Conservative Conference 2022: The state of government thinking on Higher Education

With the dust settling in Birmingham after the Conservative conference this week, it seems the horizon is still not clearly visible and is out of focus. Most observers watched the conference horror show unfold with a morbid fascination. The role of higher education was mostly silent and ‘echoed’ the silence on the same subject that characterised the recent Labour Party conference (‘Labour Party Conference 2022, higher education, and the ‘sound of silence’). It seems neither side wants to grasp this nettle for now. Instead, we had a glimpse beneath the Conservative rock to see what lay underneath and the hidden attitudes revealed. It doesn’t look good.

Liz Truss rounded the conference off with a wholly unapologetic speech to a roomful of her supporters. They were party members, the majority of whom had voted for her to do exactly what she promised. The focus was on “growth, growth, growth” but seemed strangely detached from the reality of a crisis. Cutting tax across the board at the expense of costly loans, benefit cuts, and spending cuts drew applause from the majority in the room. Apparently it was something to do with baking pies, perhaps porkie pies. But then this was expected from those who wilfully voted for it. The rest of the population around the UK were only represented by two Greenpeace protesters holding a banner asking,” Who voted for this?”.  They were roughly manhandled from the room as passes and lanyards were ripped from their necks. It was a fair question. Johnson’s administration was elected with a very different mandate and its hard to see how a faux ‘mandate’ from a small number of ardent conservatives, hellbent on social division, could survive without asking permission of the electorate.

Fairness and higher education.

Harsh questions are now being asked about fairness and the dying concept of ‘levelling up’. Education is central to this but perhaps it was never a runner and was merely a façade hiding the real intent. However, that is now an academic point. ‘Levelling up’ is dead and buried for now.

Newly appointed Education secretary, Kit Malthouse, offered his views on education in a short speech. The text of this is not readily available but was reported in specialist educational journals. Schools Week with, Malthouse: I’ll reinvigorate Gove’s schools ‘revolution’  and Headteacher with  ‘Dismayed and appalled: Kit Malthouse attacked for ‘constant pressure’ threat ‘.  Speaking to party members, he performed for the gallery by knocking schools and promising more pressure for them. This prompted a strongly worded open letter from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) who accused him of taking cheap shots at a profession “already on its knees”. This was backed by, “we completely reject your premise that any school or college is “hanging on to mediocrity” and, “We also strongly refute your suggestion that the answer to improving outcomes in these schools lies in “constant pressure” from government”. Ouch!  It appears that any shortfall in student outcomes will lie in the schools and not elsewhere, especially at the door of the government.

In a spirit of furthering the cause of more confrontation, the schools minister, Jonathan Gullis, told a fringe meeting he was “not going to budge” on teachers’ pay. This probably means the same for professionals at all levels of education but refers to England in this case.

More university bashing to come.

The Higher Education Minister (demoted to Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills, Further and Higher Education), Andrea Jenkyns, was no exception and brought the debate on education to a new low at a fringe event on Monday organised by the  anti-European Union Bruges Group thinktank. She argued that “The current system would rather our young people get a degree in Harry Potter studies, than in construction,” with our students fed “a diet of critical race theory, anti-British history and Social Marxism.”  She was trotting out the same old twaddle used to deter less advantaged students from a university education.  She was also displaying a woeful lack of understanding of universities with no evidence for anyone ever being offered a degree in ‘Harry Potter Studies’. Universities are far from the blinkered vision she possesses and are instilling rigour and ideas in our students across a wide range of disciplines. These include higher level technical and scientific subjects.

FE News commented that, the government is committed to putting the broomstick to good use and carrying out a spring clean of low-quality courses”.  Pandering to the pro-Brexit supporters she ploughed on with a somewhat incoherent speech that exposed the true attitudes of many in the Conservative Party.  We must remember that she and her acolytes are making key decisions about the direction of education.

FE News provided a shaky recording in a podcast. It reveals the ‘group think’ that defines the core of the conservative party.

Courtesy of Skills World Live FE News – The #FutureofEducation News Channel

Focus on skills

This time last year, the right wing think tank Policy Exchange provided a more considered and balanced view of post-18 education. WE have descended a long way since then. Included were the more authoritative views of Philip Augar and former Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi. The fact that neither can do much about it now will have escaped the current administration. However, even then university education was side-lined to a great degree with the question, ‘The Great Rebalancing: How do we Shift Post-18 Education Back Towards a More Vocational Focus?

The full debate is here:

The aim was to look more seriously at the government’s goal in, “Improving the skills and prospects of those who do not go to university is a key plank of the Government’s levelling up strategy”. A key element of this strategy is improved vocational training from T levels through to Further Education College funding. The idea being to introduce a “lifetime skills guarantee and dealing with the ‘missing middle’ of technical skills.”   The clear purpose is to deflect students at age sixteen onto the T level track.  In August, TEFS concluded that. ‘With exam results looming, the government is promoting T-levels as ‘Social Engineering’. This will affect students from less advantaged backgrounds and further divide society.  Expecting sixteen-year-olds to make a critical life-changing decision about their future is bound to lead to disappointment for many.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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