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How to read: Jo Johnson’s speech to Universities UK

This morning Jo Johnson delivered a speech to the Universities UK Annual Conference at the University of Surrey. In a new format, Mark Leach reads through the speech and gives a textual guide to the policy and politics around Johnson's big address.
This article is more than 8 years old

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

This is the speech given to Universities UK Annual Conference on Wednesday 9th September 2015 by Universities & Science Minister Jo Johnson MP. My comments are in blue. The ‘How to read’ format is new for us and is inspired by William Cullerne Bown’s work in the early part of the last Parliament. I have left out the conclusions and introduction which don’t add a lot. You can read the full text untouched by me here.

Green paper aims

My plan today is to set out a broader vision for higher education, foreshadowing a green paper we will publish in the autumn.

The ‘autumn’ runs until 21st December – the key will be whether the green paper will come before or after the spending review on 25th November as the Treasury’s decisions will likely have a big impact on what the government plans to do with higher education.

Looking back at 2011, when we published Students at the Heart of the System, it is clear that huge progress has been made: in transparency and widening participation, but also in the way the system has been put on a sustainable financial footing and been opened up to competition, with more new providers allowed to enter the market in the last 5 years than at any time since 1992.

But there is considerable unfinished business and the green paper will seek views on the changes the government believes will be necessary to ensure that higher education continues to be a great national success story in the years to come.

In other words, gridlock in the Coalition meant that BIS became a glorified think tank (albeit a really influential one) and ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ was its most successful think piece. But now we’re going to get down to business and actually enact some of the policies we’re talking about – so strap in. 

Teaching at the heart of the system

At the centre of this vision are the young people contemplating their futures in a world where no one owes them a living, where they must depend on their wits and drive to survive.

We’re moving the rhetoric slightly from ‘students’ being at the heart of the system to ‘teaching’. From user to provider. Because universities and their staff need more of a kick to actually deliver improvements for students as not everyone took the “students at the heart of the system” language to heart, plus we ran out of free policy measures to make them do things. 

Well-equipped students ready to contribute to society and to businesses keen to employ increasing numbers of skilled graduates. That was the focus of my last speech to you and it remains my overriding priority.

We have all been reminded of the scale of the challenge by a recent CIPD survey suggesting that almost 60% of graduates are in non-graduate jobs.

While it may overstate matters — official statistics show that in fact only 20% of recent graduates did not find a graduate level job within 3 years of leaving college — it is clear that universities must do more to demonstrate they add real and lasting value for all students.

For ‘overstate’ read: ‘we think it was a load of rubbish’. It’s surprising that Johnson even references it here as Ministers usually do not given credence to evidence that they don’t like.

Now that we are asking young people to meet more of the costs of their degrees once they are earning, we in turn must do more than ever to ensure they can make well-informed choices, and that the time and money they invest in higher education is well spent.

As I said in my speech in July, the key to that is, in my view, great teaching, combined with rigorous assessment, useful feedback and preparation for the world of work.

Our plans to introduce new incentives for universities to focus on teaching, via the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) promised in our manifesto, will be a critical element of this autumn’s consultation.

So no detail on the TEF today because it hasn’t all been worked out. 

Speaking to parents and students since taking on this job has confirmed for me the extent to which teaching is highly variable across higher education.

There are inspiring academics who go the extra mile, supporting struggling students, emailing feedback at weekends and giving much more of their time than duty demands.

Should academics work more than their contracted hours? I suspect this line will be quoted back at the Minister by trade unions at every meeting he has with them for years.

These are the people who will change our children’s lives and I want every student to learn from and have access to the kind of teacher who suffered me when I was an undergraduate.

People like Martin Conway, who could make even Belgian stamps interesting as we learnt about the construction of post-war Europe; or Judith Brown, the biographer of Gandhi, who sparked in me a lasting interest in modern India.

But did Conway or Brown email feedback at the weekends?

But there are also institutions and individual academics that take a different approach; that have struck what academics David Palfreyman and Ted Tapper describe as a “disengagement contract” with their students:

This goes along the lines of ‘I don’t want to have to set and mark much by way of essays and assignments which would be a distraction from my research, and you don’t want to do coursework that would distract you from partying: so we’ll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and due receipt of fees’.

This is not a contract I want taxpayers to underwrite.

Because many universities see their reputation, their standing in prestigious international league tables and their marginal funding as being principally determined by scholarly output, teaching has regrettably been allowed to become something of a poor cousin to research in parts of our system.

This has been stated by every HE Minister for decades. Each has tried something different to tackle it. Remember the CETLs? 

I hear this when I talk to worried parents, such as the physics teacher whose son dropped out at the start of year two of a humanities programme at a prestigious London university, having barely set eyes on his tutor. Her other son, by contrast, studying engineering at Bristol, saw the system at its best: he was worked off his feet, with plenty of support and mostly excellent teaching.

What about teaching at non research intensive universities? There’s surely room for improvement everywhere. 

This patchiness in the student experience within and between institutions cannot continue. There is extraordinary teaching that deserves greater recognition. And there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it.

“Lamentable” is another phrase likely to be quoted back at the Minister by critics of his plans. The first rule of universities is that we do not publicly accept that anything we do it is not excellent or world-leading. Sometime’s there’s room to “develop things further”, but that’s about it. 

Greater transparency from providers

Since the 2012 reforms, student choice has become a key driver of change, but there are still significant information asymmetries. It is not at all clear to some students what their tuition fees of up-to £9,000 a year actually pay for, and this has led to calls, which I support, for greater transparency from providers about what they spend fee income on.

This will mean providers becoming much clearer with students about what they can expect during their time at university. The new framework will aim to give students more information about the actual teaching they will receive, drive up student engagement with the learning process and reward universities that do most to stretch young – and also not so young – minds.

It will be genuinely interesting to see how the TEF will help drive up student engagement – a policy that has been knocking around for the last couple of years and largely driven by NUS. But it seems that it might finally have it’s day in the sun if included in the new framework. 

It will help, I hope, create a culture where teaching has equal status with research, with our great teachers enjoying the same professional recognition and opportunities for career and pay progression as our great researchers.

I recognise that many institutions are already thinking in this way and that the National Student Survey has started to shift the focus back towards teaching, feedback and academic support within universities. But some still do not do nearly enough.

While there will be financial incentives behind the TEF, with those offering high quality teaching able to increase fees with inflation, the TEF will not just be about accessing additional funds – I want it to bring about a fundamental shift in how we think about and value teaching in our universities.

It will be interesting to see what the non-financial incentives will be. Will they be aspirational principles to build consensus around such as in ‘Students at the heart of the system’, or will there be new law put in place to drive change without financial reward?

Widening participation

Remember that?

Raising the quality of teaching is at the heart of the green paper, but our ambitions extend beyond this important goal. As a one nation government, our focus is on driving forward social mobility. That’s why the green paper will also consult on how we can accelerate progress in widening participation, so that many more people with ability can benefit from higher education.

Our universities should be open to everyone who can benefit from them, regardless of family background or ability to pay.

The Prime Minister is committed to doubling the entry rate from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2020, compared to 2009 levels.

This has become a mantra of the government and has been repeated several times recently. It was first announced as a policy pre-election by David Cameron as he launched the party’s Youth Manifesto in April.

We also want to see a 20% increase in the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 2020, with matched improvements in their completion rates and progression into work. Young people with a Caribbean heritage will need special attention as part of this work and I will be discussing this with HEFCE and OFFA, and my counterparts at the Department for Education.

Among the many concerning features highlighted by BIS research into this issue is the persistent underperformance in education of white children eligible for free school meals. The problem is particularly acute for disadvantaged white boys. Barely 10% of white British boys from the most disadvantaged backgrounds go to university, making them 5 times less likely to study at this level than the most advantaged white boys. They are also doing worse compared to the most disadvantaged among other ethnic groups, with participation rates over 20% for boys of black Caribbean heritage, nearly 50% for boys of Indian heritage and over 60% for boys of Chinese heritage.

Prior attainment in school is a major factor driving differences in participation, but attitudes towards university, which can be shaped by good careers advice and employer engagement, also play a part. Discussions with Office for Fair Access have suggested that there is the potential for us to have significant impact by raising the profile of this group, which has not been specifically targeted in the past.

This needs serious attention and I will be writing to OFFA asking them to focus on this in their guidance to institutions on 2017 to 2018 access agreements.

To make our work on widening participation effective, we need the best possible data.

UCAS in particular holds and publishes vast amounts of data on the outcomes of the admissions process, but to target widening participation efforts more effectively we need a better understanding of how students’ background, prior attainment and course choices lead to an offer of a place.

That’s why I have written to UCAS asking them to publish a recent analysis of offers, broken down by ethnic group and type of institution. They have also agreed to publish the data underpinning this work and extend their analysis to other protected and disadvantaged groups. The first analysis will be published in the next few weeks.

This is welcome news and was proposed by the last social mobility report by Alan Milburn. 

But we need to go further to increase confidence that the system treats all applicants fairly. I want to see much more data being made available for academics to analyse and potentially link with other data sets. I’m pleased that UCAS has agreed to start sharing data through the secure platform developed by the Administrative Data Research Network. And they have agreed to look at all ways to make this data as useful as possible for researchers.

Finally! Some red meat for the policy wonks!

This is an important step forward. But there will be more work to do to increase the data available and ensure the trust of students who are involved. This is an issue for the whole sector to address, which is why I want you to consider what additional information universities can provide to support our collective efforts to widen participation.

The refocus on WP is welcome – there were fears that as a policy agenda it had run out of steam by the end of the last Parliament. Lots more to do here and I hear a big new review of WP policy and direction is in the offing. 

A level playing field for new providers

The level playing field is back!

To ensure students have real choice that reflects their diverse needs, we must continue to open up the higher education market and put in place a regulatory framework that reflects today’s challenges.

The market has already been opened up without a robust regulatory framework put in place. Let’s hope he’s serious about getting it done this time. 

For many people, entry to higher education does not follow the traditional route of A-Levels followed by a full-time, residential, 3 year degree. Some choose to undertake a pathway that might include a foundation degree, Higher National Diploma, Higher National Certificate or Apprenticeship, while others enter higher education later in life after a period in the workforce.

And some choose part time study. But we don’t talk about that.

This government values competition. We want a diverse, competitive system that can offer different types of higher education so that students can choose freely between a wide range of providers.

Competition not for its own sake, but because it empowers students and creates a strong incentive for providers to innovate and improve the quality of the education they are offering. That’s why, back in July, we published our Productivity Plan, ‘Fixing the Foundations’.

It is also consistent with the Willetts idea of the “rising tide that raises all boats” – but so far new providers entering the system has not forced older providers to innovate on anything like the scale the government wanted. So if market forces aren’t working, then incentives and policy levers will need to be put in place. Enter the TEF. And that is the major point of departure from the Willetts platform of the last parliament. 

It set out how we’re going to boost productivity in this country. Among other goals, it promised to remove barriers to new entrants and to establish a risk-based framework for higher education, reducing burdens on some so we can focus oversight where it is needed.

The green paper will cast a critical eye over the processes for awarding access to student support funding, Degree Awarding Powers and University Title.

So the green paper is going much further than just the TEF then. This will be a full blooded attempt to reform the sector and will need legislation to make it all work.

We have already made a start by providing a new route for trusted new and smaller providers to grow their student numbers. We are also beginning to link student number controls to the quality of the provider, through a “performance pool” which will operate for 2016 to 2017.

But the green paper will consult on options to go further. Success in higher education should be based on merit, not on incumbency. I want to fulfil our aim of a level playing field for all providers of higher education.

Going further – with student number controls? So rumours of the demise of SNCs have been greatly exaggerated. Governments can’t help but use them to drive policy because post 9k fees they have very few levers at their disposal left.

Many of you validate degree courses at alternative providers. Many choose not to do so. I know some validation relationships work well, but the requirement for new providers to seek out a suitable validating body from amongst the pool of incumbents is quite frankly anti-competitive. It’s akin to Byron Burger having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant.

A bold choice of comparison.

It stifles competition, innovation and student choice, which is why we will consult on alternative options for new providers if they do not want to go down the current validation route.

He’s talking about a new national validating body which has been doing the rounds as a policy idea for some time. Many in the private sector have been lobbying for this so that they can cut loose from universities – but given the rest of the Johnson’s agenda, it’s likely that validation through this route will come with all sorts of strings which they may not welcome so strongly. This would be a big change though and possibly involve setting up a new agency or completely repurposing an old one already on the landscape, which does mean significant changes. 

Towards a single gateway for degree awarding powers

The ultimate goal for many new providers is to secure their own Degree Awarding Powers and University Title.

This now takes many years, even for the best, most highly rated new providers. As part of the green paper, we will ask how we can speed up the process for those that offer the best quality education.

Sped up hopefully after the “regulatory framework” is firmly in place…

In the meantime, we will continue to support new entrants. Having taken action to improve the process, I can announce that we will shortly be lifting the moratorium that has been in place for applications for new Degree Awarding Powers and for University Title. Once again, we are opening the doors to new entrants and challenger institutions, all in the interest of increasing the choices available to students.

You read that he was going to say that first in my preview of the speech in the Monday morning HE briefing this week. Subscribe here if you’re not already on the list. You can also expect the Minister to grant DAPs to some new providers who have been after them soon. GSM? New College of the Humanities? Watch this space.

Providers entering and leaving the market is a sign of healthy competition, and it is something of which we should expect to see more. But we need to be prepared for the fact that some providers may exit the market. Our higher education sector should only have room for high quality providers. We will therefore be consulting on measures to require all providers to have protection measures in place so that students who benefit from greater choice and diversity do not lose out in the event of provider failure.

“Leaving” and “exit” are polite ways of saying failure, which he gets to at the end of that paragraph. Protection measures must be in place of course, but does anyone really believe that having an institution fail is a sign of a healthy system or market?

There will be some who are resistant to this change. Those who want to put up the barriers and bar the windows. But I want our higher education sector to remain the envy of the world. Allowing new providers to enrich the sector is part of that.

A transformed regulatory landscape

So the reforms we will set out in the green paper will improve teaching quality, empower students, open up the higher education market and drive value for money. To deliver our ambitions, we also plan to reform the higher education and research system architecture.

This is where vice chancellors get really nervous. 

We are a deregulatory government, and much of the higher education system is ripe for simplification. When I arrived in BIS, my day one pack included a diagram of the higher education landscape. It was a stunning piece of PowerPoint – and must have been produced by a skilled hand. But the complexity – and associated cost both for the sector and directly for government – drove home the need for simplification.

Johnson is probably talking about the below diagram – prepared not by one skilled hand, but by management consultants Deloitte at considerable expense, at the behest of the Regulatory Partnership Group.

The market has evolved far more quickly than the regulatory environment, and that is something we need to address. Our regulatory regime is still based upon a system where government directly funds institutions rather than reflecting the fact that students are the purchasers, and needful of all the protections that consumers of complex high value products receive in other regulated markets. We fund higher education in a very different way now to the block grants of the past. Students are the primary source of income for undergraduate study, but their interests are insufficiently represented in our structures and systems.

On this point, most will agree.

There are also parallel regulatory regimes for different types of higher education providers. I want to be in a position where all higher education providers operate on a level playing field. That was part of the vision in 2011 and it remains our goal.

So we need a simpler, less bureaucratic and less expensive system of regulation. A system that explicitly champions the student, employer and taxpayer interest in ensuring value for their investment in education and requires transparency from providers so that they can be held accountable for it. One that protects institutional autonomy and academic freedom and maintains the highest quality of higher education, safeguarding the strong international reputation of English universities.

Hard to argue with that – this is what the sector has been asking for, for years and this paragraph could have been written by Universities UK themselves (maybe they did?). But it’s only a starting principle. The devil will be in the detail as the system is designed and developed.

Our thinking will also of course take account of the emerging recommendations from Sir Paul Nurse’s review of the research system architecture. I am committed to the maintenance of dual funding support, to the Haldane principle and to scientific excellence, but do see scope for a simpler system of delivering vital research funding to universities and opportunities to increase its strategic impact. It is also clear to me that there are many in the sector demanding a process for assessing the quality of scholarly output that is less bureaucratic and burdensome to academics and takes up less of the time that they could be spending more fruitfully on research and also, of course, on teaching.

The most important paragraph of the speech by far. Johnson’s commitment to the dual support system here will no doubt be quoted back to him ad nauseum. Vice chancellors are really concerned that the spending review will put that system at risk by potentially merging research councils, HEFCE and their respective funds. Will QR be protected? Who will hand it out? What role will there be for HEFCE if QR is taken away from them? It is the word ‘simplification’ that gets everyone most worried – a vague commitment that could have a huge impact on the research funding landscape. Johnson also throws in clear hint at the end that he’s interested in reforming the REF to make it less burdensome – something that might be welcomed by academics. But the price for this might be unimaginably high if something dramatic happens to HEFCE, REF and QR.

p.s. no one mention the decline in part time higher education.

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