consult widely about the changes that are needed to enable universities and colleges to provide a modular offer.”

Directing the mission of universities also emerged as a means to an economic end with.

“We will set out how the higher education teaching grant will be used next year to ensure that more of taxpayers’ money is spent on supporting provision which aligns with the priorities of the nation”

Some of this played out in the budget with the aim of “Rebalancing from academic to technical education”.  However, there is little sign of a ‘consultation’ on the promised ‘modular offer’ and reforms to “establish an approvals system for Higher Technical Qualifications”  through “expanding our flagship Institute of Technology programmes”.

The rest of the UK will not wait.

While the government in England dithers about what to do, the government in Wales is pressing on with its reforms of Higher Education. The ‘Tertiary Education & Research (Wales) Bill’ was introduced in the Senedd on Wednesday with Conservatives calling for it to be halted. It is ambitious and seeks to establish a “Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, as the independent regulatory body responsible for the funding, oversight and regulation of tertiary education and research in Wales”.  It appears to be an extreme form of ‘joined up thinking’ in that ‘tertiary education’ will “encompass post-16 education including further and higher education, apprenticeships and sixth forms”. But they are somewhat limited in what they can achieve due to the continued dithering in Westminster. No one is happy.  Any reform of the student loan system in England is bound to have a knock-on effect in Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland is a different case with no fees for home grown students, but they await the impact on students from elsewhere in the UK in their universities. The general divergence of the systems in the four jurisdictions is a headache for those moving between them and a lack of consensus has caused confusion.

Government motivation and all party consensus.

It has been suspected for as long as an elected government has existed that the primary goal of any government is to secure re-election and continuity of their regime.  Overlaying this assumption onto government decisions last week and beyond injects some sense into any indecision. Then there is the suspicion lurking that self-interest and profit have infected the democratic process and rotted it. Coming up with policies that favour business friends first often appears as the explanation of what happens.

There is an expectation that imminent repealing of the ‘fixed-term’ parliament rule soon will pave the way for an early election in the spring of 2023. That is not so far off and maintaining a populist stance throughout will be difficult. One cynical trick could be to increase taxes now with a view to cuts just before the election. It might even work if people have short term memories. But then, higher education and its funding doesn’t look like it will be as easily open to such manipulation.

Because the success of the economy linked to higher education is vital for the long-term interests of the UK, it would be better if there was a cross-party consensus on how to proceed. This is, of course , only a pipedream, but the electorate might warm to the idea as an alternative to being the political football in an ‘adversarial combat’.

Cutting student numbers and minimum grades.

Instead, the government may be simply aiming to cut the burden on the taxpayer to enable tax cuts later. These two things are linked.  Diverting would-be students into skills training and employment at age eighteen instead of university would achieve this. Cutting numbers could be done crudely by capping total numbers or restricting the courses offered. This might not go down well since it could attack the autonomy of the institutions, now known as ‘providers’.  Another cunning ruse could be to manipulate the A-level grading system so fewer students achieve higher grades. This was the well-hidden tactic used in the 1970’s as described by TEFS in ‘A-Level Playing Field or not: Have things changed over time?’ (17th August 2018). Then, almost 30% were set up to fail at A-level from the outset. Also, only 35% were going to get above grade C, the level needed for university entry in most cases. The C-band was often well below 5% points wide. A similar tactic linked to minimum grades would have the desired effect.  However, this is unlikely to emerge soon.

A consultation on how the DfE plans to proceed in 2022 was completed at the end of September with ‘Decisions: proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2022’. Essentially it accepted that they are still in the early post pandemic stage and problems could still arise. But there is a degree of vagueness with “Ofqual is considering how best to grade qualifications next summer in a way that is as fair as possible to next year’s cohort of students and also those who took exams in previous years or will take them in the future” Ofqual is under new management and the aim is to pull back from the high grades of the pandemic and land at a “midway point between 2021 and 2019”. So, we will see what the new normal of 2023 will bring.

The idea of setting minimum grades for university entry is also coming under a lot of criticism. Johnny Rich, the CEO of the student outreach organisation Push, has outlined dangers of setting minimum grades to access a loan with ‘Minimum entry requirements would prevent levelling up’ (WONKHE 4th November 2021).  The case is a compelling one and this may come to be a move too far and other means to restrict numbers will prevail.

It then comes as no surprise that the government and its allies are fuelling dissatisfaction and discontent about our universities.

Low value for money as a deterrent.

A study by the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) out this week pulls few punches and starts with the startling generalisation that “University students in England are being ripped off by the current tuition fee system”.  The report ‘The value of university’ (.pdf) is detailed and stuffed with evidence that some degrees lead to low economic yield.  The Mail reported it as ‘Students are being ‘ripped off’ by tuition fees system encouraging ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, report claims’.  The author, Conor Walsh, a former CPS researcher and now MSc Economics student, of course makes no mention of Disney characters. But the Mail has done its usual sloppy damage.  Walsh’s solutions are radical and risky in the extreme. Culling courses of less ‘lifetime return’ value and concentrating on incentives for the rest, would be accompanied by the universities issuing and administering loans. This is simply explained with, ‘Instead of lending to the students, the Government should lend to the universities, which will lend to their students; the students will then repay the universities, which will repay the Government’.  This would certainly cut numbers at universities and no doubt cause many to fold. Some could use any reserves they have left to avoid borrowing from the government. It seems under this regime, there would be no role for HMRC and the ‘loan repayments’ would no longer resemble a ‘tax’.  If this emerged as a viable solution, it could soon look naïve as the scope for ‘mis-selling’ and financial abuse would rise quickly. Students of lesser means would avoid universities as a result.

Impacts of Augar on access and fairness.

This week, in the wake of the Budget announcements, the All-Party Parliamentary University Group (APPUG) released the results of a poll of students carried out by Public First, ‘Is university worth it- young people’s motivations, aspirations and views on student finance’. The headline conclusion was that “Less affluent students could be worst hit by a reduction in the number of universities or the number of courses on offer”.  This will have added more evidence to the debate from an unexpected source that is likely to signal a reinforcing of the ‘red wall’. Public First is a lobbying firm set up in 2017 by James Frayne and ex-govt education adviser Rachel Wolf. Frayne worked at Policy Exchange as director of policy before setting up Public First. Policy exchange is a conservative thinktank set up by Michael Gove in 2011.

The results must be approached with caution as there were only 1000 students involved. However, there were subsamples of less well-off and more affluent students quizzed in interviews. Their testimonies are still compelling.

The impact of restricting access to universities is seen by many as having a major effect on those with poorer backgrounds.

The Augar odyssey.

The whole sorry tale was reviewed by TEFS back in March 2019 with ‘Waiting for Augar………………’. It was announced on the  19th of February 2018 by Theresa May (Prime Minister launches major review of post-18 education), and this was followed by an astounding series of leaks and speculation before it’s expected completion in early 2019. By the time the report was issued in May of that year, it was already clear that radical reform was anticipated (see TEFS 30th May 2019 ‘Augar stirs up the system: The ripples will go far beyond his remit’). Since then, the waters have been muddied by the idea of post-qualification admissions (PQA) and a review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEFS 22nd January 2021 ‘What did Augar, Pearce and the Government ever do for us?’).  But the one thing that the government seems unified on was the urgent need for ‘skills’ education after years of decline in Further Education.

Lessons from the past.

The last major bill was the ‘Higher Education and Research Act 2017’ sponsored by the DfE under the leadership of Justine Greening. It formalised many of the changes since 2010 and established the Office for Students as a regulator. It had a gestation of nearly two years and its first reading in May of the year before was accompanied by the white paper ‘Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice’ from Jo Johnson, then Minister of State for Universities and Science.  It is of interest that both Greening and Johnson subsequently resigned from government and parliament as a series of different minsters came and went.

Despite the many changes in the intervening period, it replaced the ‘Further and Higher Education Act 1992’ that established the Post-92 universities arising from Polytechnics.

The lesson is that many changes arising from Augar could be made without new primary legislation.  The cap on fees could be lowered but limiting student numbers directly might be problematical, as would radical changes to the student loan system and finances.

All of this has a familiar ring to it.

Current politicians have cited the pandemic as an economic event equivalent to the impact of World War 2.  This is somewhat strange for people who would have little idea of the reality of rebuilding after 1945. Yet there seem to be a few parallels in relation to education. It took nearly ten years for the emerging crisis in skilled labour to be fully recognised. The White Paper on Technical Education of 1956 described a crisis in the state of technical education. There was an urgent need to increase the supply of trained ‘manpower’ at all levels of technological expertise. There was little choice. The same might be said now. The policies of the last ten years seem to have recreated a similar problem in 2021 as technical colleges lost funding and universities expanded in a highly unregulated way.

Interestingly, one clear bottleneck back then was in the fear there would not be enough qualified lecturers to fill the positions.  This meant adjusting pay scales and increasing pay. Something that might happen today as reality takes over.

With the Robbin’s Report in the intervening period, it took a new government in 1964 to make the massive changes needed.  Yet there seems to be a consensus across the political divide that recognised the urgency of expanding tertiary education.

The outgoing government had pushed through the establishment of ‘Industrial Training Boards’ set up through the ‘Industrial Training Act’ of 1964 before the election that year. In relation to local colleges it was clear that “Their invaluable contribution to the educational and economic needs of the nation must in no way be prejudiced by the development of higher education. The Government will continue to give them all possible support.”

This might have been adhered to more closely with the university expansion of the last ten years. Instead, it was side-lined and we are back in the same crisis today.

The heavy burden placed upon industry in making the Industrial Training Boards work was unlikely to be enough. The inevitable result was the founding of the Polytechnics that mostly emerged from the Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) (The Cabinet Papers | Colleges and polytechnics. nationalarchives.gov.uk).  By May of 1966, the white paper ‘Higher Education within the Further Education System’ emerged and real change happened.

Its aspiration that “The Secretary of State is also anxious that mutually advantageous links with universities shall be developed through sharing of staff, joint use of communal and other facilities and in other ways” was perhaps too optimistic.

The timeline of these changes, and the recognition by all parties that change was necessary, should serve as a lesson for what is happening in 2021.

While we await Augar, maybe we should dwell a while on the words of Samuel Beckett in ‘Waiting for Godot’ who offered sound advice with,

“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed….To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!”

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