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How to read: Michael Barber’s UUK speech

How do we interpret Sir Michael Barber's first major speech in his new role as Chair of the Office for Students? David Kernohan has been quietly following Barber's career, and he has a few thoughts.
This article is more than 6 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

This was a long, but important speech – Sir Michael Barber (the Chair of OfS) stuck mostly to his script in what was his first major engagement in his new role. I’ve not reproduced all of it here (the link is the to the full text), but have commented on what I feel are key points of interest. My comments are in blue italics, the text of the speech is in normal type.


A little under two months ago, on 27 April, the Higher Education and Research Act received Royal Assent. Just how historic it will turn out to be remains to be seen but there is good reason to believe it will be seen as the most significant piece of higher education legislation for 25 years. It could become a platform for the success of the sector in the next generation. Among other things, the Act commits us to the creation of the Office for Students: a new regulator with a new approach.

This is a low bar, 25 years ago was 1992 FHE Act, nothing since then has had anything like a comparable impact. He says there is good reason to believe it will be seen as significant, but you will note that he stops short of outright praise.

[…] Numerous rankings confirm that our higher education system is world beating. But the strength of our higher education system goes beyond success in global rankings. While there is always room for improvement, the National Student Survey shows a high proportion of students feel positive about their experience of higher education. In research excellence, in teaching, in driving economic growth – locally and regionally as well as nationally – and in attracting global talent, our higher education institutions often stand out. The sector’s institutional diversity is a quality in itself.

Meanwhile, as a result of your work and OFFA’s, participation in higher education continues to widen as well as grow. The entry rate for 18 year olds from low participation neighbourhoods has increased by 73% since 2006. Entry rates for all ethnic groups have increased and more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are entering higher education than ever before. No-one thinks the job is done, or even remotely done, but the direction is clear and strong.

This is the praising the room section – Barber draws on data sources to paint a rosier picture of the sector than we have heard in recent government speeches – there is no “lamentable teaching here”. He has a history, of course, of association with global educational league tables at all levels – most notably Pearson’s “The Learning Curve”.


History of Higher Education

Michael Barber is a serious history of education wonk. His MEd Thesis was on the 1944 Education Act, and throughout his career he has loved to draw on an understanding of the history of policymaking. This is – obviously, and as he says – a condensed and slanted version of events to suit this speech and this audience. He focuses on two issues only – capacity and funding. There is no mention of research, scholarship or collegiality more generally

You get the sense with this story that OfS is Barber’s “Ninth Symphony” – a final crowning career achievement that leaves an indelible mark on history….

For me the lessons of history – always contested, I know – provide the starting point for that conversation. When H. A. L. Fisher – then President of the Board of Education and a distinguished former vice-chancellor – created the University Grants Committee in 1919, it was to find a way of channelling government funding to universities without compromising their independence from the state. This remains an idea of major significance, as the debates on the recent Higher Education and Research Act demonstrated. When, in 1920, he announced state scholarships to university for disadvantaged students he saw it, as did others, as a major step. There were just 200 per year, but it was the beginning of widening participation – this too is an idea that has remained important and will be central to the future.

Yet still, in 1938, 80 percent of students left school at age 14 and there were only 69,000 full time students in higher education. As W. H. Auden said, the 1930s had been ‘a low, dishonest decade’.

It is always a genuine delight to see poetry in a policy speech! The quotation is from Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939 . Auden famously loathed this poem, refusing permission for it to be anthologised throughout the 50s. Barber is using this reference, I assume, playfully – Auden was writing about the advent of the Second World War.  The penultimate stanza is worth considering in the context of this address:

“All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.”


The post war period saw the beginnings of rapid expansion. By the time the Robbins Review reported in 1963, numbers had tripled; 216,000 students were studying full time in higher education. But Robbins realised that this was just the start. The baby boom generation were already filling the primary schools – my school report for 1964 says I was in a class of 44, which was not unusual – and many more of them would aspire to go to university. Clearly, we were due another period of dramatic expansion.

What he omits here is Robbins’ enthusiasm that the state should support and control this expansion – you’ll recall that David Willetts also re-painted Robbins’ to out him as a free market enthusiast.

The era from Robbins through to 1981 is often looked back on as a golden age of growth, free tuition, academic autonomy and an absence of accountability – the era of the ‘Donnish dominion’ and The History Man. Just how golden the reality was is a question for another time – but certainly, for the vast majority of each cohort a university education was out of reach. In any case, the University Grants Committee cuts in 1981 – 19 percent over three years – brought the era juddering to a halt. It took plenty of controversy and numerous false starts over the next decade to find a clear way forward.


Very telling that he skates over the Jarrett Report here, which did more than any other report to introduce a New Public Management ethos to universities.


Part of the answer to these questions was to shift the burden of funding to the consumer – the student – but to do so fairly. This would offer choice and simultaneously create an upward pressure on the quality of teaching and the student experience. As a result, with their funding no longer dependent on the Treasury’s annual expenditure totals, universities have been spared the worst of austerity. It has not been easy, but the 1981 cuts have not been repeated, even as other sectors have been under immense pressure. And access has improved, contrary to predictions, because the graduate (once earning a reasonable salary) pays, not the student.

You will recall that Barber was a part of the small team that developed that Browne Review, and as such we would expect him to praise it. This instrumentalist re-telling of the history of UK HE allows for such logical leaps as the “obvious” answer of shifting the burden of funding to the consumer – again we see the technocrat (annual – managed? -expenditure!) taking a Treasury view. He rightly concludes that taking HE out of AME has avoided austerity, but his assertion that “the graduate pays” has not yet been tested.

Another part of the answer has been the 30 years of the RAE and REF, which has incentivised quality and invested in it. It has enabled Britain to be highly competitive in global research, even as there has been a massive expansion of university research across the globe. How could we do the equivalent for teaching?

In these circumstances, as the UUK task force recommended in 2015, it surely makes sense to create a new agency, more regulator than funder. And with it, a new regulatory regime which focuses on access, quality of teaching and innovation through, among other things, enabling new providers to enter the market. The central purpose always should be to create the circumstances in which higher education institutions can thrive; to unleash greatness.

And thus to ensure students thrive too, during and after their experience of higher education.

Another non-sequitur – we need a REF for teaching, therefore OfS? He’s working hard here to justify HEFCE splitting and the student-focus part becoming “more regulator than funder” – which of course HEFCE, post-Browne, had already become by default.

Stewardship for the New Era

We are in a period of unprecedented uncertainty – certainly the most uncertain period in my adult lifetime. At home, insecurity and division, and too many people being left behind; Brexit affecting our economic future and our place in the world: abroad, extraordinary global turbulence as the rules of international relations are being re-written before our eyes; and the rapid dissemination of transformative technologies creates an unpredictable context for every sector. Meanwhile in our own sector, global competition is becoming ever more fierce. In the recent QS rankings, it is excellent to see 76 UK universities but sobering to see that 51 of them have moved down rather than up. All this in a context of significant constraint on the public finances which may not change for the foreseeable future.

Again with the global rankings…

Some of you may have read An Avalanche is Coming – published in 2013 and a provocation not a blueprint, by the way – in which two brilliant, young colleagues helped me explore the challenges and opportunities ahead for higher education. The central argument was that, while the challenges were great, the greatest risk of all would be to stand still. As David Puttnam said: ‘should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to “protect” could find that their entire future is scuttled by our timidity.’ I strongly believe we now need to be bold and confident in the way we lead institutions and the sector, if we are to succeed in this new era. In a profoundly unpredictable world, can we create new ground rules and the maximum predictability for investing in the future?

This is a… careful… summary of the IPPR/Pearson publication An Avalanche is Coming, a publication which was less than enthusiastically welcomed – not least by me on Wonkhe – and was wanting in both imagination and scholarship. The greatest risk would indeed be to stand still, but the “unprecedented uncertainty” (actually, fairly precedented…) would suggest that this is a choice that already has been made for the sector. Uncertainty is not a reason to do or not to do something – it simply causes problems in predicting the results.

For the Office for Students, this means thinking not just a year or two ahead but a generation. We will, no doubt, find ourselves over that timescale working alongside different governments with different priorities. As governments and policies come and go, the Office for Students, in collaboration with the leaders of higher education, needs a North Star. It needs a steady focus on making the right decisions for the country and future generations, however hard that may sometimes be. In short, our task is to be the stewards of the higher education landscape in the interests of both students and the taxpayer.

“All I need is a HE provider and a star to sail her by…”, as John Masefield nearly said. This suggests that the OfS will be planning for the longer term (which is to be welcomed) but also that it will be slow to change (which is perhaps more concerning)

“This photo captures just one example; a perfect, natural, early Spring morning – but the fence has been built, the trees pruned, the grass cut and the shrubs in the foreground, planted. Unobtrusive tending of the scene, vital to its beauty.” – Michael Barber, 23rd June 2017

In the gardening section of the speech (no, really, it’s a metaphor from Gardens of Democracy by Eric Lui and Nick Hanauer) we move from ‘Donnish dominion’ to Monty Don! His central argument is that even ‘natural’ landscapes are influenced by the way that mankind has used them – and that should this use stop the landscape would radically change. The HE landscape should be tended thoughtfully, unobtrusively but – occasionally decisively – and taking into account institutional autonomy and diversity to create the conditions for success As well as the above tree, the below landscape was striking to Michael Barber:

“take this view of a much wilder scene – against the sky, Bowfell, the majestic mountain. In the foreground a windswept hillside to which the trees seem to cling in hope. This too is a managed landscape, not just the drystone wall and fence in the foreground but the distant hillsides. Were the sheep (and sheep farmers) to vanish, the view would look utterly different.” – Michael Barber, 23rd June 2017

Michael Barber, we learn, is a keen amateur photographer – which has proven helpful in explaining this extended metaphor for how he plans to tend to the landscape. 

In setting out priorities for the Office for Students, it is with the intention of it becoming a steward of the landscape. The Office for Students cannot prescribe greatness any more than it can instruct institutions to flourish. But it can create the conditions within which our highly (and happily) diverse sector has the opportunity, and the incentives, to thrive and indeed be the envy of the world.

The Five Priorities

I see five priorities for the Office for Students. They are:

  1.          Stewardship of the landscape – the Regulatory Framework
  2.          Engines of Opportunity – Access, Success and Progression
  3.          Inspiring Teaching – The Teaching Excellence Framework
  4.          Twenty-First Century Economic Growth – Employability and the Industrial Strategy
  5.          Seamless Transition – Setting up the new Regulator

This was the meat of the speech, but not all of these points saw similar emphasis. The focus was very much on the major announcement of a consultation on future regulation. Throughout he emphasised his desired for consultation – thoughtful, informed and plain speaking, with the whole sector.

  1. The Regulatory Framework – Stewardship of the Landscape

Just as the gardener cannot control every aspect of the garden or tell the plant how it will grow, so the regulator cannot and should not set out to tell the sector how it is to achieve success. Instead it should seek to unleash it. We intend to set out, through a new regulatory framework, the conditions within which the sector can flourish. Above all, the Office for Students, as its name suggests, will prioritise the student interest and the regulatory framework will reflect this perspective.

Firstly, we will examine and draw on the best regulatory thinking and practice, welcoming innovation. In creating the Office for Students and designing the regulatory framework, we are explicitly drawing on the experiences not only of other higher education regulators, but of the best regulators in any field.

Classic Barber – we start with a literature review and a landscape study.

Secondly, the Office for Students will be a market regulator with an unflinching focus on the student […] We will regulate according to the realities of the market, taking account of behavioural biases, rather than assuming perfect competition. Where it is not clear what works, we will encourage experimentation by providers to find the most effective ways to deliver great student outcomes.

This was interesting – the student focus will draw on behavioural science. In the speech he cited the work of the former nudge unit (now the behavioural insights team) set up by David Cameron’s administration. He’s looking to listen to actual rather than modelled student needs, which immediately causes a tension with the use of aggregated (NSS) rather than individual voices.

Thirdly, the Office for Students will be a risk-based and proportionate regulator […]

We will create a coherent pathway for new entrants to join the sector, thus bringing both challenge and innovation. The bar for entry should be high and the process transparent and practical – before, during and after entry. We will learn the lessons from recent, sometimes bitter, U.S. experience and prevent some of the excesses that have been seen there.

Barber is less hawkish on new entrants than Jo Johnson, his “high bar” for entrants is reminiscent of the debates in the Lords’ stages of the HE&R Act – you’ll recall that 4 years experience in HE delivery is a requirement, moving away from the “why should Byron Burger have to ask McDonalds?” simplifications. The new Chair of OfS is clearly in line with the Lords in this, how influential he will be in this stance remains to be seen.

Fourthly, we will ensure that our outlook is forward-looking. Our approach will combine data with qualitative intelligence in order to both understand the past and the present, and anticipate the future. Risks will be managed and – wherever possible – crises avoided.

In an “unprecedentedly uncertain world”? Prognostication is a risky game.

This means we will need to understand the prospects of individual institutions, both well established and emerging.  We will need to understand how the sector as a whole might adapt and change, recognising the benefits that competition can bring. And most importantly, we will need to understand the needs and aspirations of a highly diverse body of students, both now and in the future.

We will need to be outward-facing, open to the world. We will need to scan the global horizon and look beyond it, so that we collectively understand the opportunities and threats that may not be immediately apparent. The Office for Students will, therefore, need an outstanding data analytics function as well as ongoing, fruitful dialogue with sector leaders and a wide range of stakeholders.

HEFCE already has an outstanding data analytics team (the former ASG, now split between the Data Infrastructure Team and the Funding and Data Assurance Team) – the issue is not the quality of the team but the understanding of the constraints of what can be derived from the data as it is given to senior decision makers. The OfS will have the expertise to do this, what we don’t know is whether their caveats will be taken into account. Any student of deliverology will recall Barber’s cavalier use of data during the Blair administration and shudder.

Our approach will lead the Office for Students to encourage diversity and recognise it as a strength. The autonomy of institutions and academic freedom are fundamental building blocks for a successful sector. Institutions need to be free to make choices about the type and nature of their provision. Only this way can innovation occur.

Traditional degrees will no doubt remain important but accelerated degrees, degree apprenticeships and online learning may all play an increasing role. A combination of competition and collaborative learning will be required to meet the needs and aspirations of our students and our economy.

Two paragraphs of what could be called “required content” – the first on autonomy (which I do think he sincerely believes, as it is a theme he keeps returning to at his confirmation hearing and here). The second is on innovation in delivery, and this – from the co-author of “An avalanche is coming” is pretty much lip-service only. Interesting.

2.   Engines of Opportunity – Access, Success and Progression

The focus on access, which OFFA has pioneered so effectively, will be integral to everything the Office for Students does. Rather than being a separate function, we will integrate the excellent work of OFFA into the fabric of the new regulator.

Widening participation is about ensuring that underrepresented groups gain an increasingly strong foothold in the higher education sector and that we, as a country, ensure that equality of opportunity is truly realised. This is not just about delivering for eighteen-year- old undergraduates from diverse backgrounds, important though that is. We also need to promote the participation and success of the mid-career nurse, teacher or engineer, perhaps with two children, who wants to retrain and gain new knowledge and skills.

Diversity in our higher education needs to respond creatively to diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, class, social context and age.


It is innovation in the sector – among new entrants and incumbents alike – that will drive increased participation and improved outcomes for new generations of students. Given my background in school reform, this is an area above all where I would hope to be a creative and helpful influence.

A shorter section with a big admission hidden at the end. Barber hopes – during his two days a week in the job – to support drives to widen and increase participation in HE. But drawing on his background in school reform?

He could here be referring to his early work with David Blunkett, Estelle Morris and others at DfE, driving metrics driven work like the Numeracy Hour, which saw disputed benefits for a lot of “command and control” style management. Or to his later, international work with James Tooley and others on low-cost private schools in the developing world.

Though a continued emphasis on this agenda is to be cautiously welcomed – and I applaud his citation of good sector practice, neither option above bodes well for universities.

3.   Inspiring Teaching – The Teaching Excellence Framework

The most fundamental driver of student success is inspiring teaching. I believe the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), through careful refinement over time, will prove itself to be as important to the development of teaching in universities as the RAE and REF have been for research.

What an opening! First up, the most fundamental driver of student success is the social status of their family. LEO is just the latest in a long line of research that demonstrates this beyond all reasonable doubt.  And then to suggest that the TEF will be as important to teaching as the REF has been to research? The REF has shaped research in mostly unplanned ways – driving up publication rates, shaping research focus decisions and institutional investment to smaller and smaller “valuable areas” and driving out much basic, theoretical and “blue skies” research. What does he think the TEF will do for teaching?

The current round of TEF has been well-designed and planned with the leadership of Chris Husbands. The combination of data, submissions and rounded judgement of panels is sophisticated and pragmatic. Inevitably, TEF has generated some controversy, but it has also focused time and energy, as was the intention, on improving the quality of teaching.

The publication of the first differentiated TEF results on 22 June 2017 was an important step. It is striking that such a wide range of providers, old and new, mainstream and alternative, achieved the top rating. Diverse though they are, they share a capacity to engage students, understand their needs and aspirations and draw on these insights to shape their day-to-day teaching practices.

“Pragmatic” is a very interesting choice of word – one would expect “robust” or even “accurate”.  And it is too early to say whether TEF has focused time and energy on teaching – it has clearly focused attention on TEF and associated TEF metrics, which – as Barber must recall from the “target” scandals in the 00s – is very much not the same thing.

This is not to say that the TEF is perfect yet. How could it be? In consultation with you and others, we will steadily refine and strengthen it as it becomes established. Our conversation needs to be about how it works, not whether it works.

This is odd language. Surely the development of the TEF needs to be based on an understanding of how it works on behalf of the designers, but the wider conversion needs to be about whether it is doing what it is intended for.

In future, the TEF will provide judgments at subject level. As you know, pilots are planned for later this year. I am yet to meet a vice chancellor who is unaware of significant variations in quality between subjects and disciplines in a specific institution. A subject-level TEF will empower institutions to set standards of teaching quality for themselves and make targeted interventions where they are most needed. Meanwhile students will be able to make better-informed decisions as they choose between courses and institutions.

Here the Chair of the OfS commits to subject level TEF – a not entirely unexpected move as this has been widely trailed as a future aspiration, but language around this had cooled recently. With subject level TEF we are approaching the dream of an automated subject review, with all the delight that entails. But there is serious work to be done in understanding the data, and how confident we can be in drawing conclusions from what may be small – and institutionally selected via coding, lest we forget, sample sizes.

Excellent teaching should be held in the same high regard as excellent research. Ultimately, this is because teaching excellence is strongly related to learning excellence. And improved outcomes for students means more of them will have the knowledge, thoughtfulness and skills demanded by both modern society and the modern economy.

4.   Twenty-First Century Economic Growth – Employability and the Industrial Strategy

The nature of the global economy, and the associated geopolitical uncertainty, drive an increasingly strong connection between the quality of higher education and our country’s economic success at local, regional and national level. Our global success depends more than ever on making the most of this opportunity. The Office for Students will work closely with UKRI and Research England to ensure the necessary connections between their agendas and ours. At the same time, we will also work closely with the government departments responsible for industrial strategy.

On every visit I make to a university I see the growing emphasis in institutions on employability. It is rightly seen not as an alternative to academic success, but as complementary to it. They can and should go together.

This was stronger as delivered. He was clear that there was no conflict between academic success and employability – although he didn’t define either.

The acquisition of knowledge – for its own sake – and critical thinking capacity remain fundamental. The challenge is to engender the skills that will allow graduates to thrive in a global economy which is changing rapidly and fundamentally and, at the same time, to engender a love of knowledge and an endless curiosity. ‘For’, as Vaclav Havel put it in his prison cell long ago, ‘we never know when some inconspicuous spark of knowledge may light up the road ahead for the whole of society’. And even those sparks that don’t have that effect, he adds, ‘help to make and maintain the climate of civilisation’.

This was a nice touch. There has been very little about knowledge for its own sake in recent government pronouncements on research.

5.   Seamless Transition – Setting up the new Regulator

Very little of any interest here – he praises (again) HEFCE and OFFA, as organisations and as a body of staff that he will soon be in charge of reshuffling to suit the new CEOs designs for the structure of OfS. We’ve already noted a focus on sector dialogue (the regional teams returning to their former size as the sector expands?) and data (consolidating HEFCE’s already excellent team?) but what else could be planned for the noble staff of our erstwhile funding council?

The Office for Students will be a new regulator for a new era, marking a clear break from the organisations that have gone before it. HEFCE and OFFA have been, and continue to be, impressive organisations. In meeting staff, I have paid tribute to their achievements. Both organisations are being wonderfully collaborative as we build the Office for Students and I thank them.


I see a lot of David Willetts in Michael Barber. The overwhelming keenness and positivity, the near-deference to the sector, the focus on “unobtrusive” technical fixes and the patina of scholarly practice. Willetts was much admired in the sector for his willingness to engage and for his ability to speak the language, and the same could be true for Barber. If he takes his “nothing is truly natural” gardening metaphor and applies it to the way he uses and understands data.

A useful set-text for my forthcoming Barber Studies course for HE wonks would be his debate with Professor Peter Tymms in the 2007 Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families. Tymms had written a classic paper casting serious methodological doubt on Barber’s claims that his Numeracy Hour drove attainment – Barber was attempting to defend his position that there was a direct link.

Expect a few repeats of this conversation about the limitations of data and statistics over the coming weeks, months and years.

3 responses to “How to read: Michael Barber’s UUK speech

  1. Another reading of Barber’s re-reading of the history of UK HE is just how university-centric it is. He highlights the role of the UGC, but not how a lot of the heavy lifting on access was done by institutions (providers if you must) who were outside that charmed group before (and after) the ending of the binary line.

    Barber drew his examples from across the sector, but he won’t be the first (or last) policy maker more familiar with the former UGC/UFC sector.

  2. Barber makes it sound as if a new regulation regime is some kind of wonderful magic that we’re all just aching to be applied to the sector.

    The Government creates perverse incentives left, right and centre based on spurious reasoning.

    This man is the enemy of evidence based policy.

  3. It’s not the ‘Avalanches’ (that only make a sudden difference to the visible topology) that bothered me, it’s melting the “glaciers” underneath and what you do with that output. Universities still suffer some disconnect with the wider world when they could be lifelong experiences for those indebted to them through continuing digital communities.

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