Typically the first major set-piece speech of the academic and parliamentary year, the ministerial speech to Universities UK annual conference can give a helpful steer on the mood music in Westminster on higher education.
This year we’ve been blessed with two speeches, one from Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and one from returning minister for universities and science Chris Skidmore.
Warm words and red meat
Skidmore is known to be a fan of higher education; a former lecturer himself, his last tenure as universities minister formed a distinctive contrast to then Education Secretary Damian Hinds’s interventions on higher education. What was notable, then, was Gavin Williamson’s promise to universities to “fight tooth and nail for you”. Both speeches included a hat tip to university autonomy, especially relevant in light of the upcoming reviews of university admissions – one by Universities UK and the other by the Office for Students.
It was on the latter topic that Williamson produced the necessary lines for the media, challenging universities on standards, grade inflation and the rise of unconditional offers. Media present seized on some vague words on possible minimum predicted grade thresholds or a maximum quota for unconditional offers, but those present left with the strong impression that these were vague ideas rather than fully-formed suggestions.
What also seems clear is that these issues have replaced senior remuneration as hot-button topics in Westminster, at least for the moment.
Though pipped to the post on the announcement of the return of the post-study work route for international students by the Prime Minister, Williamson led on higher education’s global role and the economic and cultural contribution of international students. He signalled the possibility that the UK may not continue to participate in Erasmus+ (presumably dependent on whether we get a Brexit deal, or not) but said he asked officials to develop a “truly ambitious scheme” for student mobility to have as a Plan B.
Skidmore reprised the international theme but with a stronger focus on research, citing the international research and innovation strategy, and the Smith review of international science and research partnerships. He promised to “do everything in my power” to secure ongoing association in Horizon Europe.
Policy agendas: Augar, TEF and KEF
Nothing too specific on the timing of responses to existing policy agendas, but Williamson did flag the Augar review and Shirley Pearce’s independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Of the Augar review he paid the tribute that it would “make a big difference to our thinking”, a form of words that perhaps signals a degree of polite distancing from the specifics of the recommendations of the review. A response to the TEF review was promised “shortly”. It’s noticeable that teaching quality – or student experience more generally – didn’t really feature substantially in either speech.
Chris Skidmore picked up the current government’s retention of the target to increase investment in research and development to 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027, using it as a jumping-off point to emphasise his support for blue-skies, interest-led research and his aspiration to increase quality-related (QR) research funding. Though quick to note his generalised support for knowledge exchange and innovation, the choice not to emphasise the rollout of the Knowledge Exchange Framework could be significant. We’re expecting a road map to the 2.4 per cent target from UK Research and Innovation in the autumn, though the resignation of Sir Mark Walport as UKRI chief executive could influence the development or implementation of that plan.
Access and participation
It’s traditional to challenge the higher education sector on access, and each minister duly did. Williamson, unlike his Oxbridge-educated predecessors, is a graduate of the University of Bradford and as a consequence perhaps has a more rounded sense of the scope of access and widening participation. Both ministers referenced access and participation plans, the regulatory tool for English universities, and both mentioned the necessity of evidence-based evaluation of access initiatives. Skidmore repeated his view that contextual offers will “take on increasing importance if we are to deliver a truly level playing field”.
Further and technical education
Williamson asked universities to be sure to respond to the DfE’s review of technical education, in a section focused on plans to boost further education and the long-waited opening of the Institutes of Technology in the coming months. The indication that university input is welcomed on technical education could be read as a positive signal that there is no fixed intention to pit higher and further education against one another in competition for resources, though there is nothing to say, of course, that this might not be the outcome of a future policy agenda in technical education.
Skidmore explicitly said “we cannot afford as a society to pit FE against HE: both are crucial to a unity of purpose in our post-18 landscape that needs to be more flexible, more portable, and one that meets the needs of the learner, not simply those of the provider.”
Given the wider political turmoil it would be unwise to read either speech as a blueprint for the future. Nevertheless, for a sector that has experienced some difficult moments in the last few years, it must have been a pleasant experience to hear from two politicians apparently eager to celebrate higher education’s successes and couch any challenge in the language of critical friendship. Much more like the good old days.