The sector is bracing itself for what looks set to be a dramatic year in higher education policy. We asked the UK’s top higher education leaders and wonks for their hopes, fears, and predictions on politics and the Post-18 review.
Tough politics and coming cuts
Andy Westwood, Vice Dean for Social Responsibility in the Faculty of Humanities and Professor of Government Practice at the University of Manchester.
It’s going to be a very difficult year. Brexit will finally happen (with or without a deal) and with or without any meaningful consideration of its impact on universities, research or on students. If that wasn’t bad enough, there’s a Spending Review that looks particularly challenging. The NHS has already been unveiled as the main winner and there are plenty of other departments already batting for extra investment – but education doesn’t look like one of them and seems much more likely to be a policy area where savings will have to be found.
While the Augar Review might see some good news for students – perhaps a return of grants, reduced interest rates and at least some lower fees – the ONS Review of student loan accounting looks likely to reinforce a significant cut in funding for universities. Maintaining the unit of resource is unlikely to win arguments in the Treasury or with the wider public. Any cuts may be partly balanced out by increased funding for technical education at higher levels and for targeted investment supporting the Industrial Strategy, but for many universities this will be small comfort. Nor are they likely to find much encouragement from the possibility of a change in Prime Minister. While no one would rule out a General Election or any number of leadership contests in the coming year, it’s hard to see any new faces prioritising university income amidst ongoing political and economic uncertainty.
A time to engage
Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI)
Higher education won’t be left in limbo just because of Brexit. There are four major reviews that are due to conclude very soon which will determine what happens to students, staff and institutions between now and the next general election: as well as Augar and the review of how student loans appear in the national accounts, there’s the Level 4 and Level 5 review, and the Migration Advisory Committee’s look at international students. It would be completely wrong for all of us working on higher education policy to sit back and wait for them to report. Rather, we should work to shape their output and, after they have reported, we can help determine whether their recommendations are accepted or altered.
Beyond this, Sam Gyimah clearly wants to leave his mark on what higher education institutions do to support students facing mental health challenges while also encouraging institutional leaders to ensure they promote freedom of thought on campus. That is an important and rich agenda, but it could be blown off course by events. If any institution comes close to running out of money or if a scandal erupts in the hundreds of providers in the unregulated part of the sector or if there is a huge data breach of students’ records, he could find himself in crisis management mode instead. Assuming that doesn’t happen, if I were him, I would focus my efforts inside Whitehall on ensuring the post-19 education and funding review ends up in a sensible place rather than hitting universities and, therefore, students.
What could the ONS changes mean?
Gordon McKenzie, Chief Executive of GuildHE
There is a good chance the ONS will acknowledge that a large slice of the loan is never repaid and effectively treats that portion as grant. That would mean HE suddenly adding a chunk to the deficit, so you have to assume Treasury would claw some back through a squeeze on the unit of funding for teaching. That would make deciding between loans or grants much more balanced – so could make it more attractive to bring back maintenance grants and cut headline fees while topping-up high cost courses with teaching grant. In recent years political parties have only imagined three positions on fees– none, £6,000 or £9,000. As £6,000 is the only one the Conservatives haven’t yet tried for size it might be worth an each-way bet. If you want something game-changing on skills and lifelong learning then you need more money and one way to get it would be to expand the apprenticeship levy – the scope, scale or both – while giving employers much more choice about how to spend it.
Implementing changes from the review wouldn’t necessarily happen swiftly or smoothly. First, the Prime Minister who commissioned the post-18 review may not be the Prime Minister who receives it. Even if she is, the Treasury and DfE may not agree and the PM doesn’t have the power to force them to. Even if they do agree the Prime Minister has form when it comes to initiating reviews and hesitating to implement them. There is also spending review to come in 2019 and you’d put the government response to the recommendations into that mix before deciding on the final details. And even if everyone agrees they should push ahead with some radical changes, there may be enough nervousness in government about the reaction of back-benchers and the Lords (and the opportunity for the Opposition to make hay with their “no fees” pledge) that there might be a temptation to kick it all into the manifesto.
A chance to fix the system
Laura Burley, Head of Government & External Affairs at The Open University.
University strategy and planning teams will be hard at work trying to pre-empt and predict UK Government policy, including on degree apprenticeships. There’s a real opportunity to fix the bits of the post-2012 system that aren’t working – especially the collapse in the number of people who are coming back to education in their 20s, 30s, and 40s either to re-skill or up-skill. Not tackling the decline of part-time higher education in England is a serious threat to the PM’s aspirations on social mobility and the Industrial Strategy.
Universities have a lot to offer – especially in supporting mature learners, creating progression pathways through Level 4 and Level 5, and promoting non-traditional modes of study/flexible learning options. As part of this, all eyes should also be on Wales and policy change following Diamond, especially around maintenance grants. It’s early days but the new grants are generating a significant uplift in the number of part-time students registering to study. That surely is of interest to all wonks who want to help widen access across the UK.