Higher Education: it’s a bit Wonkhe but it ain’t broke yet

The packed WONKHE annual ‘Festival of Higher Education’ in the grand Art Deco setting of the University of London Senate House was sold out last week. The deliberations were pivotal at a time of crisis and change. This was no surprise as it was a chance to meet and debate the rapid changes and mounting crises in our universities. Largely attended by like-minded people at the heart of the system, it is hoped that those in power or waiting in the wings might pay attention to the reality being faced.

The conference was very well organised and full of ideas for the several hundred delegates from across the UK.  But it was held against the backdrop of multiple crises in universities and student finance combining to produce a super storm brewing over the horizon.  It will impact an increasingly unstable government clinging onto what remains of their structure. 

Upon greater reflection after the event, there was a lot to take in from the meeting.  Wonkhe has been diligent in reporting from the conference. A lively podcast ‘King’s speech, food, graduate skills’ was broadcast live from the venue provides a flavour of the proceedings. ‘Dispatches from Day Two of The Festival of Higher Education’ by Alistair Jarvis, Pro Vice Chancellor at the University of London provides an overview.

The Kings Speech dampened spirits.

The emphasis on controlling inflation, partly caused by the government’s own mismanagement, means there is little scope for more spending and help for students. They would also be well down the pecking order in any case if attracting votes was the main/only aim. But setting that aside, those at the conference were astonished to hear news of the King’s speech filtering through on the first day.

In the context of the new ‘Advanced British Standard’ qualification, that has no timeline attached, there was a double whammy with,

“Proposals will be implemented to reduce the number of young people studying poor quality university degrees and increase the number undertaking high quality apprenticeships”.

There for all the world to hear was an admission that UK regulation was so weak that we had allowed ‘poor quality university degrees’ to proliferate. This was damaging enough by itself. However, the aspiration that students might instead be directed toward ‘high quality’ apprenticeships might seem benign. This is until you realise that the word ‘degree’ is missing. The aim is clearly to divert students away from university, particularly those who would struggle to afford it. It’s a social engineering project built upon crude ‘nudging’ of public perceptions (TEFS 17th July 2023 ‘Rip-off degrees, social engineering and feeding public opinion ‘raw meat’).

Student poverty and belonging.

A session on ‘Belonging’ addressed the increasing stress felt by students. The idea of ‘time poverty’ was introduced and this fitted well with TEFS assertion that time should be the main currency for success. The proceedings centred around a new ‘Belong’ survey started this year by market researchers at Cybl and Wonkhe.  It will no doubt throw up serious problems that must not be sidetracked. Their latest report with Universities UK, Imperial College London and Student Minds on ‘Mental Health’ (pdf) makes for sober reading summed up by,

“73% of current students say the cost-of-living crisis has caused a decline in their mental health.”

The writing was on the wall back in February with an Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey that warned 92% of students found their living costs had increased. This is only going to get worse in the coming year.

Loans and debt.

The burden of student loans, debt, and the sustainability of our universities pervaded many of the sessions. This is hardly a surprise, but solutions were a bit thin on the ground. Most discussions avoided the likelihood of a graduate tax offering the solution to better university funding. It arose briefly in a session on ‘A manifesto for Higher Education’ where former Labour advisor, Andy Westwood, offered insights into how manifestos of the past were generated. Johnny Rich revisited his ideas from 2018 for employers to foot the bill with a levy in ‘Fairer funding: the case for a graduate levy’. This might be done via increased national insurance contributions attached to graduate employees, but the idea that the payments would then be made directly to the universities may be a step too far.

TEFS agrees that employers must take a share of the burden, but students who benefit the most, and the government, should also contribute overall. The idea of a levy on national insurance for both the graduate employee and the employer might gain some traction. But, despite the many pitfalls to overcome, it would be more progressive and fairer (see TEFS15th May 2023 ‘Fees, loans, tax and fairness’).

What the public might accept.

There was a fascinating insight into what public attitudes on higher education might be waiting election campaigning. Jess Lister of Public First presented an overview of a survey from October, ‘Public Attitudes to Tuition Fees’ (pdf). The report was overtly political as it addressed the question ‘What are Labour’s Options for Reform?’. It covered a complex series of questions to 8,333 adults across England. The demographics for the group were aligned with key target voters for the Labour Party, as well as being in key electoral seats. More funding for universities and the abolition of fees for students came very low on the pecking order for those polled. But with the questions being somewhat complex, and requiring knowledge of the options, there was information attached to each question that was arrived at in eight focus groups. This meant that the information given risked adding bias to the responses.

The issue of a graduate tax is a good example. There was a surprising amount of support for a graduate tax, especially amongst young voters after they were told and then asked.

“Some have proposed replacing tuition fees with a ‘Graduate Tax’. This would mean the cost of attending university is paid for by the government, using money raised by a higher rate of income tax charged only to those who graduate from university. Would you support or oppose this proposal?”

However, it was not clear if this was meant to be a tax on new graduates or a retrospective tax on all graduates. Assuming one or the other would surely make a difference.

The idea of imposing a retrospective graduate tax is not a new one. Earlier this year, a report from London Economics ‘Alternative options for higher education fees and funding for England’ made it clear in their proposals that such a tax would be for new graduates only.

However, back in 2017 Andy Green and Geoff Mason of the Institute of Education at UCL made ‘The Case for an All-Age Graduate Tax in England’ that generated considerable debate at the time. The idea that all graduates should pay tax regardless of when they went to university has not entirely gone away.

Although not addressed in the report, the data showed that those polled were divided on a National Insurance levy on employers and there was less support for a general increase in National Insurance. The idea of graduates paying more in National Insurance alongside their employers was not included. The debate will no doubt rumble on as Labour keeps its powder dry.

New inequalities driven by AI.

Sessions on the impact of AI across the sector were met by eager audiences in packed rooms. There was no thought given to the idea that the government might use AI to formulate policy. However, we wait  for this to emerge in time.

Meanwhile Wonkhe has reported that ‘The AI generation will need more explicit preparation for graduate employment’ and offers a view of the rising tensions surrounding AI. A report from the Russell Group of universities in July ‘New principles on use of AI in education’ did not deflect worries  about the challenges for students and staff.

A report from Demos, released at the conference, ‘The AI Generation: How universities can prepare students for the changing world’ (pdf), raised more questions than answers, especially for equity and inclusion. Whilst observing that,

“Structural disadvantage can affect any aspect of students’ university experience”,

there was nothing constructive on solving the issue of unequal access to AI tools and time to study.

Is another review of HE needed.

There was a lively debate amongst panellists at the last session on this topic. They were divided between the ideas of ‘yes – but’ and ‘no – but’.  In between these there was little appetite for a major review. Yes- but if it happened, David Eastwood, former Browne Review panel member, stressed it must be independent. No – but if it had to be, Vivienne Stern, of Universities UK, said it should be a cross-party affair. Joe Holmes, Vice President Education at Essex Students Union, wanted students to have a direct input.  Clair Callender, Chair of higher education policy at UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck University championed a “student support review” and a look at all tertiary education. She has invested a lot in addressing the plight of students and clearly was “not content with tinkering”.  Her recent study in June, ‘Graduates’ responses to student loan debt in England: sort of like an acceptance, but with anxiety attached’, considered the students’ relationship with the state on loans and concluded that,

“a more comprehensive explanation requires an exploration of both symbolic violence and structural violence and a re-appraisal of the word ‘violence’ to better represent the wide range of graduates’ responses”.

That is a radical idea on its own that may take hold as it replaces the prevailing ideas of ‘human capital theory’. She also pressed for a more progressive repayment system and “more radical would be a graduate tax”.

The time may be right for this.

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

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