Vice chancellors get a lecture on Zoom from Gavin Williamson

What did the Secretary of State for Education have to say to Universities UK's annual conference? Jim Dickinson and David Kernohan have you covered

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

For new Universities UK president Steve West, the obvious novelty in the format of this year’s annual gathering of vice chancellors was that it was in person.

Today’s conference at Northumbria University marks the first time that most of us have gathered face-to-face in over a year and a half…

…he said, as if to stress to fellow plenary panellist Gavin Williamson that the Secretary of State’s message on the value of in-person teaching has been heard and understood.

Ironically, after a tumultuous 24 hours during which he muddled up two Black sportsmen (which he later excused on the basis that he’d actually muddled up two campaigns about poor people), the Secretary of State was delivering his speech via Zoom – and those of us watching missed the first few minutes because the mic feed wasn’t coming through. What was that section in Michel Barber’s Gravity Assist about the sector’s confidence in deploying technology?

Who’s Zooming who?

In one bit that they really ought to have cut prior to deliver, he said:

Imagine trying to make sense of the subtleties of interpreting Chekhov for the stage or carrying out complex molecular biology techniques over Zoom.

We assumed that this meant a gun would go off in the third act of the speech, but it wasn’t to be.

Williamson’s speech was largely a collection of the government’s greatest hits – there were boilerplate bits on everything from the lifeline loan entitlement to post-qualification admissions, from higher technical to value for money, and repeats of dodgy lines like this one on apprenticeships:

Five years after completion, the average Higher Apprentice earns more than the average graduate.

That that’s a stat skewed by a very small number of high level apprenticeships in “leadership” that are primarily taken by people already in well-paid jobs – something in other speeches he’s appeared keen to put a stop to – was not mentioned.

And confusingly we got both “we need to do something for the 50 per cent that don’t go to university” and “we need to change the choices of many that do.” Young people deserve to have choices, but only ones approved by DfE. Who is it that the government’s reform agenda is designed to address again?

No way to control it, it’s totally automatic

There were a couple of interesting moments. We’ve heard ministers use OfS’ “proceed” measure before (indeed, Williamson did it last year at UUK) – but this confection was probably the strongest yet:

But at the same time, at 25 higher education institutions, fewer than half the students who begin a degree will go on to graduate employment or further study. As I have said before, this is simply unacceptable. This represents a shocking waste of potential as well as a heart-breaking failure in someone’s hopes and dreams.

We are due the outcome of OfS’ deliberations on B3 Quality thresholds any day now, and if it was to use Williamson’s definition of “unacceptable” there’s a lot of providers that would have to go…

[Full screen]

Here we’ve plotted Proceed at provider level against the proportion of the undergraduate intake that comes from state schools – neatly demonstrating the fundamental issue with Proceed (and other metrics that don’t take into account the impact of student background).

Of course – as far as measures like Proceed make sense they only make sense at subject level, and if it was to implement that 50 per cent target (haha) at that level, some 244 subjects across the providers included in Proceed would have to go. Dare OfS set the threshold lower? Brace brace either way.

I’m so excited

Now as we know – the best way to succeed on Proceed is to recruit only rich white kids and be based in London – something that OfS’ Director for Fair Access and Participation, Office for Students knows too. But Millward is leaving, and will shortly be replaced by someone that DfE appoints who Williamson is confident will:

See our access regime re-centred on the principles of equality of opportunity and high standards, and to see higher education providers working in partnership with schools to drive up attainment.

That’s code for “less equality of outcomes, please” – handy if your access outcomes would be affected by OfS causing the shuttering of some provision based on the where the baseline is – and to drive home the point, he also said this about subjects with a proceed figure of under 50 per cent:

Students recruited on to such courses should not be able to be counted against a university’s access targets for access.

That’s actually a pretty significant statement. We all know that some subjects “carry the weight” on access in some universities – and it’s long been argued that it’s bizarre that OfS doesn’t publish access and participation plan data at subject level by provider, a problem if you’re trying to understand social mobility in medicine or law or whatever. Looks like that will shortly change.

Jump for my love

This vague underpinning theme – of being disappointed with OfS and so using the levers available to influence it from the inside – continued when Gavin got onto freedom of speech:

Too often, some universities seem more interested in pursuing a divisive agenda involving cancelling national heroes, debating about statues, anonymous reporting schemes for so-called micro-aggressions and politicising their curricula. Vice-chancellors who allow these initiatives to take place in their name must understand that they do nothing but undermine public confidence, widen divisions, and damage the sector.

Some might argue that warning universities off from taking action on racism after the 24 hours he’d had was bold – but as we’ve said before, if you’re upset that OfS has been doing things like not finding a real problem with free speech in universities, one thing you can do is create a post on its board that you appoint (the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom) and then have it issue guidance that later defines free speech as whatever has been in the Sunday Telegraph that week.

Come on, dare me

Those looking for clues on the response to Augar will have been disappointed. Little to see there other than an apparent attempt to frame cuts as “the ball and chain of bureaucracy”:

The Augar review concluded that the amount spent on teaching seemed low, while around £1,000 was spent per student on corporate activities and around £500 per student on marketing. I remained concerned that the sector isn’t doing enough to shift more of its income towards direct activity that improves learning outcomes or vital services like mental health support, and less on its own administration.

That statistic comes from the KPMG research that underpinned the work of Philip Augar’s panel on the cost of providing higher education. The “marketing” figure also includes admissions, something that feels rather key to ensuring students get on courses they will benefit from – and corporate services includes such irrelevant fripperies as information technology, wireless, and the kind of sound financial management you need to have if you want to register with the OfS.

In questions, Williamson continued:

One thing I’m very conscious of is that, you know, as I’ve said in the speech, I really want to drive up quality, right across the university sector. I want to make sure that, you know, we drive up, not just, you know, right across, you know, not just about, er, you know, dealing with the absolute lowest quality, but also driving up the standards, right across the board. And I do appreciate that needs funding.

We know Gavin. We know.

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