David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Sunday Blake is associate editor at Wonkhe

It was probably put best by Angela Eagle, the Labour MP when she told Parliament:

This year the Tory Party has given us five education secretaries, four chancellors, three prime ministers, two leadership coups, and the partridge has had to sell the pear tree to pay the gas bill

Add in a platinum jubilee, a state funeral, a controversial world cup, a Eurovision second place, and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia and you could be forgiven for thinking 2022 was something of a busy year.

It has been no less a vintage year for parliamentary responsibility for the higher education sector. We’ve seen just three ministers with responsibility for higher education in the Department for Education (Michelle Donelan, Andrea Jenkyns, and Robert Halfon), and a relatively parsimonious two science ministers (some combination of George Freeman, Nus Ghani, and – over the summer – nobody at all).

In legislative terms we welcomed the Advance Research and Invention Agency Act, the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, another year of deliberation on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and – probably most impressively – the Welsh government passed the Tertiary Education and Research (Wales) Act, thus winning a new regulator.

With such a lot going on, we’ve chosen to select seven key themes from the year’s Higher Education policy news rather than exhaustively run through every twist and turn of the last twelve months. If you want the full experience – do enjoy our archive of Monday briefings.

Duty of care

What responsibilities do universities have for the wider welfare of their students? It can often feel like ministers believe universities have boarding school style in loco parentis obligations – an unhelpful formulation that ignores the fact that even the traditional (three year, undergraduate) students are young adults – and many of their peers are mature professionals.

The freedom of speech debate has been shaped by a lot of these expectations – suggesting that universities needed to ensure that all students (even those who choose not to engage in debating societies) need to be exposed to a full range of political views. The sheer amount of parliamentary time, and the sheer number of column inches, devoted to the topic is disheartening when you take into account how little the government has done to offer support on issues students have actually faced in 2022: Covid-19, mental health concerns, sexual misconduct, poor quality (and a lack of) housing, and extreme financial hardship.

On these latter issues many providers have bravely stepped in where the government has not – with a regulatory stick being the best of what was on offer to encourage this behaviour. Institutional autonomy is valuable, but there are ways in which local, regional, and central action is a more useful approach. We need government and institutional leaders to think about the most appropriate use of their power – and in loco parentis should be firmly put into retirement as we look to the responsibility of government to young citizens to be the default consideration.

In place of strife

All disagreements end in compromise – it just sometimes takes a while. But compromise in the higher education sector seems to be a long time coming, as a dispute that basically kicked off towards the end of last decade continues to hold salience. University staff pay has not kept pace with inflation – though neither has, for the most part, university income. The result has been overcrowding, worsening staff terms and conditions, and a rise in international recruitment as universities basically have to grow to stand still.

We’re not expecting an inflationary fee cap rise any time soon, and a pay rise that meets this autumn’s inflationary peak is equally unlikely. Staff should be getting financial support in these difficult times, and the decision of employers to open next year’s pay round early is a promising start.

Such is the urgency of this issue UCU has achieved a historic mandate for industrial action, and other unions on campus are becoming more and more active. And strikes have been well supported by staff and students. But it has been unnerving for those committed to the goals of the campaigns – to better and fairer pay, to a resolution to the faintly chaotic approach to USS valuation – to see factional disputes blunt the power of the arguments made, and make the inevitable compromise feel further away.

Cost of everything

The “cost of living crisis” has some claim to have been the most important theme of the year. It’s a crisis that has played out in the sector in slow motion – ample warning was given and many providers and agencies have taken the opportunity to prepare and put in place support for students and staff. From hardship payments to subsidised food to “warm banks” we should not doubt that the best initiatives in our universities have been at the absolute forefront of the national response.

Clearly, in an ideal world, there would be more to come, but the declining (in real terms) income of providers is the next constraint. Everything that universities spend money on has become more expensive and there doesn’t seem to be any relief coming – more and more providers are starting to struggle to the extent that both the student experience and staff terms and conditions are becoming affected.

There is a debate to be had on the long term funding of the sector – we’re starting to see this kick off now ahead of the next election – but without imminent action to support providers now we are looking at real problems. And at huge holes in regional and local economies – the very opposite of levelling up – as providers struggle or are potentially allowed to fail, taking civic and anchor roles away from struggling communities. The higher education sector has a fair claim to be the UK’s premier national infrastructure for research, development, and skills – but the funding available does not match that aspiration.

Research assessment

REF 2021 was long anticipated but provided few shocks – unpleasant or otherwise. A more refined and inclusive approach to identifying world-class research showed something that everyone in the sector should be hugely proud of: the quality and global significance of UK university research is spread around the whole sector. If “research intensive” ever meant anything, it probably now means rather less.

More than in any part of the sector, the negative impacts of research funding and culture come from within providers rather than from national structures. Decisions made locally on everything from research prioritisation, to publication (journal impact factor is a nonsense!), to human resource decisions have done a lot to poison the system. For this reason it has been great to see providers and funders signing up to commitments on responsible research assessment, and government work on research culture and research functions.

Applying for funding is still hard work (possibly harder than it needs to be), but it still is not clear what question the Advanced Research and Innovation Agency was the answer to. It was meant to take a long term review, but having contrived to spend a year without funding any projects ministers – had they the foresight to add the powers to do so to a very strange bill – should be asking some very serious questions.

International associations

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia saw the sector at its very best, taking every measure it could to support higher education in Ukraine and disaffiliation from Russian influence. After years of concern about China, looking critically at Russian influence on the sector has not meant great changes to be made (there were never significant financial links, compared to – say – professional football or the Conservative Party) but the symbolism and soft power has been hugely important. And direct support for Ukrainian students and academics has helped learning and research to continue and grow throughout the crisis.

The government’s approach to Ukraine has been laudable in terms of military support, but has struggled when it comes to war refugees. Parts of UK culture have always had a concern about asylum and immigration – it is hoped that an inappropriate initial response to a European crisis has helped people think through the implications of this stance. Global unrest has seen a high demand for immigration to the UK – the ensuing concern about student and dependent visas suggests that knee-jerk reactions still hold more sway than they should.

We’re still waiting for movement on affiliation to Horizon Europe – this seems to be a part of the log jam caused by British intransigence in ignoring parts of the “oven ready” withdrawal agreement that the government was so keen to promote a few years back. Barely a week goes by without some suggestions about the replacement of funding and support for research projects in limbo – so far this, like much UK international research policy – has been piecemeal rather than properly strategic. Perhaps one of our two science ministers could come up with a plan?

Size, shape and style

The conversation we were expecting to have this year concerned the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, and a new, modular, lifelong approach to skills provision at level 4 and above. Unfortunately a consultation in the early part of the year disappeared into a DfE black hole, and although the commitment at a political level is there, we are nervously light on detail for something that is expected (still!) to launch in 2025.

One of the key components missing is any understanding of the demand for short courses funded by student loan style finance among those in the market for retraining or upskilling. Just twelve people signed up to the “short courses” pilot for September, and government has not exactly been keen to update us on any resounding success since then.

But the LLE, of course, is just one component of the national conversation that is urgently needed on what higher education provides (and how it is paid for). There is clearly a need for new forms of provision that fit models of attendance that are increasingly encompassing both full time study and full time work. The cloth-eared moral panic on online provision ignored the reality that for many students catching up on recorded online lectures fits better with their work and caring responsibilities, and although some want the “traditional” on campus experience many are ambivalent at best.

A responsive regulator

It’ll be no surprise to say that OfS has disappointed many this year. A series of interventions designed to chastise and shame rather than encourage and grow quality provision at universities has left much of the sector mistrustful of the regulator. Seeing the same regulator trample all over obligations around standards in public life, the regulator’s code, and expectations around consultations and data publications has further tarnished the OfS reputation.

A sector with the standing of UK higher education deserves thoughtful, proportionate, and reasonable regulation. There is no need to have picked half the fights that have been picked, and no need to undermine the great work that many talented staff at OfS and other agencies have been doing with inane ambulance-chasing departures into culture wars.

The (hopefully) temporary departure of the QAA from quality assurance in England – in order to continue to adhere to international standards that nobody can recall agreeing to disapply – is a case in point. At every stage it has been undermined, excluded, and publicly denigrated by the regulator despite being a better advertisement for mature regulation than OfS. Born of compromise and broken by intransigence, the loss of the QAAs role in England amid this re-eruption of the quality wars helps nobody, harms international standing (for all four home nations) and upsets the delicate balance of decades-old compromises that can fairly be said to have stood the test of time.

Leave a Reply