Let’s be honest – there are few things less likely to happen this week than a major policy announcement for universities.
This year’s Conservative Party Conference may have a few other pressing matters to attend to.
But around the edges, and away from the obvious perennial issues like the frozen fee cap, there is always more of the business of policy to do. So as the Conservative Party meets in Birmingham, we wanted to offer an unordered, unprioritised, incomplete list of ten reasonably straightforward things the Truss administration could quietly get on with.
No need to mark a day on the Number 10 grid, no need to plot a media round on local radio, and no need to get the social media team firing up Canva. We’d be happy with a few documents on gov.uk.
1. Appoint a science minister
Actually, come to that, appoint a higher education minister. If you take at face value the growth at all cost thrust of Kwasi Kwarteng’s fiscal event, the two things government should be investing in and supporting are higher-level skills and research and development. In a sane world, this would be a seat at the cabinet – a ministry for growth that is not simultaneously trying to firefight a global energy crisis. But incredibly, we are left without a science minister at all, thanks to an incomplete reshuffle. And, to add insult to injury, for the first time in decades, there’s no minister in DfE with higher education or universities in their title.
A science minister could make the case for “world-class” research performance – building international collaborations (including via Horizon Europe) to bring in investment and skilled jobs. But a minister for higher and further education could combine this with measures to develop the next generation of researchers and skilled workers, providing a pathway to growth that could also hit many of the levelling up (remember that?) buttons. It’s not just the optics; with their absence from the cabinet table, and with the abolition of the National Science and Technology Council, universities and science feel as far away from priority in Whitehall as they have ever done.
2. Keep the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) moving
One of the most eye-catching initiatives from the Boris Johnson administration, the LLE won fans from across the political spectrum. There’s serious work to do on implementation, and the ambitious 2025 launch already looks unlikely. But any serious political party needs a meaningful offer on upskilling and reskilling, and few things could offer a better prospect of long-term growth than the opportunity to massively widen people’s educational opportunities throughout their lifetimes.
With so much work on the LLE already underway (though much of it has stalled – get that data burden group together again!), it would be unfortunate if it was abandoned at this stage, given its transformative potential. One way forward would be to commission demand-side research, as there’s not exactly been a rush to sign up for the pilot, and there may well be better ways to promote the offer to people that would benefit from it. In sum, keep the work going because some of it might actually stick, and no matter which party wins the next election, we can all agree that this is a good thing.
3. Reboot regulation in England
The Department for Education has been working with sector agencies over the summer on the long overdue post-legislative scrutiny of the 2018 Higher Education and Research Act. This first phase of work ends with a memo, thought to be landing in the Education Committee inbox some time in the next two weeks. The Education Committee (or any other committee that has an interest) then has the chance to conduct an inquiry into any aspect of this regulation that hasn’t worked in the way it was initially intended.
The relationship with the designated quality body, tensions over transparency, independence, and openness in regulation, and the perilous financial state of parts of the sector constitute just some of the many issues that need to be addressed. And with the government up to this point talking increasingly about one single education system, there are numerous challenges of data and regulation to sort out if they are to truly bring different parts of the system together.
An inquiry would lay the groundwork for this and a future major review of higher education regulation in England – everyone knows this needs to happen. So this is actually a recommendation for Conservative members of the education committee (not least the chair) – use the power this time to start solving these problems. And for the freshly appointed ministerial team in DfE, a new start means that there there’s an opportunity to chart a different, more independent course with OfS, with more clear blue water between the two and an end to the circular approach where ministers and the OfS chair would brief hysterical stories to the right-wing press generating headlines that gave cover for asking the regulator to carry out highly partisan action.
4. Launch a government review into student housing
Even free market fundamentalists accept that the government needs to step in to ensure contracts are honoured, and consumers are offered a meaningful choice. Thousands of students are now paying for accommodation miles away from where they study, thousands are paying more in rent than they receive in maintenance loans, and thousands more are renting poorly insulated homes and fighting with private sector landlords to cut energy costs. This is a crisis that has been brewing since higher education growth became a free-for-all – if we can’t physically house students who have university places, perhaps infrastructure expansion should be a condition of student number expansion.
And with gilt prices being only temporarily propped up by the Bank of England following the mini-budget, there are serious questions being asked about whether long term private capital will still be interested in investing in student housing schemes. Without such investment, the supply side issues are going to collide with the demand side, sparking a genuine crisis, in just a few short years. A cross-government review with some serious external input could go some way to dealing with some of these issues, before its too late.
5. Sort out the student welfare crack in the system
In Wales, an entire strand of government and regulatory thinking, centred on student welfare and the study environment, will shortly emerge – and will scoop up everything from mental health to sexual misconduct. In Westminster, responsibility for single strands of student welfare floats between DfE, the Office for Students, Universities UK, Advance HE, Student Minds and so on – usually led by press panics rather than evidence, and almost guaranteeing that work will be short-termist and characterised by individual, often low-impact initiatives rather than something more substantial that students might depend on.
Even with finances the way they are, some national ministerial convening of the big players – agencies and other government departments that usually don’t want to know, with some substantial student input, ought to be able to generate more sophisticated, strategic and impactful work in this space – and help offer some student-centred solutions to the cost of living crisis that like most student issues, continue to fall through the cracks in Whitehall.
6. Accept sensible amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
Most expert observers are fairly clear this Bill would not actually do anything meaningful to safeguard free speech on campus – others are still dubious that the issue is big enough to warrant primary legislation. For whatever reason, previous ministers have thought it was necessary. Now their successors need to ditch it completely, or accept some modest changes to make it work.
There are some in the Lords who know a fair bit about higher education – about how universities work, and about how policy initiatives meet reality. Some of them have made some very sensible amendments – for instance, Lord Willetts aims to remove the statutory tort that would put every students’ union at a clear risk of vexatious legal action, thus making it more likely that fewer external speakers will be invited to student events. Listen to him, listen to them, listen to the wider sector, accept the amendments and draw a line under Bill’s life in Parliament.
7. Actually reform R&D tax credits
The Conservative government has committed itself to cutting taxes to stimulate growth. For every £1 of tax deferred, up to £2.70 of new R&D expenditure is demonstrated before counting any new employment, investment, or new innovations. Current relief rates do not discriminate enough between types of activity or their economic utility. A savvy new science minister (see above) should embrace the opportunity to provide enormous tax relief to programmes aimed at sustainability and those which partner with universities. Go even further and provide bonus relief to places which are not only working in sustainability but themselves commit to sustainable practices. It will generate growth, cut emissions, and help Britain become a leader in the field.
8. Include universities in innovation zones
On the topic of tax and relief there from the government has set out a commitment to low tax, regulation-light, planning-expedited zones for capital investment. The evidence about whether these work economically is limited, but we do know universities are chronically short of lab spaces which in turn is limiting their capacity for research, growth, and business collaborations. Allowing universities to be part of innovation zones would give a one-off boost to otherwise prohibitively expensive developments of world-class secure lab spaces. It would also look like a responsible move in a week where Covid rates continue to rise – the government could demonstrate that it is committed to understanding, responding, and recovering from, current and future pandemics.
9. Allow universities to use capital funding to take over disused high street shops
Last week, Public First’s Jonathan Simons suggested that universities should take over the high street and he’s right. Their polling consistently shows that people are concerned about the decline in their local high street – it seems like the perfect time for higher education to become more present in communities – as Nottingham Trent University has done in Mansfield or the University of Gloucestershire did when it moved into an old Debenhams. It will help growth, and levelling up and is possibly one of the most visible civic actions a university could take.
But there are lots of things standing in the way of universities doing this, not least the way OfS capital funding is designed, which does not incentivise universities to build outside of its existing walls. The government could ask OfS to tweak this, to weight the criteria in the other way to actively encourage the higher education sector to spread beyond its borders and move back in to the community.
10. Don’t cut spending on research & development
One of the immediate consequences of the now infamous fiscal event is that the government is expected to make deep spending cuts in Whitehall to recover some lost fiscal ground, and it has emerged in recent days that it plans to do that without carrying out a full spending review. It has also emerged that cuts to research and development are on the cards, which would mean the UK would not meet the 2.4 per cent of GDP target.
It would quickly ally a lot of fears in research and industry if the government committed now to staying the course to 2.4 per cent regardless of the economic weather. Incidentally, it would make an upbeat conference platform announcement this week, that wouldn’t involve committing new money and would send a very visible signal that the government is truly committed to long-term growth.