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The Gradual Reshaping of the Education Sector

  • 24 February 2021
  • By Dave Phoenix

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Dave Phoenix, Vice-Chancellor, London South Bank University. You can find Dave on Twitter @David_PhoenixVC.

The ‘policy avalanche’ on 21 January, for which the tertiary education sector in England was bracing itself, has now been written off by many (particularly within higher education) as a non-event. But while there were few eye-catching headlines, taken together with other recent proposals, the White Paper represents a further step in the Government’s re-exertion of control over tertiary education. This could lead to a stronger system that supports opportunity but it might equally force a move away from an approach based on independence and student-choice to one that limits options and undermines social mobility.

Some of the proposals will clearly provide a positive step for Further Education, particularly the much-announced boost of capital funding and the opportunities arising from the proposed Lifetime Skills Guarantee. This Guarantee will provide adults without a Level 3 qualification with the funding to study for one – potentially increasing the pipeline towards Level 4, where we have our greatest skills gap. There is also discussion of a four-year learning entitlement, allowing more people to engage in learning and in a more flexible way. This could – especially if provided with maintenance support – help us to recover ground in the collapse of mature and part-time learners that occurred after the increase in fees. As such, these changes have the potential to enhance social mobility. By working with business to generate new Higher Technical Qualifications, they also open up the potential to reimagine aspects of higher education and create a framework that helps universities adapt to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

A Conservative government would normally be associated with a drive to remove regulation and free up providers to innovate. However, current indications suggest that we are about to move into a period of greater central control of tertiary education, which has the potential to limit choice and stifle innovation. For example, the Level 3 qualifications available through the Lifetime Skills Guarantee are being prescribed by government and have to be ‘in a subject area with strong market outcomes and alignment with government priorities’. Alongside these new funding rules, the Government is seeking new powers to intervene directly in the running of colleges which – when added to the direct control of Academy Schools – appears to indicate growing centralisation of education as a direction of travel. While some of the Government’s drivers may be more ambitious, it is clear that behind the increased control and restricted course choice is a desire to reduce cost.

The marketisation of higher education over the last decade has greatly increased the range and diversity of providers. It has not, as governments then and now hoped, led to a reduction in the sticker price of a degree at larger more established institutions. The removal of student number caps, which occurred shortly after the changes to fees, has however enabled a larger than ever proportion of school-leavers – often from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – to enter higher education (although we have simultaneously seen a collapse in mature and part-time learners). Rather than drive down the cost of higher education, marketisation has therefore led to an ever-larger bill to the Treasury; and as the demographics change and more people wish to obtain a university education, this is fuelling concerns about affordability.

Unfortunately, in the Government’s eyes, these new young students are not necessarily choosing the ‘right’ courses for university study – those the Government believes will maximise their earnings and provide the associated loan repayments. This frustration is evident in Gavin Williamson’s recent statement to the Commons about ‘slashing the taxpayer subsidy for such subjects as Media Studies’ – while forgetting the £70 billion contributed each year to the UK economy by the media industry.

The current proposals could be seen as an attempt to mitigate the financial challenges by pushing learners away from three-year degrees – in particular Arts and Humanities degrees – towards shorter courses in technical subjects, ideally delivered in further education, which the Government sees as a cheaper option. It seems that this market shaping might in the future further extend to the introduction of minimum higher education entry thresholds, as a mechanism for restricting numbers of students embarking on degree programmes. This is a move that in one stroke would delegate technical education to second best and put in place a principle that enables Treasury control of student numbers so that their chance of undertaking a degree would depend on the demographics and funding available in their planned year of entry.

At the same time, the Government is seeking to influence universities – encouraging them to move away from teaching subject areas it sees as unproductive for students and the economy. The Secretary of State’s funding letter, released the same day as the White Paper, instructs the OfS to reduce high-cost subject funding for those subjects which are not considered ‘strategically important’ such as performing arts, creative arts, media studies and archaeology.

We can see further evidence of Government influencing student choice in secondary education. The Post-16 Skills Plan could see the removal or limiting of Applied General Qualifications in favour of a blunt choice between A-Levels, to prepare students for higher education, or T-Levels for entry into the workplace or progression to new Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) at Levels 4 and 5. Currently only around 60 per cent of students arrive at university with A-Levels alone, with most of the remainder progressing through Applied Generals or a combination of the two. Limiting this combined option has the potential to curb the higher education ambitions and options of many pupils (and their parents). While this may not be the Government’s intention, there is a significant risk that this could be a consequence of such a policy. Interestingly, the T-level pilots have seen large numbers of academically high achievers studying for these qualifications. This is a potentially beneficial development if technical education is to be seen as a positive choice (as opposed to a fallback option) for learners. However, with the potential of Applied Generals being phased out, there is a significant risk that a wide range of pupils will be left unsupported. Furthermore, as students do begin to progress through T-Levels and pick out their Level 4 qualifications, they may find their choice limited because providers are being encouraged to shift their provision entirely to the approved HTQs – ‘from 2023, [government] will look to reduce funding for non-approved higher technical qualifications’.

The proposals presented by the Government have great potential but if the implications are not fully understood, there will be significant unintended consequences. Given the strong link between socioeconomic background, achievement rates at school and prospects upon graduation, there is a cause for concern that, taken together, these policies may push some learners into courses they may not have chosen – a far cry from student choice. For some of them the choice of higher education might be removed altogether if the OfS’s recent proposals to remove benchmarking / contextualisation in regulating quality and standards result in disincentives for higher education institutions to admit students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds

There is an argument to be made that, given the level of taxpayer investment involved in higher education, restricting student choice is entirely reasonable, as per the proposals for the ‘free’ Level 3 courses. Whatever one’s point of view, it remains worth noting that we are in an era of growing government control of education. The risk is that this drives us down a path of least resistance with central initiatives leading to a narrowing of educational options at an ever earlier age. For example, while T-Levels theoretically do not prevent learners from accessing higher education, if they are not developed in collaboration with universities, colleges and schools they are likely to limit the options both pre- and post- qualification – and for many this will occur at just 15 or 16-years old.

In Germany’s education system – beloved of so many Education Ministers – and elsewhere, those on a technical route actually study a wider range of subjects even than many of our GCSE pupils. In designing England’s new educational landscape there are two principles that we must keep in mind.

  1. These new qualifications need to be seen not in isolation but as part of an individual’s educational journey and designed with an understanding of both secondary and tertiary education pathways. They should create not restrict opportunity.
  2. If the Government is to deliver on the place-based rhetoric and levelling up agenda, it needs to ensure a risk-based system of oversight is brought into operation rather than trying to manage all things centrally.

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1 comment

  1. Gideon White says:

    Appreciated seeing the perspective offered here.

    May I please beg forgivness for long comments but just felt inspired to try them out.

    Practitioners of NPM and its mutations have shaped and reshaped the role of Government in its governance of sectors over the past 30 years, including the education sectors. The public administration paradigm nows seems to be moving towards Public Value Creation – see Sir Michael Barber’s work with HMT in that regard. Public administration goals are therefore evolving further, buffeted by the politics of the incumbent governing party, and tempered by short- and longer-term spending constraints linked to macroeconomic decision-making (for good or bad).

    In all that, the Government’s relationship with, for example, HE sector, has moved from a ‘simple’ State-Universities basis of 80s/early 90s through various forms of NPM-based market-like mechanisms. This is where ‘performance’ is used to establish the notion of university provision as a service with stakeholders (whether students or research sponsors) as service consumers, and thus evolve the ‘simple’ State-Universities relationship into a triangle of ‘market-like’ relationships between State, Universities and their ‘service users’.

    However, the Small Business Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 that allowed the LEO datasets to come into being has quietly but fundamentally enabled Government to evolve its relationships radically. That ‘triangle’ of ‘market-like’ relationships is now a tetrahedron of relationships of State, ‘Knowledge Economy Markets’, Citizen Students or Knowledge Economy Market Purchasers, and Providers as self-directing self-aware participants in Knowledge Economy Markets.

    This is crucial as it now allows Government to separate out its obligations to the people who were once primary and secondary pupils, then become 16-18 students, and then become post-compulsory learners and/or entered (or so Government wants) the tax-paying workforce in some form. It allows Government an array of levers and controls over choice routes for citizens or purchasers, separate from an array of levers over ‘knowledge economy markets’, and separate again from an array of levers over providers as licensed participants in those markets.

    As this blog identifies, money is key but in the form of investment in UK plc and public value creation. Government is progressively granting to itself the means to ‘parent’ its citizens along a potentially narrow road of choices depending on the politics of the incumbent governing party, taking into account the public value from the ‘investment’ in the citizen by the State whether with compulsory education, or student support for non-compulsory learning, or with social care and welfare benefits and other support, or with a lifetime ‘return’ from taxable earnings linked to the State’s expectation of earnings given the ‘investment’ in the citizen’s education and welfare.

    Just some long thoughts that appreciate Prof Phoenix’s perspective that spot the paradigm shifts that have been and are occurring.

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