What will it take to convince policymakers that university leaders support the skills agenda?

Debbie McVitty finds enthusiasm for the Westminster government’s skills agenda among vice chancellors - and a desire to play a greater role in the conversation

“Post-18 provision has not been delivering enough of the kind of opportunities we need, for the society we want,” said Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson at the annual HEPI conference.

It is notable how frequently the government’s skills agenda is articulated in terms that are oppositional to the university offer. Introducing the second reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill in the House of Lords Baroness Berridge described “a problem in the balance of education” in which only four per cent of young people achieve a higher technical qualification by the age of 25 compared to the third who achieve a degree.

The Baroness went on to claim that “34 per cent of working-age graduates are not in high-skilled employment” and concluded, “no wonder more parents would now prefer that their child gain a vocational qualification rather than a degree.”

At Wonkfest, University of Sunderland vice chancellor David Bell called this kind of “veiled threat” approach to post-compulsory education and skills provision “perverse”. “Something has gone wrong politically, “ he added, “when that is the kind of conversation that has been allowed to go forward.”

It’s not that ministers are not sufficiently celebrating universities’ achievements, or that Treasury needs to hand over more public funds to universities, or even that government should stop meddling in university affairs – though you can certainly find versions of these arguments represented in the sector.

The real problem is that, at a time when the country is facing some very serious challenges, the government is not developing a meaningful partnership with universities to deliver on an agenda that universities not only support, but for which they are essential to that agenda’s effective development and delivery.

And the end result is not that universities will dig in and refuse to change – as university leaders have been clear when we’ve spoken over the past few weeks, universities have been changing consistently and will continue to do so, in response to the needs of students, employers, and their regions.

It will be that these agendas will not make the kind of difference that they would have the potential to make if government and universities were in closer alignment.

“The government is positioning universities as a problem rather than a solution,” says Liz Barnes, vice chancellor of Staffordshire University and chair of the Universities UK working group on the government’s planned Lifetime Loan Entitlement. “And yet if you look at what universities have provided during the pandemic we are the solution in terms of recovery, future jobs, and the future skilled workforce.”

The two way policy street

Universities face in many directions and serve many constituencies, of which national government is just one. And while you’d hope there would be some overlap in the priorities of the government and that of students, university staff, employers, public sector organisations, local governments and communities, and industry bodies and regulators, it’s almost always messier than that.

“It’s about making the university relevant for the place in which it sits and for its student population. That’s why our diverse sector is so rich, because it is diverse and responsive to a plethora of needs,” says Liz.

For vice chancellors and their executive teams, there’s the immediate challenge of pandemic recovery: learning the lessons of the pandemic, international recovery, and responding to change agendas – in technology-enabled education, in flexible working, in governance, and in equality, diversity, and inclusion – that have been accelerated as a result of the upheaval.

In the medium term there’s the implementation of government policy on skills and student finance reform, the Office for Students’ review of the quality regime and the rollout of a revised Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, and a comprehensive spending review scheduled for the autumn that could yet result in cuts to the undergraduate fee.

And in the longer term there’s a bigger – and in many ways more interesting – picture: universities’ contribution to local and regional economic regeneration, changing patterns of work in industry and the public sector, technologies that could radically enhance education capability but also threaten university business models, and evolving student expectations of what and how they want to study.

Building an institutional strategy requires executive teams to assess the source of potential changes in the external environment, the scale of those changes, and their pace – and then decide what the university should do, how it should do it and, importantly, what it should stop doing.

So while universities have to be mindful of policy agendas and prepared to respond, for policy to really come to life policymakers also need to make the case for policy to universities – and be confident it’s going to make a meaningful impact in the context of the wider forces that universities must respond to. And talking to university leaders, it’s not clear that that’s happening to the extent it could.

Response to the skills agenda

Discussing the skills agenda with university leaders, there is a real sense of opportunity and positive alignment between the agenda of government and that of universities – but there is frustration, too.

“The skills agenda is big, and bold, and marks a real moment for tertiary education, even though the focus is on FE,” says Karen Stanton, vice chancellor of Solent University. “What we need to do with the skills agenda is strengthen the partnerships we have with FE colleges and employers and the pathways through levels four, five, six and into postgraduate.

“What that means in practice with FE colleges is mapping the curriculum. At city level we have Southampton Connect which brings together local leaders, the council, and business to work out what levelling up means for Southampton. One of the consequences of the pandemic has been a new quality in those city wide conversations about system-wide leadership. For me what’s going to be important in any of these changes is how they are implemented, how they are funded, and how the link is provided with HE.”

“Local partnerships aren’t new,” says Liz Barnes. “It has always been the right thing to align with FE colleges, especially if you are thinking about a civic agenda, and making provision for a seamless offer for social mobility, and working with partners to create a wider subject spread for the local offer.”

Staffordshire already offers accelerated degrees, and is about to launch its first microcredentials, supporting local businesses to build capacity for digital transformation. “I’m very pro lifelong learning, and pro the flexible offer,” says Liz. “Employers really want short courses so people can go out, come back in and impact on the business. And they are less interested in assessment than in programme content.

“But it’s not clear yet how the Lifetime Loan Entitlement will work, how it aligns with the traditional offer, and what it means for people who did their degree years ago, and now need to upskill. And I’m not convinced of the case for more level four and five provision – in Staffordshire our challenge is adults that haven’t qualified beyond level two, and it was cuts to adult education funding a decade ago that really created the issues for FE. There’s a risk of spending too much time talking about the jobs of today, but when we design our courses our constant mantra is the jobs of the future, the jobs of tomorrow.”

“I support the skills agenda – I believe in the principle,” says Charles Egbu, vice chancellor of Leeds Trinity University. “There is a real merit in aligning to the needs of employers and working closely with employers, and there are significant opportunities with HE and FE working together – my university does this and we want to do it more, to serve employers and the local community. But I believe the essence of a university education is more than ensuring graduates earn beyond a particular salary threshold – students take different courses because they want to contribute to society in a different way which is not always reflected in the level of remuneration they get for a particular job. Many of the students at LTU go on to make a significant contribution to our economy and wider social good. Many of our graduates continue to live locally. Government should not force students to move away from that which they naturally want to do, or force universities to be that which they are not.”

There’s a sense, in thinking about the future that some universities will need to change more than others to adapt – with the implication that it’s the post-92 part of the sector that will need to consider its position in relation to FE and other kinds of provision, while the research-intensive part of the sector will remain relatively immune.

But that’s not the view of Colin Bailey, vice chancellor of Queen Mary University of London. “Universities do need to change, because they are part of the education ecosystem – they need to be joined up with primary, secondary and colleges,” he says. “We do degree apprenticeships, and we’re proud of that. HE does need to link up with FE – we take BTEC students because there is talent coming through that route, but we do need to make sure we continue to provide extra support for these students. But I’m frustrated with the government chopping and changing on the skills agenda – let’s have a long term policy plan and let’s get behind it.”

The scale of change required

Being up for the challenge is one thing – but how much change are these university leaders expecting in the years ahead, whether as a result of the skills agenda or – perhaps more likely – because universities themselves have invested in offering new courses or modes of engagement?

“There’s now quite a lot of variability and flexibility within the traditional core of university offer,” says David Bell. “I think that is unambiguously a good thing. It provides many students, including mature students, with different ways of learning.” At Sunderland, in nursing, for example, there is a traditional three year undergraduate course, but the university has recently contracted with Health Education England to offer more online delivery of nursing education, as well as working on nursing apprenticeships.

Though the next decade is likely to see universities focusing on areas of strength in terms of subject and course provision, they may also find that they are catering to a more diverse set of student needs. No vice chancellor I spoke to believes that the traditional three year degree will disappear or radically reduce in the coming years, meaning that supporting a traditional on-campus experience will continue to be a priority. But many universities are keen to diversify their offer – and are contending with a fuzzy picture of post-pandemic demand.

At Leeds Trinity, Charles Egbu has just completed a process of analysing which courses are likely to see growth in student demand over the next five years, which include data, computing and healthcare aligned courses. But knowing where demand might be doesn’t necessarily answer the question of delivery modes. “There’s a dichotomy between those who want to come to campus, feel and smell the campus because that is what they believe it is all about, and those who favour blended, dual delivery, digitalisation, hi-flex, or block release,” says Charles.

“The proportion is difficult to tell and what universities will need to do is be very flexible in how we deliver programmes, with a high level of modularisation, and be mindful we have mature students, those with jobs, those with caring responsibilities. For universities like ours where many students are first in generation to study in higher education, there’s a lot of administrative complexity, because it’s going to be a new way of doing things. It’s going to be a tough time.”

Karen Stanton isn’t sure the sector is prepared for the scale of change that technology could bring. “We are really going to have to get up to speed on the introduction of artificial intelligence into the digital ecosystem of universities – we don’t have an immediate clear response to this as a sector – and there are some real questions about using AI in admissions or marking. There are areas of what we do where technology will transform how we operate and I’m not sure we’re adequately prepared for that.”

Student loan finance at module level and credit transfer seem to offer a blueprint for a lifelong learning model, but there are quite a few hurdles to overcome. “On the more radical end could you envisage a system where people do modules over time – yes, but it is going to take quite a change in the plumbing, if you want to put it that way,” says David Bell. “And universities need to be better because we can sometimes be quite rigid in the ways that we organise and assess what we do and how prepared we are to bundle it all up.”

“Doing transferable credit is where it starts to get very interesting,” says Colin Bailey. “There might be a market for upskilling, and for stackable modules to support Masters, postgraduate certificates and diplomas, and there might be some way we can adapt or do it across a number of universities. It boils down to who is awarding the degree at the end. The value and robustness of our degree is something we will defend because without it employers will lose trust in us.”

“There will be a massive shift towards students personalising and curating their learning pathways but we’ve tried credit accumulation and transfer and it’s enormously unwieldy,” says Karen Stanton. “The jury’s out as to whether learners will be up for it, on what scale, and whether it will benefit individual academic journeys.”

What happens next?

While government rhetoric is certainly discouraging, it won’t be rhetoric that makes life materially more difficult for universities, it will be funding cuts, or restrictions to student recruitment. None of the leaders I speak to believe that a fee cut would mean the end of their institution, but they are frank that it would make it harder to achieve their missions.

“In simple terms I am just about breaking even on home students, and losing money on some courses,” says Colin Bailey. “We lose money on research and the only way I can support it is with other income streams, especially overseas students. If the unit of resource reduces on home students I would have to try to cross-subsidise with non-regulated fees. If I can’t do that you’re possibly looking at different ways of teaching, but the quality of teaching will go down.”

“I’m sure the rest of the sector has done the scenario planning,” says Karen Stanton. “The problem is that this comes alongside the impact of Covid, and Brexit – the European student body has pretty much disappeared. For us, practically, that would mean we’d need to build bigger contingencies than we’d have done previously to enable us to be able to respond to whatever change is coming down the line.”

“If it comes, it will be a worry for a university like mine,” says Charles Egbu. “The new quality regime could make it harder to be agile because of the higher stakes. The financial envelope is very tight. You need to be sustainable financially, be mindful the community wants you to play a role, work closely with the local authority, and support their wider strategy. Some of these don’t equate well with what OfS is asking for – you need to make sure you are firing on all cylinders to make sure you are serving everyone.”

Yet even against the backdrop of a tricky policy environment, universities have significant room for manoeuvre – especially where the strategy is clear and local relationships and partnerships are good.

“You might think that for someone who has spent a lot of my career in Whitehall I should be encouraging everyone else to keep a close eye on what comes out of policy, but to be honest, I don’t do that. My line is, we have a huge amount that we can control ourselves – there’s a whole set of changes and strategic conversations, the things we decide to spend money on or not, we can really shape what we do,” says David Bell.

Given this is the case, if the government wants to build a flourishing post compulsory education ecosystem, it would be wise to bring universities more fully into the conversation, to drop the confrontational rhetoric, and focus on building a shared agenda for the long term.

This article is published as part of a series produced in association with KPMG. Unless otherwise indicated the views are those of the author, not of KPMG.

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