Does the tone of ministerial speeches to vice chancellors signal a wider shift?

Debbie McVitty unpacks the secretary of state for education and universities minister's recent speeches to vice chancellors.

Usually at this time of year vice chancellors gather for the Universities UK annual conference – with the morning ministerial speech a well-established tradition.

Typically it’s an opportunity for ministers to rehearse the current policy agenda – at last year’s shindig Gavin Williamson and Chris Skidmore touched on the 2.4 per cent research and development target, the Augar review, technical education, and the international landscape.

It’s also a moment to establish a tone in communications between government and universities. Ministers must maintain good relations, and demonstrate their appreciation for the sector’s work and impact (for a first visit to UUK praise is pretty much expected from the new minister), but there’s also need to establish some critical distance and be seen publicly as willing and able to challenge vice chancellors – and give journalists something to write about.

The set-piece drama must have been considerably reduced by having the speeches delivered digitally, and given what the desks of vice chancellors must look like right now, you do wonder how many were, if even present, quietly getting on with emails behind the anonymity of the screen. Nonetheless, the text of the speeches – delivered this year by universities minister Michelle Donelan and secretary of state Gavin Williamson – does give some insight into where the government’s thinking is.

Bending over backwards

Michelle Donelan gave welcome acknowledgement that universities have spent the last month “bending over backwards” managing the fallout from the A level, Scottish Higher and BTEC results fiasco, on top of planning for Covid-secure delivery this autumn. One of the positive consequences is that ministers will have received a clear signal of the appetite among young people and their parents for higher education.

Donelan also announced the launch of the government’s plans to reduce bureautic burden in higher education – you can read DK’s analysis of the plans here – saying, “I do not want you weighed down with paperwork. Because you are in the business of educating, researching, as well as transforming and catapulting lives.”

It was noticeable, however, that the minister did not dwell on the most eye-catching element of those plans – the dismissal of the National Student Survey on the basis that it exerts downward pressure on standards, with major implications for the future of the TEF – confining herself to noting plans for a major review of the survey.

Flexible provision and mental health both got a name check from Donelan – both key issues in their own right and intensified by the pandemic. And Williamson reiterated government plans for growing international students and increasing higher technical provision, and emphasised universities’ role in delivering that provision alongside FE. Both the minister and the secretary of state made explicit recognition of diversity of the sector – including through the range of universities cited for good practice.

Use it or lose it

But there was a sting in the tail – referencing the Department for Education’s updated guidance on reopening university campuses published this week – read Jim’s take here – Donelan promised a government communication plan to build on that guidance, but warned that “the position is one of – use the measures and follow the guidance or lose access to an open campus.”

Gavin Williamson said he expects this new Covid-19 guidance to “feed in directly” to universities’ plans – suggesting that government planning horizons look rather different from universities – and urged universities to collaborate with local authorities to develop plans for local outbreaks. He also said that universities should deliver “clear messages” to students about the importance of following guidance on reducing the spread of Covid-19.

And Williamson rehearsed the now familiar view that “pockets of low quality” exist – with the unusual suggestion that they could be identified by looking for courses with below 50 per cent graduate level unemployment in the Guardian league table (which is derived from HESA’s Graduate Outcomes survey), which in fairness is the clearest signal yet of what low quality/low value might mean in practical terms.

For a government that was until recently, as one of the respondents to the Wonkhe community survey put it, in “bash the universities mode”, the speeches read as ministers making much more of an effort to establish a sense of common endeavour.

With the Department for Education weakened by the summer’s events, ministers do need to keep universities onside, and it is likely that both have been genuinely impressed with universities’ willingness to step into the breach.

But reviewing admissions, grade inflation, the response to Augar, low quality courses, and fresh impetus on freedom of speech – not to mention the apparent planned demise of NSS – are all still very much on the government’s road map. While the events of the summer may have softened the tone and approach, we wouldn’t advise updating the risk register just yet.

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