David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The delights of an election year legislative programme are something we as a nation have not experienced in quite some time.

Of course, we’ve had new Westminster legislative programmes introduced in 2016-17 and 2019-21 (and 2019-19 for that matter!), but there’s been very little sense that these were focused on a forthcoming election given that the last two have come as something of an unwelcome surprise.

Electioneering keeps MPs in constituencies in preference to parliament – it prioritises the pretence of statesmanship over making difficult decisions, and offers red meat for the party faithful (and the idealised voter – most of whom will be bored to tears by this longest of long campaigns) rather than the thin gruel of technocracy.

So what next for higher education?

All of which means when King Charles III stands up in the Lords on 7 November (missing, of course, this year’s Festival of Higher Education!) the wishlists of the sector and of commentators will likely be ignored.

Higher education legislation is as unpopular and divisive as it is expensive. It’s an electoral can of worms balancing parental aspiration with the “anti-elite” mindset that seems to have supplanted a nuanced political analysis of opportunity based on class, income, and wealth. If you want to get your culture war on, you risk damaging a sector that represents a rare national success story and leave yourself open to attack from the pragmatic centre as well as the left. If you want to invest in that infrastructure, as a Conservative you would inflame both the rational fiscal hawks and the woke-finder ultras.

In Westminster we’ve had a surprising amount of such tightrope walking over the past few parliaments – 2017’s Higher Education and Research Act as a regulatory reset, the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Act in 2022, the same year’s Skills and Post-16 Education Act, the long passage (the longest in history!) of the 2023 Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, and this year’s Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Act.

There’s maybe the guts of two meaningful bills inside that lot, depending how you cut it (HERA, though appallingly drafted, did actually make things happen – there’s probably a sensible piece of legislation of a similar size and scope if you imaged the useful bits of the others as a single bill) but at the cost of an enormous amount of parliamentary time and political capital, both of which are in very short supply. Much of the work the sector now needs (regulatory fixes, and – frankly – a financial settlement) wins few votes, would be largely invisible, and fiendishly complicated.

All of which is to say, despite occasional agitation otherwise, the chances of a new Higher Education Bill feel as remote as an injection of cash into existing channels.

What this leaves us with is less an Overton Window than a hegemonic catflap. We could cautiously hope for some largely uncontroversial technical fixes leavened with a few well placed studies or expert working groups (directed by ministerial fiat, or at worst, an SI) moving things forward. At best. The kind of stuff that makes no appreciable difference to departmental spending or the government’s legislative programme. In the spirit of expectation management, here’s seven.

1. Define student accommodation as a specific tenure type within DLUHC data collections on household and bedspace numbers

It’s becoming clearer every cycle that the provision of student accommodation in England is in urgent need of regulation. However, before any direct oversight can take place, we need a better understanding of the size, location, condition, and cost of the existing and planned estate. Incredibly, there is no easy way to derive such information. In everything from the census, to the various planning and housing publications at the Department for Levelling Up Housing and Communities, to the various annual household surveys from the Office for National Statistics, student accommodation is lumped in to categories varying between the general private rented sector, and lumps of mass accommodation alongside independent schools, residential care, and armed forces barracks.

It would neither be costly nor disproportionate to add a definition and data category to separate out student accommodation in existing releases on household composition and bed spaces. The data that is currently available, even at a local level, is fragmented and of uncertain quality – an improvement in the data would have the effect of putting everyone on the same level playing field and allowing for the possibility of provider and local planning supporting private and sector investment. There’s not going to be less students any time soon – the population is diverse and so are housing needs. But we currently don’t know enough about what we have to make sensible regulatory interventions – fixing data collection is the starting point to that.

2. Review assumptions around parental contributions to student maintenance costs

The calculation used to determine undergraduate maintenance loan eligibility has remained largely unchanged for decades, with parental contributions now expected to begin from a long way below the national median wage, whereas for most students having two parents earning around £30k means only the minimum level of loan is available. The assumptions about parental contributions to living costs were out of date even before the onset of the cost of living crisis – after two years of high inflation they just look woeful.

Clearly uprating loan availability – even given the Plan 5 conditions – is an expensive undertaking, but there may be ways in which support could be better targeted before the next spending review. It’s the kind of thing that would helpfully form part of a wider review of higher education finance should that be on the cards, but an independent expert review (or even a review conducted within DfE) on just this topic conducted at speed could be hugely beneficial. And, fundamentally, by the time it reports there is likely to be a new government that will have to deal with it.

3. Launch a postgraduate NSS

The scale of growth in postgraduate taught enrolment over recent years has taken a lot of people outside the sector by surprise. A combination of the pandemic effect (with workers keen to upskill and retrain), buoyant international recruitment, and a sharp increase in demand for higher level skills globally means that PGT enrolment now is at a similar level to that of first degree enrolment a decade ago.

There’s clearly a huge demand for PGT, but very little information (outside of the opt-in Advance HE Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey, or PTES) on what the experience of studying one of these courses really is. A well designed survey could help applicants make informed choices about their courses, and would have the side effect of driving up quality and student focus in a very variable part of the sector. This is something that has been in the pipeline since before OfS was a thing – sadly recent government edicts on student surveys have focused on adding free speech questions rather than expanding the reach to emerging, and less consistently regulated, markets.

4. Put the student voice in policy and regulation on a more sustainable footing

Part of the original rationale for the foundation of the Office for Students was in the name – it explicitly emphasised the need to listen to and act on behalf of students in regulation and policy. This was a welcome and long overdue centring of the student voice – a student board member was appointed by the secretary of state, and OfS itself put together a student panel.

However, the years since have shown up a number of limitations to this model – culminating in the evidence presented to the Industry and Regulators Committee that underlined just how little interest there seemed to be in listening to actual student needs. One part of the issue was the tendency for ministers to attempt to ventriloquise the student voice (on free speech, as one ironic example), another was the heavy-handed way in which senior board members seemed to put pressure on the panel to say the “right” thing.

Couple this with changes to the National Student Survey that mean it is no longer possible to compare the experience of today’s third years with previous cohorts, add in a generalised presumption against having anything to do with the established student representative body (the NUS), and we have the makings of a disturbing absence of students within policy. The lack of meaningful national action on the cost of living follows on from the poor treatment of students during the pandemic.

The fix would perhaps be guidance to the OfS, coupled with secondary legislation. The remit and independent role of the student panel should be fixed in law – and it should have a small budget to allow it to more effectively represent the interests of all students.

5. Add universities into LSIPs as delivery organisations

Local Skills Improvement Plans (LSIPs) represent the latest attempt to streamline local skills planning. Sadly – although everyone else gets a seat at the table – universities have pointedly not been invited, except in their capacity as employers. What this amounts to is an abdication of thinking about regional and national skills planning, outside of a general presumption that apprenticeships are good and occasional forays into retraining ballet dancers in “cyber”.

There is lots more to do at all levels to develop a clearer picture of the skills and qualifications we might need as a nation in a few years time, and if we are to remain internationally competitive then higher education needs to be a part of the ensuing solution. And locally, given the rise of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE), universities have the potential to be huge players in the skills-on-demand space – so we need to ensure that what is on offer on campus complements what is on offer from FE colleges and private providers and is flexible enough to meet employer and industry needs.

6. Define a non-outputs based system for regulating the LLE (and pause it for a few years)

On the LLE itself, the one of the biggest questions yet to be answered is on quality assurance. The Office for Students is preparing to consult on an extension of the existing outcomes-based approach, something that is privately causing disquiet among many well-informed observers. To be frank, continuation and completion are arbitrary at best for a short course (what if the number of credits someone needs to get a promotion or a new career is less than thirty) while it looks impossible for progression to be reliably linked to a single short course two years on.

One obvious solution is to go old school, relying on internal provider quality assurance processes and backing this up with regular inspections (and speedy interventions where needed). Sadly such an approach is anathema to OfS, meaning that the problems that beset the current system (data lags, the need for contextual work before data can be interpreted) will be multiplied given the pace and variety of LLE study. If a student is having a bad experience now, action in three years is unsatisfactory for traditional courses – for a three month short course it is almost insulting.

Frankly, with the full LLE landing after the next election it would make sense to announce the inevitable sense-making pause to roll out now rather than leave it for the new government to have to tweak a live (if little used) system. This would also give the Student Loans Company a chance to catch up on software development, give providers more time to refine their offer, allow for a proper large-scale demand survey, and maybe even make for a better implementation overall. We can but hope.

7. Restart the work of the DfE Higher Education Data Reduction Task Force, and implement the recommendations in full

The widespread despair at the current state of Data Futures is real, but represents only the most visible problem with just one of the hundreds of data collection requests for similar but not identical data for the various regulators involved in all the things universities get up to. We really should be able to implement the “single source of truth” in higher education data and it feels obvious to everyone other than the Office for Students that this should be an independent body rather than the Office for Students.

Among the many task forces developed by Michelle Donelan, the Higher Education Data Reduction Task Force had the silliest name and the most important job – to rationalise the many data requests and cut down the largely pointless burden that universities and other providers face, by helping regulators and agencies work together. The group seemed to atrophy during the Andrea Jenkyns golden months, and has yet to be re-established – despite a lot of work already being completed. It wouldn’t cost much to finish the job and sort this all out for once.

Implementing requirements is a regulatory rather than legislative issue – and a welcome chance to knock regulatory heads together far beyond the usual DfE circle. Hell, we could even get the professional, statutory, and regulatory bodies (PSRBs) involved and do this properly. Done well this unlocks a significant reduction of burden and paves the way for more regulatory collaboration.

Not so big on the doorsteps of the red wall

Asking for a bill, or a big independent review for that matter, is a roll of the dice. It will make changes, but you never know for sure what those changes will be. The long campaign isn’t generally marked by subtlety and forethought, and immediate impact is generally prized over (to coin a phrase) long term decisions for a brighter future.

Few of these suggestions immediately set pulses racing even among Wonkhe readers, but each would make a positive contribution for a sector unlikely to be a celebrated cause in the next year and hoping to avoid fate as a political football. While it isn’t true for politics – in policy, dull and worthy beats big and exciting, every time.

3 responses to “Seven ways through the Overton catflap

  1. I am not sure any of that requires any primary legislation – Ministers have a lot of powers to make some quite radical reforms to the HE system without the need for primary legislation: even the 2012 reforms only needed new regulations under THEA 1998 and the LLE reforms also only needed a couple of small tweaks

      1. Hi Pete – precisely my point! The idea of this list was to come up with stuff that required neither primary legislation nor significant additional spending. All of this stuff could be done by a minister deciding to do it, or DfE directing OfS to do it.

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