David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

To a person applying to university in 2025 – someone, perhaps, who has chosen their GCSEs this year as the first step towards thinking about their future – higher education in England will look very different if current proposals become policies and processes.

For a start – the process of application will be nearly unrecognisable. If DfE gets its PQA way the 2025 cohort will likely be one of the first to apply using their actual exam results rather than teacher predictions. Although people will still visit and get to know possible courses and providers early (as they do now), their final study choices will be made at speed immediately following results day.

Everyone into clearing

If you think about this as “everyone in clearing”, you wouldn’t be far off. There will be some courses – medicine or nursing perhaps – that will require an earlier application to allow for checks, but this will not be the majority experience.

The impact of the review of post-18 fees and funding (best known as the work around the Augar review, though there are other components) may also be felt by applicants. It is very likely that student numbers will be controlled in someway – either directly by course or indirectly via prior attainment. And this, combined with the impact of – at very best – cash neutral changes to fees, will mean that less courses are on offer in less places. However this is experienced by applicants, there will be less money in the system and more 18 year olds looking to find a course.

The knock-on for providers and applicants in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland will be huge, as it will be for all these England-specific changes. Regulators in each nation are considering the future of higher education carefully – the three-phase review in Scotland, planned legislation in Wales – but as is often the case the sheer scale of England makes the weather.

All of which adds up to an increase in the pressure placed on young people in their final year of compulsory study. A pressure amplified by the measures proposed in the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

Loan arrangers

Under those plans, a young person (we assume – details remain vague even beyond the Lords’ Committee stage) would have the equivalent of whatever four years of higher education fees end up being to spend on lifetime personal development.

Are you better off with a degree at the start of your career or a number of short courses at various points in your life? The best data we have suggests the former, but as we know now this has not historically held true for all courses at all providers (the “historically” here is very important – past performance tells us almost nothing about future opportunities).

We don’t yet know how maintenance loans will work in this new world. It’s fair to assume that we would have something akin to the current system for your traditional three year undergraduate degree going forward, but for the little-and-often learning option all bets are off.

It looks like a hugely complex decision – for me the early degree with maintenance loans would edge it, but this is not a decision I would like to make in two August weeks aged 18. If I was supposed to make this decision about my entire life course aged 18 I would at the very least like the support of a teacher, if not an actual careers advisor.

Choice moments

But how would I know which is the best course for me? Like generations of prospective students before me I would hopefully visit providers I am interested in, and speak to tutors and students about their experience – and take views from parents, teachers, and older friends. But if I’m unlucky someone might suggest I look at government advice.

And this is the final penny that is waiting to drop – the Office for Students is modifying both the quality baseline (by writing a bargain-basement knock-off Quality Code with far too much emphasis on outputs) and measures above it (by once again breathing life into the long-dead TEF). You’d think with everything else going on (you know, the pandemic – and all of the above) that now may not be the time. Bad luck. We will know everything about output measures and nothing about the quality of what is on offer.

Future imperfect

From a historic perspective, these regulatory plumbing issues would not in themselves be a problem outside of us sector specialists. But the redesign of application and funding in England seems custom designed to force applicants towards making decisions based on these quality judgements. If you’re betting your future professional development against a bachelor’s degree at a provider with TEF Delta, then the output measures on Discover Uni start to look like they might matter.

Which is where history lets you down as a means of predicting the future – and knowing how much someone the same sex as you earned three years after a degree they finished five years ago is quite a lot worse than knowing whether the people teaching you are any good at teaching. In the absence of any evidence on that front, the National Student Survey may be your best bet – and the way that works is still up for grabs too.

So we get to choose – has somebody actually planned this new system? Has someone modelled the effects of these simultaneous changes? Or is it just the accretion of knee-jerk changes? And – if Gavin Williamson is reshuffled into a role that better suits his unique skillset, do we get to roll the dice again?

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