On a wonk and a prayer

This week the IPPR Commission on the Future of Higher Education published its final report – A Critical Path.  I was looking forward to some considered criticism with which to engage and I was therefore disappointed to read David Kernohan’s response on this site.

Kernohan was clearly readying himself to attack the report as ‘son of Browne’ or ‘daughter of Barber’, and he must have been disappointed when he discovered it was neither. That doesn’t stop him from spending much of his piece talking about both, rather than our report.

Kernohan’s position amounts to ‘the government should spend more money on higher education’.  How should we improve social mobility? Spend more.  How can we tackle the crisis in postgraduate funding? Spend more. How should we reform the undergraduate funding system?  ‘The government just needs to spend more on HE’, he says.  Let’s be clear:  IPPR does not support the government’s austerity plans which have strangled demand out of our economy.  We also believe that taxes will have to rise after the election to take some of the burden of reducing the deficit off departmental spending.  However, it is simply inconceivable that any of the main parties will go into the next election saying that they will raise taxes for significant additional spending on higher education, rather than putting that money into tackling youth unemployment, dealing with the crisis in the NHS and adult social care and expanding early years education (Labour’s likely priorities).

Rather than produce a long list of spending demands for a fantasy government in a parallel political universe, the Commission sought to engage with the world we live in, in which there is not an infinite amount of public funding and in which difficult choices have to be made.  So, in order to improve access to university for those who work, have families and did not do A levels, the Commission proposes an expansion of places for those who want to study from home. This expansion has a low upfront cost because the places would not attract maintenance support, but in return there would be a lower fee.  In order to improve access to postgraduate courses the Commission proposes a new loans system that again could be provided at low cost to the public purse. And in order to tackle the collapse of part time participation the report calls for an expansion of part time loans to more ELQ students.  These and other measures represent a realistic strategy for achieving our goals while recognising there is unlikely to be much money around after 2015.

It is disappointing that Kernohan ignores the bulk of the report’s package on access.  This includes the much more widespread use of contextual offers, the ability for selective institutions to recruit unlimited numbers of disadvantaged students and the introduction of a student premium of £1000 for every such student recruited.   He also ignores the ambitious package on applied research: if he read it more carefully he would discover that we have found a way of investing an additional £1 billion in higher education reallocated from R&D tax credits. Given his calls for more money to be found  I would have thought he should welcome this.

Kernohan’s claim that enabling large further education colleges to take the renewed title of polytechnic ‘changes nothing’ betrays the authors own attitude to the title more than anything else.  This is a mark of high status that would anchor in our system a set of institutions focusing on advanced vocational learning. While there is currently a system for FE Colleges to apply for taught degree awarding powers, it is opaque and none have yet done so successfully.

On the Commission’s funding options Kernohan is simply wrong. The data in the modelling is more up to the date than that used in the recent Million Plus report and we are absolutely clear about the difference between 1) addressing the short term funding questions in a way that gets us through the next three years and 2) the long term lifetime costs of different options for the taxpayer, the graduate and institutions.

The report provides a credible prospectus for government in an extremely challenging fiscal context.  It does not duck tough choices nor pretend they can simply be wished away.  The challenge is to make sure the sector gets through the next few years in good health while implementing some big reforms so that it is better deployed to play a powerful role in our economy and society as we enter the 2020s.  That is the standard by which this report should be judged – and we believe we have met it.

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