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Are there silver linings from the examnishambles?

Ian Turgoose considers the political impact of the exams debacle on the ongoing debate about the value of participation in higher education.
This article is more than 3 years old

Ian Turgoose is the Head of External Engagement at Sheffield Hallam University and a former political advisor to Nick Clegg MP.

The outrage and resulting political drubbing that the Education Secretary and Government have received in the wake of the A level crisis might just prove to be the reality check the sector needed.

In July the Universities Minister gave her first major speech in which she complained about universities recruiting too many young people – explaining that “social mobility isn’t about getting more people into university”. This is a position that represents the general consensus within the post-Cameron Conservative Party and, although to a lesser extent perhaps, the Conservative parliamentary party in Westminster.

Just a month later Michelle Donelan has announced the establishment of the snappily titled Higher Education Taskforce (political speak for a hastily convened group of people to problem solve when the proverbial hits the fan), to identify and resolve challenges faced over lack of capacity – ensuring that as many young people as possible can get into their university of choice.

Sector representatives on the taskforce will be providing evidence of practical problems and discussing potential solutions that will likely see, proportionately at least, record numbers of UK students attend university in September. Understandably, this is something that might provoke the odd wry smile from those sector voices taking part in the discussions. Even in these strange times, the speed at which the political wind has changed is particularly stark and unexpected.

Broadening the agenda

I hope that during the now ubiquitous video conference meetings, sector representatives will be presenting evidence on challenges and arguments much wider than increasing capacity at predominantly high tariff institutions. They must also use the opportunity to drive home the message that was sent to the government by thousands of students, parents and grandparents over the last few days. Attending university is a worthy aspiration to be encouraged and supported, especially for those from families or groups that are yet to experience the life changing experiences a university education can provide.

Yet again we have seen that politicians associated with shattering the dreams of young people do so at their own peril. I know this from personal experience during my time working for Nick Clegg in Sheffield. Leaving the rights and wrongs of the 2011 tuition fee reforms to one side for a moment, one undeniable lesson we can take from the experience is the political toxicity of being seen to put barriers in the way of young people creating a better future for themselves.

There is nothing more emotionally poignant for parents and grandparents than seeing their sons and daughters fall victim to unfairness delivered from politicians in London – something which dozens of backbench Conservative MPs will have experienced first hand over the last few days. From those representing former “red wall” seats (many of whom may have fallen into the category of being downgraded themselves when a student) to those from the home counties, this was a policy that was far reaching in its perceived injustice. This is what ultimately made the government’s position untenable and forced them into the inevitable u-turn.

Universities matter

Whilst the debate rages on about the future of the Education Secretary and we wait to see how the sector will shape up for the start of term in September, perhaps one good thing to come out of the crisis is the chance that the government could look at universities differently. The last few days have proven beyond doubt that universities matter. In particular, helping young people to attend university regardless of their background matters. I suspect the next few weeks will also show that universities are not all the same, with many providing the kind of high quality technical and applied provision that the government says should be prioritised.

Whilst addressing the unfair snobbery that further education has suffered due to decades of neglect and underfunding is absolutely the right thing to do – it shouldn’t come at the expense of demigrating universities and the opportunities they offer for our young people. Perhaps this whole episode has provided the reality check that the sector had failed to land with government ministers until now. If so, the next stage will be to outline the long term political advantages there are to be had if political parties position themselves as the ones who open the door to good quality higher and further education for all.

As our society and economy seeks to recover from the effects of Covid-19, there is no better tonic to aid recovery than encouraging more of our young people into further and higher education. Apart from providing a solution to the short-term lack of opportunity and employment, the pandemic has shown us that the jobs of the future are going to require increasingly higher skills, perhaps much sooner than we had originally thought. Even greater numbers of highly educated and skilled young people will be crucial if the UK is going to come out of this crisis and be able to succeed in the post Covid-19 world we will find ourselves in.


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