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Time for the Department for Education to press re-set with universities

  • 4 September 2020
  • By Dean Machin

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Dean Machin. Dean is Head of Policy at the University of Portsmouth. Previously, he worked for David Willetts on his book ‘A University Education’ and has written a report for the Social Mobility Commission on data-sharing.

‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy’, so say the generals. Having spent several months developing ideology-enriched plans to exploit universities’ pandemic-caused financial distress, and get greater control over the sector, the last couple of weeks constitute first contact with reality for the Department for Education (DfE). It turns out that quite a few people care a great deal about there being plenty of university places.

Recent events have created a consistency challenge. The obsessions with ‘rigour’ and grade inflation have been put aside. The focus on attainment as the only basis for university recruitment modified, the negative noises about contextual admissions side-stepped. The determination that fewer young people should go to university has also, temporarily at least, been quietly dropped. 2020 might turn out to be a significant year for university expansion.

Time to re-set

The Department’s studied indifference towards institutional failure now looks politically naïve. Any problems universities face will be attributable to the Government’s abandonment of its own student number control (SNC) – a measure it judged necessary to financially stabilise the sector only two months ago. Should any university fail, or have to downsize staff and courses, Government fingerprints will be at the scene of the crime.

The DfE’s current financial re-structuring regime also looks callow. One condition of support is that a university examine ‘whether any provision [it provides] could be more effectively offered at Level 4 and 5, either at the institution or at a local further education college’.

In 2021 there will be more competition for university places. (We expect an increase in deferral rates, the recovery of the international student market, and there is the long-waited demographic rise in 18 year olds.) How will parents react when told that there is no university place for their daughter but that but she can do a level four or five technical course at the local further education college?

All this has happened (I speculate) because, in the attempt not to waste a crisis, the Department has opted for ideology over practicality. In doing so it has ignored the injunction of the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, that this ‘is not a time for ideology’ – something he might remind Gavin Williamson of when he asks for more money.

What should the Department do?

There is a short-term political necessity to provide universities with resources. The Department will have to sort out the wheat from the chaff in some claims – clearly, the University of Sheffield thinks it will do OK out of recent changes. But some universities will have to accommodate more students than they expected – and on socially-distanced campuses.

More importantly, in abandoning its own number control so late in the day, Government is on the hook for any university’s financial difficulties. Americans call this the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you pay for it.

Longer-term, the Department simply needs to focus on its positive agenda, and avoid taking pot-shots at universities. It has a thumping democratic mandate to address the underfunding of further education and have more people taking levels four and five technical qualifications. Few people dispute the idea of a ‘forgotten 50%’, and who can argue with more good routes to employment for school leavers?

The DfE should also reflect on why full-time undergraduate study has flourished since 2012, and other forms of study withered: financial incentives are a powerful thing. The priority should be to design the right incentives and let further education and higher education institutions respond accordingly. It should forget about ‘re-balancing’ the sectors. Students getting qualifications with value matters, not the institutional setting in which they earn those qualifications.

The Department should also follow the rule of my grandmother: if it has nothing positive to say about universities, does it need to say anything at all? Criticising universities creates unnecessary antagonism and is probably not very popular in the further education sector. It makes the Department sound more interested in levelling down universities than levelling up further education.

When the DfE does talk about universities, it should remember that it has almost no direct control of them and so requires their goodwill to get things done. It should show that it recognizes that the overwhelming majority of the sector is fundamentally sound as well as a good exporter earner. Better serving left-behind Britain yes, fewer universities, or simply rhetoric about fewer universities, no.

If the DfE does all this, and reminds people of the unalterable fact that, in a world of finite resources, more for further education might (unfortunately) mean less for HE, much could be achieved without unnecessary conflicts. This might not satisfy the cultural warriors on the Tory right. But no Government achieves everything; priorities must be made.

I suspect that very few in Government really want fewer universities, particularly the new ‘blue wall’ MPs. They will all want to improve educational attainment in their constituencies and, if this happens, their constituents will expect university places to be available for their off-spring. Unless fewer of the young of Surrey and Berkshire are to go to university, this will mean more university places. There is plenty of time for the DfE to change approach. But can it? Soon enough we should know whether the DfE can learn or whether, like the Bourbons, it has learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.


  1. albert wright says:

    I strongly disagree with this article which appears to be calling for a return to “business as usual” and further funding from tax payers to support the supply side of HE.

    We already have too many universities, too many under graduates and too many post graduates.

    The education budget needs re-balancing with more money spent on early years, primary, secondary and FE sectors.

    The UK needs to up skill the workforce and train people to be more productive in the jobs they do.

    Universities must better support the economic challenges facing the nation on a local, regional, national and international level.

  2. Toby says:

    “Upskill?” Ugh. Quite clearly you see people simply as economic units- “workforce” “productive” to be “trained” like monkeys, no doubt. What next, the School of Hard Knocks? Any fule kno that we live in a knowledge economy and actually need 100% of young adult educated (not trained) to higher levels in soft skills, social and emotional intelligences so that indeed better management will then improve productivity (which has been Britain’s problem for 50 years).

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