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8 points of note from today’s announcements

  • 21 January 2021
  • By Rachel Hewitt

Today, the Department for Education has delivered at least partial responses to many of the key sector debates from the last few years. With the release of the Skills for Jobs White Paper, an interim response to the Augar review, a consultation on post-qualification admissions reformpublication of the independent report on the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework review and the Government’s response to the review, there has been plenty of reading material. But what are the key messages coming out of all this documentation? The below eight points represent my take on what we should learn from today about the Government’s intentions:

  1. Despite using today as an opportunity to wrap up (or further delay) some outstanding higher education questions, the Government clearly wanted the focus today to be on further education. It was evident that the majority of the focus had gone into drafting the Skills for Jobs White Paper, which is the weightiest and most comprehensive document released. This seems a fair approach, given recent further education policy has been limited. However, it may have missed the mark as most of the morning media coverage was focused on Gavin Williamson’s comments about when schools might reopen and much of the commentary among higher education experts and bodies has inevitably focused on the detail of the higher education announcements. 
  2. The Pearce review, like the Augar review before it, is comprehensive. The Government response to it, like their response to Augar, is not. However, it feels that the opportunity to pick up the best parts of the independent report have not (yet) been missed. While some elements were settled through the Government response (including that it will remain the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework or TEF, rather than the Education Excellence Framework or EdEF, as recommended by the independent panel), much has been passed over to the Office for Students to develop. Personally, I’d like to see many of the recommendations implemented, including greater use of the contextual information from the Graduate Outcomes survey alongside salary and employment metrics, more nuance in the ratings system and statistical improvements.  
  3. However it’s not entirely clear what the role of the TEF will be moving forward. The Pearce review highlighted the challenge between the two aims of using TEF to judge the quality of institutions and to inform applicant decision making. This was acknowledged in the Government’s response, which set the first purpose of the TEF as to enhance quality. However, it’s unclear how this fits in with other measures, including the ‘start to success’ metric and recent Office for Students consultation on quality and standards. The model proposed by the independent panel is currently lacking nationally comparable metrics for three of its four main aspects, as the Government have again ruled out the National Student Survey results playing a part. Instead they are asking the Office for Students to find an alternative which focuses on the ‘Student Academic Experience’ rather than ‘Student Satisfaction’ – perhaps inspired by the rich data collected in the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey over the last 14 years. With the TEF assessments now only taking place every four or five years and the inevitable lag associated with metrics, it seems there will be little opportunity for HE providers to make quick progress in showing improvements in their quality through the TEF. 
  4. The Augar review is (still) on hold. The response to the 200+ page report from the independent panel was brief, with the further delay in a full response being blamed on COVID-19. Perhaps it would also seem unpalatable to propose a cut to fees, which seems to be still on the table, while many students are calling for fee refunds after a tumultuous year. Most of the key elements, including minimum entry requirements, the role of foundation years and student finance ‘terms and conditions’ have been postponed to a Spring consultation, which will result in a final conclusion alongside the next Comprehensive Spending Review. While much is still on hold, the response does state that fees will remain frozen for another year, which as we set out in a report last year, will have a knock on impact on the funding model of higher education institutions. For more on how the future of higher education funding could work, you can read today’s HEPI report which explores the merits of a graduate contribution scheme and sign up for our free webinar next week where we’ll be exploring ‘What is the future of student fees and funding?’ with an esteemed panel of speakers.
  5. Almost all of today’s publications suggest a greater role for employers in further and higher education. The Skill for Jobs White Paper describes it as ‘putting employers at the heart of post-16 skills’. The response to the Augar report calls for ‘a strong link between education and jobs’ and the response to the Pearce report highlights the role of employment metrics in a future TEF. This seems to represent more of a continuation of the existing move towards linking higher and future education with employment and employability than a sudden change, as described in last year’s HEPI report Getting on: graduate employment and its influence on UK higher education
  6. While not part of the main release of documentation, significant adjustments have also been made to the teaching grant today through a letter from Gavin Williamson to the Office for Students. This was described by Williamson in a statement to the House of Commons earlier as ‘slashing taxpayer subsidies for media studies’. However, it seems to be more focused on the levelling up agenda – or in fact levelling down for London, whose institutions face a 14% cut in the teaching grant, which is redistributed across the rest of the UK. This will quickly be felt in the capital, with these changes being brought in for the 2021/22 academic year. 
  7. Post qualification admissions or post qualification offers? The consultation published on PQA today sets out a very open approach to how university admissions could work in the future, with some areas where the DfE seem genuinely to be stumped, such as how to handle cases where students are required to do interviews, auditions or additional exams as part of the application process, or how to avoid getting teachers to work all summer supporting students. While some aspects are taken off the table (such as the scrapping of exams or delaying the start of university terms until January), today’s consultation seems to add to the uncertainty of the future of university admissions, rather than providing clarity. 
  8. The Department for Education has set itself in consultation mode. Many of the outcomes of today’s releases are to set more consultations in the pipeline, including on the unsettled elements of Augar, admissions and the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework. This is a more positive step than enforcing unpopular or unworkable changes on the sector, but I feel for those within universities who are juggling delivering for students, continuing COVID-19 effects and are now set with another round of important consultations to respond to. 

To read more of HEPI’s response to today’s announcements, see Nick Hillman’s piece for the Times Higher EducationThe DfE’s policy responses mix weak soup with meaty steak and our initial response: Fast response to some slow thinking: Initial comment on today’s slew of documents from the Department for Education by HEPI’s Director.

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