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All I want for Christmas is a consultation paper (or two) – by Nick Hillman

  • 29 November 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

As we enter Advent, the higher education sector is gearing up for expected new consultations from the Department for Education. Here HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, takes stock of current policy debates, the impending industrial action and the continuing impact of COVID.

The calm before the storm

It may seem extraordinary, given the volume and pace of change in recent years, but when it comes to higher education policy in England it feels a little like we are living in the calm before the storm – or perhaps that period before an earthquake when the animals start fleeing but the people are not yet sure what is happening.

In one sense, this is odd, given the same political party has been in power at Westminster – either as the major player in the Coalition or on its own – for over a decade, during which they have already implemented many big policy changes, such as: the tuition fee reforms of 2010 to 2012; the removal of student number caps; and the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017.

While we know how the Cameron Governments approached higher education – for example, driving change through supply-side reform – and we know that Theresa May would have sought to implement the recommendations in the 2019 Augar report had she stayed in office, we do not yet know all that much about what the current Johnson Government will be remembered for when it comes to higher education.

Given we are two-and-a-bit years in to the Johnson premiership, given one of the Prime Minister’s first big political jobs was Shadow Minister for Higher Education and given we have just had a long-awaited Spending Review, it seems odd that we still face such a blank slate. But the new Secretary of State for Education had only been in post for six weeks when the Spending Review occurred. And in the last few days, with new decisions on BTECs and T-Levels, we have started to learn more.

We may not have to wait much longer for further information. This Parliament is marching on, meaning we will soon run out road for major reforms before the next general election. So we can expect, if not a full white paper as some have predicted, at least some chunky consultations, possibly this side of Christmas.

As we enter the last phase of waiting, it seems a good moment to take stock of three areas: admissions; the size and shape of the sector; and the impact of the pandemic.

1. Admissions

In his final big speech as Secretary of State for Education, at October’s Universities UK Annual Conference, Gavin Williamson, promised ‘to accelerate our plans’ for a new higher education admissions system ‘to empower students to have the very best opportunities to succeed.’

On the one hand, a new admissions system looked to some like a no-brainer. There seemed to be a broad coalition in favour of change, ranging from Universities UK, through the University and College Union (UCU) and the Labour Party to those running the current admissions system at UCAS. But, as others have pointed out, shifting to a new admissions system is one of those areas where you become more sceptical of change the longer you work in higher education.

When I speak at teachers’ conferences, the audience often strongly back the idea of a new system, at least right up to the point at which they realise there will be less chance for teachers to recharge their batteries over the summer and less time for pupils to get the advice they need, as more activity would get squeezed into the post-results period.

But the biggest challenge with a new post-qualification system is that the strongest argument in favour of it – which is that the predicted grades on which the current system is based are very often inaccurate – may have been overcooked. Yes, very many predicted grades are wrong. And, yes, poorer students are more likely to be under-predicted. The Social Mobility Commission goes so far as to claim: ‘Predictive grades are wildly inaccurate across the board’. In my first career as a History teacher, I think I disliked coming up with predicted grades more than anything else.

Yet if there is one thing the last two years have shown about education, it is that teachers know the potential of their pupils best. And the system of predicted grades allows them to capture that. Mark Corver of DataHE, and formerly Director of Analysis and Research at UCAS, has crunched the numbers and says of predicted grades: ‘They are saying: this student has a realistic chance of doing this well when it comes to exams. If you had to choose a single statistic of potential to underpin good matching of university offers then this would probably be it.’ Moreover, as we have shown in a series of influential HEPI blogs by Dennis Sherwood, exams are not anything like as good a measure of either ability or potential as advocates for post-qualification systems tend to imply.

In terms of the practicalities of any new system, people applying to university need to know what the rules are when they apply and many of those hoping to go in 2022 have already submitted their UCAS forms. Those hoping to go in 2023 are already considering their options and will soon be reading prospectuses, visiting websites and booking open days. Given the volume of change a new admissions system would mean for schools, higher education institutions and the Student Loans Company, 2024 is the earliest date an entirely new system could be implemented. But that is also due to be an election year and no rational politician is going to implement a new higher education admissions system around the time of an election, in case it all goes horribly wrong as big government reforms have a habit of doing, at least in year one.

So we are still missing a good reason for any such reform and we are now close to missing the point by which a new system could be implemented in this Parliament. The new Director for Fair Access and Participation, John Blake, will need to decide where he stands on the issue in his first few days in the job. But it has been on the backburner for most of the time since it was floated in the Dearing report of 1997 as well as the Schwartz report of 2004 and it may well soon be returned there.

2. The future size and shape of the higher education sector

The question of how you match students to places is arguably all a bit of a red herring anyway. It diverts attention from a much more important question: how many places there are in the system to divvy up?

We stand at the base of a mountain in terms of the number of school leavers, which is set to grow sharply over the next decade. HEPI’s conservative modelling, which is based on the raw number of school leavers and (more importantly) expected continued growth in participation rates, shows a varied picture across the UK but also suggests we need another 350,000 full-time higher education places in England by 2035. Perhaps that is why Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, recently floated the idea of new universities in Doncaster, Grimsby and Thanet.

Some of this projected growth could theoretically be curtailed by a determined government, for example through tough new minimum entry standards for entering higher education, and / or regulating out weaker courses and / or reimposing student number caps and / or making alternatives to traditional higher education more attractive. Ministers in Whitehall have flirted with all these ideas in recent times and some of them could happen. Moreover, the current threats continuing to hang over BTECs could prove to be a new obstacle for some people who might otherwise enrol in a degree. But new front-door or backdoor student number controls would make little sense at a time when there is such strong demand for higher-level skills from both school leavers and employers.

This all explains why the Government are so keen to find other ways to reduce spending on higher education. The Daily Telegraph, for example, have suggested there are ‘government plans’ to ensure ‘Graduates must start paying back student loans sooner’.

My view on this is simple. It would be best not to cut spending on higher education in the current crisis. But if it is deemed necessary because of the state of the nation’s finances, there are more sensible ways to do it and less sensible ways to do it. Reducing the student loan repayment threshold is a reasonable idea – not politically popular, given the financial burden that already exists on young graduates, but still better than some alternatives like cutting student places just as the number of school leavers is rising. This is because it would protect university incomes and put the system back in equilibrium.

With London Economics, HEPI have shown that, if those who graduated in recent years faced the same student loan repayment threshold as those who graduated under the Blair / Brown system, then the savings would amount to around £4 billion a year. That would be enough to reintroduce maintenance grants and still make substantial savings, while reducing loan write-offs from 54p in each £ to a more reasonable 33p. There are other less radical options for the threshold that could be easier politically that would still raise significant sums.

One remaining unknown is whether any change to the student loan repayment threshold would be for new students only or whether it would apply to all those who have been to higher education since the current funding system was introduced in 2012. No previous change, such as Theresa May’s big increase in the repayment threshold in 2018, has been limited to new students only. So don’t believe those who say retrospective changes are unprecedented attacks on ‘natural justice’. If a tweak were restricted to future students, it would still be controversial but it would be a mouse of a policy and not clearly worth the inevitable political pain.

3. The effect of the pandemic

It has been wonderful to see, in recent weeks, how campus life has returned to something more like normal after two disrupted academic years. In the last few days, I have visited Manchester and Cambridge and it was great to see how the student areas in both places have much of their pre-pandemic vibrancy back, thanks to the return of so many aspects of regular student life.

The pandemic is far from over but lots of the predictions about how it would alter higher education seemed odd when they were made and seem even odder now. An article in The New Statesman last year, for example, said the pandemic had shown how, ‘People all over the world can learn and teach to huge audiences at close to zero marginal cost. This will revolutionise the delivery of higher education and research’. In fact, the crisis has shown the lure of a traditional degree remains stronger than ever. Applications are at record levels. Some cities have run out of beds.

Before the crisis, HEPI and Unite Students asked learners what should happen if lectures were abolished. The most popular answer, chosen by over half of all students (56%), was that other forms of face-to-face teaching should take their place; this was twice as popular as edtech (28%). When the question was re-asked after the pandemic had been raging for a few months, more face-to-face teaching was even more popular, chosen by two-thirds of all respondents (66%), while edtech had fallen even further behind, with just 21% support. So the ratio between the two had shifted from 2:1 to 3:1.

One big issue on the horizon is the return, this week, of industrial action in a minority of higher education institutions. There are five points to note about this.

First, whatever the whys and wherefores of the dispute, many students are unlikely to welcome their education being disrupted again so soon after the chaos of COVID and just as their costs look set to go up due to a change in the student loan repayment rules. That is why many local students’ unions are finding it so hard to offer anything like the same level of support as they have offered UCU action in the past – or indeed to offer any support at all. While students tend to be sympathetic to the demands of staff, their support is limited. This should be unsurprising: after all, most students will never get to benefit themselves from the sort of pension the UCU understandably wish to protect, yet those same students are taking on debts now in part to cover the costs of that very same pension for others.

The second thing to note is that one odd feature of the industrial dispute is that the responses to it are not necessarily as one might expect. So the Chief Economics Commentator at the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, says of the strikers, ‘It is easy to condemn them, but I do not.’ Meanwhile, one very close observer of union activity, Martin McQuillan (Editor of Research Fortnight’s HE publication), has warned, ‘A union that does not know when it has won and when it should cash in its chips is destined to a future of ever-diminishing returns.’

Thirdly, it is also an odd dispute because the protagonists have chosen to fight on lots of fronts at the same time – for example, on pensions and on four other fronts simultaneously (while also reballoting UCU members at some of the many institutions that had low turnouts). There is little sense of prioritisation, which is a major tactical error as nothing the employers offer will ever look like enough, so there is a misalignment of incentives. Looking at just the pensions battle, another tactical challenge is that there are many experts who believe the UCU should have focused more on the source of the pension issue, which is the way pensions are regulated, rather than attacking universities. Whether that is correct or not, other recent strikes seem to confirm the Union is better at campaigning than it is at delivering the follow through.

The fourth point to note is that, sadly, the dispute is likely to become extremely heated, bordering on the unprofessional. I had a taste of this last week, when the General Secretary of the UCU instructed the President of the National Union of Students to ‘Drag’ me on Twitter. (Dragging is a form of online bullying that ‘denotes violence’.) There was doubling down when I called it out. This is regrettable because, if there is just one area that should unite absolutely everyone in education, it is that we should always oppose bullying and never indulge in it. Yet it seems certain some will forget this during the strike. In early December, HEPI will publish a paper that will consider how to raise the professionalism and reduce the puerility of the small minority of abusive higher education staff on social media, with a view to matching how people in other professions conduct themselves. It should be a defining feature of higher education that we can disagree civilly as well as robustly.

if there is just one area that should unite absolutely everyone in education, it is that we should always oppose bullying and never indulge in it

The fifth and final point to note about the strike is that, however it goes, it will throw up some interesting and unresolved policy questions. That is why, tomorrow, HEPI will be publishing a new paper looking at one of these in detail. So watch this space – or sign up for our daily blog at the bottom of our homepage to receive the report straight to your inbox overnight.

When it comes to research, no senior manager can ignore the many current challenges. A recent HEPI blog, written by Tom Sastry at UKRI, revealed how, while universities are not holding back on plans to recruit new staff or doctoral students, they do have major concerns about the impact of increased workloads on staff: 97% of senior managers dealing with research think the non-research workloads of academic staff have increased and a similar proportion (95%) agree that staff are finding it harder to make time for research.

Senior university managers and governors also worry about the coming Research Excellence Framework (REF) results, the promised review of the REF afterwards and the slowing down and opacity of some of the Government’s current commitments on research spending. One way to read the recent Spending Review is to accept that public R&D spending will increase significantly to £20 billion by 2024/25. Another way to read it is that this is £2 billion lower than the previous plan, and the details on how the money will be divided up remain uncertain. It is possible that the Government should never have committed to the original £22 billion figure and it is also possible that it was the devastating economic impact of COVID that forced them to devalue their promise – though I am far from alone in thinking the original commitment would still be in place if Dom Cummings were still in Number 10.

So, to conclude, at the start of the 2021 Christmas period, it seems that:

  • ripping up the university admissions system should not be regarded as inevitable, for it is unlikely to solve the problems that exist and may even create new ones but, whatever happens, the sector is likely to continue expanding;
  • the resulting growing cost pressures may drive the Treasury to make some big changes, which could be announced imminently, most probably changes to student loan repayment thresholds so that more of the costs of the system are recovered – and while such tweaks would be for England only, a reduction in education spending in England has consequences for spending elsewhere in the UK too; and
  • although the pandemic will undoubtedly leave its marks behind on UK higher education, including on research spending, they will not be the marks that so many people predicted – this is because the many attractions of a traditional UK university degree now look stronger than ever for both home and international students.


  1. Laura says:

    Great article, I really value Nick Hillman and his work in the sector, his commentary has been a huge help to me since I entered the world of HE.

    I do have a very small, gentle disagreement on his points around online “dragging”, and went down the rabbit hole of the link he provided to source the statement it “denotes violence”. I hope this is taken in the spirit of being able to voice our disagreements politely, as it’s intended.

    Personally I think the implication in that statement (which reads to me as “dragging” somebody is either a form of violence, or involves a threat of violence) isn’t accurate, or a fair representation of the issue. The article sourced refers simply to the connection of the name (e.g ‘think what a violent act physically dragging someone across the floor would be!’) which… I take their point, but I don’t think language is that… literal, in this case. And while I do think “dragging” someone has a generally negative intent, I think the idea that they have some desire for physical violence or harm is a step too far. I don’t think the article linked was particularly accurate or useful, and seemed a bit strange to use as a source. Honestly, I think even the ubandictionary definition of “humaliating someone on the internet” is a more accurate description, for those who need one.

    I hope it goes without saying that obviously, digital and emotional harm is a huge issue, and I fully condemn online bullying and harassment. I also haven’t seen the context of the conversations Nick is referencing here where he has been “dragged” by others on twitter, so I don’t know to what degree he was criticised or harassed, which I’m sure will affect his feelings on the matter. But I do think we make it more difficult to address the issues around online harassment, when we muddy the waters by equating it (or at least implying a relationship to) physical violence and threats. It’s a complex enough issue to solve in itself, I don’t think it’s useful to add more confusion to the pot.

    Generally, I just don’t think it’s especially helpful to focus so heavily on specific internet terms, when they can be described more simply and address the underlying impacts. I feel what can often be described as bullying, harassment, or in some cases just criticism, can be blown out of proportion by using terms like “cancel culture” and “dragging”. I think this contributes to a wider culture of fearmongering around the internet, and modern society which I often don’t feel are warranted, or ultimately doesn’t help address the actual issue at hand. In my opinion most of this behaviour isn’t anything new to the internet, it just happens to be easier and more convenient than ever.

    I know I’ve made a bit of a mountain out of a molehill on this, but it is a topic that’s important to me personally, and wanted to add my two cents.

    Keep doing the good work Nick!

  2. albert wright says:

    Another interesting and well argued paper, penned by Nick Hillman, which I strongly report, with one major exemption.

    I do not agree that cutting student numbers should be off the table when considering savings in delivery. While there is some demand, I disagree with the comment that, “….there is such strong demand for higher-level skills from both school leavers and employers” , if, by “higher-level skills”, he means undergraduate degree courses.

    The student demand is there, (no surprise as it is widely understood that having a degree generally leads to increased income and greater enjoyment of life) but there is no strong demand for a greater number of graduates from employers. What there is, instead, is a demand for fewer graduates but, for those who graduate, employers want them to have better skills, abilities and attitudes.

    Despite numerous reports over decades, employers want good graduates to fill vacancies in geographic and sectoral areas where there is a skills shortage. The message of “Fewer and better” is mistranslated by Universities as simply “More graduates”.

    While pay levels are not everything, variable pay levels, in a market economy, are designed to attract the right employees for a range of employers. Currently, starting salaries range from around £20,000 pa to £50,000 for around 80% of new graduates. A small number of vacancies exist at up to £100,000 and more.

    At the other end of the market are jobs from £7 an hour and above. Most people would not consider them as “graduate jobs” and many positions in care and hospitality remain unfilled.

    We certainly do not need to educate and train a higher percentage of the population we currently have, for graduate jobs. We might like there to be more people with degrees for other reasons but there is no economic / business case for a greater quantity.

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