Wake up and smell the coffee: Shining NEON light on widening access and participation

The National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) held its latest annual summer symposium at Exeter University last week. It was a chance to shed more light on the challenges of widening access and participation in UK universities. Attended by several hundred delegates from universities, it was also a chance for those in government, and those in opposition, to wake up to the problems that are mounting fast. The stark choices and issues facing students will not remain hidden when exposed to the cold light of day. Some of us are ‘smelling the coffee’ and waking to a sense of change.

The mission of NEON is ‘Working to help widen access to Higher Education’.  This goal is driven in universities to a large extent by the demands of the Office for Students (OfS).  The gathering of professionals in this area of endeavour was to share ideas and best practice. The topics also ranged from the acquisition of data on students to the vagaries of validation of the success of various interventions.  The majority of delegates were women and some stated that this might reflect low pay and the insecure contracts that many endured.  There seemed to be a general sense that universities were pushed financially to deliver the required  ‘Access and participation plans’ as a part of their registration with the OfS.  This will obviously be a drain on resources, but hardly excuses doing so at a high cost to the professional staff involved. 

The context of regulation and the OfS.

Meanwhile the dissatisfaction felt by universities about the OfS is widespread and has already triggered an inquiry through the ‘House of Lords Industry and Regulators Committee’. At a hearing on the 16th of May, Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, admitted that only 75% of universities were in a “good financial condition” and “the OfS is looking at roughly 30 universities with financial difficulties” (Reported by TEFS 18th May 2023 ‘Office for Students under scrutiny: students must be silent: the inquiry trundles on’).

The view from the OfS as regulator.

This was amply provided by John Blake, the OfS Director of Fair access and Participation, through a remote link. He showed many slides and considerable detail that was valuable for setting the scene. There was no doubting his commitment to the task, but he also reinforced the extent of the pressure being exerted on universities.  One thing sent a chill across the audience was that Uni Connect is being reviewed by the OfS. Uni Connect emerged from in 2017 and provides some funding for 29 regional access partnerships across England. Its goal is to ensure “access to higher education is not limited by their background, location or characteristics”. To that end it has succeeded in attracting over one millions students working with 2,937 schools and colleges. It is a vital tool that can be accessed by those in the audience. Next year its modest £30 million funding will be half of the £60 million per year offered each year from 2017/8 to 2020/21. The aim is to build a substantial evidence data base and then “We’ll use this information to support our funding decisions and refine practice at a local level”. A previous review in 2021 triggered some cuts and noted that “Uni Connect partnerships have made some limited progress in securing match funding”. This sounds ominously like more cuts, universities must pay more and the focus moves to skills support for colleges.

When asked if it was reasonable to expect universities to achieve targets for widening access, when many of the problems driving progress lay elsewhere in society and in government policy, he replied simply “No”. Then backtracked fast with a longer explanation. The gist of it was he is “frustrated”, and schools and providers could do more. But he conceded that there may come a point when no more could be done by “providers” and other interventions would be needed.  Certainly, there is a strong case for more joined up thinking in government regarding social policy linked to educational progress.

The government’s view.

This was delivered in person by the minister, Robert Halfon, who was visiting his former university.  His official speech is available as, ‘Minister Halfon’s National Education Opportunities Network speech’.  It is only fair to point out that he departed considerably from the planned speech and overran his allotted time. This was partly due to being rattled by the previous speaker, Professor Peter John, VC of the University of West London. This speech was directed accurately at the audience and hit many targets. Citing evidence for “opportunity hoarding” and “breaking the cycle” in universities that should be for “the public good and not public plunder”, might be seen as diametrically opposed to the prevailing government policy.   A case of the support act outdoing the main act perhaps.

Instead of ignoring John, Halfon set out to counter some of his arguments.  Also, he must have then realised that his speech, centred mainly on technical skills and apprenticeships, was designed for another non-university audience. His assertion that, “skills make-up the greater part of the Ladder of Opportunity” and “my two favourite words in the English language are degree and apprenticeship” were well of the mark. It was not clear if he meant them to be taken together or separately. His assertion that,

“Our Apprenticeship Support and Knowledge programme communicates the benefits of apprenticeships, T Levels and other technical learning routes ….. It’s available nationwide but focusses on disadvantaged areas – places where its message could make the most difference”

implied that the programme plans are primarily aimed at the least advantaged. We can draw our own conclusions about the likelihood of this being inherently divisive and effectively a deliberate form of ‘social engineering’ driving those young people down a technical, non- university route.

On apprenticeships.

Halfon did not offer much in the way of detail. However, looking more closely elsewhere, it appears that the progress in uptake is stalling overall (see ‘Apprenticeships and traineeships, Academic year 2022/23’). But with degree apprenticeships becoming slightly more popular.  One critical issue appears to be the need for more employers to engage. A joint report from UCAS and the Sutton Trust,  ‘Where Next? What influences the choices of would-be apprentices?’ (pdf), was released on the 6th of July 2023, just before the NEON conference.  It asserted, with considerable evidence shown, that,

“The system is under significant pressure without enough apprenticeship opportunities to meet demand”. 

Halfon must surely have seen this and been alarmed by the implications and the scale of his task. When he was appointed last summer in the Sunak administration, TEFS compared it to the herculean task of capturing Cerberus (see TEFS 4th of November 2022  ‘Changing the guard at the Department for Education and the labours of Halfon’).  This appears to be correct.

Also recently released at the end of June was, ‘Apprenticeships Top Employers 2023’. This reveals that the Army leads the charge with the Royal Navy and Royal Airforce not far behind.  That young recruits to the forces are afforded technical skills education has been taken as a given for many years and is clearly a good thing. However, stripping out these existing commitments and the further expansion of apprenticeships begins to looks more difficult.

The problem with T-levels.

These lie at the core of government education policy and thinking. But the main issue identified by many observers is that T-levels will replace most, perhaps all, more flexible existing qualifications, known as Applied General Qualifications or AGQs, that overlap with them. This means fewer choices and much less flexibility for candidates. Importantly, T-levels are stand alone and are an ‘all or nothing’ alternative to A-levels from age sixteen. In contrast, BTecs are designed so they can be studied alongside some A-levels. This means many universities are more comfortable about accepting them and they offer a considerable degree of flexibility before career choices are made later. T-levels are simply not flexible in this way and to some extent are a leap into the unknown for colleges and the students.

When asked outside of the conference about the defunding of so many BTecs, Halfon was clearly uncomfortable.  He first stressed that, “BTecs are not being scrapped” and seemed to misunderstand the question. He further stressed the government line that BTecs overlapping with T-levels would not continue. This also includes many other AGQs in the latest long list update in March 2023. TEFS is on the case to look more closely at the process and the likely fallout. Clearly many, perhaps even all, BTecs will be unfunded from 2025 and this hardly supports the assertion that BTecs are not being ‘scrapped’. A sizeable number are going by simply not funding them.

Asked about the recent report, ‘The future of post-16 qualifications’, from the Education Committee that he chaired until last summer, Halfon said, “I do not agree with any of it”.  This was a curt and snapped version of the government’s formal response the had only just emerged on the 4th of July. It is stark and very worrying.  It also appears that TEFS view in May that the government would be “ploughing on with their reforms” regardless,  in ‘Post-16 qualifications taken with a pinch of salt’, was right.

It is also wholly ironic that Halfon stated in his speech that,

“Part of the battle is raising awareness of what’s on offer, so that young people aren’t given a false, binary choice of work or university”.

An odd statement given that a House of Commons Library report in November 2021 had already observed,

“The Government will create two pathways for post-16 progressionAn academic route centred on A Levels is intended to lead to further study. A technical route will mean T Levels become the main qualification option for young people wanting to enter skilled employment (requiring specialist training or expertise)”. 

Instead, it appears sixteen-year-olds, presumably this from less well-off families, will have to make a lasting binary choice.  It’s a shame Halfon did not stay until the last day to hear from the apprentice of the year in 2022 who achieved a successful apprenticeship degree via the BTec route.

The Labour view.

This was provided the next day in person by the shadow minister, Matt Western.  His offering was delivered professionally and right on the mark for the audience. It also reflected and reinforced other Labour announcements on education that week led by Keir Starmer’s speech on ‘Opportunity, education and childcare’ on the 6th of July and shadow Education Secretary, Bridget Phillipson the next day in more detail.

Importantly, she also reinforced her plan to halt and review the defunding of BTecs set out at the end of June in a letter to the Protect Student Choice campaign.  She stated in the hard-hitting letter that,

“Labour wants to see an expansion of opportunities for young people, and I am extremely concerned that the government’s mismanagement of this process could present new barriers to young people looking to progress to Level 3 qualifications, as their own equality impact assessment recognises”.

On university funding, Western was reticent and hesitated to answer an important question. But he had already indicated that the latest system of repayments of student loans to be introduced this year was not progressive enough. A progressive graduate tax perhaps? In declining to elaborate he said he was mindful of the Conservatives stealing Labour policies. Ouch!

When asked if it was fair that those students holding down jobs had less time to study than those with no outside jobs, Western agreed it was a ‘two tier’ system.   This may be the first time a politician has acknowledged this disparity in the ‘university experience’.

It appears that there is a strong smell of change in the air.

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

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