Writing directly to vice chancellors today, after some warm words for universities’ efforts during the Covid pandemic and contribution to knowledge and society the minister reiterated his three “areas of focus” for universities:
- Meeting the skills needs of the economy
- Providing quality qualifications that lead to well-paid jobs
- Advancing social justice by “helping disadvantaged applicants onto the first rung of the ladder of opportunity”
And while you might wince at the framing of the first two in such instrumental terms, there’s a clear delineation of the role of government in higher education policy ie maximising the public value and impact of HE and supporting the equitable spread of its benefits – and not so much about interfering in curricula or trying to restrict numbers or fretting about grade inflation, or trying to reform admissions by fiat, or anything else that has made life tricky for sector-government relations in recent years.
The reason there’s a letter at all seems to be down to concerns about how this year’s admissions round will play out in light of different approaches to exam grading post-pandemic in the different nations of the UK – Ofqual’s clamp down on A*s and As and return to pre-pandemic practice for England is not to be mirrored everywhere else.
There’s also a concern about managing competition for medicine and dentistry courses if the overall pattern of awards is less predictable – the government doesn’t want to see a repeat of last year when courses were oversubscribed. Typically, there’s no solution proposed other than universities should be mindful that once again everything’s up in the air when it comes to admissions.
But while admissions seems to have been the occasion for a letter, Halfon’s taken the opportunity to raise two other issues tied into his personal interest in skills and vocational education.
The first is T levels – noting that some universities have sorted out entry pathways into their courses for T level graduates but others have not, Halfon expects universities to provide transparent information and asks for a statement on institutional websites setting out entry requirements for students entering with T levels.
It’s not clear why that’s not yet happened – possibly simply because of the small scale of T level provision so far, and the sheer range of other things to think about, but it’s a reasonable expectation and one of those instances that helps the sector if everyone’s thinking about it at once.
The second is, admittedly, a Halfon hobby horse, which is urging all universities to offer degree apprenticeships, for which he has consistently been an enthusiast. He points out an £8m fund for universities seeking to grow their degree apprenticeship offer and asks those who are not – especially the “most prestigious universities” to “seriously consider” offering them.
Halfon says he looks forward to “working with HE mission groups and their members on this” which could sound ominous if you’re looking for things to worry about, but just as likely could be a useful opportunity to lobby for the bits of the apprenticeship system that don’t work for universities to be sorted out.
There’s no deep opposition to degree apprenticeships in any part of the sector, though some universities are better geared up to deliver them than others. If the minister is keen to pursue a conversation with universities about how apprenticeships can grow, and whether and how they support the sector’s access aims – which he clearly is – then there’s a lot of scope for building common ground.