Tomorrow, Jo Johnson (the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation) is delivering a speech to the Reform think tank on ‘Securing VFM for students in HE’. In plain English, VFM means ‘value-for-money’. So the speech could be ten times more interesting than it may sound.
There are a number of things that the Minister’s speechwriter will be trying to do. They potentially include the following.
- Dampening down the post-election panic on fees and loans: This could flare up again in tomorrow’s press as there is a parliamentary debate on the issue today and at least one new report on the issue being published at midnight (not by us, as we are publishing an even more interesting paper…). In the interests of good public policy, it would make sense to try to dampen down the chatter – you do not have to be a defender of the current system to think that any changes should be undertaken in the cold light of day after informed discussion rather in the response to an unseemly panic just after a rather odd general election. Look out, in particular, for the Minister’s words on: interest rates (where he has left more room for manoeuvre than on some other features and which the Russell Group has just asked to be reconsidered); the repayment threshold (where policy has fluctuated and which gets observers like Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert, particularly hot under the collar); and maintenance (where the most urgent unfairnesses lie).
- Formally announcing maximum tuition fees for 2018-19: Just as last year, this announcement is expected (and arguably needs) to be made before parliamentarians leave for their Summer Recess.
- Explaining more about the new regulatory world: This is the first major speech from Jo Johnson since, for example, Nicola Dandridge was appointed as the head of the new Office for Students. The sort of announcement that could, conceivably, be made is to explain how the new arrangements replacing the Office for Fair Access are to work in practice.
- Clarifying the status of commitments in the Conservative manifesto: There are various important commitments in the 2017 Conservative Party Election manifesto that would have a big impact on higher education institutions – such as the promise of a new crackdown on international students, the introduction (or more truthfully, reintroduction) of forgivable fees for trainee teachers and the commitment to compel more universities to sponsor schools. Admittedly, some of these issues fall more squarely in Jo Johnson’s domain than others.
- Directly addressing students’ concerns on value for money: The recent HEPI / HEA annual Student Academic Experience Survey showed continuing concerns among students about the value for money they are receiving, which in part reflects the fact that fees have gone up while direct funding has declined. The Survey also shows that three-quarters of students want more information about where their fees go and the Minister has, in the past, threatened to force universities to tell them. The even more recent HEPI / Unite Students report on what higher education applicants expect to find when they get there also reveals shockingly poor levels of financial information among those on their way to higher education – including the fact that under half of applicants realise their biggest non-fee expense will be their accommodation. It would also be massively helpful to these people if Jo Johnson were to commit to telling parents and carers much more clearly how much they are expected to contribute to student maintenance (as Martin Lewis has sought to do – but don’t hold your breath on this).
- Commenting on cross subsidies: The post-HERA (Higher Education and Research Act, 2017) world drives the wedge between teaching and research down much deeper by, for example, shifting the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s responsibilities for research to Research England rather than situating them within the new Office for Students. Although it is unlikely he will address it directly, at some point it would be helpful to know from the Minister how much of a cross-subsidy from teaching to research he believes is reasonable in a world in which the main regulator of higher education is meant to represent the interests of students above all – or whether he believes this is an area where the Government should not tread.
In reality, it is unlikely that the speech will be as wide-ranging as this and there may be other massive issues (like Brexit) that I haven’t listed which he feels the need to cover. But the primary objective will be to calm things down before the silly season gets properly underway rather than to enflame them. Moreover, some of the most pressing issues may be covered off in this afternoon’s emergency debate in the House of Commons – it would be hard to justify announcing tuition fee levels to a right-wing think tank a day after there is an ideal opportunity inside Parliament. But, either way, all of us who care about the health of our higher education sector will need to listen carefully to the speech.