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Gordon Marsden: We can and must avoid a bleak future for higher education

  • 7 July 2020
  • By Gordon Marsden

This blog was kindly contributed by Gordon Marsden, Shadow Minister for Higher and Further Education and Skills from 2015 to 2019. You can find him on Twitter @GordonMarsden.

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…

Lines from the Irish writer W.B. Yeats poem, The Second Coming, written in 1919 in the wake of a cataclysmic world war and the worldwide ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic. Harassed administrators, worried staff and anxious students, furloughed and dispersed from campuses since the spring, sustained online and via Zoom, could be forgiven for thinking Yeats’ words had come back to haunt them with the coronavirus.

A worldwide phenomenon of course, but a perfect potential storm for UK higher education as we enter high summer. Job losses racking up – a daunting prospect for those about to graduate. Continuing uncertainty about a second wave of the virus and new outbreaks like that in Leicester (with three universities and a student body of over 60,000) threatening returns to localised lockdowns. And since the rejection of Universities UK’s proposals back in March, there has been much rhetoric but little concrete so far (certainly not from ‘Boris the Builder’) to cheer the world of higher education.

The University and College Union (UCU) warned the Government back in May (when a report from London Economics suggested nearly one in five of prospective students from the traditional 18-21 cohort might defer entry or go elsewhere this autumn – four times the normal number according to UCAS statistics) that a ‘wait and see’ approach could put tens of thousands of jobs in higher education at risk (remembering around 1-in-10 higher education courses in England are done at further education colleges).

Since then events have conspired to darken the clouds. Of the 2.38 million students in the UK, some 480,000 come from abroad, of whom around 140,000 come from the EU. The Universities Minister announced recently that from 2021-22 EU students would not be eligible for home fee status.

While not unexpected, if you add to this the increasingly harsh rhetoric of the Government’s trade talks with the EU, the fatalistic tone of Ministers musing on a home-grown alternative to Erasmus, plus the fiasco of a bespoke satellite system to replace the EU’s Galileo, could well accelerate any drop in EU students as well as postgraduates and young academics, exacerbating vice-chancellors fears about Brexit.

The concerns of UK universities dependent in recent years on recruiting significant numbers of Chinese students as a key element in their budgeting have already been heightened by the exodus of many of them from the UK since the spread of the Coronavirus. Now that vulnerability is piling up further with the rapidly deteriorating relationship between China and the UK. The toxic politics of the new Security Law in Hong Kong, with UK reappraisal of business ties with China and national security, suggests little rapid return of those students or recruitment of new ones, with or without coronavirus. That’s a major headache for several London universities and others across the country.

Given that pile-up of external factors, support for existing UK students will be critical come the autumn. UUK’s survey in mid-June suggested most universities contacted are planning to offer person-to-person teaching as well as support services. The devil though will be in the detail, especially in mental health support. The University of Cambridge, University of Manchester and the University of Reading are among those which will be delivering lectures online in the autumn, but the picture overall is still unclear.

With the Government’s stubborn refusal to contemplate any intervention over already high tuition fees for students who do not get adequate face-to-face teaching or support and NUS worries about accommodation costs and liabilities, increased drop-out or deferral is possible.

It is clear that the Government, along with the Office for Students (OfS) is closing the door on ways resorted to by some senior management in universities to keep numbers up, such as unconditional offers. Whether the temporary cap on growth will become semi-permanent, the mood music from Michelle Donelan’s swipe at unidentified universities for recruiting disadvantaged students onto low grade courses (it would be interesting to see the evidence), for those hoping for ‘business as usual’ after the pandemic, is grim.

That should not be just a ‘new normal’ – as even the Augar report conceded. I have consistently argued for a number of years that with the worlds of higher, further education and skills morphing into each other in the 21st century digital world we need structures appropriate for that in the UK to cut across the silos. That was why I was proud to have helped set up and co-ordinate the Lifelong Learning Commission which produced such recommendations last autumn.

All of us who participated in that project were passionate about the social and economic advantages to be gained by placing Lifelong Learning at the centre of UK education for the 2020s. But the principles that infused that report could also help stabilise the higher education sector in the aftermath of the pandemic.

We need to get universities to re-embrace their noble tradition of continuing education going back to the late 19th century. Many of those strands and departments have fallen victim to the attrition in lifelong learning that has left us with nearly a million fewer adult learners since 2011.

The University of Cambridge has recently come up with a £1 million initiative to offer adults affected by the pandemic bursaries to study via their Institute of Continuing Education. It would be excellent if other universities who are well heeled could follow suit while others threatened by declining numbers in their 18-21 UK cohorts and overseas students could think about how that might help bridge their gap.

Further Education colleges have long had to be adroit in assembling a critical mass of students of all ages to keep individual courses or departments going. With this Government being more directive and the Office for Students echoing the enforcer role the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) has for colleges, universities will need fleetness of foot to keep hold on their autonomy.

Whitehall and Ministers also have to rethink their approach rapidly. Boris Johnson’s Dudley speech was depressing in taking an outdated 20th century model of economic revival. It is investment in human and digital capital that we need, not just shiny new buildings with a ministerial plaque on them. What is the point if you do not have the teachers, researchers or trainers to populate them?

The principles of progression our Commission enshrined will be crucial in higher education for people of all ages including for higher qualifications. That includes PhD students, but Bethan Cornell’s recent report for HEPI describes them working long hours in isolation, and often falling through the net of wellbeing. The limbo land they often inhabit (not quite students but useful part-time teaching assistants) could become purgatory for many in a cull of short-term contracts in higher education highlighted by UCU as managers scurry to make pandemic savings.

The universities of the next decade cannot be islands, entire unto themselves, to paraphrase John Dunne. They have a key role to play in their communities as well as projecting the very best of Britain both at home and on the world stage. The pandemic has thrown into sharp urgency their need to collaborate – on regeneration, productivity, research and their mission to be beacons of evidence-driven thought.

Bob Kerslake with his Civic University Commission, and John Butcher from the Open University (which remains a central bastion of lifelong learning) – have both spelled out their objectives in recent HEPI reports – and Andy Westwood, who advised our Lifelong Learning Commission, has pleaded passionately for universities to look to the longer view in a piece for Wonkhe last week.

Finally, five suggestions for practical things to do now to give lifelong learning and higher education a leg-up during the pandemic.

  1. Matched funding by Government to expand the Cambridge £1 million adult bursaries initiative, targeted at those higher education institutions with modest resources and based in disadvantaged areas.
  2. Identify place-focused universities, in the spirit of the Bob Kerslake proposals and incentivise them to co-operate with feeder further education colleges in their area (not taking them over), and look at how to reopen satellite campuses of post-92 universities in higher education cold spots closed by austerity.
  3. For post-23 learners on an Access to Higher Education course, their student loan for it does not need repayment if they progress onto and complete a higher education course. Consider giving means-tested maintenance grants to successful learners on a higher education course in addition.
  4. Let’s trial a Lifelong Learning Grant or Allowance for distance and part time adult learners. This echoes our Commission proposals and John Butcher’s in HEPI Report 124, as well as arrangements in Wales and Scotland.
  5. Act upon the proposals of NEONHE this week to expand existing higher education opportunity partnerships into a national strategy, as well as extending the current National Tutors programme to 16-19 year olds as the NEON higher education Director Graeme Atherton has suggested. Ideally, it would go further into the early 20s, often a make or break period for a second chance.

I have said more than enough to keep the Treasury busy, but there is much more still to do. If at least we can make a start now, we may avoid Yeats’ other bleak lines from The Second Coming:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.’

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