Levelling up and HE reform:  More ‘Claptrap’ Part One

This is the first part of an overview of the ‘Levelling up’ agenda and the role of Higher Education (HE) reform announced last week. HE reform must be viewed in the context of wider moves by the government and their consequences to make more sense of what is planned.

The recent ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’ policy white paper emerged with little detail about the role of Higher Education that appeared to be a vital missing piece of a complex jigsaw. When a response to Augar emerged last week, the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zadawi, referred to media coverage headlines as ‘claptrap’.  Yet they were only reporting what was in a Department for Education (DfE) press release days earlier. See TEFS 24th February 2022 ‘Response to Augar: Much more to consider beyond the leaks’ and video.

As the details are further dissected, we will see what ‘claptrap’ there is and what is correct.  Some observers have resorted to concluding that the government is somehow ‘incompetent’. This is a big mistake, and it is better to assume they know exactly what they are doing.

Considerable detail was added to the preformed concept of ‘Levelling up’ in a major announcement almost three weeks ago by the eponymous minister, Michael Gove. Unfortunately, it appeared to be a rush job with just a hint that it was released fast to obscure the ongoing ‘Partygate’ storm. Much of its content was already in the pipeline and many of the ‘new’ investments are already in place or simply replace EU regional and structural funding.

Gove came to the dispatch box on Wednesday the 2nd of February 2022 to outline the latest measures and appeared competent and in control of his brief. This was in stark contrast to the repetitive blustering of Johnson earlier. Full text in Hansard and video on parliament TV

The result is a complex, sometimes abstract, jigsaw of ideas and measures in the policy paper ‘Levelling Up the United Kingdom’.

The emphasis was on supporting business and the rest, including Higher Education and universities, appeared to fall in behind this primary aim. However, the problem with ‘business’ taking the lead on the research and education agenda is that they become conflicted, fragmented and driven by short-term goals.  Much of the levelling up strategy is geared to deliver within ten years by 2030. This is essentially still a relatively short-term goal in the light of technology horizons and more vision is needed.

Jigsaw pieces missing.

It was notable that Gove failed to mention universities and Higher Education in his speech.  Instead, promises of dispersing more research funding around the UK were made and the document revealed that there would be a role for several research centres based in universities.  Other universities will be encouraged to concentrate on ‘skills’ and work with the twenty one new Institutes of Technology in providing courses below degree level. These are seen as “collaborations between colleges, universities and employers, specialising in delivering higher technical education in areas across England”. But they are also to be “employer-led, they can react quickly to the current and evolving technical skills needs of an area”.

The offerings above all smell of the idea of producing ‘intelligent plumbers’ as described by TEFS in ‘Higher Education and the ‘intelligent plumbers’ theory’ (31st July 2020). There is a genuine danger that all education and training will be driven by the needs of industry alone. 

Business and private enterprise to lead the way.

There is no doubting that the main purpose of the strategy is to support business as the top priority.  This was clearly laid out by Gove from the outset as seen in the clip here:

It appeared that, after “Firstly”, there was little evidence of ‘secondly’.

Not surprisingly, the CBI responded positively with “Crucially, it accepts the CBI view that business-driven economic clusters – enabling every region and nation to build its own unique competitiveness proposition – can be a catalyst which brings levelling up ambitions to life.” 

Others are not so sure of the consequences. 

All the measures and support offered are geared one way or another to the needs of business and investment.  This especially includes improving skills in the labour force and extends to universities. Its success is predicated on business scaling up investment in the UK and especially in the targeted areas. However, it remains to be seen if ‘business’ will take the bait.  

The reported response from various business sectors is very much a mixed bag with cautious welcomes mixed with concerns about the detail and lack of focus. The multitude of concerns felt by most small businesses will need to be addressed with more detail if they are to feel more confident.

Levelling down.

There is no doubt that redirecting the limited funds the government has available into target areas will see a loss of investment in hitherto well-off areas. This is inevitable and clearly feared to affect areas of London in particular. Whilst welcoming the investments planned, ‘The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry’ makes a brutal point with,  

“However, we are disappointed that the core of the white paper’s proposals amount to levelling down London. By forcing investment in areas like R&D, education spending, and cultural grants away from London, as this white paper recommends, the government is choosing to cut London out of productive investment for the sake of optics and for political gain”.

In relation to Higher Education outside of the ‘Levelling up’ white paper, this is more apparent in decisions already made.   Diana Beech, The CEO of London Higher set out the problem of the removal of ‘London weighting’ funding bluntly in ‘London’s funding affects us all’ last May This is a matter of conviction, rather than logic”. She is right. Now, in response to the white paper she welcomes the recognition of the status of London’s Universities but observes, “Yet the capital’s glaring inequalities show that opportunities for Londoners need levelling up too, and the lack of regional overview of London in the White Paper is concerning”.  It may well emerge as a levelling down strategy for those less fortunate”.

Reception and unintended consequences.

While many responses were mixed, some measures were welcomed. Indeed, much of the emphasis seemed to resemble existing policies of the Labour Party. Other measures seemed to be too little and too late.  Labour Shadow Minister, Lisa Nandy simply asked Gove, “Is this it?”. In response, Gove almost totally disarmed criticism by agreeing with most of the points made across the house.

Others were less forgiving. The Telegraph was very blunt with a condemnation of what they saw as more state intervention in ‘Statism is not the route to levelling up’.  As an aside, initially I read the headline as ‘satanism’ and wondered what they were thinking. But maybe that was the idea?

The response from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, (IfS) was discussed online on Friday the 4th of February 2022 in ‘Challenges for levelling up’ and is the most robust analysis. Immediately, one wonders if, or to what extent, they were consulted first. Its accompanying report of 2nd of February 2022 ‘Spatial disparities across labour markets’ makes for sober reading. The conclusion that, “Places that offer higher earnings also have higher rents, which may entirely offset gains in earnings” holds true. This will be exacerbated by the resolve to improve rental housing and clamp down on ‘rogue’ landlords. Rents will rise as a result, and some may decide to leave the sector.  The impact on the poorest students is obvious as rental costs soar. If there was a case to increase social housing that is totally absent in the plan, this must be it.

The other conclusion that, “spatial disparities in well-being are smaller than disparities in labour market outcomes. People in higher-paid places are no happier than those in lower-paid places”, should not come as a surprise. The relative cost of housing to income is critical to a better life in any environment. 

The impact on increasing living costs for the less well-off students is a real danger but does not appear to be considered across the policies. Unless they are no longer part of the equation.

The Equality Trust in ‘Business, Academia and Third Sector Organisations respond to the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper’ noted,

“The UK stands at a crossroads – do we want to tackle the root causes of inequalities or merely mitigate their consequences? The White Paper marks a decent start, but only levelling up people as well as places will deliver the transformation the country needs.”

The Social Mobility Commission was more cautious in its response but warns, “the test will be in the detail and implementation”. Indeed, we could easily add the unintended consequences.

Impact on universities: Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Surprisingly, the  Universities UK (UUK) response was brief to the point of being pointless and signalled an even higher level of caution.  University Business was blunter in pointing out that there was not a lot to comment on with “Firstly, what’s changed? The answer is not a lot – yet”.

It is already accepted that “The role of universities and research institutions in driving innovative clusters of economic activity is well-established”.  This means more support for “anchor institutions supporting regional collaboration” to some, and that all is fine for now. However, we still await the ‘Review of the UK Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) Organisational Landscape’, led by Nobel Prize winner, Paul Nurse, that is not due until later this year. This is in the context of the government setting a new objective to “Deliver economic, social, and cultural benefits from research and innovation to all of our citizens, including by developing research and innovation strengths across the UK in support of levelling up”.

Many might expect this to not only move the goal posts but also transform the rules of the game. Expect a backlash.

The Royal Society Response summed it up with, “We also cannot afford to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ by investing in some localities at the expense of world leading research in already hugely successful research clusters.”

Research and discoveries are not so easily predicted or directed.

The result of expecting to ‘direct research and discoveries’ to order is that the offer for universities is mostly confined to the expansion of targeted research centres across the regions. The result will be putting all the eggs in a very few baskets with fierce competition amongst the ‘elite’ research active universities. But the idea is predicated on the false notion of ‘directing’ research. It doesn’t happen that way and many discoveries come about at random.  The University of Manchester is mentioned amongst others as a specialist centre. This time in materials based upon the 2010 Nobel Prize winning discoveries there by Russian scientists Konstantin Novoselov and Kostya Novoselov.  The history of Nobel Prizes in Manchester tells a story of how discovery arises from giving scientists the freedom and time to explore nature.

By way of irony, the same day as the levelling up white paper was released there was publication of a ‘breakthrough’ in 2D materials with the paper in Nature, ’Irreversible synthesis of an ultrastrong two-dimensional polymeric material’. This work was the result of efforts by scientists at MIT in Boston. A look at the names of the authors tells another story. Such materials represent a ‘Holy Grail’ in promising lighter and stronger materials to engineer structures. Although the original 2D material, graphene, was discovered in Manchester, the breakthroughs in inventing more strong, and useable, single molecular layered materials could emerge anywhere (The 2D revolution | The University of Manchester Magazine).  Indeed they are more likely to result from a combination of  serendipity, ‘Chance and Necessity’.

The lesson is that collaboration and exchange of ideas at an international level drives many discoveries. Diversity and freedom to inquire into nature hold the key. In contrast, the high likelihood that Brexit will cause the UK to be excluded from joint EU research and the Horizon Europe Programme, already in full swing since last year and running to 2027, will be very damaging (the Guardian 2th February 2022 ‘UK scientists fear brain drain as Brexit rows put research at risk | Science funding crisis’).

Business and industry driving research.

Yet despite this, a central theme of the government’s plan is that industry will somehow drive the direction of research. However, this could turn out to be a false hope as short-term problems dominate longer term strategy. To promote more expenditure on ‘research’ and ‘development’ to satisfy government targets, there is a plan to simply change the tax regime in favour of such spending. Expect to see more ‘development’ and universities will probably look to build more industrial collaboration as a result. My experience is that this can be very productive but also lead efforts up many expensive blind alleys. My laboratory worked with one industrial partner who spent far too much money on research that they tried to control with short-term monthly targets. I eventually withdrew to avoid more wasted effort on all sides.  Consortia of key industries working together tend to produce better strategic results.

Creating a favourable tax environment.

The government started an R & D tax relief consultation last March that closed in June 2021. The ‘Levelling up’ white paper noted that, “The UK Government has also introduced a range of other tax interventions that support and incentivise private sector investment”.  However, this is still ongoing, and much will only take effect in 2023. Its ‘R & D Tax Reliefs Report’ came out in November and the government will only publish draft legislation this summer with the ‘Finance Bill 2022-23’ to take effect from April 2023.  The problem will be to encouraged expenditure on ‘genuine. research. This could be difficult.

The Research and Development Tax Credits Statistics: September 2021’ from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals some worrisome features of how business sees research.  Firstly, the vast bulk of the research expenditure is dominated by ‘Small to Medium Sized Enterprises’ (SMEs).  This is not a bad thing, but it must be certain that the claims for tax credits on research and all to do with research and relate to the UK. Secondly, much more appears to ‘claimed’ as research through existing tax credits than declared in the annual Business Enterprise Research and Development (BERD) survey.  This is a substantial sum and in 2019-20 this was £47.5 billion in claims for tax credits compared to £25.9 billion in the BERD survey. This is down to the BERD measuring expenditure on R&D carried out in the UK, whereas HMRC measures the claim for R&D tax credits, including overseas expenditure. It’s not hard to imagine companies working across jurisdictions being tempted to collaborate in how they claim for tax relief on research in their respective jurisdictions. The  being quite loose in what they describe as ‘research’. Perhaps asking for two better defined categories, one being ‘research’ and the other ‘development’.

Role of Education.

The Royal Society Response was surprisingly blunt on education with,

“The Levelling Up White Paper rightly identifies education as a priority but investing more money in a system that is not fit for purpose, will not fix our problems. Our current education system is too narrow and is not giving enough young people, especially those from more disadvantaged communities, the skills they need for today’s workplace.”

In response to the challenge, the government’s solution is to push the idea of elite schools with,

The UK Government will ensure that talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds have access to a post-16 provider with a track record of progress on to leading universities”.

‘Elite’ schools for the few.

Whilst stating generally that, “The HE sector has a key role to play in levelling up areas by improving access to opportunity, in addition to supporting regional economies” the role of education is largely confined to the early years and pre-16 schooling. Indeed, this is a good start if change is to happen. However, the aim is to target some areas above others. There will be “55 English target areas with persistently poor outcomes”.  Included is the “promise of elite sixth-form colleges for talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds”.  This harks back to the idea of selective grammar schools, but with another name. More detail is available from the DfE in ‘Package to transform education and opportunities for most disadvantaged’ and the ‘Education Investment Areas: selection methodology’.

There are, however, many problems with the idea of ‘elite’ schools or “new 16-19 free schools”.  The government has already encouraged all schools in England to become part of a “strong family of schools by joining a multi-academy trust (MAT)”. This takes away control from local government and puts it into the hands of private providers centrally directed. Many schools are pressured into this status. The result can be somewhat perverse, and funds seem to dissipate to associates. This inevitably leads to investigations and the ‘Academies investigation reports – GOV.UK’ make for interesting reading. Many are heavily redacted, and one is typical with this comment on financial dealings, “We cannot identify any discernible benefit for the academy in this arrangement; it has resulted in the loss of over £162,000 that should have been used for the benefit of the academy pupils”.

This is all following through with the vision of Johnson as noted in his speech to the Conservative Conference back in October last (See TEFS 9th October 2021 ‘Skills, Skills, Skills: levelling up and hardship denial at the Conservative conference’

Then he sang the praises for “’Brampton Manor Academy’’ in London, that “now sends more kids to Oxbridge than Eton”.  Of course, he failed to mention that it is a highly selective school with a wide catchment and looks more like a selective grammar school in all but name. 

Other initiatives for universities to consider.

There is a belief that universities will work closely with schools and colleges to raise educational standards and support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in their communities. The idea is that they must refocus their ‘Access and Participation Plans’. This will become a key demand from the Office for Students (OfS) as regulator. It’s a big ask for universities at a time when they are under increasing pressure. Also, schools may not appreciate the interaction in their already busy schedules. Combined with the response to Augar, this will stretch resources very thinly.

Then there is the plan to create a ‘UK National Academy’ that might be modelled on the Open University. It is intended to be a “new digital education service will support pupils from all backgrounds and areas of the UK to succeed at the very highest levels”.

The result may be further incursion of private providers using the existing model of ‘Oak National Academy’  that emerged in 2020 because of the pandemic.  The problem is that it will only offer great support for students with good access to the internet. It might easily elude others with fewer resources.

The thesis was rushed.

The 305 pages of the main ‘levelling up’ white paper took some considerable time to digest, and the task resembled one similar to the process of examining a PhD thesis. The first impression is that it was rushed out to meet a deadline. It could certainly have been shortened considerably and still convey the same message in a clearer format. Better separation of what has already been announced from the new initiatives would help also. Cutting and pasting from other sources does not inspire confidence in the work.

The PhD candidate might be asked to what extent the ‘supervisor’ influenced the content. This would be in the light of a somewhat incongruous section that might be entitled ‘History of the World Part One’ referring to the fall of Jericho nearly 10,000 years ago. Then to the Roman/Byzantine Empire, Renaissance Europe and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922) before considering our current situation. It could also be introductory chapter of Johnson’s new work ‘The Fall of the British Empire’ with a new section on the fall of Kyiv included as an example of not very “creative destruction”.

All PhD research projects, in laboratory science at least, are limited by the resources available. So, a good question to ask a candidate is ‘what would you do if you had unlimited resources?’. The aim being to get inside the thinking behind the experimentation and the understanding of the candidate.  The answer can be illuminating. Whereas the Conservative approach might be to do more for business with people as an afterthought, the Labour approach would be to help people first and thereby help business.

Rumours that Gove was not happy about the levelling up plan emerged fast and are probably true. As a former Labour party member, independent school scholarship holder, and Oxford English graduate, Gove would not have been happy to endorse it without correction.  Instead, it is likely that Johnson and No10 wanted it out there to deflect attention away from other matters and get it out before the long-delayed response to Augar.

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