Predictions for universities in 2022: UPDATE. Student Loans and a failing government

UPDATE 28th January 2022

The predictions for 2022 made by TEFS at the start of this month are holding up for now. More news of student loan repayments emerged today by stealth. This follows a week of more revelations about the fate of Johnson and No10. He is hanging on as predicted but will surely now go before an election in 2024. The police investigation could take time to work its way through the mess.

Augar, student fees and loans.

On Augar, there is still no one-off response and the prediction that Despite the negative effects of Brexit and Covid restrictions, it is likely that the government will continue its planned course in higher education” is holding.  This means there will be no major changes in the pipeline. However, the response to Augar seems to be leaking out a bit at a time as a ‘stealth’ policy (see also TEFS 21ts January 2022 ‘OfS consultations: Higher Education regulation by decimation’).

Despite many contrary predictions in the media that the income threshold for repaying student loans would fall, TEFs predicted that “It is most likely that the threshold for repaying loans will remain static”. 

Sure enough, today Michelle Donelan slipped in a short answer to a question on a quiet day with, ‘Higher Education Update. Statement made on 28 January 2022’.  There she confirmed that fees were to continue to be frozen and the repayment threshold remain the same with, Maintaining the repayment threshold at its current level, alongside the ongoing freeze in fees, will help to ensure the sustainability of the student loan system”. So much for that then.

The fate of Johnson.

This is becoming more unstable and hangs in the balance. Despite the prediction that most Conservative MPs are still offering support, it is beginning to crumble. TEFS predicted that,

“Many predict Boris Johnson will be ousted from power in 2022 because of election fears amongst MPs. This is less likely while the majority hold their position on the core policies. More likely is the election will come in 2024 and he will be gone by then if he fails to regain confidence.”

Yet, while Johnson is holding on, the events have taken a surprising turn this week. The situation at No 10 with ‘Partygate’ has become very serious for him with the Metropolitan Police investigating.  They are asking the Sue Gray inquiry to hold back information relating to No 10 in particular.  Earlier the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (Head of the Metropolitan Police), Cressida Dick, indicated that she would be investigating the events at No 10, that she considered as more serious. Although many media outlets are seeing a ‘cover up’, this is less likely in the circumstances.  While those working across Whitehall will be fined for breaking rules, the situation for the rule makers at No 10 is much more serious.

It is more likely the police investigation is turning toward ‘Wilful neglect or misconduct’ as defined by ‘’Misconduct in Public Office | The Crown Prosecution Service’. There is no doubt this will take longer to investigate as a much more serious crime. Those at No 10, up to and including Johnson, were fully aware of the rules and the real public safety issues that were a matter of life and death. To wilfully ignore the rules is therefore astounding. To combine this with drinks parties is totally reckless in the eyes of many people.

On the law the CPS states that, “the public officer must be aware that his/her behaviour is capable of being misconduct.” and is wilful as it is “deliberately doing something which is wrong knowing it to be wrong or with reckless indifference as to whether it is wrong or not”.  There seems little doubt in most quarters about those points.

On the issue of public trust, “The behaviour must be serious enough to amount to an abuse of the public’s trust in the office holder”.  Again, most people appear to have little doubt about that.

On consequences, it is clear that, “Whilst there is no need to prove any particular consequences flowing from the misconduct, it must be proved that the defendant was reckless not just as to the legality of his/her behaviour, but also as to its likely consequences”.

This is the most serious concern.  Many lives were saved by the public following the rules.  We now know that Johnson, and those senior at No 10, did not. It would be a hard ask of the public again, unless a very severe penalty is handed down on those involved.  Even more serious would be if members of the families of those at No 10, or in close contact, became seriously ill or died as a result.  This must also be investigated and dealt with firmly.

Original Post 2nd January 2022

The Chinese New Year will bring in the year of the Tiger. This may bode well for the Chinese, but the rest of us might want to beware. Short of trying to decipher what Nostrdamus wrote in Les Prophéties in 1555, we should look at government promises and real time data to predict what might happen closer to home.  Universities, students, and families know that costs will rise throughout 2022 due to rising inflation, taxes, and interest rates. But the government’s top priority is to win an election and blame others for any failures. To this end, they will shy away from cutting university fees or reducing the threshold for loan repayments. They will instead freeze fees and the loan threshold and hope that graduate pay inflation will start to lower the high cost to the taxpayer in time. But we might expect a small reduction in the interest rate will be used to offset this burden for now as inflation is blamed when it must rise later after an election.

This leaves three other options involving a reduction in the number of students taking out loans.

Firstly, there is effective dissuasion. After blaming universities for poor ‘Mickey Mouse’ degrees, that fail to yield higher pay, they will redouble efforts to divert the rising numbers of eighteen-year-olds into skilled jobs and away from university. This will affect those from poorer backgrounds and satisfy the aim to engineer a two-tier system and society. This means consolidating the position of the ‘elite’ who can afford private education and university. In the longer-term, other research funding tactics would continue to separate the elite research universities from the rest and open the door to privatisation (TEFS 26th September 2021 ‘Privatisation storm looms for universities’)

Secondly, they will set minimum examination grades to be achieved for university entrance. Initially, this will involve good grades at GCSE in English and Mathematics. However, that will not be enough on its own. They will also need to force universities to set minimum grades for every course in advance, and penalise them for not adhering to them. This serves to deflect blame onto the institutions and away from the government. 

Thirdly, by eliminating and reversing grade inflation in national school examinations they will add stability to both strategies above. The coming year is likely to bring about these advances and the trick will be to do this without taking the blame and taking a hit at the ballot box.

However, there are too many uncertainties surrounding what will happen due to internal conflicts within the government.

Uncertainties can be reduced.

Uncertainties have always existed about the motives and actions that impact our security, wellbeing, and the global environmental degradation we all endure.  Gathering intelligence is an essential function of the government to reduce the level of uncertainty surrounding these.  Instead, we are seeing a policy of increasing uncertainty about what the government is itself doing. We are too often guessing what they might do next through their conflicting leaks and actions counter to stated policies.  We are left to assess the situation by gathering various stands of evidence. This can be done by using the basic principles of military intelligence that can be transferred to many other scenarios. These principles can be employed to assess the intentions, motivation, and objectives of the government.  Knowing their capabilities and weakness enables a fair assessment of what will emerge in 2022. 

The promises.

Despite the negative effects of Brexit and Covid restrictions, it is likely that the government will continue its planned course in higher education.

The first port of call is to simply look at the Conservative manifesto for the 2019 election. ‘Levelling up’ was a key element that helped Boris Johnson to a thumping eighty seat majority. 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”.  These appear to be on the cards to develop further in 2022.

There was little on universities, but what was promised is the most likely direction of travel in 2022. The 2019 manifesto made it clear that the government would “aim to ensure ‘world leading Universities”. This only refers to some universities that will get the lion’s share of research funding. 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, overall funding will be considered and these ideas will emerge, “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 degrees , 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”.

(TEFS 12th December 2021 ‘Levelling up’ two years on: Mutated Augar and social engineering of a two-track system’)

The aims and motivations of a government beginning to panic.

Despite Covid and Brexit pressures, underneath the promises lie the main motives of the government. Top of the list is a determination to continue in power and win the next election that could easily be in 2023. This is by far the priority that requires blame for any failures to be laid at the doors of others. After all, they have a clear majority (currently a simple majority of 73 seats) in parliament and can effectively pass most bills easily, despite rising dissent in the ranks. But there are many MPs concerned that they would lose their seats at the next election, and 2022 we will see further panic as the ‘red wall’ is rebuilt by the opposition.

After holding onto power, the next motivation is one of support for business and profit. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, market forces and privatisation are seen as a panacea for solving all problems.  They will continue to pay lower business taxes as taxes on individuals rise. Moves by the government in 2022 can be better seen through the lens of market forces and more private enterprise involvement. A blind faith in this approach also underpins climate change, energy and industrial strategies.  Blame for failure can always be placed outside government.

The ideas of delivering Brexit and ‘Levelling up’ also lie at the core of this strategy. However, they both look shaky. Outside of Covid effects, Brexit is causing damage to trade and will continue to get worse in 2022. Meanwhile, ‘Levelling up’ is poorly defined and confusing.  The obfuscation of the government on this indicates a desire to shift blame and hide the reality from people as much as possible. Basically, an intelligence ‘smoke screen’ is in play and the likelihood is that manoeuvres are all happening behind the screen.

Many predict Boris Johnson will be ousted from power in 2022 because of election fears amongst MPs. This is less likely while the majority hold their position on the core policies. More likely is the election will come in 2024 and he will be gone by then if he fails to regain confidence.

Everyone predicts the future.

Everyone, businesses, public services, and education providers, try to predict the future. This is inherent in making effective plans.  For example, the health service already knows to plan for births in 2022; they have notice of almost nine months.  Schools and universities know what the population will be many years in advance. Resources such as, transport, utilities and housing can be planned on long timescales.  There is little excuse for making errors around their planning unless it is deliberate and requires an explanation. Confidence in government comes from accepting that they are planning based on easily acquired information.  Dithering and hesitating in the face of clear evidence is a failure of government. It is often assumed they are thinking beyond their term of office and remembering they are not ‘in power’ but have been chosen to hold ‘stewardship’ of the country for a while. 

The context and what we know will happen.

We are sure that inflation will increase with its progress driven by fuel and energy costs. This will lead to interest rates rising over the year. The economy is already in major trouble with a national debt now £2,223.0 million (103.6% of GDP) in June of 2021 and expected to rise with the latest announcement later this month. It is no surprise that the government cannot afford more lockdowns as credit becomes more expensive.  

We can expect inflation to rise markedly in 2022 (Office for Budget Responsibility, OBR).  It was predicted to reach at least 4.4%, possibly 5%, in 2022. However, this was based on data from September with fuel and energy costs rising fast. The OBR offers the caveat that, “Other developments since we closed the premeasures economy forecast on 24 September, including energy price rises, increased evidence of supply bottlenecks, and shortages in key occupations, are likely to weigh on the recovery over the next few months”. The government must therefore plan for rises in interest rate to damp down inflation. The impact on business and people is predictable but blame can be laid elsewhere.

Covid will continue to affect education.

Indeed, the die is already cast for many things that affect people and the economy.  The progress of Covid is becoming more certain by the day and we can expect a predictable impact on jobs and the economy.  New coronavirus strains were predicted from the outset and there will be more to come. The likely death rate in the UK was predicted to be at least 400,000 from the initial R number calculations. This has reached 148,893 as of 22nd December 2021 after 28 days of a positive test (172,657 for all Covid related deaths are recorded).  The data tell us that vaccines and mitigating measures, such as masks and lockdowns, have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.  However, there has been a terrible price paid in terms of the economic security of people and businesses.  The impact of Covid will continue well into 2022.

This will have a profound effect on students’ education. There will be some school closures and moves to teach online at all levels. For those students falling ill, or missing classes due to teaching staff being ill, there will be a downward pressure on their examination success. This means that assessments by teachers will continue for many into the summer examinations period and universities may have to do do more online assessments. It must be assumed there is a contingency plan better than the actions of the last two years. But don’t hold your breath.

Government hesitation about universities is an uncertainty too far.

Rising inflation and costs for universities will start to affect universities more in 2022. They will have prepared for this by looking at ways to cut costs. Unfortunately, this means more reliance on short-term contract staff and casual labour that will meet with increasing opposition from the unions. However, government dithering is creating more uncertainty, and this is frankly the opposite of what they are expected to do.

Whilst the government is clearer on spending to improve colleges and their ‘skills agenda’, there is still a large deficit in certainty about universities. Yet the data is obvious in showing that the population of eighteen-year-olds will rise further for the next eight years or so. This was easily predicted along with the rising losses from the student loans system (TEFS 8th November 2021 ‘Where is the government going with Higher Education?’).

What is likely for university access?

The policies most likely to emerge will see a failure in widening access to university. However, the blame will be placed on the shoulders of universities themselves. By setting their own minimum grades, that they must adhere to, they will deflect blame from the government. However, any other actions by the government in relation to education and universities are most likely to be conservative with a very small ‘c’.  The main objectives being to avoid electoral defeat whilst widening social divisions. Simply cutting fees would severely damage the solvency of many institutions as inflation bites. It is most likely that the threshold for repaying loans will remain static. This will still deter many students from university as inflation rises. However, government led rumours of reducing the earnings threshold from the current £27,295 to anything between £20,000 and £23,000 are also likely to damage election hopes. Such cuts would have the effect of hitting the low paid harder without impacting those on higher earnings. On top of increases in National Insurance, this will be hard to take as the marginal taxation rate soars to well over 50% for the lowest paid young graduates. Modelling by the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that it was “impossible for the Chancellor to save money without hitting graduates with average earnings more than those with the highest earnings”. 

This could still be a harsh lesson in 2022 for students aspiring to cash in on education at the highest level.

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