- HEPI Director Nick Hillman responds to the Government’s new higher education reform announcements.
It has been a long time coming. Theresa May announced a review of post-18 education in her ill-fated 2017 Conservative Party Conference speech. In 2019, the Augar panel reported. In 2022, a higher education reform consultation occurred, which closed 14 months ago. Now, via a press release heralded by the Department for Education as a ‘crackdown on rip-off university degrees’, we finally know what the Government plans to do (sort of – some of the details remain fuzzy and, even where there is more clarity, there’s a general election sandwiched between now and full implementation).
In other words, someone who was enrolling as a fresher as Theresa May spoke could now have completed a BA/BSc and a PhD while waiting to find out what the Augar report would mean for higher education. People who entered secondary school in 2017 will be applying for higher education this year, before the new announcements have taken effect.
I am not a fan of predicting how historians will write up the present – the whole point of history is to have a different vantage point – but it is fair to say that they will struggle to portray the last few years as anything other than rather slow when it comes to education reform. The Augar report was, after all, a response to the perception that there was a pro-Corbyn ‘youthquake’ at the 2017 election, since when we have had one more Labour leader / election and three more Prime Ministers.
Now that Ministers have said what they will do, much of it is not hugely surprising. Minimum eligibility requirements have been put back in a box. The idea that people with low A-Level grades (or equivalent) should not be entitled to subsidised student loans is one of those ideas, like introducing post-qualification admissions or mainstreaming two-year degrees, that is endlessly floated and then rejected but which never quite dies. When I had the pleasure of working in Government a decade ago, we were forever under pressure from a senior Cabinet Office Minister to introduce the policy. But the civil servants’ written submissions on the idea were as negative as any I can remember on any issue – and not because they wanted to block the move for ideological reasons but rather because it is bloomin’ difficult to implement. So I am not surprised that minimum eligibility requirements have been put back to sleep, though perhaps only until the next set of Ministers decides to resurrect them (in which case the box they have been pushed back in to will come to resemble a Jack in the Box).
The attack on foundation years is not exactly a surprise either. The Augar report said: ‘We recommend withdrawing financial support for foundation years attached to degree courses after an appropriate notice period.’ This was (almost) universally unpopular within the higher education sector – among the least popular of all the 53 recommendations – but it found favour in Whitehall as a way of saving money and beating up on universities in a ‘let’s not scare the horses too much’ sort of way. So it is not exactly earth-shattering to see the idea of attacking university-based foundation years has been retained but watered down to become a lower fee cap for some courses rather than a complete withdrawal of support.
Even if one accepted the Augar report’s logic back in 2019 that some institutions had been making a healthy surplus by charging full whack for foundation years, it is not necessarily true after the period of high inflation that we have been experiencing and the new cap of £5,760 for ‘classroom-based foundation years’ is pretty low. One might also argue the timing of the change is odd, given that some of the COVID generation of school pupils might have more need than most for a foundation year.
Perhaps the real significance of the change, however, is that by introducing a different fee cap for certain provision, it breaches the long-held principle that there is a one-size-fits-all limit for regular university courses, which has held sway in England to date. Could it be the thin end of a wedge? Perhaps … or perhaps not. Danny Finkelstein once wrote that: ‘When accused, as home secretaries usually are, of introducing policies that were the “thin end of the wedge”, one Tory incumbent developed a sharp response. “Yes it is,” he’d say. “But I am only against the thick end.”’
Anyone who knows anything at all about my views on higher education knows I detest caps on student numbers. I have spent most of my career working in education (starting out as a classroom teacher) and I didn’t enter the sector to aid those who want there to be less of the thing that I believe society should value most of all: education in all its forms. However, a significant minority of students (31%) currently think they get poor value and it is possible to combine a dislike of new obstacles against learning with robust support for high quality over low quality provision. (It is why I support high fees and loans: they allows for more places and a high unit of resource.) A dislike of student number controls does not therefore equate to automatic support for low-quality educational provision.
So I am more sympathetic to some of the political rhetoric around rooting out low quality provision than many in the higher education sector sound and, if we must have limits of some sort, then doing it on a case-by-case basis using a mix of metrics and contextual information is better than other ways. Therefore, the plan to palm off the decision on whether to limit places on courses to the Office for Students (OfS) and their existing B3 work (which looks at continuation, outcomes and employment) makes some sense. It is a lot better than likely alternatives because, for example, it is potentially less blunt.
However, until we know how the current B3 process works out – in particular, whether it is fair for those under investigation – it is hard to say anything definitive about this. Moreover, as we showed in a recent HEPI publication, not a single higher education provider with large numbers of students previously entitled to free school meals achieved Gold in the Teaching Excellence Framework, confirming that a provider’s true context is easily overlooked. (On all this, it is also worth looking at David Kernohan’s wonderfully obscure but on-point Tweet from the weekend about the OfS’s substantial existing powers, as well as Jonathan Woodhead’s query about what it could all mean when it comes to determining eligibility for the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.)
More unpopular than the demise of minimum eligibility requirements and the rise of additional B3 sanctions will be another idea that refuses to die: the concept that earnings are a good metric of higher education courses. I am not going to rehearse the arguments against the idea here (especially when Polly Mackenzie of UAL discussed them brilliantly on the HEPI website over the weekend), but I will point out just two things – one of which might be deemed positive and the other which might be deemed negative.
- First, the higher education sector has (against its own perceptions) actually been winning the argument against the use of earnings as a measure of quality. In one light, the new announcement that the OfS should ‘continue work to make it easier for students to assess the quality of each university course, including its earnings potential’ could be regarded as the final implementation of the agenda pursued by the influential think tank Onward for many years. But in another light, you can see so much hedging in the language on what has been announced that it seems miles away from what might have been.
- Secondly, if anyone thinks the idea of focusing on earnings is some wicked Tory plot that will be quickly revisited by a centre-left government, they might want to re-read Labour’s 20-year old higher education white paper, which backed differential fees on the grounds that courses deliver different financial outcomes. (In this context, the recent excellent piece by Jess Lister of Public First on what to expect – and what not to expect – from a Labour Government when it comes to higher education is a genuine must read.)
Perhaps the real importance of all the new announcements is that, very slowly, we are getting a sense of how the two big parties will battle out the next election when it comes to higher education in England. Labour have recently reconciled themselves to fees and loans while talking about a more ‘progressive’ deal for graduates. The Tories meanwhile are focusing themselves on outcomes for students.
While it is true that higher education tends not to affect the result of general elections very much, the next election – unlike the last two – will be about much more than Brexit. None of the higher education policies proposed, or hinted at so far, is popular inside universities. But as Luke Tryl, a former Conservative special adviser in the Department for Education, tweeted over the weekend, politicians are on the hunt for ‘retail policies’ that look good to the mass of voters because these ‘could be the difference between majority/hung Parliament.’ In other words, there is a gap between what higher education institutions want and what politicians perceive voters to want.