David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

One of the very best things I read over the break was Audrey Watters’ summary of the 100 worst education technology debacles of the decade.

Reading through some of the more egregious nonsense spouted by US edtech boosters (though it isn’t all american, our very own Michael Barber crops up at number 74), it made me wonder about what a similar list of counterproductive UK higher education policies would look like.

There’s more than a hint of perennial Wonkhe favourite The Blunders of our Governments in here too. I’ve chosen to define a debacle as: a deliberate intervention in the way the sector works that has had a demonstrably negative effect on the sector. This definition means I can’t write about the apprenticeship levy, or the almost complete defunding of school careers advice, which would be on the list otherwise.

The current wave of publicity around Dominic Cumming’s Nathan Barley-style hiring round should prompt some consideration as to the way policy is formulated and implemented, and who does it. My own rule of thumb has always been that the closer the genesis of idea and the implementation is to people actually doing the work (academics, admissions staff, data wranglers…) the more likely it is to work. Fresh thinking from those less encumbered by practical experience characterises many of the entries below.

To be frank, I’m not expecting great things from the coming tsunami of unusual software developers and super-talented weirdos. But the old guard has little to be proud of either.

9. “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.” (2011)

Alex Salmond’s famous butchering of Burns is a profound illustration of an absolutist position. There’s no realistic way the SNP could back down from this free education pledge – instead funding pressures and student number controls continue to exert unintended consequences.

The policy is regressive, subsidising primarily the middle class youngsters who would attend university anyway – and attempts to widen participation in Scotland have only been partially successful – not least because number controls constrain the overall level of intake. Funding pressures have lowered the average income per student in Scottish universities, put a squeeze on support for other post-compulsory routes, and made the student support offer in Scotland one of the least attractive in the UK.

That’s not to say it’s right in England either (Wales is probably the most balanced of the bunch) but rounding on 2020 the Holyrood-led sector looks less agile and less responsible than it needs to be. Still, it was a great slogan.

8. Learning gain (2015)

Not so much the research programme, which was run as well as could reasonably be expected, but the accompanying expectations that some new direct measure of learning could be deployed to help students understand the quality of courses and institutions (and cynically, to aid government targeting of “low quality” programmes).

David Willetts was an early advocate of prior US based work – Jo Johnson picked up the baton and ran with it in the early development of TEF (one of the three core criteria once explicitly referenced the idea). Alas, metrics-driven attempts, national testing, and specific institutional interventions all found that the idea of directly measuring learning was – surprise! – more complicated than it initially seemed.

7. Variable fees and the £7.5k average (2012)

The same thing had happened before. Back in 2008 the advent of £3,000 tuition fees in England was predicated on the idea that such sums would only be charged in exceptional circumstances. Of course, barring a few early outliers, the maximum (as uprated) became the default.

To the surprise of absolutely no-one other than David Willetts the rise to £9,000 in 2012 followed exactly the same pattern. A few early experiments aside, the upper bound (now £9,250) became universal. Attempts to link the very highest fees to a successful OFFA plan, and even – abortively – to TEF ratings, have proved little effect. The settled position of the sector is that they’d prefer to be paid an amount per student that covers the cost of teaching said student at university. The Augar proposal to cut the headline rate and raise the Treasury contribution floundered as it became apparent that the cost of teaching a student is pretty much as stated.

I can only assume that continued attempts to instigate price differentials within the HE marketplace – and to explicitly link these to outcomes of varying applicability – comes from an over-literal interpretation of the idea of efficient market signals in first year economics.

6. Scrapping maintenance grants (2016)

Austerity was very much on the wane by 2016, which made the unexpected George Osborne decision to replace the maintenance grants for poorer students that returned in 2012 alongside higher fees with loans curious in retrospect. The move was enmeshed in what we now know as the fiscal illusion – just as fee loans looked cheaper than direct Treasury funding, maintenance loans looked cheaper than grants.

Though the uptick in participation rates was all-too-frequently cited as evidence that students from less well off backgrounds were lining up to take on additional debt, it was another example of market failure – there was simply no other option. The removal of bursary support for trainee nurses (fees and grants) on similarly shaky grounds has since come back to bite the government. But how many debt adverse young people have missed out on HE thanks to this policy? We’ll never know.

5. Private provider expansion (2017-2019)

The idea of an English parallel to the quality end of the US private HE sector was the main driving force behind the establishment of the much-loved Office for Students regulatory regime. Older readers may remember the longstanding Jo Johnson “Byron Burger” comparisons as a description of the quality and innovation that was being restricted by an unwieldy sector entry process.

We’re still waiting. The influx of private providers has been underwhelming – far below DfE predictions. Though concerns about very low quality provision have been wide of the mark, we’ve not really seen anything new in the creative arts, law, and business courses offered either.

4. Free speech on campus (2016-2019)

People, it’s not real. It’s a way for tired right wing ideologies to get a bit of extra publicity while avoiding student protests. Ministerial and regulatory “crackdowns” fill a gap in the news cycle and help centrist Conservatives offer red meat to the wilder fringes of their party – the ones who think being a white middle-class man with an unpopular opinion makes them the kind of entitled minority they like to semi-ironically disparage.

Trouble is that the tsunami of hysteria that has built up behind the agenda has accompanied an actual rise in right-wing extremism reported by educational institutions via Prevent. But still – “own the libs”, yeah?

3. MOOCs (2012-2014)

Thinking back to how much of a thing Massive Open Online Courses were in 2012 is like peeling back the layers of another world. People – including David Willetts – genuinely thought that a short free online course was the future of higher education. Thankfully, no public money was wasted directly on a UK platform – Martin Bean’s FutureLearn was very much a speculative punt in the hope DIUS would match the Open University spend.

I still treasure this video of Willetts disagreeing with my QAA-promoted analysis of the phenomenon for no other reason than he liked how excited MOOCs made him. This was at a conference at Edge Hill that must have had all of 20 people in the audience. Another time.

2. The Browne Review (2010)

None of it has been implemented. On a similar tip, the jury is very much out on Augar. I’m all for commissioning independent policy advice, but not so much for commissioning and then ignoring.

1. KIS/Unistats/Discover Uni (ongoing)

Another facet of magical market thinking – the idea that prospective students will make “better” decisions about their choice of course and institution if provided with lots of data – especially about likely salaries and likely degree outcomes. There has never been any indication that prospective students find any of this information useful – every serious study of decision making patterns suggests that personal contact with the institution in question (be this with current students, staff, friends with experience, or on a visit) is the gold standard. Most simply use the course search engine at UCAS (surely long overdue an open data release?)

You could argue that TEF sits in this basket – early announcements focused on the signals sent to school leavers, but the justificatory pivot to “it focuses institutional attention on the student experience” is – anecdotally – correct. I’d love to know if people are hiring data analysts or pedagogic researchers as a result.

But the glitzy relaunch of the same tired ideas, shorn of the sporadically useful comparison functionality, as Discover Uni this year tips the balance. A textbook example of another punt at the same failed idea just because it fits a pre-conceived ideological model.

Bonus – The market (ongoing)

There’s a thread running through a lot of these – the underpinning blind faith in market forces to organise a higher education sector that meets user and funder needs. You can trace every contemporary folk daemon besetting the sector – grade inflation, unconditional offers, hot and cold spots, “lost” and “fading” subject areas, student housing market hyperinflation, even my own personal bugbear of the shambolic implementation of multiple mandatory sector subscriptions – to this continued hope against hope that everyone will suddenly become a “rational actor” and act accordingly.

A sector without competition would have none of these problems – and would save the country serious money as duplication and ever-ambitious marketing became a thing of the past. I always saw one potential role for the Office for Students as a state investor in higher level skills provision – procuring the places that industry needs.

A policy hook into the Industrial Strategy, and rumblings about “STEM for the north” could mean that the days of planned provision are not over, and a post-Brexit reassessment of the way services are managed could see a sense of state planning return. It may not go the whole way, but you must admit that an end to the HE market would certainly solve a lot of wicked problems?

9 responses to “The nine worst policy debacles of the last decade

  1. On point six, it is worth adding debt averse mature candidates, particularly for the health disciplines.

  2. It’s a bit niche, but the National Scholarship Programme was an absurd piece of public policy and though for the students who benefited no bad thing, it didn’t meet its objectives, mainly as no-one could quite articulate what they were.

  3. You may add REF/TEF/KEF etc. and the rise of the managerial class within universities; breaking the covenant between academics and universities by attacking our pensions and insisting on running universities like businesses…

  4. Its not on the list and arguably the sin is one of omission rather than commission but something appears to be going wrong with the Humanities. Ten years ago, Peter Mandelson (remember him?) decided to ring fence funding for Sciences subjects provoking anxiety that Humanities subjects would be diminished. A decade on, while it is hard to conclude that a HE policy is the cause of observed problems, successive governments have gone along with a trend that is driven by what is happening in schools and changing student demand. The outlook in 2020 looks worse than in 2010 and to the extent that different policies might have ameliorated the situation, it could be added to the list as a 10th debacle.

  5. That would have been one my nominations. Famously neither National, nor about Scholarships or indeed even a Programme, it failed to run its 3- year course and was abandoned after just two. It forced institutions to refocus bursary income (paid to all low income students) into £3k mainly fee waiver packages to a much more limited number of recipients. Ludicrously it meant that there was enough money to support almost all low income students at the local Russell Group university but only about 25% of low income students at the local post-92 because allocations were by number of undergrads, not needs. The best thing that came out of it was the re-cycling of Year 3 money to fund the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) programme which kickstarted the return of collaborative WP working (now existing as the much better funded NCOP.

  6. 2 Browne Review – not quite true that none of it was implemented David. Among recommendations were the end of collaborative outreach programmes (Aimhigher and Lifelong Learning Networks) which were both defunded in 2011 and the abolition of mandatory bursaries for low income students, which disappeared with the new financing regime after 2012/13. The basic premise that graduates would henceforth borrow the entire cost of their courses (rather than a proportion) also came to pass in 2012/13

  7. I might add a failure to clearly commit to any sense of whether un-repaid student debt is a feature or a bug of the system. It was sort of tentatively there in the RAB target until that got changed for reasons of political expediency, but only at a system level. Of course it’s a wicked problem, and you can’t really comprehensively address it without also addressing its evil twin of why high-earning student paying higher-than-market rates of interest might be a feature rather than a bug.

  8. Agree! And at the same time, Core and Margin, another absurd, unfair and very short lived policy. Almost as if they didn’t really know what they were doing.

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