Last night, I was honoured to be able to deliver the annual Drapers’ Lecture at Queen Mary, University of London.
Among the issues covered by the lecture are: fees and funding; access; Augar; student numbers; international students; Brexit; edtech; part-time students; and research funding.
Thank you for inviting me to deliver the 2020 Drapers’ Lecture. It is a great honour to follow in the footsteps of the illustrious people who have delivered this lecture in recent years, including Professor Chris Husbands of Sheffield Hallam University (who incidentally is the co-author of a forthcoming HEPI report) as well as last year’s speaker, Dr Franklin A. Tuitt.
It is also a great honour to speak at an event supported by a livery company. We rarely speak about the support livery companies give our education system, perhaps because the support is generally given without much fanfare. But as a former secondary school teacher who worked in a school supported by a different livery company, I am well aware of how vitally important their educational role is and how lucky we are as a country to benefit from it.
So I note with thanks the support the Drapers’ Company have given this institution since the foundation of the People’s Palace in 1884, and for helping make tonight possible.
Queen Mary fills a very special place in UK higher education. Universities have many roles and every vice-chancellor I meet tells me their institution is a brilliant local, national and international institution. But that is often not true in practice because it is incredibly hard to do all three roles well. Yet, here at Queen Mary, I think you probably do get as close as is possible to achieving the rare feat of excelling locally, nationally and internationally.
- You have deep local roots in the east end of London, represented for me by the tranquil Jewish cemetery in the middle of campus.
- You fulfil a national role as one of our great research-intensive universities, with one of the world’s great teaching hospitals in Bart’s, and as a member of the Russell Group.
- And you bridge international boundaries both through your research and by the incredibly high number of nationalities represented here on campus.
Queen Mary (QM) also fills a very special place in my own heart. I know your strengths first hand because I studied here as a postgraduate student between 1998 to 1999. I was studying on a Taught Master’s course at the nexus between Politics and History.
I was originally drawn to what was then Queen Mary and Westfield College (QMW) by the indefatigable Peter Hennessy and his great books about British politics. Although drawn by one of your star signings, when I arrived I found there was also strength in depth, and benefited enormously from learning at the feet of other experts like Dr Catterall and James Ellison.
We weren’t just desk bound.
- We were taken on private visits to wonderful places, like Number 10 Downing Street, the National Archives and to as-yet unopened parts of what was then the brand new British Library.
- We had private seminars in Parliament with Tony Benn, in the Cabinet Office with Richard Wilson, then the Cabinet Secretary, and here at QM with the Private Secretary to Her Majesty the Queen.
We were told not to tell anyone about the last of these, but I am working on the assumption that the instruction was subject to the 20-year rule. I trust I will be forgiven if I am wrong about that.
For me, the highlight – in fact, probably the highlight of my whole education – was being taught by Professor John Ramsden, the greatest of all historians of the Conservative Party.
The Conservative Party is sometimes described as the most successful political party in the western world and they currently look all powerful once more, having increased their vote at each of the last six general elections and topped the poll in the last four. But back in 1998/99, New Labour were in the ascendancy and some people were asking whether the Conservative Party would ever be able to claw its way back into power.
So it was a fascinating time to be learning from John, who – as well as being a fantastic researcher and a wonderful teacher – was also a practitioner of politics as Leader of Redbridge Council during the 1980s. When marking an essay of mine in which I had erroneously claimed Ted Heath lost power in springtime, he wrote ‘as one who canvassed throughout February 1974, I assure you it was not Spring!’
John’s interests went far beyond politics and history to drama, film and popular culture. He was someone who didn’t need to be under the cosh of a Teaching Excellence Framework to care passionately about the interests and progress of his students. He helped me get my first academic paper published and he helped me get my first job in policy 20 years ago. It was a tragedy that he died so soon after his retirement, though it is wonderful to see the sort of work for which he was famous continued in the output of today’s QM academics, such as Professor Tim Bale.
As a student here, I benefited not only from the academic experience in the lecture halls and seminar rooms. I also found opportunities to hone my writing in the pages of Cub, the student newspaper, to learn about social mobility and university access issues by helping out at the Central Foundation Girls’ School just down the road and to learn more about higher education policy through representing QMW at the NUS Conference, the first after the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees.
That may have been 20 years ago but the arguments were the same – indeed, I sometimes think there is no such thing as a genuinely new policy question in education, even if the evidence base and the answers alter over time. All of these formative experiences here are highly relevant to my current role.
So I benefited enormously from my time here. But so too did all the rest of our small cohort of students. Those with whom I am still in contact are working at senior levels in education, both in universities and schools, in the City and in the BBC.
When I mentioned to a senior higher education figure that I was coming here to deliver this speech, he said to me that Queen Mary is special because it is where social mobility and employability come together to create something new. That was certainly true for my class of students.
Fees and funding
After leaving QMW, I spent time working in Westminster as a parliamentary researcher, in the City as a Policy Adviser for the insurance industry and in Whitehall as a special adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science, the Rt Hon. David Willetts MP, during the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition. The last of these three roles meant I had a ringside seat during the tripling of tuition fees in the 2010 to 2012 period.
When I received an Honorary Fellowship here at QM in 2016, your then Chair of Council, Sir Nick Montagu, took great pleasure in telling the graduating students of my role in raising their fees. If they hadn’t had the restraining influence of their parents sitting next to them, I am not sure I would have got out alive.
I continue to think the changes we made back in that period were along the right lines. No one likes it when the cost of something they wish to purchase (nearly) triples in price. But the changes allowed universities to be properly funded during a time of austerity and, thanks to the income-contingent student loan repayment terms, without putting undue pressure on students or graduates.
Many people opposed what we did, and continue to do so. They say we marketized, commodified and Americanised our higher education sector. But I remember leaving the UK to visit California during the initial rows and protests about the increase in fees. On arriving on the west coast of the US, we found their own progressive students were campaigning for the sort of system we were busy implementing back home because it was so much better than the one they had – and continue to have.
I would also point out that the loan scheme we have has enabled additional support to be made available to postgraduate students, who – as we will show in a major forthcoming study of the state of the postgraduate sector – are slowly becoming somewhat more diverse.
But the best feature of the funding settlement by far, in my view, is the freedom it provided to remove undergraduate student number controls, which is a story we have told in HEPI reports. I know some people see it differently, but it is only by liberalising the supply of places that you can deliver true widening participation. Otherwise, potential students are in a zero-sum game in which those with the most social capital, the better schooling and fewer disadvantages will always tend to win.
Before the removal of student number controls, we had willing students knocking on the doors of willing universities who were then being turned down because the institutions couldn’t afford to pay the fines that over-recruitment triggered. Since the removal of student number controls, we have seen a higher proportion of school leavers making it to higher education, including to their first-choice course and institution – although, admittedly, institutions have not always covered themselves in glory when seeking to recruit as many students as they can.
Given the freeing up of spaces and the end of the zero-sum game, it is no coincidence that contextual offers have moved in recent years from being something that was so controversial it used regularly to make the front pages of the newspapersto something that now seems unremarkable, or even the norm.
But, as I explained in the Times Higher before Christmas, there are lots of reasons to think student number caps might be on their way back, just as has already happened in Australia. And, as we showed in a recent report written by Lee Elliot Major, the UK’s first Professor of Social Mobility, and his colleague Pallavi Amitava Banerjee, if student numbers are artificially held down in the face of the Office for Students’s ambitious access targets, we could soon revert to thestatus quo ante, with fierce battles for the available places.
One reason why that would be so challenging is the extra demand that is about to arise as a result of the coming increase in the number of 18-year olds, continued growth in the proportion of young people who want to reach higher education and better outcomes in schools. At HEPI, we have calculated that we could need another 300,000 higher education places by 2030. In fact, that is just the minimum number of extra full-time higher education places in England that we are likely to need. It is a conservative calculation that makes no assumption, for example, about the entry rates for young men rising to match the entry rates for young women.
So demand could easily be a lot higher than 300,000 over the coming decade, at closer to half a million places. I have, in the past, called for a new higher education participation target of 70% so that we can prepare properly for the extra demand, though the idea went down badly in some quarters.
These are the sorts of big numbers that give policymakers, especially in the Treasury, sleepless nights – particularly now that the 45p in every £1 loaned out to students that is written off is to start appearing in the current public spending figures, adding billions to the annual deficit on which our politicians like to be judged.
You will recall that, three years ago, just as the 2017 cohort of undergraduate students were beginning their degrees, Theresa May as Prime Minister announced a Review of Post-18 Education and Funding, into which a panel led by Philip Augar was to feed in their views. That panel reported last May and, among other things, they recommended a cut in tuition fees to £7,500. We now expect Ministers to respond to the Augar panel’s report and to outline their position at the time of the next spending review. Incredibly, this means that same cohort of students who began in 2017 are likely to have graduated before we know what the Government thinks of the system we have.
Two other quick points about Augar. Their report had a lot to say about boosting further education and there is a pretty clear consensus that this needs to happen. So those of us in higher education need to explain clearly to policymakers why the undoubted need to boost further education should not come at the expense of higher education.
On this, I am at one with Lord Kerslake, the former Head of the Home Civil Service, who told his fellow peers:
Moreover, we need to recall that the best case scenario in Augar – even assuming the Treasury makes up for the cut in headline fees as they recommended – is an 11% drop in the unit of resource for each home student between 2018/19 and 2022/23.
To thrive, we are going to need to be much more efficient as a sector, or recruit many more full fee-paying international students to cross-subsidise other activity or just simply spend less on some things we currently do. I fear that could mean less civic engagement, less outreach and less working with schools, less course choice, less support for students and even less teaching.
Beyond the issues of fees and funding and student numbers, I think the priority should be living cost support for students. I have always opposed the removal of the student maintenance grant in England. It was a bad idea when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did it in in the late 1990s, though they later performed a u-turn, and it was a bad idea when David Cameron and George Osborne repeated the trick in 2016.
My concern is less to do with the behavioural impact, though it is possible that the absence of grants is partly to blame for the recent modest increase in non-continuation rates. My concern is more a moral one. Quite simply, the poorest students should not leave university with the largest debts.
Whatever happens, to me the most important thing is to maintain the removal of student numbers caps, for the reasons outlined above on widening participation. Almost any tweak to the fees and funding regime is worth doing in my view if it means protecting the demand-driven system, which gives students more choice, allows institutions to reach their natural size and encourages social mobility.
Any other approach, where student numbers are clamped down upon again, flies in the face of the 97% of mothers of young children who want their child to go to university and also ignores the fact that rising life expectancy means people can spend longer in education while their education still makes up a smaller proportion of their lives than for people in the past. Clamping down on the growth in student places would hinder social mobility, as we will soon suggest in a new paper on the end of the demand-driven system in Australia.
My support for maintaining the absence of student number controls does not mean, by the way, that I think higher education is right for everyone. Nor do I think people should be free to enrol at university to do absolutely anything. The new Government was elected with a manifesto commitment to crack down on ‘low quality courses’. That may not be a popular idea with staff or students, but it is reasonable for policymakers to ask whether taxpayers are getting good value for their public investment in higher education.
The problem, of course, is that no one is absolutely certain how to measure value. There are lots of potential ways to do it, and many proxies, but they are all deeply flawed. Yet there is a challenge for us all here: if the Government insists on measuring value and we as a sector fail to help them do that, things will be done to us that we will not enjoy using data that we do not recognise.
I am pleased that serious work is now happening on value inside Universities UK and we will ourselves be hosting an expert policy seminar on the issue in a few weeks’ time as well as making value the theme of our Annual Conference here in London in June.
I don’t plan to say much about international students tonight, even though all three of our biggest reports in recent years, produced in conjunction with Kaplan and London Economics, have been about demand for UK higher education from abroad. But this is one part of the higher education system where there is a truly global market.
There are good reasons why students from abroad want to come and study in the UK, such as the prestige of our universities, the English language and the fact that – as Elsevier’s work for the government shows – we are strong across the whole range of disciplines. You know that here at QM even better than most.
The benefits of hosting so many international students in the UK are immense, in terms of more diverse campuses, more soft power and more hard cash. But other English-speaking countries have been gaining on our position, countries like China are increasingly receivers as well as emitters of international students (as we showed in the 2017 HEPI Annual Lecture) and recent ups and downs in geopolitics mean we are very exposed to world events, as we heard at a recent HEPI / Advance HE seminar (covered in the editorial of this week’sTimes Higher).
So while I welcome the Government’s target in their International Education Strategy to increase the number of international students hosted in the UK to 600,000 by the year 2030, it is notable that past such targets have been missed – and the Home Office retains control over the finer points of migration policy and remains no great friend of the higher education sector. While institutions can put even more effort into recruiting international students, especially if there is a more propitious set of migration rules, success is neither guaranteed nor wholly in the sector’s own hands.
I also don’t plan to say much about Brexit tonight because nearly four years on from the referendum and after we have officially left, we still have little idea what it is likely to mean for our sector.
- What fees will EU students face?
- Will we be in Erasmus+?
- Will we still be a key player in European research programmes?
Who knows? We have tried to answer some of the questions. For example, we have published the most detailed economic modelling there is on what might happen to demand from the EU for UK universities after Brexit. This suggests a 57% decline in incoming students from other EU countries but also an increase in fee income because everyone who comes here, including extra international students attracted by the reduction in the value of the £, could be paying the full international fees.
Nonetheless, as one vice-chancellor said to me, the assumptions in our modelling could prove to be heroic and, anyway, there is at least one historical precedent – when Margaret Thatcher got rid of fee subsidies for non-EEC students – that suggests the opposite might happen. In other words, universities might work harder to chase down EU students if they can charge the full economic cost and more to help cross-subsidise research in future – as we explained in a report last summer.
On the other hand, the EU may try and insist on continued access to our higher education institutions at preferential rates as part of the coming negotiations and, who knows, perhaps large countries outside the EU will look for similar arrangements as part of their own trade deals. In the past week, I have heard the vice-chancellor of one of our larger universities saying he could imagine civil servants signing away lower fees in the latter stages of a late-night trade deal with India.
Students of the future
Instead of dwelling for longer on international students or Brexit, I want to turn instead to two other important areas before I end: the students of the future; and research.
If we are to continue expanding student places for home students, as I have made clear I hope we do, then students will continue to look more different to students in the past. There will be more first-in-family students, more students with multiple indicators of disadvantage and, probably, more students looking to stay closer to home. At least that is the received wisdom.
In their new book, The University Challenge, which was officially launched last week, Ed Byrne (the President and Principal of King’s College London) and Charles Clarke (the former Labour Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Education) write:
The only prediction that we feel able to make with any confidence is that over the next couple of decades, there will be a declining proportion of students getting their undergraduate degrees through the traditional route of a residential three-year degree away from home.
That hasn’t actually been the story here in recent decades, during which the proportion of students who live at home has stayed at around 20 per cent. But if Byrne and Clarke are even just half-right, then universities will not be able to expect their students to change their identities to fit in with how things have always worked; they will need to meet the changing backgrounds of students half way.
In recent years at HEPI, we have published papers on the dominance of the residential model of higher education, what I call the boarding-school model, and also on the extra challenges faced by commuter students. Currently, commuter students have poorer outcomes than those who move away from home and are less engaged and less satisfied with their academic experiences, though it is not always clear whether this is because they commute or whether it is the factors that lead them to commute that are the real barriers.
Unlike many of your fellow Russell Group universities, you already know much about commuter students and you know it is no good expecting new types of students to engage in exactly the same ways as more traditional students. On this, some of your competitor universities may need to change to become a little more like you.
One of the biggest changes in recent years is the decline in part-time students. The decline is so dramatic that this is one area where almost everyone accepts the current funding model is just not working. The decline matters for many reasons, but I shall mention only one: if fewer migrants are to come to the UK after Brexit, then it is even more important that we raise the skills of adults already in the country if we are to be economically successful after Brexit.
Yet while the decline in part-time students is well-known, some people seem to have become desensitised to the numbers. That is why our newest report, which came out last Thursday, is a qualitative study that captures the voices of part-time learners. It covers the anxieties part-time students face about returning to education and the stresses they experience while studying but also the new opportunities that can be unlocked by returning to study.
Some people think that changes to the labour market may automatically bring the part-time sector back, as employers and employees reconcile themselves even more to the pace of change in the modern world as well as new working patterns. So they will, it is said, look for more retraining and upskilling opportunities. But the barriers, real or perceived, felt by many potential part-time learners mean it is unlikely to happen without some pretty hefty new policy interventions.
High fees with loan-based financing and tough eligibility rules may work well for full-time students fresh out of school, but they don’t work well for adult learners with existing caring and financial responsibilities who want to dip their toes back in the water. When you meet a young full-time student and ask them what they do, they tend to tell you they are a student. When you meet a part-time student and ask them what they do, they tend to tell you they are a parent, a carer or an employee of some company or other: in other words, their self-perceptions and their relationship to learning are very different.
So when it comes to finance for part-time students, I tend to agree with Lionel Robbins. Although the Robbins report of 1963 was not about student finance, he later made it clear that he favoured student loans in principle but not where higher education needed:
foster[ing] by grants, even at the cost of some infringement of the abstract principles of ideal public finance.
There are many people who will tell you that universities will look physically different too in the future, with fewer – if any – lecture halls and much more online learning. Perhaps. Indeed, it is already happening to some extent, as on the University of Northampton’s new smart campus, which has only one lecture hall. But I admit to some scepticism about some of the wilder forecasts.
Back in the 1920s, Thomas Edison said motion pictures would replace campus lectures. The invention of the radio, talkies at the cinema, compact cassettes, video tapes, the internet and Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs were all once predicted to transform higher-level learning beyond all recognition.
These things have all had their place in making teaching and learning more efficient, of course, but it always bemuses me when, at education conferences, the audience is regaled about the imminent transformation of teaching and learning. I try to absorb all that I am being told but a little voice usually pops in my head to ask: ‘if the changes are so transformational, why are they being explained in such a traditional, almost chalk-and-talk, way?’ A PowerPoint slide or two is generally the limit, as here.
But perhaps artificial intelligence (AI) is different. After all, more than one vice-chancellor have written books saying so. Perhaps we are, this time, truly on the cusp of something completely different. I sometimes doubt this, given how hard it is to get Alexa and Siri to do the simple tasks I want. But perhaps in a few years’ time, similar technology will have truly transformed all our lives.
Yet I admit to further doubt for a more fundamental reason. In a decade’s time, my younger child will still be young enough to have school homework. Artificial intelligence won’t be able to do it for her if she is to benefit from the process of learning. Perhaps a machine will mark the work, giving instructors a better work/life balance or more time for other tasks? Yet I can’t help feeling that part of the learning process is securing validation and approval from other human beings. If a student thinks their essays will only ever be evaluated by machines, why should they bother trying so hard to make them interesting? If we thought only machines were going to read HEPI publications, it is very unlikely we would put much effort into them.
Moreover, when we ask students about different ways to learn, lectures come top. It is not because the learning is better in lectures (it isn’t) but it’s because people want to learn alongside others. When asked what should replace lectures if they were to disappear, technological solutions are much less popular than learning from other humans.
Later this week, we will publish a new paper by the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, Tim Blackman, that gets under the skin of the annual HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey, which we undertake each year with Advance HE – and which Stephanie Marshall, who has helped organise this evening, was heavily involved with during her time at the Higher Education Academy. Professor Blackman’s new research will reveal a close link between the accessibility of academics and student wellbeing.
So call me hopelessly naïve, but I tend to think that, when my children are 18 and if they want to go to university, their experience could still have a lot in common with mine 30 years ago.
I would like to end with some remarks on research. The UK invests much less national wealth than many other countries on research and development and continues to lag far behind the average for the OECD. However, in recent years the main political parties have been committed to substantial increases in investment in research.
The new Government is certainly committed to a big increase in spending. During the election campaign, Boris Johnson promised to double government research and development spending to £18 billion within five years and the 2019 Conservative election manifesto claimed:
We are committing to the fastest ever increase in domestic public R&D spending, including in basic science research to meet our target of 2.4 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D across the economy.
Such increases represent a huge amount of money, but the commitments are relatively uncontroversial and enjoy support across the political spectrum. So, in one sense, they should be relatively easy to deliver. Yet there are two challenges.
First, we have been here before. Back in 2004, the then Government’s Ten Year Science and Innovation Framework set a target of increasing R&D investment as a proportion of national income to 2.5 per cent by 2014. Yet, over the period in question, the proportion of national income spent on R&D increased but only from 1.5% to 1.6%, since when it has grown further but only to 1.7%. It remains slightly lower than it was back in 1990 and much lower than it was at the start of the 1980s.
In other words, willing a specific proportion of GDP to be spent on R&D and even setting a precise target is nothing like enough.
Secondly, it is important to remember that the R&D target is a target for total spending; it is not just about public funding. So it assumes that any extra public spending will ‘crowd in’ very substantial sums of private money, and that this will occur at a time of significant change, including in relation to our involvement with EU research funding arrangements.
The quantum of funding, whether public or private, is far from the only cause of real uncertainty among the research community at the moment. Generally, when there is a Government commitment to increase spending significantly, there is a sense of how the money will be distributed. But I sometimes feel like there are more uncertainties than there are certainties in research spending at the moment.
As we outlined in our Election Briefing document:
- we don’t know what proportion of our future research budget will reach universities and how much will reach other organisations, such as non-university research institutes;
- we don’t know the future landscape of research funding bodies, given the signals about a new ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency), or even who is to head up UKRI;
- we don’t know how the commitments to fund excellence and the commitments to boost the regions will interact;
- we don’t know what proportion of the costs of any subsidised research project will be covered by public grants; and
- although Brexit has now happened, we still don’t know what our participation, if any, will be in EU-funded research or what replacements there could be if we are not in the tent.
Despite the enshrining of the Haldane Principle in primary legislation in 2017, which is designed to ensure research spending decisions are based on peer review, we also don’t know the full extent of possible political interference in the distribution of research spending.
There is another point too. Previously, Ministers made it clear that the 2.4% goal was designed to be hit within a decade and, just three years ago, the 2017 Conservative manifesto additionally spoke of ’a longer-term goal of three per cent.’
By continuing to focus on the 2.4% rather than the 3%, we are giving policymakers an excuse to be less ambitious, including at the forthcoming spending review. This makes it easier for them to set out shorter-term plans and to aim for the 2.4% OECD average rather than the more stellar performance of those who spend the most. In 2018, seven countries spent at least 3% of their GDP on research and development, including Germany (3.0%), Sweden (3.3%), Israel (4.5%) and South Korea (4.6%). So, in my view, we should stop talking about the 2.4% and start talking about the 3%.
I often say that, over the past five years, there has been more change affecting UK higher education than in any other five-year period since the start of higher education in these islands over 800 years ago. There have been major political changes, such as coalition, minority and majority governments and the referendum and, now, Brexit itself. There have also been major changes directly aimed at our sector, such as the Higher Education and Research Act (2017), the replacement of Hefce by the Office for Students and the establishment of UKRI.
Some people think this pace of change is likely to calm down now that we have a more stable Government, with a clear majority and a long mandate facing a weak opposition. But for the reasons I have outlined tonight, I find that unlikely. I only hope policymakers treat our sector with due care and attention for there are not many sectors of British life that are unquestionably world class but our university sector is one.
As I learnt from Professor Peter Hennessy here all those years ago, Roy Jenkins once described Tony Blair’s task in getting Labour into power in 1997 as ‘like a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor’. Stewarding our higher education sector in the years to come will be a similarly challenging task.