In the News

Is the government ‘levelling down’?

‘Horrifying’ funding gap facing the most vulnerable young people, says Yorkshire education leaders.

Yorkshire Post 2nd July 2021

Earlier in July, Ruth Dacey of the Yorkshire Post penned a headline article that looked under the rock of the government’s ‘levelling up’ education policy.  It deserves wider attention across the UK since it reveals the real agenda of the Department for Education and the Government.  The article simply reports the content and reactions to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO) released the same day, ‘School funding in England’ (pdf in full).  It looks closely at funding arrangements from 2017-18 that appear to have radically diluted the ‘Opportunity Areas’ initiative of former Education Secretary, Justine Greening back in 2016. The report concludes “There has been a shift in the balance of funding from more deprived to less deprived local areas”.  The report goes on to observe “since 2017-18, average per-pupil funding for the most deprived fifth of schools has fallen in real terms by 1.2 per cent to £5,177, while for the least deprived fifth it has risen by 2.9 per cent to £4,4712”.  This is shocking since it amounts to a ‘levelling down’ for those most in need. Could this be the agenda the government is pursuing that it hopes will remain hidden from view?

Will another coat of whitewash cover the flaws?

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Poorer white pupils let down and neglected – MPs

BBC News 22nd June 2021

The release of the long awaited first report, ‘The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it’, was released earlier today.  Emerging from the Conservative dominated Education Committee, it has has opened up old class wounds and attracted criticism.

The BBC Education correspondent, Sean Coughlan, reports on the views of one 18-year-old student said, “It shouldn’t be about putting people against each other” or about “culture wars”. He rejects the white working-class identity as it “creates more stereotypes” whilst accepting he is a “white working-class boy”.  He is right, we must move away from stereotypes and the obsession with lumping people into classes and groups. The report itself bears further scrutiny. It agrees with the recent  Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED)  final report, that conveniently redefined institutional racism (see TEFS 2nd April 2021 ‘Covering a tangled web of racial bias, poverty, and inequality with whitewash’), and rejects the idea of ‘white privilege’ as not helpful as it “may reduce sympathy for white people who are struggling with poverty”. This is an astounding conclusion that beggars belief. ‘White privilege’ lies at the centre of the problem for everyone without advantages.  Ignoring that simple fact is not a solution. No one with an ounce of sense believes the idea does not work against those with fewer advantages. Discrimination against the least advantaged people is built into our society from the start. Access to resources trumps other factors. Racial prejudice is added to the mix as another challenge for many to overcome. It is surprising that the redoubtable Robert Halfon chairing the Education Committee has not accepted this from the outset. Diverting attention away from the real source of the problem we face as a society will no doubt backfire as the government’s agenda aiming to maintain class advantages becomes ever more apparent.

Ofqual in the spotlight again.

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‘Ofqual wanted to scrap last year’s A-levels, says former chair’

The Guardian Monday 14th June 2021

Richard Adams of the Guardian was first to spot a report from Roger Taylor, former Chair of Ofqual, that came out on Monday. The headline ‘Ofqual wanted to scrap last year’s A-levels’ would have raised some eyebrows.  The report stressed this amongst a qualified ‘mea culpa’ from Taylor.  ‘Is the algorithm working for us? Algorithms, qualifications and fairness’ is an eighteen-page explanation from the ‘Centre for Progressive Policy’ (CPP) of what went wrong. Yet the idea of using algorithms for moderating grades is strongly defended.  Taylor adds that the use of  ‘non-qualification’ leaving certificates to issue grades was proposed as the best way of ‘maintaining qualification standards’ if there were no examinations. This option was indeed proposed amongst several others on the 16th of March 2020 in an ‘Official Sensitive’ report  ‘Summer 2020 GCSE and A/AS level exam series Contingency planning for Covid-19 – options and risks’, not release until September 2020.  However, it hardly got a glowing recommendation. Some conclude this week that Taylor and the Board of Ofqual should have resigned last year as soon as this option was made unavailable by the government.

Taylor’s recollections were discussed in a one-hour debate on Wednesday and available on Youtube. He further stresses there was a consensus across the UK for using an algorithm to calculate final grades. This is not likely. Many, including TEFS went along with the idea despite no details and on the basis of trusting Ofqual (see TEFS 27th March 2020). That trust was clearly misplaced when the methods were reluctantly, and only partially revealed, in a cloud of obfuscation. Minutes of their 29 board meetings since 2019 were extracted through FOI requests (see TEFS 16th October 2020). The timing and use of the CPP as a platform is interesting. Exam results are being finalised across the UK this week and, although declared as non-political, the CPP is entirely funded by former Labour Government Minister, Lord Sainsbury. The current Ofqual leadership will be worried that more mistakes are being made this summer.

Will students have to pay more?

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Increasing England student loan repayments ‘would save government £4bn a year’

The Guardian Thursday 10th June 2021

Richard Adams of the Guardian was quick off the mark today with ‘news’ that the changing the student loan repayments system would save billions per year into the future.   With fierce resistance mounted against the idea of following the Augar recommendations to cut fees and restrict access to universities, it seemed inevitable that alternatives would emerge to make savings. The RAB charge is increasing fast and is currently at 54%. That means less than half of the money loaned will be paid back.  The ‘news’ is a report of an excellent policy paper from Nick Hillman of the Higher Education Policy Institute (No-easy-answers-English-student-finance-in-the-spending-review.pdf (hepi.ac.uk) released today. These are models of alternative scenarios produced by London Economics. They make for uncomfortable reading. The threshold of income before replaying loans could be below £20,000 per annum.  Extending payback out to 35 years and interest rates above the inflation rate are also possibilities. Doing all three would deter many students from low-income backgrounds from university. Indeed, this might be the aim. The Full Analysis by London Economics, ‘The cost of amending repayment thresholds alongside changes in interest rate and loan repayment period’, is probably a good approximation of what the Treasury is also looking at. The jury is out on what the government will announce in its long-awaited spending review later this year. It could be a fudge, or it could be radical. But savings will be made, and it will be interesting to see who will lose out the most.

Is this class-based social engineering by stealth?

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Tories want to end the university boom years

The Times Thursday 3rd June 2021

James Forsyth, the political editor of the Spectator has written in The Times about his observations on government thinking about rebalancing education beyond the age of eighteen.  Forsyth doesn’t appear to realise that the government is indulging in class based social engineering  by rigging the HE market. He reports, with little direct evidence, that “The government is actively looking at how to move money from higher education to further education”.  It seems Forsyth has been a fly on the wall at a meeting of three ministers, Education Secretary “Williamson, Steve Barclay, chief secretary to the Treasury, and Theo Agnew, a minister in both the Cabinet Office and the Treasury”.  Forsyth claims “My information is that they are all agreed on the need to move resources to further education in the next spending review, and that there is an implicit understanding that any money saved from universities will go there”. The supposed reason behind this policy seems to be many faced. One is the astounding idea that “graduates tend not to vote Tory”.  But also, it appears the cost of loans is spiralling for the Treasury with 53% not likely to ever be paid back. As an aside, not reported is the likelihood of higher inflation diluting this projection.  There are various ways of diverting funds away for universities. Forsyth seems to have discovered that “There is, though, more sympathy for raising entry requirements”.  This may be the case as the forces in the false HE market kick in.  Looking to more STEM graduates may not be the aim. Instead, it seems that less advantaged students will feel compelled to abandon the idea of a university in favour of settling for technical training. If university student numbers are to fall then access to all degrees MUST be equal and fair to all. Instead, it seems to be very far away from this goal as a class based social engineering agenda is introduced by stealth. 

Is it time for students to push harder?

It’s time to stop shoving 18-year-olds into university.

The Telegraph Monday 31st May 2021

Suzanne Moore of The Telegraph dishes out an ‘over the top’ tackle on all universities in a diatribe that is only loosely coherent. The red mist seems to have descended upon meeting her daughter back from her first year at university.  This event is celebrated by announcing “The idea of shoving every 18-year-old into university has always seemed ludicrous to me” having “left School at 16”. That was a girls grammar school and Moore later went onto study at Middlesex Polytechnic.  Formally at the Guardian, Moore recently defected to The Telegraph.  Vestiges of her former life surface here with the “dreadful winging” of private school kids and their “vulgar grabbiness” as her “heart bleeds” for them. It seems University is only for “those so inclined”. The rest can go for “Quality vocational training and apprenticeships”.    Should ability and equality of opportuning not be included in the “flailing” education system? Instead, Moore is simply courting more controversy. In doing so she becomes a megaphone for current class-ridden conservative policies with “The great influx of students has not brought about real social mobility”.  Be warned.

Who will be affected most by cuts?

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‘Horrific’ cuts in pipeline for English universities and students

Monday 24th May 2021

This from the Guardian reports that the Treasury is getting a bit parsimonious about the expense of student loans. The source is ‘Vice-Chancellors’ seems a little speculative, but there is no doubt the government must be looking at alternatives as a debt crisis mounts. The projected RAB charge is around 50% meaning that half of the loaned money will not be repaid. Cutting fees, as the Augar report suggested in 2019 is one option, but this only causes a big increase in upfront spending to pay for more expensive STEM courses. This is also likely to restrict STEM student numbers (TEFS June 2019 ‘Augar Under the Microscope: STEMing the Tide’).  Some universities are already cutting courses and laying off staff – a notable example is the London Southbank University (Guardian 25thMay 2021). The Universities Minister, Michell Donelan is trying to quell fears saying “I want to bust the myth about impending fee cuts” the GuildHE Spring Conference this week. But this could mean number caps and minimum grade requirements instead.  We must wait for the Autumn spending review it seems.

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Top pupils rejected by universities in A-levels fiasco fallout

Saturday 22nd May 2021

Another item on the news from the Guardian about access to universities hit the nail on the head last week.  It appears a combination of deferrals from last year, the likelihood of higher A-level grades this summer to match last year’s, and greater numbers of 18-tyear olds overall, has led to a very careful approach by universities making offers. But this is how the system works. Limiting the number of offers in case they are oversubscribed has been around for a long time. Another item in the news on the 15th of May provided a context for these decisions  ‘UK’s top universities fearful of extra student numbers if A-level grades are high’ (The Guardian Sat 15 May 2021).  Add to this the students who were down graded last summer with capped student numbers and this will exacerbate this effect and lead to a lot of resistance.

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University fees to fall — but arts degrees may suffer

Sunday May 16 2021

The Times broke the news that the Augar recommendation of lowering university to £7,500 per year will happen. This would require more expensive STEM courses to be topped up by government grants. It means the end of cross-subsidy of courses and research. It will also lead to capping of STEM student numbers and only universities with a depth of resources will survive. It will damage STEM provision in most universities.

TEFS reviewed this when Augar made his judgements in 2019 with ‘Augar Under the Microscope: STEMing the Tide‘ 11th June 2019. Expect fireworks if this comes about.

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Job prospects vary widely for graduates in England, data shows

Wednesday 19th May 2021

The Guardian is on the ball as always. It comes as no big surprise that the best job prospects follow graduates from the most selective and prestigious universities. Of course the evidence comes from the Office for Students with their ‘new measure’ data. This will fuel the debate on value for money and ‘mickey mouse’ degrees. Some science courses will feel the heat along with many humanities and arts degrees.