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What issues will dominate higher education policy this autumn?

  • 9 September 2019

We could spend all our time thinking about whether Brexit will happen, whether there will be a general election this side of Christmas or whether we eventually end up with another referendum to resolve current challenges.

Yet there are a few areas that have been topical over the spring and summer which will also dominate higher education in the months ahead, whoever is in charge.

1. In May, we had the publication of the Augar review. I was more positive than many people in the sector because I thought it offered a relatively coherent programme and was a lot better than it might have been – and therefore worth engaging with. Some people were more pro than me and others were more anti. But it is worth recalling that such big reviews are never entirely ignored, nor are they ever implemented in full. So I suspect Augar is more dead than alive but not completely dead. On the one hand, there was no explicit response to it in last week’s Spending Round, which was notable. On the other hand, elements of Augar, good and bad, are likely to survive. They include a greater focus on further education, as we did see in the Spending Round. Moreover, the freezing in the unit of resource for undergraduate education until 2022/23 is also something that, sadly, could easily happen.

2. In July, Gavin Williamson was appointed to the post of Secretary of State for Education. This could, obviously, be critically important for lots of reasons. But one specific reason is the decision to give him responsibility for skills and FE rather than to farm day-to-day decisions out to a junior minister. The jury is out on whether this means FE will get a louder voice in policy discussions at the heart of government or whether it means it will get less focus, because a Secretary of State has all sorts of other tasks and FE no longer has the attention of a dedicated junior minister. Either way, the fact that FE has just been promised more money and higher education hasn’t reflects a different state of affairs to the Coalition years, during which higher education – or at least research – seemingly always got extra money at every major fiscal event after the original 2010 spending review. Nonetheless, the Secretary of State is showing that he is keen to engage with the higher education sector more too, for example through his attendance and speaking at this week’s Universities UK Annual Conference in Birmingham.

3. Related to all this is the need to ensure the Government are not given lots of room to play further education off against higher education. The Chancellor, Sajid Javid, recently had a piece in the Observer which dwelt upon how he is the first ever Chancellor of the Exchequer to have attended an FE college. It was easy to interpret as an implicit attack on higher education. In fact, if you read it carefully, it was an explanation of how attending an FE college opened up the path to higher education (at Exeter University) for him. This is at one with the wise words of David Hughes, the Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges, and his colleagues, who have always been very careful not to argue that the funding gap in further education should be filled from other parts of the education budget.

4. In August, the Office for Students (OfS) got their full powers. They have clearly found the first few months, particularly the compilation of the OfS Register, harder than they expected. It confirms my view that the volume of change should have been limited by reforming Hefce rather than shutting it down and starting all over again. Then, it would have been easier to focus on the things that really matter. And there are a lot of them. For example, the day before the OfS got their full powers on 1st August, the news came through that the large alternative provider, GSM London, had collapsed. To my mind, this should have been a bigger news story than it has been. If GSM had had university title, or more middle-class students or if politics was less crazy, then I think there would have been a lot more chatter about the consequences of a major HE provider going under. Instead, we may have to wait for the next one to do so before people really address themselves to the challenges it raises.

5. Which leads on to the quality of university governance, which has been another big issue for us at HEPI recently. I worry that university governors are not as diverse as they could be and also that they do not always recognise how serious a role they now have, given the OfS provides less oversight than Hefce ever did. We have recently published reports on whether university governors should be paid (I am broadly pro, at least in some circumstances, though our publication was objective and neutral on the question) as well as a second paper on the responsibilities of governing bodies and different sorts of governors.

6. In the Spending Round’s fine print, there was a welcome restatement of the commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on research and development (R&D) by 2017. It is not inevitable that this will be achieved but it becomes a little more likely every time it is put on the official record and, helpfully, is not a point of division between the main parties. However, as I wrote in a blog some time ago, the Tories’ 2017 manifesto commitment was actually to spending 3.0% of GDP on R&D. So I don’t think, as a sector, that we should ever mention 2.4%; we should keep Ministers’ feet to the fire by always talking about 3.0% instead.

There are lots of other important areas that I haven’t mentioned that are likely to be big and contentious issues for universities and those who care about them in the months ahead, such as:

  • pension disputes, including the possibility of new industrial action;
  • the power of students and staff at the ballot box, which was notable theme of edutwitter over the weekend; and
  • battles over autonomy – recent public rows focusing on higher education, whether on admissions, grade inflation, free speech, widening participation and fair access, the Industrial Strategy, the push for universities to be more civic-minded, how to assess university performance and so on, all raise questions about institutional independence.

So, even without Brexit, autumn 2019 is likely to be as busy as any preceding one for higher education institutions.

Here at HEPI, we will certainly be as busy as ever before:

  • starting with hosting the launch of the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2019 on 10th September;
  • before publishing a new report with Unite Students on the expectations and experiences of applicants and students on 17th September; and
  • then holding events at both the Labour and Conservative party conferences (in Brighton and Manchester, respectively) on why living away from home is so much more common among UK students than in other countries.

See our Events page for more information.

1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    Thoughtful comments as ever.

    With an increasing focus on the FE sector and given the greater involvement of the private and community sector in the delivery of Apprenticeships, is it time to revisit the issue of a “level playing field” ?

    FE Colleges and most Universities receive funding from Government for expenditure on land, property, equipment etc by way of separate grants.

    For some institutions this has been over £ 1 billion.

    Such funding is not available by way of Government grants to the private and community sector.

    In a market where the Apprenticeship products are paid for at a fixed price/ fee, this is a huge burden for the private and community sector to bear.

    Is it time to remedy this injustice?

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