Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

If you ask people in Conservative circles what “levelling up” means, you get a lot of questions and some pretty vague answers.

As Neil O’Brien, MP for Harborough put it at the launch of his levelling up taskforce last September:

Many of the places we won [at the last election] have felt neglected for a long time. And led from the front by the Prime Minister, the new Government has committed to “levelling up” poorer places. But what does that really mean? How can we measure if we are succeeding? How can we get the private sector growing faster in these places, making the country stronger overall?

So far, it has variously meant relocating civil servants to places they’ve never heard of in the North, sometimes it has meant having regional economic policy while staying oddly silent on devolution to those regions, and apparently sometimes it has actually meant levelling down the weighting we give to funding for higher education in London.

But we shouldn’t imagine that it’s just a meaningless slogan.

As Andy Westwood points out here, in this King’s College London Policy Institute research, 61 per cent of voters saw inequality between places as the most serious issue facing Britain – and a majority put the issue of gaps between places ahead of wealth, ethnicity, gender, education and age gaps.

Maybe a “where you’re from” gap needs to appear on the OfS access and participation dashboard.

We can help

The lack of a clear definition of levelling up does, of course, make it difficult for universities to do that thing they do when a government comes along with a broad policy objective and they say “look, we can help you do this” – and certainly sector efforts so far to put meat on the bones don’t seem to have had much purchase.

So the news that Neil O’Brien is to head up a new No.10 / Cabinet Office unit on levelling up is significant. O’Brien is very much a policy wonk, he’s interested in education and skills, and is widely respected in government for his pretty tireless social media work on facing down with facts the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers that have popped up and started to influence the backbenches since the onset of the pandemic.

He became an MP following a stint as a Treasury SpAd, and naturally spent time at Policy Exchange where he authored a paper about the Tory challenge outside of the south east. He spent some time during Theresa May’s government being unpopular by critiquing Conservative housing policy. He’s involved with think tank Onward, and is on record as believing that the university sector is too big, that vocational education is undercooked, and that the Tories “can’t back off” from the culture wars.

Following that taskforce launch of his last September, it was announced in November that O’Brien was to lead a new Conservative Party policy board as part of a shake up in the wake of Dominic Cummings’s departure from Downing Street. Now this No.10 press release says that the government will publish a “landmark levelling up white paper” later this year, led by O’Brien, articulating how “bold new policy interventions” will improve opportunity and boost livelihoods across the country as we recover from the pandemic:

The White Paper… will focus on challenges including improving living standards, growing the private sector and increasing and spreading opportunity.

It’s not at all clear what the relationship is between this work and Munira Mirza’s “culture warrior” policy unit – but it would be daft to assume that O’Brien’s views on universities and the wider issues addressed in the Augar review won’t end up influencing what happens next for the sector.

So I decided to remind myself about the things that the PM’s new adviser on levelling up has said about higher education to see if we can spot anything in the tea leaves for the Autumn.

China culture crisis

The first thing to take notice of is O’Brien’s co-chairship of the China Research Group of MPs, where concerns about the sector’s dependence on the superpower will sound familiar:

Jo Johnson’s recent report highlights the risks to our universities from poorly-thought-through partnerships with China. Investigations by Civitas and the Daily Telegraph revealed that UK universities are actually helping Beijing with new weapons technologies. We must get a firm grip of all such partnerships and where universities’ money is coming from.”

As ever, the group is clearer on what it regards as the nature of the threat than the solution.

Then there’s O’Brien’s views on the culture wars. If you think that everything the government (or, indeed, “the right”) does in this space is just bad faith actors inventing an issue that’s not there, O’Brien becomes interesting because of the way in which he’s come to calmly accept the analysis of the likes of Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in the Coddling of the American Mind:

They are worried the woke agenda isn’t just undermining basic liberal ideas like free speech and debate, but encouraging younger people to think in ways that are damaging. They diagnose three bad ways of thinking which have become engrained in US universities: a belief that young people are emotionally fragile and have to be protected from ideas they might find upsetting; a belief that you should always trust your emotions, prioritising emotion over reason; and forms of us-versus-them thinking which divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, with no in-betweens.

Their book contains hair-raising accounts of the kind of protests and madness this agenda has led to in US universities, increasingly a world of ‘trigger warnings’, ‘no-platforming’ and everyone walking on eggshells for fear of committing ‘microagressions.’ While this may seem remote to us living in Britain and not working in universities, the truth is that ideas from the US relentlessly percolate into the UK.

What we don’t know is whether O’Brien would back the kind of invasive interventions into higher education envisaged by Gavin Williamson’s freedom of speech champion, or whether voices on the right like the Institute of Economic Affairs’ Emily Carver are starting to have an influence. (TL;DR – “microaggressions” are a nefarious attempt to dictate the parameters of acceptable speech, but attempts to impose further bureaucracy on universities may end up doing very little to remedy the problem, and the government should review the Equality Act 2010 instead).

Those hoping for good news on the research funding front may also be disappointed – O’Brien takes the view that the D of the R&D see-saw needs tipping up:

We have to shift the balance of government R&D: from mainly in universities to more happening in firms. From fundamental research, to more applied (like in China and the Asian economies). And from half the core budget being spent in three cities, (London, Cambridge and Oxford) to a distribution more in line with the geographically balanced spending of the private sector.

Younger and Augar

But it’s on the big issues in Augar where O’Brien has the strongest and longest held views on the sector. Last year he was arguing that the response to Augar represented a “long-expected decision” to take on universities:

Do we keep the current system? Or build up technical education, and try to reduce the number of students on low value university courses which lead to low earnings while consuming lots of taxpayer subsidy?

And that was related to place:

In London, over 45 per cent of poorer pupils who were eligible for free school meals progressed to higher education in 2018/19. Outside London there were 80 local authorities where richer pupils who were not on free school meals were less likely than this to go to university. Overall, more than 60 per cent go to university in places like Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. But less than a third go places like in Knowsley, Barnsley, Hull, and Thurrock.

There’s some pretty strong views on low-value higher education which tip toward controls on low-value courses signalled by LEO data rather than low-value students signalled by A level points:

…driving down the number of low value, Mickey Mouse courses which aren’t good value, either for students or the taxpayer. At present, one in ten graduates isn’t earning enough to pay back a single penny of their loan even ten years after graduation. And thanks to the LEO dataset, we now have a good idea of which courses they are, at which universities.

Part of it all is about appealing to younger voters, although as with so many others floating around this debate, we’re never really sure if it’s about the 50 per cent of young people that don’t go to university, or the “poor returns” for between a fifth and a quarter of those who do:

Frankly, many are being mis-sold a degree. For example, the average creative arts graduate isn’t earning enough even ten years after leaving university to pay back any of their loan. We are doing young people no favours by loading them up with debts in return for such degrees.

But while you might miss the “up”, you can see the levelling that he might want to make:

Tony Blair set a target for 50 per cent young people to go to university, but no such target for technical education. We spend six times more per person on university students than technical students. We should become the champions for the 50 per cent who choose not to go to university too. We are introducing the new T levels, have brought in the Apprenticeship Levy, and are driving up number of Higher Apprenticeships. But there is much more to do.

Few politicians have built their career on being seen to restrict access to higher education – but O’Brien in part believes that that’s because the mettle has never been properly grasped on real investment in the alternatives, with clever-ish policy mechanics in there that would make it fly:

Clamping down on low value courses could save enough money to either cut the cost of going to university in half, or free up money to invest in top flight technical education and higher apprenticeships. That would also help “Level up” places where more young people go down technical routes.

There’s likely a lot to unpack in the “cut the cost of going to university in half” assertion (Sticker price? Graduate contribution? Cost to the taxpayer?) and there’s a bigger decision to be made about the “or” in that sentence than O’Brien suggests, insofar as the two choices look like both halves of the Tories’ emerging electoral coalition – and neither will stand a chance of working if done by… halves.

Many will disagree with them, but O’Brien has coherent views on many of the critiques of the overall government agenda here – summed up neatly as:

For a country like Britain, deep in debt, lofty thoughts are not enough to justify such huge numbers of students doing things that don’t help them economically, given that’s what many themselves want. Half of young people go down the technical route – more in blue wall seats. They are less well funded.

And there’s more than a hint of truth in his views on the way institutional incentives work:

We need to recognise the limits of market forces. Students choose their course aged 17. What it will do to their earnings at age 50 isn’t front of mind. With lots of public subsidy sloshing around, universities’ incentives are to put on lots of cheap arts courses, charge full fees, and use the money to cross-subsidise other things. They get the benefit, and the taxpayer the cost. Ministers need to step in to protect taxpayers.”

It’s a deal

Where things get interesting is O’Brien’s preferred policy solution – not a simplistic system-based single media cycle “crackdown”, or ever-more complex minimum outcomes thresholds at institutional or programme level being run by a regulator, but a more positive “deals-based” approach that’s not massively dissimilar to the kinds of outcomes-agreements in use in Scotland, and being introduced soon in Wales:

Highly subsidised universities would propose to government how they will reduce their cost to the taxpayer. That could mean reducing numbers on some courses, or making them cheaper with shorter degrees, or and doing more online. Or a mix. If they don’t produce a plan, the sanction would be direct number controls. We’d use the savings to fight youth unemployment, and fund technical education properly. How does that sound?

It sounds harder than it looks, would need a reshaping of either OfS or DfE or both, and would cause all sorts of concerns about the local availability of subject choices as provision “adapted” to deliver the deals. You’d also need a major rethink of funding arrangements to go with it.

But never underestimate how successful some believe the overall model of access and participation planning (essentially deals-based deliverology that retains local autonomy over target selection and approach) has already been – not least the man who’s now floating around advising No.10 on “delivery”.

Will it all work? The FT’s Whitehall Editor Sebastian Payne tweeted the other day that “government insiders” are saying that there are four parts to levelling up – regional economic policy, spreading opportunity across the country, improving outputs from public services and non-economic outcomes of improving “quality of life” and “pride in place”.

Maybe it is the case that the Augar response can do something on the second of those bullets and Michael Barber can do something on the third. But overall this all still looks fiendishly expensive, needs to involve much more devolution than previously contemplated (in a context of suspicion about devolution accompanying the future of the union), and above all needs much more time to kick in than the run up to the next election allows. O’Brien may be a thinker, but he’s not a miracle worker.

2 responses to “Does Neil O’Brien have the answer to the levelling up question?

  1. Polar is the “where you’re from” gap in the Access and participation data dashboard.

  2. “With lots of public subsidy sloshing around, universities’ incentives are to put on lots of cheap arts courses, charge full fees, and use the money to cross-subsidise other things.”

    Is he saying that arts courses are a money spinning cash cow for universities? Given just the cost of facilities and equipment alone I’d be hugely surprised by that. Business and humanities courses where you can park 300 students in a lecture theatre maybe, but arts courses…I’m not convinced.

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