UPDATE: More pressure on universities. Targets for access and participation: Passing the buck

Today the Guardian revealed that the Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan, is racking up more pressure on universities.  This appears to yet more evidence that Donelan is softening up students and the universities for a response to Augar that she said was “Shortly means very soon” on the day of the budget.  The pressure may well be a preamble to justify a continuation of high fees with more value for money on offer.  Savings on loans will then be squeezed and a combination of a lower repayment threshold, longer repayment period and even higher interest rates will emerge. Cutting student numbers through minimum grades and disincentives to go in the first place would add to the savings made.

The Guardian reported that ‘English universities risk breaking law over offer withdrawals, say ministers’.  It seems that by using a loophole, that means some universities could renege on conditional place offers because too many reach the target grades, will be stopped. This practice is seen as illegal and will be challenged by the OfS and the Competition Markets Authority (CMA). This is a very serious threat that could cause a defensive move to post qualification admissions and strict minimum grades.

Original post.

A speech by Michelle Donelan this week added another piece to the jigsaw of education beyond school. She will set targets for less advantaged students to get to university and expects them to not only attain good degrees, but also gain graduate jobs and pay. All of this whilst raising “standards in education”. Universities must work with schools and colleges to improve access and take a wider role. This strategy will however run alongside, and compete with, the big push of the skills agenda announced in the budget recently. That competing plan is designed to divert students away from university into jobs at eighteen. The result will be fewer students attending university and fewer degree options on offer.  The problem is that the targets for ‘access and participation’ will sit uneasily on the foundation of the the other initiatives. But that is probably the aim. Social mobility and levelling up is a convenient mirage. When improvements in access and participation to universities start to falter, the universities are set up to take all the blame. It is shoddy government and lacking in true leadership or accountability.

This week the Minister for Higher and Further education, Michelle Donelan, set out her stall for universities at the Times Higher Education Campus Live Awards event. The speech (available here) has received some coverage outside of the mainstream  media, but otherwise seems to have passed with little notice.  Times Higher Education concentrated on the idea of a ‘reboot’ with ambitious targets to be set for graduates attaining “high skilled, high paid jobs”. FE Week looked to ‘Minister to demand universities set ‘ambitious’ degree apprenticeship targets’. FE News supported the introduction of ‘lifelong learning accounts’ from 2025 that would benefit students and employers alike.

The Telegraph was more blunt on the issue of graduate employment targets with, ‘Improve student job prospects or lose funding, universities warned’ as more apprenticeships were demanded as a means to this end. The threat could be a real one as universities take all of the blame in time.

A press release from the Department of Education (DfE)  further reinforced the strategy as ‘New levelling up plans to improve student outcomes’ and provided more detail on what they called The reboot of universities access and participation plans”.  The expectations are considerable with demands that extend well beyond the campus gates with “Universities will be expected to improve education outcomes for disadvantaged students in the schools and colleges across the region”.

Improving access and success.

The DfE and Donelan have set out a series of major demands to be placed upon our universities. Not only will they have to “improve outcomes for disadvantaged children by driving up education standards in schools and colleges in the local community, which could include providing activities like tutoring”, they will also have to “send a message to every disadvantaged young person thinking about higher education that they will have the support through school, college and university to get there and achieve a positive outcome for themselves”.  This means passing the buck of responsibility down the line to universities. It’s a shabby tactic if no more funding emerges to back up the plan. Universities with more resources might weather the storm, others will fall under the sword of the Office for Students (OfS).

Directing access and passing the buck.

The demands put upon universities through OfS regulator were central to Donelan’s speech and she also took the opportunity to announce a new director for fair access and participation at the OfS in John Blake.  This will be a pivotal position standing at the boundary of the regulator and government aspirations. He will understand the government is determined to pass all responsibility onto the universities to put their house in order by improving access to the least advantaged students, and in ensuring their attainment and success in getting jobs. In doing so, he will find that there is only so much a university can do with limited resources. The hope is his experience will temper expectations with a more pragmatic approach. The fear is the main mission of a university in advancing knowledge and understanding, alongside educating future generations, will be diluted and dissipated in trying to hit targets beyond their control. Asking universities to solve issues in local schools could fail fast as the enormity of the task looms.  An integrated approach clearly defined would be a better plan. Adding funding for the target students would help.

Who is John Blake?

On the face of it, Blake is well placed to ‘reboot’ the access and participation agenda for the government. He will work alongside the Office for Student (OfS) CEO, Oxford graduate Nicola Dandridge, who will depart in 2022. Her replacement will be seen as pivotal in the direction taken. That appointment will surely be heavily influenced by the new OfS chair and Durham law graduate, James Wharton, who took over earlier this year (see TEFS 9th April 2021 ‘Office for Students: Meet the new boss……….’). He was a controversial choice with little experience in education but a Conservative member of the Lords who refused to relinquish the conservative whip. He seems to be the equivalent of a ‘political commissar’ reporting to the government.

Blake also appears to have similar political leanings. From 2017 to 2020, he was ‘Head of Education and Social Reform’ at the right wing ‘Policy Exchange’ thinktank set up in 2002 by former Education Secretary, dad dancing expert, and now Secretary of State for ‘levelling up’, Michael Gove.

Blake moved to be ‘Head of Public Affairs and Engagement’ at the education charity Ark in 2020 before his latest appointment. There is no doubt his experience is broad and should be valuable in his new mission. However, proof of his independence will be sorely tested along the way.

Blake is yet another history graduate (2004) from Oxford University to gain an influential position. He went on to be a teacher before moving up the ladder to his current position. Interestingly he was a classroom assistant for a year in Edinburgh at the Wester Hailes Education Centre (WEC) between 2005 and 2006.  This could be classed as a ‘challenging’ school embedded in one of the most deprived areas (most deprived 5%) here in Edinburgh (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation 2020). He therefore has valuable experience of the challenges faced by students growing up such areas. His first port of call might be with Ian Murray MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, who has represented more affluent Edinburgh South since 2010. He comes from Wester Hailes and was a student at WEC before going onto graduate from Edinburgh University in 1997 when Labour swept to power. His ‘pathway to success’ story might interest Blake.

Warm up act for the main event of the Augar response, fees, debt, skills and alternatives to university.

One thing missing from Donelan’s announcement was answering the most important question; how will this be paid for? The government has still not responded to Augar about the key issue of funding for universities and the prospect to setting minimum entry grades. Nothing about university funding emerged from the recent budget. Instead, Donelan herself assured the Education Committee on the same day as the budget that a response would come “Shortly means very soon”. Although, how long is a piece of string? (see TEFS 28th October 2021 ‘The Budget, Skills, and where’s Higher Education?’)

Universities will find that their expected mission will clash with an obvious plan from the government to divert students into jobs at eighteen as an alternative.

The issue of fees and debt is also very much a live one that cannot be ignored. A freedom of information reply, reported by the Guardian a day after Donelan’s speech, revealed that ‘Largest debt amassed by student in England is £189,700’.  This seem excessive but is believable as the average debt for those graduating in 2020 is £45,060.

It is obvious that students from less advantaged backgrounds are more likely to bear the greater burden of debt. Where else will they get the funding? This, and accompanying publicity, will become a greater deterrent as other educational routes are touted by the government.  Meanwhile universities must scabble to attract students whose confidence is low due to the prospects of serious debt. Some universities are being set up to fail.

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