If a week is a long time in politics, then a fortnight is an epoch in Clearing. Both have proved to be over the last extraordinary two weeks, with disastrous results.
Universities, long now the target of ministerial ire, have been stitched up by the very poorest ministerial stewardship. It is now clear that the fatal problems with the government’s and Ofqual’s planned approach to grading were, well, always clear. Politicians with more experience said it was asking for trouble, letters from concerned former civil servants were dispatched but went unheeded, independent statisticians tried to slow the coming juggernaut, but were waved away.
Was it gross ineptitude or something worse? The episode reveals a troubling tendency in government to close its ears to proper expertise, focus in on large-scale data processing as a magical solution, and close ranks when it should take an open approach to acknowledging and fixing problems, however serious.
The sector is not wholly innocent, as it too thought emergency number controls were the answer, despite the many warnings about why this was a bad idea, including on the pages of Wonkhe. In the background, universities have banked too heavily on a reliable flow of international students, and under-assessed the risks of the global turbulence that can undermine it (the pandemic is only the disaster we got; it wasn’t the only one in prospect). But we are where we are, and if the government is prepared to allow massive sector destabilisation over a tremendous global anomaly, then they are truly irredeemable.
Some progress has been made to rectify the situation, but not enough. The “crisis of grades” has been solved for most, although BTEC entrants still don’t have results, and thousands of private entrants (e.g. homeschooled students) do not have grades at all and seem to have been forgotten. The sector is now working through a consequential “crisis of admissions”. Some institutions, finding themselves massively oversubscribed, are deferring many students to 2021 entry even though they have now met their offers. There are some immovable realities – if labs and halls are full, they’re full. But never mind the legal and regulatory issues, is it ethical to ask a student to give up their place, or wait a year, so another who had their grades adjusted upwards by a faulty algorithm can take it?
The only way to properly handle this is with care and consideration for the kind of human factors that the government ignored – institutions must consider whether individual students have the means to take a year out when they make these deferral decisions. At the other end of the spectrum, many institutions are finding that their chances of meeting admissions targets have evaporated, along with their prospects for financial stability in the short-term.
So it is that we come to the third crisis, completing a “triple lock” of policy failure – a “crisis of capacity”, with not enough in some places and far too much in others. Michelle Donelan has set up a taskforce of sector leaders, apparently meeting daily. The key policy objectives now must be: a. to facilitate an outcome where as many students as possible are placed in their original first (or insurance) choice institution based on CAGs; b. to increase capacity in over-subscribed institutions; c. to ensure that students who defer to 2021 have something valuable to do for a year; d. to protect institutions now facing major recruitment shortfalls from acute financial danger.
Here are some policy options they might want to put on their agenda tomorrow:
Establish a scheme to enable oversubscribed institutions to rapidly licence space (teaching and accommodation) from undersubscribed ones. This would create surge capacity in the former and shore up incomes in the latter. Institutions would not do this in normal times, but in light of the present extreme challenges, it would help to reconcile the very different pressures facing institutions at either end of the admissions spectrum.
Such a system would not work everywhere, but it could work in large urban centres which have the largest student number volumes and concentrations and would support social distancing. And surely it would be preferable to booking up hotels and their conference centres to find extra space when the HE sector – taken as a whole – has about enough. To make this work, it would require sector-wide support for a centralised scheme, a central brokerage unit, using standardised licensing contracts and pricing (at least at the city level) to increase the speed of implementation and reduce transaction costs. The taskforce should set this up by mid-September, and DfE should pay for it.
Consider extending the same pooling concept to staff secondments. This is obviously a lot more complicated, but with institutions in one corner desperate to find people to teach and others, in the absence of action, likely to be forced into redundancy programmes, it is not impossible to find a way to square the circle and avoid job losses and worsening casualisation of employment.
A national programme for deferred students
The government could create a national programme for students who defer. It is crucial not to allow people to slip through the cracks and find themselves with nothing to do for a year and, in some cases, no money to live on. This programme could include additional/preparatory learning at HE level, which could be delivered under contract by university consortia with unused capacity, combined with voluntary service, and – when the time comes, hopefully next spring – some funded support for travel and adventure.
This may be denounced as a “waste”, but true waste would be to leave a swathe of young people idle and uninspired, the consequences of which could last a lifetime. The financial package could be delivered through the student loans system, with debts written off when people complete their main courses in 2021, as already happens with Access to Higher Education Diplomas. Enrolments for the scheme would start as soon as possible, remaining open throughout the autumn term for those who tried in good faith to start a course but find the circumstances of life full-time under Covid security too challenging.
If we can find £60bn for the furlough, we should be able to find, say, £600m for this. If we are unfortunate and experience a significant second wave necessitating the closure of campuses, something of this kind may become needed on a more widespread basis. It should be created now, with options to scale up.
This is not a time for recommitment to an ideological framework of higher education as a competitive market with individual institutions expected to sort out their own problems while government and quangos police them. It is a time for radical and innovative collaboration between universities, supported by government.
It is a time for practical action to rebalance the system and help students.