In a windowless room deep within the Sanctuary Buildings on Whitehall, Department for Education officials are very busy.
You’d perhaps think – with the pre-election period in full flow – that this might be a quiet time for civil servants. A chance to catch up on annual leave, and fortify themselves for an uncharacteristically busy end of year ahead.
But instead time is spent pouring over manifestos, and combinations of manifestos, in an effort to hit the ground running whatever political hue or combination ends up running the country. When a new Minister for Higher Education walks through the door, the entire machinery of the department needs to be ready to implement their ideas. From a press conference or article on Wonkhe, through to immediate radical structural change, the plans have to be (sorry) “oven-ready”.
Labour’s plans are the ones that would be discussed most. Not because of any deep passion or joy concerning the National Education Service, but because of the sheer radicalism of the underlying idea. Since 2012 (and arguably that wasn’t a huge change in anything other than financial product design, looking back) the university sector has run in pretty much the same way. We have:
- Many autonomous institutions
- Running largely whatever courses they want to (and are able to recruit to)
- Constrained slightly by a “funding agreement” or “terms and conditions”
- Held to broad standards and requirements by regulation
- Teaching (as a largest group) 18-year-old students fresh from A levels or Highers, on three year undergraduate degrees.
Not business as usual
Most other manifesto promises (the Green Party being a notable exception) take this settled state of affairs as a starting point. Policy implementation is therefore a series of tweaks to existing regulatory systems and financial products – perhaps challenging ones, but nonetheless within the existing pattern of delivery.
The Labour manifesto pledges are a different matter. As a reminder, we have – as a starting point:
- “End the failed free market experiment” – abolish fees, restore grants.
- Rethink the assessment of research and teaching quality.
- A new funding formula (with “adequate” funding, support for access and part-time learning, and an end to casual contracts.
- Post-qualification admissions.
Each of these would be a major piece of work by itself, but all of this needs to fit within the envelope of a “National Education Service”, which (among many other things) offers a revamped and expanded careers advice service, and six years of training at levels 4-6 for everyone.
There’s, frankly, so much stuff of variable quality in the Labour manifesto that the scope of the ambition behind the NES hasn’t really hit home for a lot of people. It would have repercussions at all levels – from national (and international) policy through to how an individual provider recruits students.
In the room, civil servants are figuring out how to make this all reality – even though it is possible they will never have to. They’re going to need a very large whiteboard.
Insert part A into slot B
Political policymaking doesn’t come with assembly instructions. What you have to do is figure out the desirable end results, and the undesirable end results, and rank them by severity and likelihood.
In this instance the one thing that would upset a Labour-led government would be if any HE students have to pay tuition fees from the moment that it takes power. Here we need a quick fix that keeps as much of the existing system in place as possible – simply to keep the sector (and the 2019 UCAS cycle) running as normal.
One approach would be to pay fees to providers via SLC as currently, but omit the establishment of repayment plans – with the government simply covering 100 per cent of the costs rather than 40-50 per cent as they do now. Whether this write off occurs at the end of the 30 year period or the start is immaterial given last year’s changes to the treatment of loans in the national account.
Longer term, it would be simpler to pay providers directly – using a modification of the old HEFCE process that still exists in vestigial form within OfS. Institutions already have to tell the regulator how many students they have and what subjects they are studying – the submission of this information would be linked to payments.
But this is all dependent in early years on the functioning of the “failed free-market experiment”. Longer term the idea is to bring planning back in to the system – to think about what skills the country needs rather than what students want to study or providers want to teach.
There’s not much about how these levels would work in the manifesto, and nothing specific in the Lifelong Learning Commission Final Report, save a suggestion of planning based on local need, or:
“Matching local and national, current and future needs with provision requires local and regional planning and oversight alongside national strategy and oversight”
Implementing a planned system is – on the face of it – simple enough. You fund the things you want, you don’t fund the things you’ve no use for. The mechanisms, again, exist ready to scale up within OfS support for high-cost subjects.
But for a Labour-led government, the impact on people’s jobs will be a huge concern. Say – for instance – a decision is made somewhere that we need more electronic engineers and less audio engineers. Perhaps this is for sensible reasons – a major manufacturer is looking for qualified staff. Someone needs to teach these new electronic engineers – and academics who teach audio engineering will not be the ones to do this.
Perhaps you’re less than sentimental about this – it’s at least arguable that the system doesn’t owe everyone a job. But in two years’ time we might need a load of audio engineers – employers could be calling out for them (the UK’s media industry is a huge part of the economy). Who will teach them?
Less sensible ideas
The “adequate” funding for providers – in the wording of the manifesto – is for public higher education only. I’ve written recently about the slower-than-expected growth in private HE, but much of what is there is good, and often unique. And again, a lot of good people work in the private HE sector. To ditch all of this feels short-sighted and doctrinaire. If you’re war-gaming implementation – you may hope that this is a policy you could gently downplay.
Likewise – and I realise I’m not going to be popular here – the promise to “rethink” the assessment of research and teaching quality. This is absolutely set to be watered down to a series of consultations and a “listening exercise” – the question is not so much “how should we assess quality?” but for what purpose is quality being assessed. It’s a promise aimed at academics, and unlikely to be a ministerial priority on day one.
I think everyone could get behind the expansion of careers services – the slow defunding of existing provisions has been one of the more short-sighted policy decisions of recent years, all the worse for having happened through neglect and intertia. But to run a whole wrap-around careers service needs a lot of trained staff – both centrally and locally. These are not skills that are easy to learn (new careers staff get great with years of experience), and there is not a large number of existing professionals.
University careers services, perhaps ironically in that you have to be accepted to university to use them, are probably the best source of advice a person would have had access to in their lives. But graduate careers are just a subset of a wider offer that would need to cover the intricacies of various specialisms within the career of an electrician, understand local retail staffing needs, and support a wannabe stockbroker. It’s a huge portfolio – for my money it would take at least five years to deliver, and I’d want a starting point (perhaps more courses in HE) in my minister’s hand as they walked to their desk for the first time.
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