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Speech to the HMC / GSA University Admissions Conference

  • 9 November 2016

Earlier today, I delivered the speech below to the Headmasters and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) / Girls’ School Association (GSA) annual University Admissions Conference at the University of Leicester.

The speech:

  1. argues that independent schools often pick the wrong battles and could instead focus on the strengths they have in common with UK universities;
  2. supports the Government’s focus on improving incentives for good university teaching but notes the flaws in the proxies that will be used;
  3. cautions independent schools against making simplistic comparisons between teaching in private schools and universities, given the fee differentials;
  4. welcomes the Government’s commitment to a diverse higher education sector, but warns against adopting too low a bar for new entrants;
  5. predicts that the Higher Education and Research Bill will have a difficult time in the House of Lords;
  6. advises against taking such a pessimistic position on Brexit that students are inadvertently discouraged from coming to the UK; and
  7. notes that universities are likely to respond to Brexit by seeking to build more bridges with the communities in which they reside.

The landscape for universities



Thank you for inviting me. I come from your sector. Not only did I attend an HMC school as a pupil, but I also grew up on the other side of the green baize door, for my father was a housemaster at an HMC school while my mother taught down the road at a GSA school. After graduating, I trained as a History teacher and worked briefly in two GSA schools before teaching for three years in an HMC school, where one of my tasks was to run a pre-university course. So, in one sense, I have sat where you sit.

Schools that work for everyone

I feel I must start by love bombing you in this way because, if you have seen the letters page of the current Times Educational Supplement, you would think I was your sworn enemy. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article in that magazine looking at the Government’s consultation on forcing independent schools to offer more bursaries. I reminded readers of the reasons why such bursary schemes have failed in the past.

First, they are not cost effective – work by the Boston Consulting Group for the Sutton Trust showed they were the single least cost-effective social mobility intervention of all those tested.

Secondly, no one has ever managed to devise a fair way of deciding which pupils should benefit – as one Conservative Education Minister put it in the 1960s, it is hard to justify the transfer of pupils ‘from one system to the other on a basis of selection in which nobody knows what would be just or why.’

Thirdly, there has been a lack of demand for bursary schemes from independent schools as well as the disadvantaged families they are designed to help. Schools have backed them when they have lots of empty spaces but not when full, and middle-class families have tended to snatch the places.

My piece prompted a furious response from the Independent Schools Association, who said I was wrong to claim independent schools cost more than state schools. Yet the independent sector’s own annual census shows private school fees for day pupils are roughly equal each term to what a state school gets each year.

There was also a patrician response from the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS), which defended bursaries and said ‘informed commentators might take issue’ with what I had said. Yet it was one of one of IAPS’s own members which helped bring successful legal action against the Charity Commission that showed other interventions can be more valuable than bursaries.

This episode is a telling example of a broader problem: how your sector defends its corner. Independent schools sometimes seem to have an unrivalled ability to locate the weakest possible terrain in order to fight people who are not their enemies. It would be much better to focus instead on your real strengths: your autonomy; the quality of the all-round education you provide; and the success of your graduates – not to mention the wider contribution you make to our economy and society.

As someone who works with higher education institutions every day, I know how much our best independent schools have in common with our great universities –like your schools, they are independent, selective and elite. But universities are better at reflecting a positive public image.

The higher education landscape

Since we met this time last year, we have had:

  • a higher education white paper;
  • the publication of the Higher Education and Research Bill;
  • an EU referendum;
  • a new Prime Minister, not to mention a new US President-elect; and
  • a new Secretary of State for Education.

In addition, the teaching functions of universities have moved from one Whitehall department to another. While the research functions of universities may have stayed in the Business Department, it has undergone profound changes, being merged with the Energy Department and losing international trade.

But let me focus more directly on the landscape for universities. There are three obvious areas to consider:

  1. the Teaching Excellence Framework;
  2. the Higher Education and Research Bill; and
  3. Brexit.


Between the 1970s and the 1990s, university expansion was paid for by halving the funding for each undergraduate. That had a big negative impact on the quality of education. More recently, university funding has improved, thanks to the reintroduction of tuition fees in 1998, the tripling of fees to £3,000 in 2006 and the tripling once more to £9,000 in 2012. The result has been better campuses, more world-class research and, it has to be said, some big increases in senior staff pay.

The Government are worried that it has taken time for there to be commensurate improvements in the quality of the academic experience of students. For the past decade, we at HEPI have asked undergraduates about their experiences in more detail than anyone else. The results are salutary:

  • students complete only three-quarters of the work that the Quality Assurance Agency say they should;
  • perceptions of value for money have fallen fast; and
  • about one-third of students say they would choose another course if they could apply again.

So the Government are on to something when they say universities need as strong incentives to deliver high-quality teaching as they do to undertake high-grade research. Their solution is the new Teaching Excellence Framework, which will rate universities Gold, Silver and Bronze according to the quality of their teaching and learning.

Why, then, have we published four detailed critiques of the new Teaching Excellence Framework – more than anyone else? It is because the metrics that are going to be used to assess teaching and learning are far from perfect. The statistical proxies for good teaching – such as data on student satisfaction and the employment of graduates – are not up to the job. You could go to a prestigious university, receive unimpressive teaching and engage little with academic work. But, so long as you have fun, complete your course and secure a job, your experience would tick all the right boxes.

To be fair to the Government, for the TEF to happen quickly, they have to use existing proxies rather than wait for new and better measures of teaching and learning to come on stream. Ministers have proved admirably flexible on the details of the TEF – for example, the original timetable was pushed back and universities will be able to submit qualitative information to be assessed alongside the hard data. But it took many years to get the assessments of university research to be widely accepted as fair, and it may also take time to ensure the TEF is equally fair.

In an earlier role Tim Leunig, who is now the Chief Scientist at the Department for Education, calculated that if you compare the fees and contact hours you get at St Paul’s Girls School with those of a humanities undergraduate on a like-for-like basis, then the university fee should actually be £4,700 rather than £9,000. So I hope the independent school sector will continue monitoring the quality of teaching in universities and comparing it with what goes on in your schools, not least so that you can help improve later iterations of the TEF. But I caution you not to overdo it, as has occasionally happened in the past. If you charge an average of £15,000 a year to educate a pupil, you are always going to be able to offer more teaching than a university that charges undergraduates £9,000 – especially when the university feels a need to cross-subsidise its research from the total.

The Higher Education and Research Bill

The TEF does not feature all that heavily in the Higher Education and Research Bill that is currently before the House of Commons. But the impending legislation makes up the other half of Jo Johnson’s likely legacy.

England desperately needs a new legal framework for higher education. The near tripling of tuition fees to £9,000 back in 2012 transformed the way university teaching was funded but the underlying regulatory framework remained unchanged. The Higher Education Funding Council for England – HEFCE – now provides little money to traditional universities for teaching and it has never provided any to alternative providers. So it lacks the power-of-the-purse and is not really fit for purpose.

For these reasons, I welcome the idea of new higher education legislation. But the devil is in the details. Let me drill down a little into just two of the areas the Bill covers to see what it means.

The Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, is very keen to see competition from new providers. Unless we think the higher education sector should be fixed in shape, we must recognise that new institutions have to start somewhere. It has been too hard for good new providers to obtain sufficient investment but also too easy for dodgy ones to set up shop.

The Government wants degree-awarding powers to be available on a probationary basis to new education providers from day one. Just how high – or low – will the bar be? There has been press coverage suggesting Apple or Google could soon start offering British degrees. I have no reason to think they want to do that, but giving degree-awarding powers to media companies with no track record in education would risk the world-class reputation of our higher education sector.

Jo Johnson had a piece in The Times (£) last week welcoming James Dyson’s proposed new university and arguing that it was evidence the new approach was already working. In fact, the spin around Dyson’s new venture is at the level you would expect from someone who can convince people it is sensible to spend £300 on a hair dryer. The proposed new institution will only have 25 students in its first year and will be awarding University of Warwick degrees. So, in its early form at least, it is unlikely to shake up the market as much as the Dyson vacuum cleaner did. It could even be more like the Dyson washing machine, which launched in a big blaze of publicity but went out with a whimper.

The new legislation also seeks to transform the arms-length bodies that regulate and fund higher education. Ministers claim they are reducing them from 10 to 2. HEFCE is to become the Office for Students, with the Office for Fair Access folded into it. The seven Research Councils and Innovate UK are all to be folded into one new body, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Oddly, this new UK-wide body is also to subsume the England-only research funding functions of HEFCE.

I am sceptical that this is a true simplification. Setting up an Office for Students and the UKRI with nine separate self-contained sections is not so much 10 organisations becoming two as 10 becoming 11. Moreover, while the Government says the changes are necessary to enable more funding of interdisciplinary research, this will leave less money to fund other research – unless there is an increase in funding, which may be even more challenging in the light of Brexit.

So the Higher Education and Research Bill is likely to have a tricky time in the House of Lords, especially as:

  1. the Conservatives no longer have a majority in that chamber and regularly lose votes there;
  2. many peers take a close interest in higher education, and influential Crossbench peers like Professor (Martin) Rees and Baroness (Alison) Wolf are already voicing loud opposition; and
  3. the Government have kept their powder dry on the Bill in the Commons, leaving them more room for manoeuvre in the Lords.


The truth is no one knows what Brexit means for higher education as for every other area of life. As I have already hinted, we do not know, for example, what it will mean for our research base, which has been a major beneficiary of EU funding. But let me make just two observations.

First, nothing is simple. It is possible that the number of international students coming to the UK could fall significantly when Brexit occurs. That is certainly the consensus view and, if it were to happen, it would be a tragedy for the diversity and health of our universities.

On the other hand, there has not been much incentive to recruit students from the EU to date because EU students came within student number controls until quite recently. They make up only around 5 per cent of students in the UK, but there are three times as many non-EU international students.

Moreover, we have been here before. When Margaret Thatcher cut the taxpayer subsidy for non-EU international students, everyone said the numbers would fall off a cliff. In fact, they exploded. Universities are as motivated by money as everyone else and, once they realised they could start charging the full economic cost and more, they found they had a clear incentive to recruit as many international students as they could. If we do not recall what happened last time, there is a greater risk that our pessimism will create the very conditions that we wish to avoid.

The second point to note is that universities were caught out on 23rd June. The overwhelming majority of staff and students voted Remain. Universities may have run a big campaign in favour of remaining in the EU but, on referendum day, many of them were surprised to find they are in areas of the country where a significant majority of voters opted to Leave.

So I suspect that, beyond the issues of student numbers and finances, one of the effects of the Brexit vote on universities could be a welcome new found desire to build more bridges with the communities in which they reside.


I was not asked to address the issue of university entrance directly. But, as this is the main theme of your day, let me say a few words about it before I end. It is generally thought the most important higher education policy that the Coalition delivered was the tripling of tuition fees. But there was another policy that was much more important. The removal of student number controls is the policy I am proudest to have worked on in 17 years of public policy work.

When there is a fixed number of university places, middle-class families will always manage to win the race: they can move to a good school catchment area or buy extra tuition or pay for their child to go to an independent school. In response, policymakers feel compelled to find intrusive new ways of levelling the playing field and universities feel compelled to adopt over-elaborate application processes. But, with no number controls, each university is free to choose how many students to recruit and there is no overall cap on the total number of students in the system.

So there is no longer any need to make invidious decisions between well-qualified independent school pupils and those from under-represented groups with less attainment but bags of potential. There is room for both. Long may that remain so.


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