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Is a new higher education white paper for England imminent?

  • 2 November 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

It was disappointing that higher education was almost entirely absent from the Chancellor’s Budget Statement to the House of Commons last week – I say ‘almost’ because UK universities did get one passing mention (the same as the English Civil War while cider got 10). Plus, as part of the Spending Review, the research budget for 2024/25, much of which will go to UK universities, was decimated (in the original sense of the term, as in cut down by c.10%), from £22 billion to £20 billion.

This was all disappointing but not surprising. Various dates for a detailed response to the English Augar report have come and gone. The hundreds of thousands of freshers enrolling in higher education when Theresa May announced ‘a major review of [English] university funding and student financing’ in her 2017 Party Conference speech, who might have hoped a review would provide them with some respite, have long since graduated. Indeed, those who were in their first year of university in 2018/19, when Philip Augar delivered his findings, and who might even more reasonably have expected some respite, have also now typically graduated.

Whether people liked the answer or not, we had a clearer idea of what other recent Westminster administrations have thought about higher education (just as it has also been clear what recent administrations in Edinburgh and Cardiff have thought).

  • For the Coalition, it was support for higher fees, more places and austerity-busting protection for research spending.
  • For the subsequent Cameron-majority Government, it was the removal of maintenance grants, pushing forward with the removal of student number caps and the 2015 green paper proposals to abolish Hefce.
  • For Theresa May’s administration, it was implementing Augar, even though there was no time to do it before a new Prime Minister came along.

Like Tigger, the higher education sector has quickly rebounded from last week’s disappointments and yesterday, just five days later, started to focus on a new expectation: a higher education white paper. We may see, we are told, a new white paper bringing together the Government’s various plans for higher education as early as this month.

In one important sense, I hope this happens: it could end the current planning blight. If change is to happen, then it would be helpful to have clear statements on Ministers’ plans for minimum entry requirements, tuition fee caps, student numbers, student loan repayment terms and a new university admissions system among other things.

But don’t bet your house on a white paper appearing on anything like the rumoured timetable.

A white paper is meant to provide a clear statement of what a Government wants to do while a green paper can be flakier, providing the outline of a new approach that might be firmed up later on after extensive consultation. For example, the 2016 higher education white paper appeared in May, months after its sister green paper, while the Higher Education and Research Bill was published just three days after the White Paper.

In the words of the official Parliament website, ‘Green Papers are consultation documents produced by the Governments’ but ‘White papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation’.

For a white paper to appear, you need to have many ducks in a row, such as:

  1. a big idea – for example, introducing maintenance loans (as with the 1988 White Paper) or the £3,000 tuition fee system (as with the 2003 White Paper);
  2. a clear narrative – for example, Students at the Heart of the System (2011) or Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice (2016);
  3. a plan of action co-owned by the Secretary of State, who in the Department for Education currently is brand new, and the responsible junior Minister – as with Ken Baker and Robert Jackson in 1988, for example;
  4. agreement (or at least acquiescence) across all the major Whitehall Departments on what should happen – this is not always easy, as shown by the Blair / Brown disagreements in the early 2000s on higher education;
  5. a lengthy document, fully agreed – the last higher education white paper (from 2016) was around 35k words long;
  6. detailed legislative plans – not necessarily a worked-up Bill but clear ideas for one at the very least, and perhaps with some drafting having already started;
  7. lots of supporting material – think of cost/benefit and equality impact assessments, commissioned research and modelling to support the arguments and approach; and
  8. a slot in the Number 10 grid, including possibly a Prime Ministerial speech to launch the flagship reforms.

Back in 2010/11, the Coalition had a clear policy: higher fees, a revamped regulator and supply-side reform. It was still incredibly hard to get a document written and agreed across Whitehall and there were numerous delays (and, in the end, that white paper did not actually lead to the sort of major new primary legislation envisaged).

Today, it is not entirely clear if Ministers want to lower undergraduate fees or not, what sort of new admissions system they want, whether they would like graduates to repay a higher proportion of the costs of their own education, exactly what the new Lifelong Loan Entitlement will look like and so on. It is theoretically possible perhaps that all this can be agreed in sufficient detail across Whitehall between now and 30 November so that a White Paper can be published. But it seems a tad unlikely.

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