Conservative Party Conference 2023:  the dying of the light

Now that the dust has settled on the Conservative Party Conference, we are all trying to take in the full implications of what was announced.  On universities and equal opportunity, I was prepared for disappointment.  Sure enough, the conference did not disappoint me in this respect.  It was barely mentioned. Instead, there was a lot of incoherent rhetoric at times, exemplified by Penny Mordant who punched the air and shouted, ‘stand up and fight’ to cheers. It seems to have escaped them that they were only fighting amongst themselves. Not so much a brighter future but more

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

Where was education and the challenges for the future?

This was largely missing. Indeed, support for universities was very thin on the ground.  So much so that Vivienne Stern, the CEO of Universities UK tweeted on Tuesday,

“My mission this morning: try to get Gillian Keegan or Robert Halfon to say something NICE about universities”.

Too much expectation breeds disappointment. The overarching slogan of the conference ‘Long-term decisions for a brighter future’ seems hollow in the fading light of thirteen years of failing on higher and further education.

Scorched earth.

Cancelling HS2 in a speech at the the former Manchester Central rail station takes a special genius, but that is what happened when Rishi Sunak took to the podium. The irony seemed to pass by everyone there.  The issue dominated the media interest for most of the conference as denials of a decision emerged, but after it turned out a video had been made in advance. Later reports that a reversal of the decision by a new government would be cut off at the pass by selling properties and land acquired for the project through compulsory purchase. This amounts to a ‘scorched earth’ policy that has a bad smell to it. Most voters will be asking where the money went and who will benefit from the resale. We must follow the money to be sure there is nothing fishy going on.

The same might be said of education policies being rushed through to tie the hands of a future administration.

The usual suspects.

There were several universities represented at fringe events to raise the profile of their sector. But it seems that most of this fell on deaf ears.  Notable was a fringe meeting organised by the more influential Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on Monday (a recording is here).   This was attended by former Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, who is known for his strong support for universities. Also present were leaders from three universities, Sasha Roseneil, University of Sussex, Adam Tickell, University of Birmingham and James Purnell, University of the Arts London.  Two had also published with Chris Husbands of Sheffield Hallam University their  ‘Election 2024: Three Vice-Chancellors’ Manifestos’.  It is a thoughtful and forward-thinking plan to expand and reform universities and overhaul their funding.

“Government should overhaul the regulation and management of the sector. The Office for Students should be merged with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education to provide coherent oversight in the student interest. Government should establish a strategic Tertiary Funding Council with oversight of the sector and the sustainability of institutions, with a more systemic view of the potential of universities to contribute to the full range of economic and social objectives.”

However, all of this is likely to also fall on deaf ears with the current regime. Their thoughts might be better directed at the Labour party.

What was said about universities?

It was probably of little surprise that Education Secretary Gillian Keegan announced in her speech on Monday,

“We will consult to introduce minimum service levels in universities”.

How this will be determined will fuel an angry debate and be seen as simply a union busting policy.  It could back fire with ‘minimum service’ becoming the normal offering. No doubt the Office for Students (OfS) will be directed to police the policy and further add to the mistrust in their independence (see TEFS  5th October 2023 ‘End of term report: the Office for Students must do better’).

After blaming every ill on previous Labour administrations, going as far back as the 1970s, Derek Hatton and a glass of champagne, Keegan observed,

“It makes no sense to set an arbitrary target of 50% of kids going to university, when we need 100% of kids getting great opportunities. And University is not the only option. My apprenticeship changed my life and thanks to this Government, have changed five and a half million lives since 2010. Some people view them as second rate. But my mission is to change that – to make apprenticeships the way you become a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, even a space engineer”.

This might be a tall order as the latest data from earlier this year showed the total number of apprenticeships has fallen from 499,900 in 2014/15 to 349,200 in 2021/22. Most observers will see this as a failure.

She also seems to have forgotten what a former Education Secretary said in a  speech for the Social Market Foundation back in July 2020 accepting the blame (See TEFS 10th July 2020 ‘Pulling up the ladder: Go further but not higher’). 

“There has been a systemic decline in higher technical qualifications. Well over 100,000 people were doing Higher National Certificates and Diplomas in the year 2000; that has reduced to fewer than 35,000 now.” 

Student numbers and their aspirations.

The assertion that too many students were in university was reinforced by Rishi Sunak in his speech where he decried the previous Labour target of 50% students in university as a false dream’” with too many being “ripped off”. After thirteen years of a Conservative government promoting university degrees, and essentially uncapped numbers, we might reasonably ask whose fault is this? But not to worry the electorate might not notice the gaff.

The whole argument is based upon an incorrect interpretation of a speech by Tony Blair at the Labour Party Conference in 1999 and its context. Blair made his comments in the context of wider educational opportunities for all young people. It was a bold move (reported in the Guardian ‘Tony Blair’s full speech’). But in what he said he was thinking of Universities and Further Education with,

“Why is it only now, we have lifted the cap on student numbers and 100,000 more will go to university in the next 2 years, 700,000 more to further education. So today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century.” 

Perversely, the new answer today aligns more with the Blair proposition and not the government’s policies of the last thirteen years. It lies in more apprenticeships, as favoured by Robert Halfon, Minister of State for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education. But in science, this must not involve ‘woke ideology’, as pronounced by Michelle Donelan, former Secretary of State for Education and now Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology. So much for freedom of speech then. It’s all a little confusing for universities trying to provide a fair and equal environment for all.

Sunak grabs the main education headline for himself.

While Keegan’s speech was mostly low-key, and delivered to a room less than half full (or more than half empty depending on your level of optimism), the main announcement on education was made by Sunak.

He received a warm reception with a speech to a nearly full auditorium. The announcement to scrap A-levels and T-levels in favour of a combined ‘Advanced British Standard’ fell to him.

It was a bold move that simply admitted a failure of government policies over thirteen years to date. The published policy paper,  ‘A world class system: the advanced British Standard’ is very thin on detail at 47 pages. On the surface, it appears to be radical and will gain considerable traction in some quarters. However, others with a more elitist establishment view will no doubt favour the status quo and resist.

The suspicion is that the government is pre-empting a similar move by the Labour Party. The new qualification is aimed at broadening the curriculum to age eighteen, including Mathematics and English for all students. It is a good move but is not so novel or radical in the end.

The knock-on effects will be far-reaching and involve much more funding and many more teachers. Universities and colleges will also need to reform curricula to accommodate the different knowledge of their students.  This will take considerable time and many different carefully planned stages.

Looking closer to home.

The outcome is not new and will be something closer to the existing Scottish Highers and Irish Leaving Certificate, just with a different name. Indeed, the policy even refers to the advantages of the Irish Leaving Certificate. TEFS has pushed for this approach in the past and favoured the Irish and Scottish systems. It seems this will now move forward at last (see TEFS 15th January 2021 ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’).

Although not mentioned, it cannot have escaped their attention that Scotland is in the later stages of reforming its qualifications (see TEFS 10th September 2021 ‘Proposed radical changes to school examinations putting the ‘cat amongst the pigeons’). The final report of the Hayward review ‘It’s Our Future – Independent Review of Qualifications and Assessment’ came out in June and is currently with schools and teachers for comment.

It proposes a ‘Scottish Diploma of Achievement’ that has a familiar ring to it. This is far more detailed, much deeper into the process, and better constructed to address the many complications of managing such a change over time. The current government in England must take note and has some catching up to do.

The challenge for a new government: it’s the economy stupid.

The likelihood of a new Labour administration next year looks even closer as the Conservatives split ranks and jockey for position. The popularity of Truss and Badenoch will not go away, however reasonable Sunak might try to be.  In the end, the well-worn adage ‘it’s the economy stupid’ will come into play. The current administration has effectively blown it with too much public money disappearing during the COVID crisis and in HS2. As for the economic crisis of last summer, well who can forget?

The funding of universities is totally broken, and the blame cannot be put elsewhere. But it was not addressed. Labour will have to grasp this nettle since the Conservatives are not able or too scared to do so.

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

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