‘Levelling up’ two years on: Mutated Augar and social engineering of a two-track system

Earlier this week came the news that a White Paper on ‘Levelling up’ would be delayed to the New Year. Conjecture in the media appears to blame the delay on disagreements within the government about what can be done. It may well be a simple tussle between defining what needs to be done and what the UK can afford. This delay coincides with a similar delay in a response to the Augar recommendations about universities, and both may be linked. Higher priority is being placed on the skills agenda and more support for colleges, into which more students would be diverted. The new T-levels are designed to replace BTECs and be the main decision-making pivot point at age sixteen between technical education and university education.  But this is social engineering that will widen the opportunity gap between those with and those without advantages. Then there is the diversion of Christmas. It seems reorganising Christmas parties in a Covid crisis might still be taking priority.

Levelling up was a key element of the Conservative manifesto that helped Boris Johnson to a thumping eighty seat majority exactly two years ago on 12th December 2019. However, it was not an idea that originated in the mind of Johnson. Education was only a part of the plan in “an agenda for levelling up every part of the UK” that focussed on investment and infrastructure. A skills agenda was proposed to support this with a “new £3 billion National Skills Fund, alongside other major investment in skills” and “investing almost £2 billion to upgrade the entire further education college estate” and “we’ll also have 20 Institutes of Technology”.  This pledged to reverse the almost catastrophic decline in colleges sanctioned by the previous Conservative administrations and addressed some failings also noted in the long delayed Augar Report from May 2019 (See TEFS 30th May 2019 ‘Augar stirs up the system: The ripples will go far beyond his remit’)’. However, the role of universities is missing and a response to the many Augar recommendations is similarly delayed. It should be no surprise that universities are a central point in any ‘levelling up’ initiative, however their role might be clearer in a better-defined plan for ‘levelling up’. Both are most likely to emerge at the same time next year.

In July, the House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report ‘Post-pandemic economic growth: Levelling up‘ took hard look at what it means and how to measure it in the context of the pandemic. They defined it as “the spreading of economic and social opportunities more evenly across the country”.  This sets a geographical agenda instead of seeking to help individuals, wherever they live. They also observed that, “not only are the manifestations of levelling-up hard to quantify, but where they can be captured in metrics, as in some aspects of health and education, many will have deteriorated since the start of the pandemic”. It will be an uphill slog whatever it means.

Universities and their role.

The 2019 manifesto made it clear that the government would “aim to ensure ‘world leading Universities”. This was further backed with reference to Augar and the promise that, “In the next Parliament we will work to maintain and strengthen our global position in higher education”. Of course, funding was to be considered and “The Augar Review made thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels, the balance of funding between universities, further education and apprenticeships and adult learning, and we will consider them carefully. We will look at the interest rates on loan repayments with a view to reducing the burden of debt on students”.

Standards and the quality of courses, that have become known as ‘Micky Mouse’ courses, were also a concern with, “We also will continue to explore ways to tackle the problem of grade inflation and low quality courses, and improve the application and offer system for undergraduate students. Our approach will be underpinned by a commitment to fairness, quality of learning and teaching, and access”.

The Augar recommendations are mutating.

It might be expected that all of this will be in the pipeline early next year to coincide with a ‘Levelling up’ paper.  Of course, some plans have been leaked slowly to test the water. Most alarming for many this week were reports that access to loans could be based upon minimum grades, something Augar suggested. However, this seems to have mutated to setting minimum grates in GCSE Mathematics and English. There is considerable alarm and disquiet with ‘Fears half of poorer pupils in England could be barred from university’ (The Guardian 11th December 2021). The ‘MillionPlus’ group of universities analysed the government’s ‘Key stage 4 performance,  2020/21’ data and concluded that a strict GCSE requirement would disqualify 48% of disadvantaged students, most of those in the North of England.

This may well be the aim as the government seeks to deter such students from university by diverting them into a T-levels track from age sixteen (TEFS 19th November 2021 ‘Post-16 education becoming a ‘dog’s breakfast’). But the rapidly climbing cost of student loans may be the real reason behind this move.

Reducing the burden of fees is a key driver.

The Augar suggestion that fees should be cut to £7,500 per year is not going to fly as inflation rises. Even freezing fees will challenge most universities. But the burden of open ended loans and repayments is becoming a problem for the government in tough times. So, the easy way out is to cut student numbers without apparently setting a cap. Increasing the interest rate, payment threshold, or repayment period would cause genuine hardship for many graduates. Doing this in retrospect would trigger a fierce response not ideal before an election (TEFS 25th October 2021 ‘Budget, Spending Review, leaks, and universities’)

Alternatively, the government might seek a radical change and return to the ‘no fee’ policy planned by Justine Greening before her departure from the education brief in 2018. This mirrored the Labour manifesto pledge and would entail introduction of a progressive graduate tax. But it would probably mean setting a cap on numbers in a more stringently planned system. This should be set high and not discriminate against the less well off. Wider access to university that mostly favoured those who can afford it is an experiment coming to the end of its time. Rejuvenating it with greater costs and a two track system should not be entertained.

‘Levelling up’ origins.

The term ‘levelling up’ was originally coined by former Education Secretary, Justine Greening.  During her time as a Minister, she regularly used the term in relation to education.  This route to levelling up was at the core of her campaign from 2016 to 2018.  Her white paper presented to parliament in December 2017, ‘Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential’, is a template for the apparent policy being pursued. However, it remains to be seen how many ‘mutations’ have been accumulated with time and how effective it will be in practice.  Greening started with the first sentence “We have a national mission to level up opportunity across this country.” This set out the core of the strategy from the outset. It was about opportunity for people. Her experience growing up on a council state in Rotherham would have surely informed her view of how climb the social mobility ladder. Her fee-free university education at Southampton University in Business Economics and Accounting, after attending a comprehensive school, would be a somewhat novel experience for most Conservative leaders. She might have expected some resistance to her ideas.

Sure enough, Greening had a rocky ride in politics as she gained experience in key positions in the Cameron administration as Economic Secretary to the TreasurySecretary of State for Transport and Secretary of State for International Development. Along with her later experience as Secretary of State for Education, this made her an obvious candidate to lead the Conservative Party. But some might conclude that her social convictions would make her a better fit as a leading Labour Party campaigner. Instead, she was removed as Education Secretary in 2018 in the latter days of the May administration.  She then decided not to enter the ‘Johnson election’ in 2019 and left parliament. Her resignation letter observed on the idea of levelling up that she “can achieve more positive change on the ground by working outside Parliament on this very practical issue”. This led to a determination to then press on with, her ‘Social Mobility Pledge’ for all employers to follow (see TEFS 6th September 2019 ‘Justine Greening…Greening… Gone!’). 

A year after being ousted from the Education position, Greening revealed that she had been well into a plan to abolish fees (‘Justine Greening wanted to scrap tuition fees.’ BBC News 23 January 2019). But this was the clear manifesto pledge from the Labour Party, and she was working within the Conservative establishment on how to deliver it. Her alternative was a graduation tax that seem a red line for the government.

Levelling up and the role of education.

Education was central to the Greening version of ‘levelling up’. However, the Johnson variant has evolved into something more widespread and based upon the economy.  Nevertheless, reforms to education are happening and still follow a key element of the Greening version advocating that colleges should be more prominent.

So far, the Jonson government has started to work on the rejuvenation of colleges that will play a role in improving opportunities for students not destined to reach university. However, this is accompanied by a clear message that there are too many ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees that do not deliver on social mobility. That being generally defined as achieving higher earnings. The clear aim is to deter students from university and divert them to opt for skills training instead. The problem is that this tactic will discriminate against those from less advantaged backgrounds and further divide our society into a two-tier system. It is in effect a social engineering objective that may not bear much resemblance to ‘levelling up’ in opportunities. Higher earnings could also be a mirage.  A House of Lords debate on levelling up in November asked that “the White Paper is utilised as an opportunity to reset the relationship between national and local government and put councils at the heart of delivering the Government’s ambitious programme to improve opportunities in all parts of the country”.  But it remains to be seen if that emerges as an educational opportunity plan in 2022.

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