We all know that right now, the higher education sector is facing an unprecedented range of external challenges. Funding conditions are uncertain, and competition for a shrinking demographic of 18 year-olds has created financial instability in some providers.
Brexit, international recruitment, pensions, debt and capital programmes, are all live issues that providers across the UK have variable capacity to absorb.
And all of this is taking place against a backdrop of a highly negative media and political narrative, especially in England. With regulatory and funding regimes across the four nations of the UK becoming increasingly differentiated, alongside new providers and an explicitly competitive ethos in the English system, the scope for HE providers to share identities or influencing agendas appears genuinely limited.
But while in some ways it all feels worse than ever, perhaps in other ways we’ve all been here before. It’s important to reflect on reflect on the volatile political, policy and public landscape we find ourselves in – and to ask ourselves why it is that when it comes to making and implementing education policy, we seem to have the same debates over and over again, but it feels like we’re getting nowhere.
The long view
It’s too early to say”.
That is the famous misquoted quip from Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972 – supposedly about the impact of the French Revolution.
But it’s come to encapsulate a fundamental truth about history – that what is significant in the short term, might be a footnote in the long run, and what is ignored today, may have huge ramifications tomorrow.
Take Brexit. It’s dominated the past few years, few months and probably the last few minutes, whenever you’ve chosen to listen. It has raised fundamental questions about our constitution, our executive, our parliament, our political parties and our electoral system.
But even so, it’s still hard to say how the events of this year will rank against other seismic post-war moments, where public trust in our democratic institutions was tested to the limit.
For all the millions of words on Brexit that have been published, we don’t know if it will be any more or less definitive than other turning points since the war:
- The break-up of the British Empire
- The social revolution of the 60s
- The break up of the post-war economic consensus
- Fragmentation of a ‘third way’, between left and right.
All these factors impacted on the UK’s vote to leave the EU – we just don’t yet understand how they all fit together.
Soap opera politics
You wouldn’t work this out this from the Brexit soap opera we’ve been enduring on our screens every night. Politicians speak of their values, beliefs and ethos, of wanting to make the world a better place. But the politics they pursue is reported to us as a psychodrama of leadership ambitions; of party tribalism; and factional rivalries. None of this is new, of course. Politics has always married high ideals and low cunning.
It’s now six years after David Cameron first pledged an in/out referendum, and there is still no agreement on the problem that leaving the EU is the answer to. The forthcoming Tory leadership contest will be dominated by it. And it’s crowded out discussion on anything else for almost all of those six years.
Yet looking across public policy, these debates aren’t even scratching the surface of the bigger issues that we all know are facing our country. We’re still locked into the same old debates about the same old issues: social care; NHS; tax; growth; jobs; poverty; industry; productivity; welfare; pensions; energy; devolution; police; criminal justice; discrimination; early years; and schools.And we see this no more clearly than in tertiary education.
This autumn, it’s the centenary of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s groundbreaking Report on Adult Education, arguing that lifelong learning was vital to the nation’s welfare and security. And it’s 75 years since the Education Act promised a national system of technical schools, a radical change that has still never been seriously attempted.
We’ve had decades of reform, legislation and change. 50 Secretaries of State, 28 Acts of Parliament and six departments have overseen further education since 1945. We’re having the third major review of university funding in the last 20 years, quite aside from dozens of consultations, green papers and white papers.
And we’ve seen continual creation and dismantling of institutions and agencies to regulate, fund and manage the higher and further sectors, complicated even more by devolution. yet we are still no closer to creating a coherent post-18 system of professional, technical and academic education. We’ve still got a college and adult education system starved of investment; a university financial model under pressure; a flawed apprenticeships funding model; and a politically toxic tuition fees and loan system.
And the odds are the Post-18 Education & Funding Review process will fall well short of addressing it all. And with Theresa May now on her way out of Downing Street, it almost certainly means that the Prime Minister, Chancellor and Education Secretary who commissioned it, will be gone by the time decisions get made – let alone implemented.
The review is also at the mercy of what’s shaping up to be a brutal spending review and a completely unpredictable political environment. We have, in short, no idea if it will form the basis of major reform – or be dead on arrival.
So at Wonkhe, we wanted to step back and ask why it is that we keep ending up back at on the starting grid on tertiary education – with the same arguments, diagnosis and prescriptions.
Maybe the problem is with the policy process itself, where churn, reinvention and recycling seems ingrained and the bar is set too high to build real consensus? Perhaps the problem is in the higher education establishment, which to some appears to put its own interests over committing to a coherent post-18 system. The problem could be that modern government simply hasn’t kept pace with the complexity of today’s globalised economy; rapidly changing society; and enormous demographic and intergenerational change.
We’ve drilled down to possible root causes – which needed to be addressed if we are to escape this policy trap.
The complexity conundrum
Politics and policy is about storytelling. And the best politicians and policymakers tell stories about where we’ve come form, where we are and where we are going. The art of political leadership is to adapt that story into a manifesto and a programme able to persuade, mobilise and galvanise.
We live an anti-politics age but politics is at its best when it’s at its boldest in putting the public good first. No mainstream political party is going to reverse same-sex marriages, abolish capital punishment or kill off equal workplace rights.
Despite forces like the Brexit party surging around a single issue – after all, they’ve refused to publish a manifesto beyond “Brexit” – the idea that a party would propose to revoke legislation on say, smoking bans, raising the school leaving age or the minimum wage, would be met with incredulity by the comfortable majority of people in Britain.
The UK has always instinctively shied away from overarching ideologies that drive policy. Instead, the belief each generation should do better than the last is the closest there is to a unifying “British Dream”.
It is the social contract articulated by every government and opposition since 1945. The political dividing line boils down to the extent the state intervenes to run the economy to deliver this. There is not necessarily one version of the truth. Politics has competing and often, wholly convincing, narratives based on the same evidence.
So the crux of any discussion about public policy rests on what we mean by it, who makes it and who owns it. Is policy the means to an end or is it the end itself? Is policy made by those we elect or all those who apply that policy? And is policy best judged by the intended outcome or the actual outcome?
This is not as arcane as it sounds. The soap opera storyline of politics demonstrates a wider mismatch between our expectations of ministerial control in Westminster and the limits of actual ministerial powers.
We elect politicians to make decisions and choices on our behalf. Policies are then allocated to specific departments to be responsible and accountable. And there is not a linear process, where fixed policy outcomes are linked to fixed decisions at fixed times by fixed people.
Policymaking is messy, chaotic and complicated, shaped by factors beyond policymakers’ control. Policymakers never have enough information to make decisions with absolute certainty. And all this means most policy change is minor and major policy change is rare – and when it happens, it takes place over decades or needs a “shock” to kickstart it. Would the Attlee government have had the window of opportunity to build the welfare state without the war?
Social scientists have long tried to disaggregate all this to improve the quality of policymaking. But in the last decade there has been a trend to adapt complexity theory, originally a strand of the natural sciences, to explain it. The argument goes that complex systems behave in a way which is unstable and unpredictable. Small actions can have big outcomes. And big actions can have small outcomes.
Take the “British Dream” of social mobility. There is a broad consensus that social mobility grew quickly in the UK 1950s and 1960s thanks to the expansion in quality white-collar jobs, more women in the workforce, and access to universal healthcare.
But in terms of higher education policy today, these decades look like the dark ages – with low progression to tertiary education and universities closed off to all but an elite. Even if we accepted it as a unifying goal, the truth is we are still debating what social mobility is, let alone the right combination of public policies to drive it. Is it absolute or relative? Is it about mobility across generations between parents, children and grandchildren? Or is it about equality of opportunity within generations, for individuals and their families during their own lifetime?
So while we can articulate the broad problem, we can’t pinpoint how to address it with any degree of certainty. There is a gradual accumulation of facts, logic and analysis over time about a given issue – but it will never be complete. Instead, policy draws on more ingrained, ephemeral behaviours: instincts, beliefs, prejudices, emotions and habits.
It means the need to be seen to “do something”. Politicians tend to believe they are one headline policy away from electoral success. Lobbyists, campaigners, trade unions, mission groups and think-tanks feed off this. There are no prizes in arguing furiously for the status quo.
The Brexit impasse may not be blip. Perhaps it shows that in an ever more complex and volatile political environment, policy is about reaching the next stage and working out where to go. Vote Leave’s campaign hinged on “taking back control”. Maybe the lesson from complexity theory is we never had that much control to take back.
The post-18 policy imbalance
Complexity theory might go some way to explaining the decades-long failure to create a coherent post-18 education system. It is not for want of trying. After all, politician after politician, decade after decade we’ve had a pledge to break the divide between vocational and academic education.
They all promise “parity of esteem”. They all promise to turn the UK into the next Germany. To not waste talent. And yet for all the time and treasure spent on it, we keep up ending back at square one.
Arguably, higher education has had an outstanding run compared to further education. Teaching and research has never been as well funded. It’s evolved into a massified, international sector. It carries huge economic, social and cultural punch. Universities would have given their eye-teeth for all this in the dark days of underinvestment in the 1980s and 1990s.
Rachel Wolf, the former strategy advisor to David Cameron, puts this down to a natural bias in policy making towards higher education being the route of choice. She points to the lack of a consensus to anchor wider tertiary policy. “It makes it easier to randomly tinker because it is not obvious what the ‘Conservative’ or ‘Labour’ approach is”. She goes on: “The ability to change policy, dramatically and swiftly, can be an enormous advantage… but it is a problem in areas [like further education] with weak stakeholders and countervailing pressures”.
That bias means policymaking gets bogged down by separating out further and higher education, when we’re talking about the same generation of young people. It is tertiary education as a whole, not higher education alone, which matters most to society at large.
This is then exacerbated by ministers in successive governments swinging between policy extremes in post-compulsory education. At one end we have seen attempts to impose a more centrally planned system, with targets, tight regulation and accountability. And at the other, we’ve seen a market-based agenda pursued, with freedom and power devolved down to employers and learners, in theory at least.
Further education is much more exposed to ministers trying to design, configure and manage – because colleges’ independence or autonomy are not protected like universities’.
So it’s no surprise that we’ve ended up with a complex, mix of post-18 providers, funding systems, qualifications and accountability mechanisms – which every government tries to simplify and streamline, where churn begets more churn. But that means the onus has to be on education leaders to be bolder. No one starting with a blank sheet of paper would invent a post-18 system like ours. It has evolved over decades rather then by design.
It’s true that scores of universities and colleges do brilliant work together. But often these successes are in spite of, not because of, national policy. The tough spending review process risks forcing different parts of the education system into bidding wars against other parts of the education system, with one sector being played off against another.
We’ve seen the instinctive reaction to the risk of a lower baseline tuition fee is batten down the hatches – and not make the case for long-term investment across sixth forms, colleges, adult services, as well as higher education.
Beware the overoptimism
All of this is fed by an endemic over-ambition in policymaking.
The National Audit Office (NAO) wrote about the “optimism bias” that surrounded infrastructure projects in 2013. It said this was fuelled by everything from a poor evidence base and no independent challenge to weak stakeholder engagement and project management. It summed up that the “incentives to be over-optimistic are very strong and disincentives relatively weak”.
Junior ministers usually get more credit for signing off on projects or passing legislation then implementing policy. And even then, the constant turnover of ministers and civil servants means accountability is blurred if the shit does hit the fan.
Even when failures are clearly attributable to ministers, many aren’t held to account for their decisions. And without more fundamental change, this leads to repeated failures, which harm the public, and undermine trust in institutions.
A classic case of overoptimism was arguably opening up higher education to market forces – the core of policy in the last nine years. The 2016 White Paper laid it on the line that “competition between providers in any market incentivises them to raise their games, offering consumers a greater choice or more innovative and better quality products and services at lower cost. Higher education is no different”.
But have markets worked? Ministers might start off with the premise that higher education institutions are inherently protectionist, anti-competitive or monopolistic – but universities are uniquely bizarre, complex federal structures. A market cannot just be willed, legislated and regulated into existence. There is no single model of university let alone a coherent UK sector or system.
There is, as the late David Watson put it, “a sort of mutually-assured higher education enterprise, which government and others would like to be more differentiated, by purpose and especially by price”. Ministers took an intellectual punt. It takes some leap of imagination to tell students to act as consumers paying for their tuition, when it is 100% free at the point of use. Or to tell universities to act as producers, when the consumers have as few levers – no one can demand any cash back or withhold any payments.
Then there are the unintended consequences. For some reason, policy makers failed to foresee that there would be an oversupply of courses that are inexpensive to teach. An inevitable increase in advertising spend during a demographic dip was beyond their control. Nobody saw a student mental health meltdown in the tea leaves, and no-one predicted the impact of expanding the boarding school model on towns and cities, exacerbating an already punishing housing crisis.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
It is also no surprise then to see Labour opening up a new dividing line on marketisation. Of course, it does policy discussion a disservice by painting markets in absolutist terms – a neoliberal conspiracy on the one hand or a panacea for all ills on the other. And it’s arguable whether the “free market experiment” has even properly got going, given the OfS’ full regulatory powers to promote competition don’t kick in until August. So far, there’s hardly been a flood of new providers and only two full cohorts of students have been through the system since £9,000 fees were first introduced.
It is more important, perhaps, to ask what it was exactly that ministers wanted “choice” and “competition” to address. Ministers may talk the talk on “letting the market decide” – but it is doubtful that, in an age of low or no majorities, they would allow an established university to go to the wall. And for all the talk of lowering the bar for new providers, the odds remained stacked against challengers and disruptors.
The Centre for Global Higher Education working paper reported last month that 50% of private higher education providers in 2014 had ceased to operate three years on. So if we boil it down, perhaps all we’re trying to do is explain, codify and formalise all this complexity in a way which makes more sense.
The language of the market is one way to do it. And a future Labour government may take a different approach. They will all ultimately run up against the same issue – over-optimism.
The success and failure of reforms, market-led or not, is as much down to badly designed policy, implementation and oversight as anything else – whether it’s competitive tendering for bin collections or outsourcing probation services or running a rail network. The collapse of adult learner numbers in or the huge projected overspend on apprenticeships is down to poor policy design and an intrinsic flaw in markets.
The bottom line is that politicians of all stripes can never fully understand how decisions will play out and policy is based on assumptions about the behaviours of groups over whom they have no direct control.
Where have we come from?
We forget that the debate about balancing costs between direct grant and loans is nothing new. The Anderson Report of 1960 rejected loans, in favour of mandatory living and tuition grants for first time undergraduates. The Robbins Report in 1963, however, left the door open for their introduction.
It then took another forty years to become part of the landscape – today’s arguments simply don’t reflect that we’ve been talking about it for decades.
It shows the critical importance of institutional memory in Whitehall. Political debate in the past shapes debate today. Policy blunders limit scope for change now. Policy success creates space for reform. But without a clear understanding of the past, governments risk simply reinventing the wheel or making the same mistakes.
We see this in the modelling that was made around the current fee system and the assertion by the-then universities minister David Willetts – that the proposed £9,000 maximum would be exceptional, not the norm. This ignored that this was exactly what had happened with maximum fees tripled to £3,000. Nick Hillman, his special advisor, puts this down to there being “barely anyone around” in the department from six years before.
This may or may be the case, but it does beg the question why, even today, ministers are still castigating universities for charging maximum fees and not competing on price – when it’s a direct result of how the policy is designed. The same could be said for those ministers’ other regular gripes, like the take up of accelerated degrees, the use of unconditional offers or graduate employment outcomes.
It also highlights the risks of bouncing higher education around Whitehall.
It left the old DfES in 2007, was in DIUS until 2009, then BIS until 2015 before the ministerial role was split between DfE and BEIS and now the current universities minister is also moonlighting in the clean energy brief, thanks to the dearth of available (and loyal) talent in the ministerial ranks. There is an inevitable attrition from policy teams with knowledge walking out the door, making it tough to get hold of expertise, evidence and knowledge from even the very recent past.
The Institute for Government puts this down in part to the “tendency towards generalism in the civil service… at the expense of specialist knowledge”.So all of this requires ministers not to be blinkered about policymaking: not to believe their own hype; that less is sometimes more; and to make more haste, less speed – particularly when their own hands are tied by not being able to access the advice to previous administrations. That’s not the civil service being Sir Humphrey-ish. It’s about applying common sense when running modern government.
Right now, DfE is working on a whole series of major post-18 reforms beyond universities: the rollout of T-levels; Institutes of Technology; new Level Four and Five qualifications; phasing out funding for BTECs; the biggest apprenticeship reforms in decades; overhauling adult education; and the National Retraining Scheme.
All this would be highly ambitious even at the best of times. It risks huge overreach in a hung parliament and a lame duck Prime Minister; with public finances still tight; with political capital, energy and capacity drained; and no buy-in from the opposition.
So it’s not good enough to simply understand the failures of individual schemes of the past like say, Diplomas, Train2Gain or Individual Learning Accounts. It pays to be realistic, patient and pragmatic.
Education is too important to keep getting wrong and going back to the start again.
Poorly understood policy is poor policy
If you think about it, it’s astonishing, after all this time, that we’ve still ended up with a university funding system where everyone feels like a loser: government, taxpayers, students and even universities. But then fees have always been politically toxic.
At the height of her powers Margaret Thatcher shied away from parental top-ups in the mid-1980s, and the biggest backbench rebellion for Tony Blair was on £3,000 fees. And these were governments which held majorities of 144 and 167 respectively. So it’s unlikely to think a Conservative leader, holding together his or her party, would want to go anywhere near fees.
Major parties in England have flipped-flopped on fees constantly over the years. The Dearing and Browne reports were commissioned to neutralise fees as an election issue in 1997 and 2010 – kicking difficult decisions from one parliament to another. Labour is now committed to free higher education, despite introducing fees in the first place and flirting with a graduate tax. The Tories opposed them in 1998 and 2004 and even fought the 2005 election on a pledge to scrap the “tax on learning“ – yet now is their only defender in Parliament.
You’d hope that Philip Augar’s panel unpicks the reasons that we’ve come to this point. But it is clear that in part it is down to the disastrous decision to operate the system as “loans”, “fees” and “debt”. It put the language of the behind the scenes accounting model at the forefront of selling the policy.
The “fee” is a cost unit to make the government’s books stack up. The “loan” bears little relation to commercial loans. And “debt” is in all but name a tax – and no one lies awake at night worrying about the income tax they will be paying in 30 years.
This was compounded by the context of austerity. It meant the trebling of fees was not sold as addressing decades of underinvestment, protecting education and pumping new, long-term funding. It was positioned as the urgent need to cut public spending and that students could no longer rely on the state. Ministers claimed the economy crashed because the UK ran up huge debts – but then also claimed that it was fair and equitable for graduates to get a loan statement telling them they owe £50,000.
Former universities minister David Willetts is clearly frustrated that the system is not well understood – for chapter after chapter in his book A University Education, he comes up with new and different ways to recast it. But badly understood policy is just bad policy. The responsibility is with ministers who signed off on a policy which worked on paper but has ended up toxic on the doorstep.
He claims the government did look at the terminology although there is no public evidence this got far. “The language of fees and loans had already taken hold”, he writes. “If we had tried to change it we would have been in danger of having an official name and a separate colloquial description. I did not wish to go back to the days of the poll tax, which ministers were supposed to call the community charge”.
The comparison with the Poll Tax is telling. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe’s brilliant book The Blunders of our Governments sets out how in its very conception, very clever politicians and officials “contrived to produce one of the worst and stupidest pieces of legislation in modern British history”.
They castigate the Cabinet and Parliament’s collective failure “to halt in good time a project, that in its speed and potential for destruction, bore a striking resemblance to a runaway train”. Policy needs common sense – and in the case of the Poll Tax’s to listen to that wise civil servant who told his superiors to “try collecting that in Brixton”.
So it is revealing that the Post-18’s Review‘s terms of reference are explicit about finance needing to be “better communicated” – and reassuring, perhaps, that Ivor Crewe himself is on the expert panel.
It recognises that tuition fees have become permanently weaponised. And it indicates, perhaps, ministers have run out of steam in defending their own policy. They might pay lip service to protecting the basic principles but no longer have the energy, or words, to defend the system.
The Prime Minister originally positioned her own review as repairing broken university markets, alongside housing and energy, deliberately reached out to parents and grandparents worried about their children’s debts. It meant May ended up fighting a kind of guerilla war against her own higher education policy at the last election. No wonder Jeremy Corbyn’s pledge to abolish fees, whatever the enormous drawbacks, is deceptively simple.
In theory the Aguar review is imminent. And it’s possible – perhaps even likely – that its conclusions and recommendations will be buried. A long forgotten review commissioned by a Prime Minister unpopular in her own party and the wider country.
Whatever the ideas in it, they will have their enemies. The sector will do what it does so often when it feels attacked – get defensive, over complicate and reel off all the reasons why change can’t be delivered. Most of us will agree with much of the analysis. We’ll see the flaws, and the pitfalls, and the unintended consequences if an already weak Government dares to act.
But perhaps this time we need to do something else too.
Universities are home to our sharpest minds and our brightest discoveries. In the decade to come, our skills needs will change radically, demand for higher education will grow rapidly, and whatever the Brexit outcome our economy will need to be rebuilt. To address all that, we need ideas – that solve the legitimate problems that people and politicians identify, and that command popular support. Phillip Augar’s terms of reference include all of the goals we’ve seen before – a joined-up post-18 education sector, access for all, and delivering the skills our country needs.
Maybe the expert panel will have the ideas and a forthcoming government the drive to sell those ideas to drive real change. But if not – isn’t it the sector’s turn to try to solve some of these enduring problems?
Our Wonkhe 360 report demonstrated the appetite in the sector to take back the policy debate – to move away from the aggression and immaturity of government policy to an inclusive, mature conversation that brings in the expertise and knowledge of the people working and studying across higher education.
As one of our respondents told us:
We cannot be passive recipients of other people’s ideological views or ideas of HE. We need to work together to discuss, develop and effectively communicate more nuanced policy rooted in the reality of our student bodies, staff experiences and the day-to-day context of our organisations and the communities they are part of.”
Only then will we escape the education policy trap.