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Welcome to the Northern Powerhouse of Cards

As the conference season for the main political parties draws to a close, Martin McQuillan reports from the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester and finds more than a few more HE wonks striding the halls than in Brighton last week at Labour's annual gathering.
This article is more than 8 years old

Martin McQuillan is a former Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) at Kingston University, London.

Conservative Party Conference, Manchester, October 2015

In contrast to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, most of the main players in UK higher education travelled to Manchester for the first gathering of the Conservatives since they won the general election in May. There was nearly as many HE policy wonks and senior managers here as there were anarchists and anti-austerity protestors.

Unlike the demonstrators, the wonks and academics did not stand outside the gates of the conference security zone shouting ‘Tory Scum!’ at everyone who entered. Instead, they sat in air-conditioned comfort asking polite questions about the Teaching Excellence Framework.

The assembled Conservative Party faithful were in buoyant mood. Instead of coming to terms with another hung parliament, they are unexpectedly enjoying a majority government and five years of hegemony in the skewed centre ground of British politics. They can’t quite believe their luck. They also like being at Manchester Central conference hall, built on the site of the Peterloo massacre of 1819. It is like trolling the entire Labour movement. Freed from the policy austerity of the last years of the previous parliament, they are gearing up to spend the political capital of their Westminster majority. This includes higher education, for which they have big plans.

Some senior figures in the sector imagined that a proposed Teaching Excellence Framework was a throw away line in the election manifesto. However, Jo Johnson is largely credited as the author of that manifesto, to him it has no throw away lines. He is now the minister responsible for HE and following Chancellor George Osborne’s budget promise to raise university tuition fees with teaching excellence, the delivery of the TEF is an immediate priority for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

This urgency is not necessarily reflected in the wider Conservative Party. At the higher education fringe events there were so few Tories, we might as well have been in Scotland. The rooms as ever were packed with university external relations staff, mission group representatives, policy advisers and journalists. The only actual Tories there were the MPs speaking on the panel and the off-piste questioners who inevitably ask about too many students ‘studying medieval knitting’. David Willetts, freed from parliamentary responsibility, offered the cute reply to one such question that if too many people were going to university it was not the fault of Hull and Liverpool but of Tory-run Hampshire and Surrey.

However, given the general lack of interest in universities by party members, such events end up with the HE sector paying large amounts of money to rent a room in order to talk amongst itself within the general vicinity of some politicians (and spitting protesters).

When the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, gave his speech in the central auditorium, he declared that Mrs. Thatcher would have been proud of his entire ministerial team. He named them all, with the exception of Jo Johnson who was left to applaud his BIS colleagues. It was not quite Ed Miliband forgetting to mention the deficit in the same venue last year. However, it is tempting to speculate on the minister’s amnesia as a leadership contest brews between Javid’s mentor George Osborne and Johnson’s brother, Boris.

At the Million+/National Union of Students fringe event, ‘Does Britain only love some Universities?’, the chair introduced Jo Johnson as a “leading intellectual within the Conservative Party”. The minister replied laconically, “being labeled an intellectual within the Conservative Party is not a fast track to success. It’s worse than being identified as pro-European”. The sector may have found itself once again with a minister more at home within the civilised environs of the vice chancellor’s lodge than in his own party.

However, Johnson is clear about the aim of the TEF. It is designed to accelerate “market shift” within the sector. By awarding kite marks and raspberries, TEF results will encourage students (or their parents) to chose courses where metric-based teaching quality resides and for universities to withdraw from areas of provision in which they are uncompetitive. Ultimately, it should lead to certain institutions “exiting the market” altogether.

Discussions at the TEF delivery group are now beginning to demonstrate to the new minister just how enormously complicated the world of higher education actually is, and how very difficult it will be for a government-led audit of teaching to achieve these kinds of results. Nonetheless TEF 1 will happen in short order following the publication of a green paper. It will have to be quick and dirty, based on existing metrics, to produce a round of results that will inform fees levels for entry in 2017 university prospectuses. As a result, the outcomes are bound to be unsatisfactory and there will be more to play for in the development of TEF 2, which can be designed at a more leisurely pace.

The question for Johnson is how wide the gates of teaching excellence are going to be. If everyone is TEF excellent then the whole thing will be pretty meaningless (even though 126 HEIs all fall within a band of 10 points (90-80) for overall satisfaction in the National Student Survey, one of the inevitable metrics). On the other hand, the risk in declaring half or a quarter of the sector “un-excellent” is that it will open the door to the Home Office to ask, if these universities are so bad at teaching, why are we allowing them to recruit international students?

In her speech to conference, the Home Secretary Teresa May bestrode the stage like a nasty colossus stating “I don’t care what the university lobbyists say”. This raises the question of the effectiveness of the HE lobby. What are we paying all this money for if the offer of an honorary degree can’t get round the inscribed xenophobia of a Conservative Home Secretary?

The TEF has also put the cat of restructuring amidst the pigeons of higher education quangos. The proposals are rubbing along uncomfortably with HEFCE’s own consultation on the future of quality assurance. The TEF represents the first policy on university teaching since the foundation of HEFCE in 1992 that the funding council have not been asked to deliver for government. It could see BIS effectively taking the distribution of a pot of funding for teaching in-house. This raises the question of how much more of the funding council’s activity might also be in-sourced.

Along with all that, the report by McKinsey written for Javid, is said to recommend reducing the number of BIS partner bodies from 46 to 23. And so the sector is naturally spooked. Representatives of the various HE agencies could be seen hunting in packs at the Conservative Party conference. Some brought as much as five people with them, which for many must constitute the entire office. They could be seen huddling in corners checking the invite lists for receptions and dinners to decide who were the most high-net-worth individuals to approach. If a fringe session did not contain suitably stellar audience members, they would up and leave after 10 minutes. Hurrying besuited through the corridors of Manchester hotels, they looked more as if they were carrying the nuclear codes rather than attempting to secure a role for a quango on the future HE landscape.

At the end of four days of drizzle, projectile phlegm and insomnia curative fringe sessions, the conference concluded with the leader’s speech. Just before David Cameron took the stage, the roadies made a quick lectern switch from something a bit less Star Trek to something more acceptable for the television audience. He was giving a serious lecture after all, and symbols are important. And if there were a website entitled, reviewers would likely comment on his well-polished lecturing technique. At the ends of sentences he slows down and nods each word, tapping the lectern to let the audience know when to applaud. It is a bit like a cross between Harold Macmillan and Leslie Crowther. He is reminiscent of an area manager encouraging the Mole Valley sales force into greater mid-year efforts.

The speech was a mix of the meaningless (being against racism and sexism, as if his opponents were for these things) and appropriating chunks of the Miliband-Balls election manifesto as a land grab of the centre ground. He did promise two curious policies. Firstly, countering extremism by the introduction of OFSTED inspections for Madrasas. Hate preachers might prefer to join the Teaching Excellence Framework as a less fundamentalist regime of inspection.

Secondly, he announced “just as we got the best graduates teaching at our most difficult schools, let’s get our brightest and best to the frontline of social work”. This ‘Snoop First’ would see Russell Group graduates turn up in deprived areas to deal with abuse and family breakdown. They could start by tending to the displaced victims of the higher education quango cull who may well be in need of counselling in the coming months.

In the city of Marx and Engels it’s hard not to agree with Billy Bennett; it’s the same the whole world over, it’s the rich that gets the pleasure and the wonks what gets the blame.

One response to “Welcome to the Northern Powerhouse of Cards

  1. Nice summary Martin. I too was at the Bright Blue fringe event when Willets made a spirited defence of the numbers going to university. It was a surprisingly emollient crowd with hardly a dog-whistle to be heard. I guess the Tories are learning to live with 133 HE institutions in the same way that they learned to live with comprehensive education in the 1960s and 1970s because it is their natural supporters than actually benefit the most. Here in Sheffield we have a constituency with over 65% HE participation among school leavers (and another with about 6%) and you don’t have to have a degree in ‘Danny Dorling Studies’ to work out the socio-economic characteristics of those boroughs. Everyone pretty much agreed that yes, university is still ‘worth it’ and even the party members were too imbued with nobless oblige to suggest pulling the rug of social mobility away from the poor that do manage to get into the system, even at some ex-Polytechnic. I guess that is because so many blessed children of the advantaged end up at those ‘benighted’ institutions as well!

    Incidentally, was the crowd-abuse really that newsworthy? I remember being in an anti-war march at a Labour conference at the height of the Iraq war fall-out and there was plenty of hate knocking around, and at the 1996 Labour conference in Blackpool when the proto-Corbynistas were in full force outside every building as they tried to prevent the triumphant march into power of Blair & Co. I think the Tories have gone a bit soft; having won a majority for the first time since 1992 they think everyone is going to just let them have a free ride for 5 years?

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