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WEEKEND READING: Look Wot You Dun – Higher education in the run up to election ’24

  • 29 July 2023
  • By Nick Hillman
  • This is an extract from a speech delivered this week by HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, to the Board of the University of Wolverhampton (with apologies to local band Slade for the title and to Alice Cooper for the subtitles).
  • The speech looks at the state of higher education in summer 2023 and ahead to the next general election, due in 2024 (or, less likely, 2025).

Thank you for inviting me to speak here in Wolverhampton. It is a huge pleasure for three particular reasons. First, despite working in higher education policy for well over 15 years and despite having visited nearly every UK university, I have never visited the University of Wolverhampton before. Secondly, it is a particular pleasure to be here because I am a huge fan of your current (interim) Vice-Chancellor, John Raftery. John wrote one of our most important ever HEPI reports, about the turnaround that he oversaw at London Metropolitan University, which has proved to be a useful guide to vice-chancellors up and down the land. Thirdly, it is a great pleasure to be here because HEPI is supported by nearly all UK universities but I am sorry to say that, historically, our supporters have not included Wolverhampton. That was very recently rectified and so it is fantastic to welcome you as HEPI’s newest University Partner. Being a HEPI University Partner brings a number of advantages, including a termly Policy Briefing Paper summarising recent higher education policy issues, free places at our events – such as our Annual Conference – and early sight of all our publications among other benefits.

School’s out for summer

I want to start with what is happening in higher education policy right now, in late July 2023. Some people might think the sector resembles a calm oasis, at least until the new academic year starts in the autumn. The students have largely left, graduations have mainly been and gone and the Wonkhe Daily is paused. But the reality is that the summer is generally rather busy in higher education, for both professional services staff and academics. No one ever believes me when I tell them that the busiest month ever for traffic on the HEPI website was an August, though I promise you it is true.

Only last week, we had the Government’s ‘crackdown on low-value degrees’. There was a lot of tough talk, an official advert of a sledgehammer smashing ‘rip-off university degrees’ and favourable headlines in the papers that Conservative MPs care most about. There was a clear impression created that the Government wants to limit attendance on certain courses.

The announcement may have won the desired headlines, but it was arguably something of a damp squib. Rather than imposing number caps themselves, the question was farmed out to the Office for Students, which – it turns out – already has the power to limit recruitment to certain courses, a power which it has already used, albeit sparingly. So in one sense, last week may seem like win/win: the Government left people with the impression that they were raising standards in higher education while nothing much actually changed.

Perhaps the real significance of last week’s announcement was a u-turn; a wise and sensible u-turn but a u-turn nonetheless. Under cover of the new ‘crackdown’, the Government backtracked on its proposals to introduce minimum entry requirements. Had this occurred, and it would have been very tricky to implement, it would have blocked some people from being able to access student loans to study in higher education and would have had a really dramatic effect on under-represented groups as well as recruitment for specific professions, such as social work.

There was also a new lower fee cap announced for some Foundation Years, which is hard to justify intellectually, given the costs of running good Foundation Years, and could (just) conceivably represent the thin end of the wedge for differential fees. Time will tell how institutions are likely to respond to this. Some vice-chancellors think it will damage recruitment of more disadvantaged students. Others think it might stimulate a ‘pile them high, sell them cheap’ approach. After all, policies do not always have the desired effect.

On low-value degrees by the way, we do – I think – as a sector need a better answer than telling Ministers to butt out. I spend my life on the road visiting universities and I have never yet visited a bad one. But every university I have visited has had many strengths and some weaker spots. Unless we honestly believe, hand on heart, that every higher education course is the country is being run to an acceptable standard, than we should at least prove willing to discuss the whole issue of standards with Government and come up with our own rounded assessments of what good courses look like. One surefire lesson of my time in Whitehall is that you can either engage with the democratically elected Government of the day or you can sit back and wait for them to do things to you.

Anyway, that was last week. This week, we have had the marking and assessment boycott continuing, with Wednesday declared a National Day of Protest by the University and College Union (UCU) to herald the latest talks between the UCU and the employers’ representatives, UCEA. If you want to know more about the background to this dispute, do take a look at the recent blog by my colleague Josh Freeman, which explains what is going on.

In one sense, this industrial dispute is nothing new, as the more militant parts of the UCU have presided over years and years of industrial action – so far seemingly to little effect other than to make campuses somewhat less harmonious places. Some may claim the campaign recently saved many academics’ pension entitlements but this could not have happened without the wider economic situation saving the day by wiping out a large deficit.

It is not going to get any calmer in August:

  • in less than two weeks, on 8 August, school leavers in Scotland will get their results;
  • a couple of days later, on 10 August, we will get the revamped National Student Survey results; and
  • one week later on, on 17 August, we will get the A-Level, BTEC and T-Level results – and only then will we finally find out whether Ofqual have kept to their commitment to root out the COVID-caused grade inflation in England. (Register for the HEPI / UCAS webinar on the results here.)

Soon after that, we should get the long-awaited results of the Office for Students’ investigations into the quality of various Business and Management courses at eight higher education institutions. Then, in September or thereabouts, we will get the first Teaching Excellence Framework results since 2019. (If previous waves are any guide, Spandau Ballet should be rubbing their hands in glee at the extra royalties to come.)

So it is definitely not going to be a quiet summer. Nor will it be a quiet autumn. Perhaps, seven years on from the Brexit referendum, we will finally find out if the UK is to be in Horizon Europe. Back at the time of the referendum, this was one of the least controversial areas, with both sides in the referendum campaign committed to continuing engagement with EU research programmes. But over 2,500 days on from the referendum, we still aren’t quite sure what will happen.

We will also find out soon what impact the Government’s crackdown on international students is having on applications from overseas. And the new Director for Free Speech and Academic Freedom, Professor Arif Ahmed, will take up his role and start giving a sense of what universities, including institutional boards, must now do to actively ‘promote’ free speech and academic freedom. And, hopefully, at the political party conferences in October we will finally find get some firmer indication what the main political parties plan to have as their higher education offer at the next general election.

I wanna be elected

There is a risk, as at some earlier elections, that the parties will come to some sort of unholy pact to avoid saying much about higher education. Labour don’t want to do anything that puts their strong support among students (and staff) at risk. But they also do not want to commit to spending any new money on higher education while trying to build and cement a reputation for fiscal competence and while hoping to divert any extra cash that is available for education to the early years.

I fear that the Opposition are at risk of learning the wrong lesson from their defeat last week at the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. They know they lost because of one existing policy (the ULEZ extension) pushed by the Mayor of London. But the Labour leadership seem to be flirting with the idea that the best response might be to have even fewer policies and to say even less about what they will do in office. This would be not only unfair on voters but also a practical error because it will make it harder for the party to govern in due course, should they win: if you secure power at an election when you have offered little in the way of hard policy, it becomes challenging to keep your own side in order, especially if you only have a slim majority in the House of Commons. Moreover, under the Salisbury Convention, members of the House of Lords do not seek to block policies that have recently featured in a winning election manifesto.

It would be a terrible missed opportunity if the two biggest parties dodged having policies on one of the most important and successful areas of UK life. Yet on the Conservative side, it is not only over low-value degrees where there is a gap between the rhetoric and the hard reality of policy.

On apprenticeships, for example, there is no policy that matches the expansive rhetoric. In the first three quarters of 2022/23, there were 6,400 new higher-level apprenticeship starts by those aged under 19, compared to hundreds of thousands of new young freshers on the traditional degree route and it is not clear, yet, what will change this ratio. When you talk to universities, you do not get the impression that they are fighting to provide many more degree-level apprenticeships – indeed, you are more likely to hear complaints about Ofsted’s regulation of apprenticeship providers, queries about the costs of delivery and even questions about whether existing provision should continue.

Another area where there is a gap between the rhetoric and the apparent reality is the Lifelong Loan Entitlement. First announced in 2020, we were told by Ministers in 2021 that this would bring ‘revolutionary change into further and higher education’ and even that it was akin to ‘the revolutionary ideas that shaped the founding of our NHS’. More recently, we have been told that it is ‘Like a flexi-travel card’, allowing people to jump on and off their learning, as opposed to having a ticket with a single destination.’

The basic idea of extending and simplifying access to student support so that people can dip in and out of learning throughout their lives, reversing some of the recent declines in part-time and mature learners, is a very sound one. But in practice, the Lifelong Loan Entitlement won’t come in fully until 2027, seven years after it was first announced, and – as my colleague Rose Stephenson has highlighted – will then have some tight restrictions, especially once the Treasury gets its paws on it – plus evidence of there being strong demand for the sort of provision the LLE is designed to stimulate remains scant. In short, it is hard to find anyone who actively opposes the idea of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement but it is equally hard to find anyone who has looked at it really closely who believes it will be a game changer.

Perhaps the most pressing issue is funding. The undergraduate tuition fee cap is now worth only around £6,000, as Mark Corver of dataHE has shown, to put it another way, if it had kept in line with inflation, it would be worth £14,000 today. Today’s party leaders, who – in general – have been trying to avoid talking about tuition fees seem remarkably timid compared to their Labour predecessors who proposed £3,000 fees back in 2004 or the Coalition backers of £9,000 fees in 2010. Yet, remember, in both those previous instances, those most in support of high fees remained in office after the subsequent election, so the electoral salience of higher fees is typically overstated. And by the way, the leaders of the political parties may well be wrong when second-guessing what their parliamentary colleagues are willing to vote for: just a few days ago, the former Minister for Universities Jo Johnson proposed to his parliamentary colleagues a fee increase in line with inflation for institutions that do well in the Teaching Excellence Framework, and it received some support from both the Labour and Liberal Democrat spokespeople in the Lords.

The result of the political timidity is that English universities, like institutions throughout the UK, are now losing large sums of money on home students. No organisation of any sort can go on forever expanding its loss-making activity, unless of course it can also expand its revenue. This creates a problem in part because the number of school leavers is set to grow for the next decade or so. 

Institutions can respond to this state of affairs in different ways. Where demand is particularly strong from full-fee paying international students, they can recruit more of them to fill in any funding shortfalls. But given the growing loss on each home student as well as other factors, such as a shortage of student accommodation in many places, some institutions are likely to need to freeze or reduce their intake of home students even as they expand the number of international students.

Whenever I mention this in public, I get attacked for fear-mongering. But I am simply following the data as presented by others. Moreover, as a sector, we cannot hope to win the fight on fees in the near term if we are not willing to explain to policymakers the true effects of their own policies on their voters.

Mark Corver has also shown that institutions where international fees cannot be so easily called upon to save the day will need to increase their home student intake, and make their finances balance by reducing their staff:student ratios. They may have no choice, but this would not be a wise policy in normal times. You can deliver higher education at the current unit-of-resource but it just won’t be as good as in the days when there was more money available. I always ask policymakers which things that universities currently do would you like them to stop doing or to do less of? In general, their speeches tend to be rammed, in contrast, with demands for institutions to do more, on mental health, on contact hours, on employability support and much more besides.

So what is to be done? Let me end by quoting from the chapter in our 20th anniversary collection that I mentioned at the start written for us by Jonathan Grant, former Vice-President of King’s College London, who argues (learning from Australia) for a new ‘accord’ or social contract between universities and society:

Such a vision could articulate why universities are so critical to the success of the UK and identify a number of forward-looking aspirations for the sector and government to work on and deliver together. Some of this could be re-purposing tired slogans (like ‘Science Superpower’) but backing them up with meaningful policies around sustainable funding, Horizon (and beyond) and people (visas, postgraduate training and a reputation that the UK is a welcoming place to live and work). But other proposals could be more radical, for example, setting a new aspiration that 70% of young people will go to university by 2035. This is a position that HEPI Director Nick Hillman has advanced and something I firmly align with as it will benefit both society and the individual. In return, universities could commit to being the catalyst of sustainable economic growth, both nationally but also in their locality. This would mean taking seriously their civic and community responsibilities by buying locally, being cognisant of their impact on local communities (for example, on housing) and paying a living wage. …

It seems to me, as we reflect on the optimism that characterised HEPI’s early years and how, to a degree, that has declined, we need to rediscover a vision that can be energising and purposeful. Such a vision for universities was captured succinctly by the former president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann: ‘A university is, first and foremost, a social undertaking to create social good’.

From next week and for much of August, we will be running the various chapters from the 20th anniversary collection as blogs on the HEPI website.

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