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#RESHUFFLE – The 10 crucial things any new Minister for Universities needs to know

  • 13 February 2020

This guest blog has been written in a personal capacity by Dr Diana Beech (Head of Government Affairs at the University of Warwick).

Diana was Policy Adviser for higher education to various Ministers for Universities and Science (Sam Gyimah, Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore – twice!), a role she fulfilled after a stint as HEPI’s first ever Director of Policy and Advocacy.

So, the promised new world has arrived. The UK now finds itself outside the European Union and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is finally delivering the long-anticipated reshuffle of his ministerial team.

This brings yet more change for UK universities. As well as having to come to terms with significant changes to the Cabinet – and allowing for double counting of both Jo Johnson and Chris Skidmore, who have each done the job twice – the higher education sector will now have to get to know its sixth Universities Minister since 1 January 2018. 

Having served as Policy Adviser to so many Ministers for Universities and Science, under two Secretaries of State in two different Departments and two different Prime Ministers, I am no stranger to change. The steady stream of ministerial resignations and reshuffles during my tenure made me a dab hand at thinking about what a new minister needs to know on their first day in office.

So, not wanting to break an old habit, here’s my top ten of things I want our new Minister for Universities to know from the outset:

  1. Not all students are ‘young people’. The first point may seem obvious, but it is still one that far too many policymakers get wrong, particularly since much responsibility for higher education was transferred to the Department for Education and universities have come to be regarded by some as ‘big schools’ rather than the vast ecosystems of life-long learning, research and innovation that they are. Although 18-year-olds make up the largest group of higher education entrants, it is folly to assume all students are school-leavers. The range of options available to enable people to enrol on higher education later in life, together with our open and inclusive approach to international students, means higher education students span a wide range of age groups. The latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) confirm that there are around half a million higher education students aged 30 and over, so we should not overlook their specific needs and challenges.
  2. Postgraduates are students too! In the same vein, not all higher education students are enrolled on undergraduate programmes. Postgraduates studying for both taught and research Master’s degrees, as well as PhDs, are all students too. Yet they have often fallen between the cracks in the current machinery of Government, with more than one Department having responsibility for postgraduate provision. So, we need to ensure postgraduates are not left out of the picture when it comes to designing future student-centred policies.
  3. The value of higher education is about much more than future earnings. The message that degrees should not be measured on graduate salaries alone has finally been acknowledged by the Department for Education in its discussion of Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data. This is a small victory, but it is still not one that speaks to the Treasury. What we need now is help from Government to find ways to capture the value of socially-valuable degrees such as Nursing, Midwifery and Social Care, and to quantify the benefits of the longer, healthier, and more law-abiding lives of graduates, to ensure a cross-government recognition of the full value of higher education.
  4. Excellence is not just found at Oxbridge. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are frequently found near, if not at, the top of global league tables and are recognised the world over for their quality and prestige – this is something the whole of the UK higher education sector can undoubtedly benefit from. It is no wonder, then, that successive governments have tended to look to these two institutions for examples of excellence when informing policy. But Oxbridge isn’t always the answer. In our rich and diverse higher education sector, there are ample institutions we should recognise for their excellent work in a variety of different policy areas. HEPI Director Nick Hillman once argued, for example, that if you want to highlight the UK’s expertise in Marine Science or Oceanography, then you’re probably better looking to universities on the south coast rather than to land-locked Oxbridge. And the same goes for small, specialist institutions and newer universities, which cover a range of disciplines outside the Oxbridge curricula – like creative arts. But this problem is not just restricted to academic fields and policymakers would do well to look more broadly at other institutions for best practice in areas like the successful access and participation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students, disabled students or care leavers, to name but a few. (One of the final commitments Chris Skidmore undertook as Minister for Universities was to attend an event on care leavers and estranged students, hosted by the Unite Foundation in Parliament last night.)
  5. Some of the best technical and vocational education takes place in universities. There has been a lot of talk of late about rebalancing further education (FE) and higher education (HE). In a press note last summer, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson framed the Government’s £400 million investment in FE as a move ‘to develop world-class technical and vocational education’. Of course, boosting FE provision and creating better pathways between FE and HE is a welcome move, but some of the best technical and vocational education in this country already takes place in higher education institutions. So, we risk overlooking that at our peril should resources be moved away from universities in any attempt to rebalance the post-18 educational ecosystem.
  6. Don’t favour STEM at the expense of the Arts. It is clear that the new Government wants to attract more people into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) careers. This, in itself, is no bad thing. But it should not be done at the expense of Arts and Humanities subjects, graduates of which are already fuelling the UK’s world-leading creative industries sector and service-driven economy. Measures to attract people into STEM subjects should also be properly costed. There is no point, for example, pledging to write-off the student loans of STEM graduates when some of them will go into non-STEM careers like law and banking and become the high earners of tomorrow. 
  7. Prepare for another big debate about fees and finance. Talk of what is going to happen to student fee levels in England has dominated the latter half of the past decade, with Labour promising to axe fees altogether in the last two General Elections and a recommendation to cut fees to £7,500 is still sitting unresponded to on the shelves of No.10. Failing to address this issue isn’t going to make it go away. For a start, changes to the student finance system in 2012 have brought about a significant decline in part-time student numbers. Small gains have been made in recent years, but to save us from another decade of decline, there is mounting pressure to find a fees and finance system that works for everyone, particularly those heading into higher education at a later stage in life. This may even need to be two different systems – one for full-timers and one for part-timers – if we believe the current system works well for full-time students. Tweaks will nevertheless be needed to the full-time system because student numbers are set to rise rapidly over the next ten years. A report I co-authored for HEPI in 2018 showed we should expect between 300,000 and 500,000 additional full-time higher education students in England by 2030. This means higher education institutions need to be preparing their campuses and workforces now for the increase in demand ahead. Yet, it is going to become increasingly difficult to do so if fee freezes and real-term cuts in income continue. And, as full-time demand increases, the Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge, which is the amount of subsidy provided by Government to write off student loans, is going to become increasingly unpalatable to Treasury at the current rate of 45%. So, unless something is done now to reduce the burden on universities as well as on the public purse, this question is sure to prove a ticking time bomb.
  8. Don’t reverse the tide of progress. One way to avoid the fee question associated with increasing demand would be to reintroduce student number caps. But the biggest success story of the last decade in higher education has been the removal of the cap on aspiration, which has seen more people than ever before going to university, including more people from the most disadvantaged parts of society. This is an achievement of which this Government should be proud and it should not seek to reverse progress. Any attempt to restrict access to higher education will always hit the most disadvantaged in our society hardest. So, for a Government committed to levelling up opportunity across the country, bringing back number caps is definitely not the answer.
  9. Take a closer look at the cost of living. When it comes to making life better for students, making changes to the headline fee is not going to cut it, but looking again at maintenance could. The way the current system works exposes some key areas of social injustice which need to be ironed out. As it stands, the parental contribution that is factored into student loan entitlement calculations is at odds with the way we treat students as self-sufficient adults in most other policy areas. Viewing them as partially dependent on their parents for maintenance can leave some students struggling to make ends meet if their parents are not willing or prepared to help them. And, as the costs of living at university rise, this then puts pressure on students to take on paid employment, which can put their studies and mental health at risk. Giving the most disadvantaged students greater access to higher levels of debt is also not the solution, as this just leaves them with a higher balance to pay back after graduation. And the higher we set the bar, the higher accommodation providers can set their prices. We may have created a dangerous feedback loop and the whole maintenance system needs a rethink.
  10. Finally, let’s remember, the rest of the world is watching… While it can be tempting to intervene with policy initiatives to make the UK higher education sector the best it can be, particularly in the face of growing global competition from universities in the US, Australia and Canada, we have to remember that any drive to encourage UK universities to up their game is being watched closely by the outside world. Calling out issues like low contact hours, poor graduate salaries or grade inflation may well seem the right thing to do to protect quality in the sector, but it also sends a signal to the wider world that things aren’t perhaps as good here as they should be – and this is a risky thing to do when seeking to attract 600,000 international students to the UK by 2030, as set out in the International Education Strategy.

So if the New Minister commits to working with the sector, not against the sector, to iron out the issues listed above, then she or he might just find that universities will be our biggest asset in the five years ahead.

1 comment

  1. albert wright says:

    An extremely helpful and important piece of work that should be made compulsory reading for the next occupier of the post.

    With ten topics, knowing which 3 to prioritise will be very difficult.

    Political insight as to why Chris Skidmore was removed and what Gavin Williamson thinks are the priorities would be good to know too.

    My personal priority would be to sort out number 9, the Maintenance issue. However, throwing more loan money at all students I think would be wrong.

    Given the complexity and diversity of Universities and their courses we need more local solutions rather than a “one size fits all ” approach.

    Part time study and part time work, particularly for those studying vocational subjects are likely to benefit from different solutions to those studying mathematics.

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