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Fast response to some slow thinking: Initial comment on today’s slew of documents from the Department for Education by HEPI’s Director

  • 21 January 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

Slow thinking

A few years ago, there was a vogue for ‘slow thinking’, ‘slow food’ and even for a whole ‘slow movement’, all of which were aimed at reducing the pace of life down.

In recent years, people watching UK higher education policy might well have felt the idea was being taken too far. It was four years ago, back in 2017 when Donald Trump was still in his first year as President and Justine Greening was the Secretary of State for Education, that the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced a review of higher education finance. That year’s freshers might have expected it would ease their financial plight. But most of them graduated last summer and, in April this year, they will enter the repayment phase on their student loans (although many have struggled to find work in the current labour market).

Today, the waiting is over. The Government is finally publishing:

  • the Pearce review on the Teaching Excellence Framework, along with an official response;
  • a consultation on post-qualification admissions;
  • the further education white paper;
  • changes to the teaching grant that flows through the Office for Students; and
  • an interim response to the Augar panel’s proposals.

These are unlikely to receive the focus they might have had in normal times, given the change of leadership in the US and the continuing COVID crisis, and they will not answer every outstanding question. But they are very important document nonetheless.

Has it been worth the wait?

The goal of slow thought is to produce better answers. So has it been worth the wait? Our initial answer is likely to be a frustrating one: yes and no.

There will be a broad welcome for the Government’s expected rejection of a subject-level layer to the Teaching Excellence Framework. Few people considered the level of bureaucracy involved to be worth it, given that even subject-level results would still have provided an imperfect picture of provision. A longer cycle for the TEF exercise may also be welcomed by many, though perhaps not all – it is likely to mean, for example, that there will often only be one round during the tenure of a single vice-chancellor.

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about Ministers wanting to promote some courses and attack others. Waving goodbye to subject-level TEF, and other changes like the bullets already fired at the National Student Survey, should not be interpreted as Ministers losing interest in controlling higher education. Many of today’s announcements represent, if not a full-frontal attack on institutional autonomy, then at least a tightening of the chain between Whitehall and institutions.

For example, the financial top ups that the Office for Students pays to institutions on top of the tuition fee income (amounting to a well over a billion pounds each year) are to be redistributed: bluntly, media studies and London weightings appear to be out of favour and higher cost STEM subjects may end up being somewhat better supported.

There is likely to be more control over capital budgets too, which will be more closely aligned with Government priorities, like levelling up and provision at Levels 4 and 5. This will prove tough for some institutions, even if it will not always be clear today which. Even doughty defenders of institutional autonomy, of which I include myself, have to accept policymakers will always want some directive power over the low proportion of funding for teaching that comes direct from the Office for Students. (Even the Robbins report, which was praised to the hilt in Michael Barber’s KCL lecture last night, accepted, ‘it is obvious that situations may arise in which it will be necessary for those responsible to choose between some centres and others. In a world in which resources are limited it is neither sensible nor feasible that every centre should be entitled to all kinds of development expenditure’.)

In some ways, the biggest education news today is the further education white paper. Or at least the biggest news today should be the white paper but if this morning’s flagship interview of the Secretary of State for Education on BBC Radio 4 is anything to go by, it may be trumped in the media by other education stories. Fleshing out the commitments the Prime Minister made in Exeter back in September, the white paper will explain how people’s entitlements to funded learning will change as well as the extra input expected from employers in shaping our skills system. At the time of writing, I haven’t seen the paper but whether or not it will really ‘revolutionise post-16 education’ as the Government claims is likely to depend upon decisions down the line, in the next multi-year spending review.

The same further delay, frustratingly, is likely to be true of other big questions from the Augar report that will remain unanswered even in today’s interim response to that document. We are very unlikely to find out today what will happen to the tuition fee cap or minimum entry standards or foundation years provided by universities, on all of which Augar proposed major changes.

But despite the big outstanding questions, today is probably not a day to carp. While we may have expected to see many of today’s documents before we’d ever heard of COVID, it is welcome that Ministers and officials have been able to set out a clear direction of travel, admittedly with some very fuzzy edges, despite everything else going on in education and elsewhere.

1 comment

  1. Albert Wright says:

    Employer lead training feels such a sensible and comfortable policy and it keeps captains of industry on side.

    Around 3 million of the 6 million businesses in the UK have no employees and I can’t find any mention of them in the reports. These sole traders, Director only limited companies, Uber drivers, eBay traders, freelancers and cultural industry workers seem to have been completely forgotten – again.

    Perhaps the Government believes they don’t need training and skills improvement. In large measure, they are the same people who have been Forgotten when it comes to those that have not had any Government financial support to help them during the Covid 19 crisis, even though they have seen a massive sales loss.

    These businesses that don’t have employees and don’t pay business rates still may pay Vat and / or income tax and national insurance and certainly contribute to the national economy.

    Perhaps the 3 million, who for now, can still vote, may be remembered when it gets closer to the local elections planned for May.

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