Fifty new university campuses and a British bacc

The Times Education Commission has published its final report, calling for tuition fees in England to rise from 2025, and recommending incentives for the creation of 50 new university campuses in higher education “cold spots”.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It’s a fascinating PDF insofar as it acts as a kind of Now! Album of hobby horse ideas from educationalists that were invited to pitch up to its evidence sessions – probably the best of which is the (Tomlinson Klaxon!) replacement of A Levels with a “British Baccalaureate” in six subjects that would introduce greater breadth and flexibility to the post-16 curriculum – while ending the “sheep and goats” division between academic and vocational education. How ironic that Tony Blair endorses the report, having been the key villain involved in killing off a similar idea back in 2003.

For higher education, we are very much in David Willetts/Jo Johnson territory, with a smattering of Adonis and Blair on cold spot provision. New campuses are to be encouraged to level up, just as long as they specialise in higher technical. The Lifelong Loan Entitlement could be a game-changer – but only if some form of maintenance provision is offered so that it is made accessible for working people. And with an absence of any alternative funding models on the table, tuition fees should be allowed to rise from 2025, given it is “no longer economic to increase the number of home students.”

There’s all sort of bits of “free market” stuff here – let student choice drive provision, free up new providers to enter the market, no to number controls and so on – along with plenty of “levelling up” to be done by providing specialist education and its economic benefits where it isn’t right now. Sadly this isn’t the sort of report that goes near analysing the actual tensions between the somewhere and nowhere agendas, and you’re left with a set of recommendations that read like a series of badges sewn onto a scout’s uniform rather than a coherent package of reform.

There is nonsense, as we might expect. Universities are “bogged down” in culture wars and rows about free speech (who might have caused that) and apparently someone should invent a “transferrable credit scheme” (the Times’ typo, not mine) to allow people to move between institutions, or take time out of education then go back so that learning becomes a “truly lifelong experience”. At least the current can be presented as the new now that someone else thinks it’s a good idea.

There are also bits of the Now! Album that resemble the back half of Disc 2 – they never really made it at the time but inclusion here gives them another go. Lee Elliot Major, for example, has another run at convincing us that tutoring in schools could be done by all these university students that have time on their hands.

Funding to underpin it all is the hard part, as ever – and while not a new idea, the suggestion that the Treasury starts to think of education expenditure as an investment in the country’s future reappears here. John Major argued to the committee that as well as yielding a more efficient economy, higher standards of living and behaviour, and much lower social costs, it should be seen as an “investment, on the basis that its effect will linger for a lifetime”. Now where have we heard that before?

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