Some reflections on 2022 and looking to 2023

A free TEFS calendar for 2023 can be downloaded from HERE.

The biggest single event for the UK in 2022 was the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the end of the Elizabethan era and the beginning of a new Carolean era.  May she rest in peace. Despite having little political impact on events of the day, it had a profound effect on people across the UK. For some it signified the beginning of the end for the monarchy and others a fresh start. But for most, it awoke a deep reflection of the events of the last 70 years. This was significant in the context of the current turmoil and we must ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The year began with COVID restrictions still in place and considerable uncertainty about how it might progress. The hope was that we would emerge from lockdowns and make a return to ‘normality’.  This turned out to be a naïve hope as events unfolded.  Whilst education means opportunity for most people, it seems it is of lower priority for a government engineering its own collapse as its MPs sought survival above all else.  Rather than tackle some of the greatest problems the UK has seen since 1939, the government was absent and indulged in infighting with no cross-party consensus evident or even sought.  This led to a disaster for education policy that lacked coherent planning.  The result is an angry young generation who will expect more.  Expect 2023 to herald protests and strikes as anger turns to action.

Most yearly reviews are prone to being selective and the usual suspects slammed the BBC on its ‘biased’ review of the year (BBC Breakfast viewers blast ‘biased’ political review of the year’). Yet the BBC rightly prides itself on its impartiality and simply reported on the events caused by the conservative government. This was hardly ‘biased’.  TEFS on the other hand, admits to being wholeheartedly biased toward the idea of student equality, welfare and access to higher education.  No apologies for that, and government actions that stand in the way of this are fair game.

A government in chaos.

TEFS predicted in January that the Johnson government was heading for the buffers. Even by then confidence in him as a leader was dissipating fast. The only thing saving him was the selfish desire of the conservative MPs to hold onto their jobs. The question remains about how a prime minister with a landslide majority could have engineered the complete collapse of the government through his self-indulgent behaviour and lack of regard for the people. Yet he managed it. The vacuum with no government for the summer, followed by the Truss/ Kwarteng budget mess, was not so predictable at the start of the year.   

Bad behaviour from MPs has become accepted as normal along with widespread cynicism. In December, international news outlet Politico reported on the increasingly bad behaviour of UK MPs when on foreign trips ‘UK MPs accused of using foreign trip for sex tourism’.  They must clean up their act or face the forces of an angry antidemocratic backlash.  The dangers are all too real.

In 2023, we can expect the Sunak administration to stumble on for now driven by the same forces that protected Johnson for too long. Many predict, or even just hope, that an election will be called in 2023. This is unlikely without a major disturbance that causes the conservative party to divide. But then…….

Conflict in Ukraine.

When 2022 started, it appeared everyone assumed it was a surprise. This could not have been further from the truth.   The UK government must have been well aware of it happening and the likely profound impact on the UK economy. There was hope that the Russian government would not embark upon such a risky adventure, but this turned out to be a false hope.

By the end of January, the UK had sent military aid and a small contingent of special forces to Ukraine and warned of imminent conflict. By the 21st of February, after many incidents, the Russian invasion proper began.  There was no turning back and a well-prepared Ukraine military chose to fight back.  The scene was set for a protracted conflict with severe sanctions inflicted by western states on Russia.

The conflict had been brewing since 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea.  War in eastern Ukraine was ongoing and worsening.  The Russian troop build-up began in early 2021 and an invasion was certainly not a big surprise to the UK government.  One source of Russian fear lay with Ukraine developing independent nuclear power and the potential for its own nuclear weapons. The US Westinghouse Electric Company and Ukraine’s Energoatom signed a contract to replace all nuclear power stations and supply nuclear fuel in November 2022. This was on top of France being chosen to replace Russia for reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, that could yield weapons-grade plutonium entirely independent of Russia. Add the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO and the EU and we had the perfect scene for paranoia and a reason to seize territory. But there was no excuse for the ruthless brutality that followed a failure of diplomacy.

Over 2023 we are likely to see further tragedy in Ukraine as they trade punch and counterpunch with the Russian forces. Russia has only succeeded in causing extreme anger, and a cause for seeking vengeance, amongst the Ukrainian population. Meanwhile, thousands of young people will be sacrificed on both sides as their families flee or hide. Although negotiation and diplomacy failed, it is hoped that in 2023 communications will open up and a ceasefire emerges. It must do.

Inflation dominates.

Inflation was already rising due to BREXIT before the Ukraine conflict and high energy costs emerged to accelerate the process. This was the overriding influence on students and higher education provision during the year. Back in January, TEFS predictions for 2022  were already reporting the likelihood of inflation rising sharply during the year. The likely impact of this on students and universities was always obvious. The fact that the consequences of sanctions against Russia and an energy crisis appeared later only served to exacerbate a trend that was already happening.  As prices and rents rose over the summer it might have been wise for a government to look again at pay, pensions, and student maintenance loans that were calculated using earlier inflation rate measurements that were rapidly becoming redundant. Two things prevented this from happening. Firstly, for most of the summer, an already dysfunctional Johnson administration morphed into no government on the 7th of July with Johnson’s resignation. Education Secretary Michelle Donelan earned the dubious privilege of being in post for only 36 hours.  Secondly, the election campaign for a new leader revealed the underlying direction of travel favoured throughout the Conservative party. The dogma of non-intervention, and letting ‘market forces’ determine the economy, was revealed in the Truss campaign.  Universities and students would be squeezed regardless of inflation pressures.

For 2023, we can expect interest rates to rise further but the expectation is that the resultant inflation rate will stabilise along with energy costs that will level off at a higher level. It remains to be seen if the government will allow an increase in the student maintenance loan to at least begin to catch up with inflation. I suspect it might not.

Consultation, Consultation, Consultation, and a regulation storm brewing.

The year started with a warning that the rule of higher education by multiple consultations was about to start. We were not disappointed. ‘Consultation, Consultation, Consultation: The OfS rides again’ and ‘OfS consultations: Higher Education regulation by decimation’ was covered by TEFS and warned of creeping control by the regulator as it sought greater control. Three consultations referred to students and the demands to be imposed upon universities, ‘Student outcomes’, ‘The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’ and ‘Student outcome and experiences data indicators’). They were responded to in July and the ‘Student outcomes regulations’ were in place by September. They placed a considerable burden of responsibility upon the institutions in England while the government was more exercised about controlling freedom of speech and allowing its marketisation agenda to be promoted by suppressing all dissent.

By November, the OfS had added another ‘consultation’ on a ‘new approach to regulating equality of opportunity in English higher education’ that was long and rambling. TEFS response to this raised the inherent tension between widening access and participation and raising attainment. The easy way out to achieve this with a diminishing unit cost would be to lower the entrance requirements. The role of universities in raising attainment in schools looked like a piecemeal strategy likely to confuse. On access and participation, universities are to set their own targets and essentially ‘dig their own graves’.

In 2023, we can expect the OfS to tighten its stranglehold on universities and their operations. Some may even fall by the wayside in 2023. Add broad anti-trade union legislation to the mix and dissent will be smothered before it gets a chance to draw breath. The coming year will also see a move towards widening access to universities by changing the entrance requirements. But this will inevitably entail setting criteria other than raw A-level scores. This move will mirror decisions by many graduate employers to carry out their own assessments of ability and potential as they drop the requirement for at least a 2.1 degree. Confidence in the reliability of examination results and grades is waning fast. The realisation that able students, burdened with a lack of resources and time due to jobs and commuting, might be a better bet is sinking in.

Meanwhile the ‘Freedom of Speech Bill’ will ping pong its way onto the statute books with scant regard to the simple fact that many affected by poverty and lack of resources are not blessed with the means to make their voices heard.

Confidence in examinations and standards.

The year brought a watershed moment in how examinations are viewed. When the results of examinations that determine university admissions emerged in August, there was an explosion of indignation as the grades dropped below those of the previous year.  The realisation that student numbers can be regulated by adjusting grades was hitting home. TEFS reported this as ‘Exam results 2022 and the fallout arising’.

In particular, the sudden drop in grades from independent schools appeared to answer the question raised by TEFS a year before, ‘Are independent schools cheating or ‘gaming the system’?’. It seems something was very wrong. Sure enough, the regulator Ofqual started investigating and the astounding A/A* results from one school are under investigation into 2023. Expect more to follow.

With Ofqual desperately trying to cover its tracks, the reliability of examination grades came under pressure with the publication of  ‘Missing the Mark’  by Dennis Sherwood. TEFS covered this with, ‘Exam results: Missing the mark and shifting the target’. The logic underpinning Sherwood’s conclusions was inexorable and is so deeply fundamental that it will not go away in 2023 unless there is a major overhaul in assessments and examinations.

Looking to 2023, the exam results are already programmed to yield even lower grades as ‘normality’ breaks out. But the damage is already done, and confidence is low. Expect a move in the direction of an overhaul in 16- to 19-year-old education and assessments to introduce a broader curriculum. This is already the case in Scotland and Ireland. However, in England expect a further drive toward ‘promoting T-levels as ‘Social Engineering’ and diverting students away from university from age sixteen. This will impact the less well-off to the greatest extent.

Levelling up is stuck.

March brought the release of the government’s white paper on its strategy that promised much in the way of ‘levelling up’.  TEFS reported the implications for HE reform and the associated media ‘clap trap’, that the then Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi referred to, in ‘Levelling up and HE reform: More ‘Claptrap’ Part One’. The omens for the future do not look good.

The outlook for 2023 is pessimistic and we can expect the idea of levelling up to dissipate as easily as it emerged. It is unlikely another replacement plan will emerge over the next year.

Student hardship.

This did not appear on the horizon of the government as something likely to get worse in the early part of 2022 but should have been expected.  As inflation took off, the impact on families and their student offspring became greater.

The government’s approach was generally to protect business as its main priority. But in doing so it plunged families into a greater crisis than was necessary.

With university finances coming under pressure, and income from UK students frozen, the idea of rising numbers at even lower units cost loomed. Add a small increase in maintenance loans well below inflation, and it became inevitable that there would be hardship. TEFS responded to the conservative leadership debacle on the 15th of July, when there was no government operating, with a stark prediction of ‘Student hardship: it’s going to be a cold winter’.  This might have seemed a distant problem in the middle of a record heatwave. Yet it happened nevertheless and universities had to plan to deploy more resources to tackle hardship.

The government in England failed to meet the demands and a student finance housing crisis also emerged.  As the demography exerted its effect, there was no effective planning evident from governments across the UK for the rise in the number of 18-year-olds.   Instead, those students with family support could afford the higher rents driven by market demand while others defaulted to poor accommodation and often longer commutes. The means to pay for all of this was heavily reduced with families or study time lost to part-time jobs taking up the shortfall.

The maximum funding for the student maintenance loan was only increased by 2.3% in England and a staggering 0% was on offer in Northern Ireland, where needs were probably greater. Elsewhere, students were a bit better off with an increase of 4.5% in Scotland and 3.5% in Wales.

The result of this was clearly evident in November in the report on the National Union of Students survey ‘Cost of Living Crisis: HE Students’. It made for grim reading with the headline discovery that ‘42% of UK university students living off £100 or less a month’. This was a dangerous path to be following and remains even more so in 2023.

The end of 2022 was a time when political ideology collided with stark reality. For the first time in many years, the penny was beginning to drop about the effect on university provision and their students. Wider student poverty, homelessness and hardship were beginning to be painfully evident and could not be ignored. Yet the Sunak administration failed to see this clearly as it set out a new budget in November. This must be addressed fast in 2023 and a new deal struck before it’s too late. Expect protests and unrest to follow if ignored.

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

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