Expanding higher education and levelling up – lessons from Conservative Party Conference

More HE, not less, could be the answer to some of the government's levelling up agenda. Is anyone listening?

Mark is founder and Editor in Chief of Wonkhe

Does the government think that building new universities in higher education cold spots would help its levelling up agenda? Some ministers do, some don’t. Would it give a political return on investment in time for the next general election? Definitely not. Would expanding higher education in one way, while cutting it in another and talking mostly about vocational education and skills create an even more incoherent education agenda? Yes, yes it would. Is the government about to announce a government-led University Challenge style call for higher education providers to expand geographically? No, it’s not.

And yet, it’s not a completely dormant idea. And for good reason.

One of the big themes of this week’s Conservative Party Conference was levelling up, and fringe after fringe was aimed at fleshing out the idea sector by sector, industry by industry as each tried to answer the question “How can [insert sector here] contribute to the levelling up agenda?” Michael Gove’s job now is to stitch this all together into a white paper and get enough done that it helps his party win the next general election.

At one such event on Monday, he was asked by the enterprising journalist and governor of the University of Manchester Michael Crick whether one way to do proper levelling up for the long term would be building more universities in places like Doncaster and Barrow, to which Gove replied: “I agree”. Now, this is far from a major commitment or announcement, but with a government bending over backwards in other departments to talk up vocational routes as an alternative to higher education, and with HE likely to face cuts this autumn, it should give the sector some small cheer.

And he’s not alone in his party in agreeing  – last week’s HEPI pamphlet by David Willetts called for higher education to expand in places that needed higher education the most.

And former Gove adviser Sam Freedman made the case this week bluntly but effectively:

Though from a different end of the political spectrum, the think tank British Future recently published an interesting report aimed at tackling the national conversation about immigration. It proposes sites for a new generation of higher education institutions and even gives a practical formula for determining the right places to do it:

You may notice that many of these areas include seats the Conservatives only recently won need to hold on to at the next election – not to mention the one after that and the one after that. There’s no doubt it would be a long-term commitment, not something that would be visible to people in their communities by 2023 or 2024. Michael Gove is tasked with winning the next election, but is he already also thinking about the next three?

Rachel Wolf from Public First was all over Manchester this week talking about making levelling up a reality, and re-emphasising the point that as an agenda, it will be dead in the water if people can’t see practical improvements to their lives. Public First has done some proper research to back this up too: people don’t care about economic master plans, but they do care about how nice their street looks and whether they can get a GP appointment.

They also don’t think about higher education very much apart from when they want to go, or want to send their children through the system. With the much-discussed demographic bulge heading our way, demand for HE remaining robust, and the likelihood of further caps on student numbers being introduced this year, there is going to be a lot of people over the next three election cycles disappointed to find out that there’s literally no place in higher education for them or their children. And it’s not hard to see how that could start to be a political problem for the government of the day unless they are making noticeable moves in the other direction.

Which brings us back to why building new universities is almost always a good idea. Common sense, even. It also doesn’t have to mean replicating old institutions and their delivery models that work for their own time and place. There’s lots of innovation out there, and if there’s the local will to do something, then local solutions that involve higher education will need to be brokered, likely involving all sorts of partnerships across FE and the education and industrial landscape. And if the government still can’t stomach the language of “building new universities” then that’s fine too – I think they’d find many people happy to use a different form of words if it helped ministers save face while allowing much-needed new provision to bloom.

But although the solutions are bound to be local, and bespoke, a national conversation about expanding higher education is needed if it’s to form any sort of coherent agenda beyond just a pork barrel approach. So let’s start pushing the conversation with the ministers with an eye on a longer-term horizon.

h/t Sunder Katwala for noticing the Michael Gove answer and pointing out the British Future report

3 responses to “Expanding higher education and levelling up – lessons from Conservative Party Conference

  1. Does a satellite campus count, because Shrewsbury has a University Centre as part of Chester university?

  2. Tim’s got a point there. There’s a danger that policy makers see ‘university’ in terms of a UGC-style huge campus on the ring road kind of thing. They ignore what’s already there in terms of provision. New and shiny seems to win over the existing provision. Look at Hereford – there’s a university centre and an art college, both on the OfS register, but government is far more excited about a new provider that’s going to run one course.

    I counted 50 university centres recently. Central government pays them scant attention although local authorities and LEPs seem them as important components. Also why does everyone fail to remember that government has a scheme to create Institutes of Technology in existing providers, again a measure to spread HE provision.

  3. Grimsby, Doncaster, Wigan and Peterborough already have pretty good FE/Mixed economy colleges that have offered for many decades a varied programme of HE, up to Masters level in some cases (Doncaster even inherited teacher training and Wigan used to have a sixth form college offering degree level study too). Oldham has also long had a University Campus sharing an accessible location with a sixth form and the FE college. Have any of those contributing to this debate actually visited these places? (confession: I have) In fact almost every FE College in England used to offer some, sometimes a significant amount, of HE provision that greatly interested the Regional Development Agencies for a period before they were abolished by the Tories. But most of it was vocational qualifications and part time, wiped out by the decline in employer sponsorship and the introduction of HE fees/changes in FE funding towards 16-18 FT. 100,000 student registrations were lost from the system in a couple of decades. What the Tories mean by HE instead of course is full time undergraduate degree education that you leave home for and go and live in a dormitory, spending your tuck shop money in local shops.

    Derry was of course famously cast over as the obvious choice for a new university by the Unionist government in the Northern Ireland Parliament, it is usually assumed because the city was too full of popery for their sectarian tastes – the issue was made a matter of confidence in the then government of the Unionist Party (aka Northern Ireland wing of the Conservative Party at the time) and several unionist MPs voting said that it was a matter of principle that nationalists/catholics should not get their desires. They located it instead in the overwhelmingly smaller protestant town of Coleraine, which was also the most affluent area in the six counties and not exactly a levelling up plan for the poorest catholics. Not only did the local population of Derry close the pubs in protest, it is claimed this decision was the biggest single factor leading directly to the launch of the Civil Rights Movement, a process that inaugurated “The Troubles”. Thus it became the only university location decision to be related directly to over 3,000 deaths in modern times, more than the infamous war over a FIFA football match between El Salvador and Honduras around the same time. Who says the location of universities is not as important as football?

Leave a Reply