Sector voices on the review of post-18 education and funding

Wonkhe has interviewed key people from across UK further and higher education – mission groups, representative bodies, think tanks, charities, and individual wonks – to find out the sector’s priorities for the imminent review of post-18 education and funding in England. These were the main themes that came out.

Part-time/flexible study

The closest we got to a consensus among our respondents was over improving the sector’s offer for part-time students. There has been a 58% fall in enrolment of part-time students to universities and FE colleges since 2010. Claire Callender of Birkbeck, University of London said: “The policies introduced to encourage part-time study – extending loans to part-timers – have not worked. They, and higher fees, have contributed to declining numbers.” She called for the government to provide financial incentives for prospective students to study part-time and for providers to deliver part-time courses.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, also placed addressing the collapse in part-time learning among his top priorities. GuildHE added that allowing more flexible use of the apprenticeship levy could be one way to do this.

Ryan Shorthouse, director of the Conservative think tank Bright Blue, said that the reason for the drop in part-time students was financial: “All eligible adults should be able to access a lifetime HE tuition fee loan account from government to pay for the tuition of any HE course – full-time or part-time – throughout their lives. To support the extension of student loans to everyone wishing to undertake a HE qualification aged 18 or above, the government could also minimise its subsidy costs by introducing a ‘graduate levy’ on large graduate employers.”

MillionPlus pointed out the need to address declining numbers of mature students, while Universities UK made a broader point about supporting flexible study. Independent HE called for flexible funding to allow students to choose their course, mode of study and pace to suit them. The fall in part-time students has been covered extensively on Wonkhe.

Student support

Many also raised the issue of student support packages. Wonkhe’s David Kernohan described the current system of student support “hugely regressive”, and suggested that financial worries play a significant role in the higher dropout rates for students who are the first in their families to attend higher education. The Diamond Review has shone the way, to some extent – the move to a means-tested grant alongside a loan for tuition fees has gone some way towards addressing the issue in Wales. David said: “Justine Greening has indicated her support for the return of grants – as initially recommended in the Browne Review – and there is some support in the DfE. It would address Sam Gyimah and Theresa May’s perceived political issues – that the Conservatives offer little to young people – too.” Nick Hillman and GuildHE also stated their support for the reinstatement of maintenance grants. Louis Coiffait of Wonkhe pointed out how unfair it looks for poorer students to pay more overall, and the very richest to pay nothing.

Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge, highlighted that some students may not be keen to take on debt: “Any reform of funding needs to recognise the reluctance of FE students to take up loans and address the need to bring employer funding into the system.”

Student Minds, the mental health charity, advocated a review that considers rising living costs for students: “Students experiencing financial difficulties, for example struggling to make ends meet on a day to day basis, are at an increased risk of experiencing mental health difficulties. HE funding must consider how maintenance grants and other forms of support can be made available to these students”.

Technical and further education

Chief Executive of the University Alliance Maddalaine Ansell said: “The upcoming review must recognise the tremendous value that degree-level technical and professional education brings to students, employers and wider society”. Independent HE would like technical education “to at last take centre stage, and lose the albatross label of further education with its lumbering, innovation-killing bureaucracy”.

Anna Vignoles argued that the review should “prioritise additional resources for further education” given the real declines in funding that the sector has experienced and the implications this has for social mobility – students from poorer backgrounds are, on average, more likely to enter further education.

The Association of Colleges said that more should be done to develop alternative routes of study, and that the review would “be a missed opportunity if there wasn’t some thought about apprenticeships, the rationale for different funding levels at different ages and how jobs will change as a result of automation”.

Andy Westwood says that to get the desired “better balance between academic and technical choices”, the review must “consider full time, higher education in a much broader context – how the whole system works rather than just one part of it. In other words, the review must ask more than what a full-time undergraduate should pay and how they then repay it. Then May should ask how it all joins up with her industrial strategy.”

Lifelong learning

As funding systems currently make it difficult for students to reskill, Anna Vignoles would like a review which considers ways of ensuring individuals can “undertake education and training throughout their lives”. Maddalaine Ansell and Wonkhe’s Catherine Boyd are also keen to see upskilling on the agenda. Catherine said: “Recent policy changes, such as two year degrees, have tinkered around the edges but even the government doesn’t estimate large take-up. Considering second degree funding, credit based funding and a system that supports movement between the different routes through higher education are key. Essentially, we need to ensure that the money truly follows the student rather than traps them.”

MillionPlus raised employers’ concerns that the apprenticeship levy needs to support flexible, work-based learning if it is to meet their needs for reskilling.

Uncapped student numbers

The Russell Group gave its view that student numbers should remain uncapped, and urged the government to produce a whole system review, instead of focusing on tuition fees in isolation so as to “avoid unintended consequences of changes in one area impacting on another”.

Wonkhe’s Ant Bagshaw would like to see a review which “looks at the resources that should be spent on particular sorts of delivery” and how much we should invest to deliver a high quality education. Ant added: “This means looking beyond simplistic questions like ‘what is the tuition fee cap?’ to something more nuanced. But do I expect nuance? No.”

Not tuition fees

Notable in their lack of mention were tuition fees. Ryan Shorthouse of Bright Blue called for the review to address tuition fees of up to £1,850 that students pay for sandwich years, saying: “It is unclear what students are paying universities for. The new Office for Students should do comprehensive research into this and take any necessary action”.

The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) would like the review to consider the broader impact of fees on universities and the resultant measures of success, such as graduate salaries, that have been imposed as a result of increased tuition fees: “The use of graduate salary as a proxy for graduate success could exacerbate issues in areas and professions where there are skilled labour shortages”.

More broadly, University and College Union General Secretary Sally Hunt said in a statement: “If this review is to serve any purpose then it needs to be radical and explore genuine alternatives to the current system, not just tinker at the edges”

However, changes to headline tuition fees were not mentioned by any of our respondents as an area that should be prioritised by the major review.

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