This guest blog has been kindly contributed by Jonathan Woodhead, Policy Adviser at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes here in his capacity as a member of the London Higher Policy Network – a group bringing together policy leads from over 40 London universities and higher education institutions. You can find Jonathan on twitter @JonathanWoodhe2 and follow London Higher’s activities via @LondonHigher.
As I write, we are mid-way through the Conservative Party leadership campaign and both candidates have been outlining their view on education policy and the education system in general. One of the dangers of the 24-hour news media is the need to constantly fill news bulletins or social media. While it is right the public need to know what the two candidates are saying, ultimately they a set of ideas set out for a private members organisation but they are also receiving high levels of scrutiny. This latter point has largely been missed by many commentators – that Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are appealing to their ‘selectorate’ – the 150,000 or so Conservative Party members who will be choosing them. Despite the length of this campaign, I think many Conservative Party members welcome such a contest having been denied this under Theresa May and, of course, Labour had an equivalent coronation with Gordon Brown in 2007.
That said, it is right to unpack what the candidates are saying and see how their ideas reflect reality and not just to capture the interest of Conservative Party Associations. The more experienced of the two candidates, Liz Truss, has been in Cabinet since 2014 and prior to that held a post as a junior Education Minister. Of particular interest to London Higher members will be Liz Truss’s position as a Councillor in the London Borough of Greenwich in the 2000s. As a mixed income Borough, she will be acutely aware of the need to ‘Level Up’ in areas of London as well (one hopes) and acknowledge the great work local universities have been doing with widening participation students. Those with longer memories may also remember that Liz Truss was the Deputy Director of the Reform think-tank between 2005 and 2010. Liz authored many papers including those critical of the modular A-Level and the greater need for Maths education. It is therefore no surprise, despite her comprehensive schooling at Roundhay School, that she takes a more traditional view on access to higher education.
Much has already been made of Truss’s proposal for Oxford and Cambridge to give a guaranteed interview to all those with three A*s at A-level but the scale of this (never mind the appropriateness for some students) would be difficult, if not impossible to do. Truss’s other statement on Post Qualification Admissions (PQA) barely weeks after former Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi rejected similar proposals is confusing too. If a university term were to start in January does that mean the school year finishes in December? If not, what do prospective students do between August and the following January? Would employers be willing to take people for six months to lose them again? The former Head of UCAS, Mary Curnock-Cook informs me that more disadvantaged applicants gain from predicted grades than miss out. Possibly the opposite of what Liz Truss intends. It is worrying that much of the lens on higher education is focused on a small number of students who do very well. So far, no mention by her of the Government’s own Lifelong Loan Entitlement or any of the Augar Proposals…
Turning to Rishi Sunak now and as Chancellor he had a hand in many of the funding decisions over the past two years. From Rishi’s camp there has been little original thinking around Further and Higher Education. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he must be tangentially aware of the financial pressures facing universities with fees being frozen and added employer-based costs such as pensions, apprenticeship levy and the NHS care levy and this is in addition, for London institutions, to the removal of the London weighting for teaching which London Higher strongly campaigned against. However, I fully accept that other, non-London institutions, will have benefitted from additional STEM teaching funding.
Among Rishi’s announcements have been the promise to clamp down on ‘low outcome’ degree courses that don’t give graduates a good salary. While this is good copy for the tabloids it is fraught with problems even if it were desirable.
Vast swathes of public sector roles in teaching, social work, nursing and public services would be affected by this – cutting across a levelling up agenda where public sector institutions are propping up some towns and cities. There is a broader philosophical point about whether a candidate who believes in free markets and freedom of choice reduces that in a particular field?
The former Chancellor has called for a ‘Russell Group’ of technical institutions who work closely with employers and can award degrees. I am unclear if this is an annunciation of existing policy around Institutes for Technology (IfT) or a harking back to a nostalgia for Polytechnics which in their current form as modern universities already do much of what the former Chancellor seeks.
Rishi Sunak has also backed the Freedom of Speech bill which is presently in the Lords. Whether that Bill survives in its current form remains to be seen. Rishi has also stated his aim of wanting to create a ‘British Baccalaureate’ which would combine further study of Maths and English to aged 18 in addition to academic subjects. Now, there is a debate to be had around increasing specialisation at 18 and whether a more generalist approach is needed but policy is going the other way with specialist T-Levels, Apprenticeships and vocational Degrees.
For someone who takes a particular interest in part-time learning it is conspicuous what little has been said about the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (current Gov. policy), the Augar Proposals and the recruitment of international students. While I know many of these issues will not be front and centre of the ‘selectorate’s’ priorities I am certain that they will be to their own children or grandchildren. While nobody wants to see poor career outcomes for students on university courses the majority of graduates do end up in employment and higher education offers more certain outcomes than other routes. While we await further policy details from the victor on September 5 anything that denies further opportunities (such as restricting places or cutting student support) for young and older people is sure to be a vote loser in the medium term. With an election due in 2024 at the latest this must start to focus minds of those about to enter No10.