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This dumbed down higher education policy won’t help the government “level up”

With the universities minister declaring decades of HE expansion and contextual admissions to be a failure, Mark Leach argues government policy is as confused and contradictory as it has ever been.

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

The UK government seems even more confused than usual about what it wants from higher education, with mixed signals being sent from different parts of Whitehall: real action on R&D alongside cheap words about “low value courses”, and now a significant but utterly baffling shift in access policy as the universities minister pronounces the recent decades of higher education expansion, including the use of contextual admissions, to be a failed experiment that has let down young people.

Low value – a recap

Over the several years and as we’ve been waiting for the long-trailed government action on “low value” courses to materialise, we’ve had plenty of time to dismantle the notion. Thousands of words have been written to that effect on Wonkhe. David Kernohan has regularly published a model with a fresh angle or fresh data to show time and time again why the whole debate is just a hollow vacuum of political rhetoric. This morning he does it again, just in case you weren’t quite sure what the data said. Andy Youell explains why a “course” isn’t even what ministers think it is.

The sector has spent months coming up with new ways to explain the true value of the whole higher education in response to the government’s attack lines. Much hair has been torn out in frustration. But nothing seems to change.

Perhaps nothing tangible has materialised because the government has not been able to design anything that makes sense; perhaps civil servants continue to show ministers models of what would happen if you follow through their faulty and frightening logic. Perhaps it’s not actually meant to lead to anything of substance; perhaps it’s all just an effort to nudge people away from choosing a higher education route that remains more expensive to the state then the Treasury would like, and to boost a faltering skills policy while they’re at it. Perhaps.

Policy with no strategy

The lack of overarching strategy for higher education was on show for all to see last week after the government announcements on research. The same government in the same week can stand forward and extol the virtues of university research and put in place meaningful measures to shore it up through the pandemic crisis. And then the next day can loudly rubbish much of the rest of the sector’s mission to open up education opportunities to those that need them.

As has been the case for some time now, the government is confused about what it wants from its higher education system, and apart from in research and innovation policy, is no further forward on coming up with a plan beyond sticking the “greatest hits” of Conservative ministers’ rhetoric on repeat: free speech, grade inflation, admissions/applications, value for money. In other words, using higher education to fight one side of a culture war and mollify the right of the party.

While the noise of the culture war battles rage, critical questions remain about what the government is actually trying to achieve with all this. Does it genuinely want to defund higher education and give more to further education – Augar-style, move students into FE away from HE, or both?

Last week’s speech gave us the biggest clues yet, but has given rise to even more unanswered questions.

“True social mobility”

Our universities minister Michelle Donelan took to the digital airwaves last week to set out her stall. Taking direct aim at “New Labour” in the delivered version of the speech – later amended in the published text for the sake of civil service proprietary to the “2004 access regime”, which she argues, contrary to all available evidence, “has let down too many young people”.

She said that young people, particularly those without a family history of going to university, have been “misled by the expansion of popular sounding courses”, leaving them “with the debt of an investment that didn’t pay off.” She argued that “social mobility isn’t about getting more people into university”, it is in fact when “we put students and their needs and career ambitions first, be that in HE, FE or apprenticeships.”

There was also a big policy shift – a signal that the government no longer believes that universities should make contextual admissions. After fifteen years of consensus about this issue, countless thousands of life-changing opportunities afforded to people who may otherwise have missed out on a university education, active encouragement by the Office for Students and its access and participation regime, Michelle Donelan has decided to call time on the practice. She said last week that “too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses”.

This rightly caused immediate outrage and consternation in widening participation circles and so it should. Chris Milward is now left with the unenviable task of translating it into a policy that will be fiercely resisted by the sector which has incidentally been working overtime in recent years to meet the hugely ambitious access targets set by the regulator. Should universities now not worry too much about the social makeup of its intake and just chase the most affluent students? It would be a lot easier, but I’d hazard there’s not a university in the land that would think this would be the right thing to do for their own institution, community or the nation.

The question remains, what is the government trying to achieve? Does it want universities to be less diverse, preserving the opportunity for a small elite? Does it really believe that there’s capacity or demand for FE and apprenticeships to stand in its stead? Does it want to shrink higher education, by discouraging the most disadvantaged students to attend? Does it want to defund or disincentive students from taking courses it deems of “low value” based on prejudice and a willful failure to engage with the evidence? Who will any of that serve? It’s not clear at all.

A policy in chaos

It doesn’t take a master kremlinologist to understand the roots of the Donellan speech – look no further than Iain Mansfield’s blog for Policy Exchange in January. Mansfield now works in DfE as Spad to Gavin Williamson and is reported to be speech’s principal author. The speech and blog bear striking similarities, down to the examples they use – Exeter maths colleges et al.

While the huge questions of government intent remain hanging in the air, a reading of the original blog makes clear Mansfield’s policy proscription: a) a large-scale rebalancing between higher and further education, b) an introduction of a sector-wide numbers cap on full-time undergraduate courses and c) freezing tuition fees for the duration of this Parliament. It’s reasonable to assume that the minister, having attached herself wholeheartedly to the diagnosis, also believes in the cure.

Expect more clues as to what happens next as Gavin Williamson sets out his post-18 strategy in the coming days and weeks, but don’t expect to like what you hear. Because apparently, coming from poverty, fighting tooth and nail to improve your circumstances through a university experience before heading into the world of work is not the sort of “levelling up” that this government wants to encourage.

2 responses to “This dumbed down higher education policy won’t help the government “level up”

  1. “Perhaps nothing tangible has materialised … Perhaps it’s not actually meant to lead to anything of substance; perhaps it’s all just an effort to nudge people away from choosing a higher education route… Perhaps.”

    Perhaps … every minister in the Johnson “UK” government is in the image of their Prime Minister … and they are all just idiots?

    Perhaps … they are dangerous idiots too, playing their particular brand of idiot politics with people’s lives?

    Ah well, as Paul Weller once sang
    “The public gets what the public wants …

    What you see is what you get
    You’ve made your bed, you’d better lie in it
    You choose your leaders and place your trust
    As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
    You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
    And the public wants what the public gets”

    … so I’m going underground … and perhaps with 54% showing as supporting Scottish independence today, I can at least be reassured I made the right decision on which country to go underground in …

  2. very interesting – and enlightening – to listen to a recording of last week’s truly dire ministerial speech alongside the blog from Ian Mansfield linked to above; a very clear driver for the Donelan speech.

    Clearly the timing of the speech when public focus remains largely on the rationale and likely impact of various steps to lift the lockdown – and where any focus on education is on proposals to get kids back into school – makes this an expeditious moment to roll back from c 15 -20 years of commitment to widening access and HE as a tool for social mobility and to do so when outside of ‘wonkHE type audiences this announcement effectively happens ‘under the radar’.

    Rubbishing contextual offer making and wrapping up the practice with that of ‘conditional unconditional’ offer-making and the new OfS registration condition is disingenuous but clever politics; both practitioners and institutional leaders ought to be out there in the ‘public prints’ ensuring that this conflation is not allowed to stand uncontested with in particular UUK and RG leaders being to the fore in making the argument that contextual offer-making expands and transforms life choices for its beneficiaries.

    If this does not happen over the next few months when the whole issue of future arrangements for admissions nationally are in the spotlight the ground won by practitioners for the space to employ contextual offers to underpin access strategies will be at real risk of being lost.

    Finally the closing reference in the Mansfield blog to engaging Ofqual more substantially in the licensing and regulation of level four and five quals is surely a ‘marker’ to look for in any future speeches by Williamson et al on 18/19+ strategy and direct challenge to the position of the sector in ownership of Level Four/Five quals as legitimate exit points from the HE experience.

    I – like Mike above – am just the right age to enjoy the ‘Eton Rifles’ references for a Boris-led regime!

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