David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

We end 2019 as we started it.

Still awaiting an end to the major review of post-18 fees and funding, the publication of the independent review of TEF, and Brexit getting done. The year was effectively prorogued, and only returned following the actions of a lady wearing a spider. I’m starting to feel like we’re losing track of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

The central theme of the year was that a good attack line can never be repeated too often. Based on close reading of several million press releases, I conclude the average student now enters university holding a “confidence in water” certificate covered in gold sticky stars, leaves with two separate PhDs (in Viking Studies and Finding Data on the UCAS Website) and spends most of the interim period denying platforms to particularly centrist CBBC presenters.

Only a heroic series of interventions from Damian Hinds prevented the final descent of the sector into Toby Young’s left wing madrassa hellscape. Some people even pretended to be upset when Jordan Peterson was disinvited from an unpaid post at Cambridge after allegations of Islamophobia emerged – after all, with a record like that (and a series of YouTube videos that sounded like a man reading out a Dominic Cummings blog post) he could have been a Conservative MP on Teesside by the end of the year.

The Civic University Commission handily prefigured Lisa Nandy in focusing relentlessly on towns – many universities press offices argued that high rates of vice chancellor pay were a major contribution to the local economy. In the case of De Montfort University, the local economy of Buenos Aires.

The first birthday of the Office for Students passed nearly without incident – they got a special letter from the minister and a day off registering new providers that quickly turned into three months. Such was the extent of OfS under recruitment (the DfE expected 60 new providers, we ended up with 14) that it was forced to put itself under enhanced monitoring.

and never brought to mind

The Teaching Excellence Framework didn’t have a great year either. Slipping the data out in early January just meant I’d done most of the assessment before the panel event met. By the time the results trickled out in June, few people cared – the OfS responded by cancelling the event for next year. Allowing the fields to lay fallow is good for the 2021 data harvest – an approach also being trialled by HESA in Data Futures.

But we can’t talk about TEF without mentioning Subject TEF.  The decision to run this alongside (but separately to) the institutional incarnation tells us a lot about OfS’ commitment to reducing burden. It all makes for a lot of information for students not to use in their application decisions, but – like league tables and the financial element of contractual break clauses – many things for vice chancellors to compare.

Two parallel admissions reviews are underway, prompting many to wonder whether we couldn’t just admit everyone who registers – a proposal that later became the basis of Labour’s National Education Service. As a clearly great idea that could never actually work, this is one up on post-qualification admissions – widely thought to be the policy promise that lost Corbyn the election.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves – much like Chris Skidmore, who was seconded to the Department of Health after only a few months in the universities minister job. Returning old new boy Jo Johnson set to work straight away – resigning after only a few months to be replaced by… Chris Skidmore. Chris becomes the only universities minister since 2015 not to resign in disgust about the state of the government, JJ the only minister ever to do so twice.

And there were changes further up too – forgettably bland Damian Hinds was replaced by forgettably bland Gavin Williamson. If the most interesting thing anyone knows about you is that you used to sell fireplaces in Scarborough then you’ve nothing to distract us from your leaking of confidential information from the National Security Council. Pro tip: if you really want to keep information secret put it on Discover Uni – it’ll never be found.

And Boris Johnson finally fulfilled his childhood dream to become world king, but not before taking some very advanced information technology courses from an alternative provider.

We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet

POLAR pretty much melted, we were offered the TUNDRA instead but we didn’t know our ABCs. We said “yes MEM” to UCAS, and wondered whether the real widening access and participation was the spreadsheet we made along the way. Because it certainly wasn’t in the A&PP dashboard – or the legendarily incomprehensible Excel sheets sent to providers. All this data simply showed the many participation gaps to be as wide as ever – though universities making unconditional offers may be helping.

But what about Brexit? Did we get Brexit done yet? Deadlines flew by like commitments from the OfS to complete the provider registration process – neither will happen this decade, though OfS hasn’t spent £100m on advertising an obviously implausible date of completion. As far as we know… maybe provider subscriptions will go up again next year.

One silver lining was the return of the post-study work visa. Like nursing bursaries, this was a Conservative government bringing back elements of something very good they’d abolished earlier in the decade – as such we confidently await the return of HEFCE in 2020.

For the sake of auld lang syne

Remember the Augar report? No? Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter. All you need to know is a former banker picked a figure entirely out of the air, and then got annoyed when people asked him about it. There was some good stuff on FE, but the Sajid Javid promised to pay to board up some broken windows in a college in Dagenham so I guess that’s the last we’ll hear of that. But shattering the fiscal illusion has added more than £10bn to the national debt, money that was always owing but had been shunted into the far future – a magic money tree still in seed form. Maybe we can pay for it with the Brexit dividend.

In the same spending plan Dominic Cummings (him again) finally got his own special projects research funder – applications are sought from scientists researching volcano lairs and sharks with fricken’ laser beams.

For all the regulatory shenanigans – supposedly in the interest of students – the student voice and lived student experience never really got much attention. Student Minds released a widely welcomed mental health charter which was much better than the one Norman Lamb wrote. But there was very little action on student accommodation – even when a block in Bolton caught fire there was still little appetite for regulation. I guess if we claimed students were no platforming the fire with extinguishers, the wider implications might have got some more sustained interest.

And then there was an election – of course there was. The UK voted against Santa Claus and in favour of it always being winter and never Christmas, after we got the Blonde Witch out of the fridge. All our worrying about the end of term dates at universities came to nothing – clearly Brexit had to be done and the only man to do it was one who had resigned as foreign secretary.

But there’s always good news. The demographic dip is over – the number of young people in the UK will rise substantially in coming years. A UK scientist won a Nobel Prize in Physiology, applications to university rose again this year, and there’s no TEF next year. And, with stable geniuses like Trump and Johnson with their fingers on nuclear buttons, maybe not in 2021 either.

2 responses to “2019 – the HE year in review

  1. An excellently insightful review of the year – albeit somewhat depressing! We probably need some more metrics around the Christmas tree to make us all feel better.

  2. Excellent and insightful as always David. Serious and amusing , I smile, but cry more for what we have lost and continue to lose. And I agree the return of HEFCE is now inevitable!

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