So then, to the Commons Education Committee, and a moment to treasure.
It has long been my personal ambition to hear the Minister for Higher and Further Education quote S Club 7, and sometimes dreams do come true – Donelan would not be drawn on Katharine Birbalsingh’s interventions on social mobility, urging instead all young people to “reach for the stars”.
Don’t stop moving
To be fair, the minister had a more nuanced take on what Birbalsingh was getting at than Robert Halfon did – her analysis was that the Chair of the Social Mobility Commission was saying that one form of social mobility was not better than another, and we should be mindful of allowing the state to remove barriers to personal mobility goals.
Halfon, of course, was delighted to castigate our collective obsession with university entry, and specifically Oxbridge in order to take one of his favoured hobby horses – degree apprenticeships – for another canter. And Donelan did agree that we had been “obsessed” with university entry for decades. He only slightly undermined his case by later pleading with Donelan to force Oxford to offer degree apprenticeships – she sensibly demurred on this citing institutional autonomy.
It was a vintage week for fans of Halfon’s lack of consistency. His keenness to get all universities to offer degree apprenticeships, and for government to set a target that 50 per cent of all undergraduates should be studying degree apprenticeships, led him into a touching realisation that he was in fact advocating a “big state” interventionist solution. A quote for the ages:
Those of us on this side of the house want to limit the role of the state, but we use the levers of government when it suits us
Later Donelan made it clear she was interested in “real social mobility not lazy social mobility”, so there’s that.
Bring the house down
One of the untrammelled joys of hearing the minister speak is keeping tabs on her current catch phrases. There were a lot of references to access and participation plans being “ripped up” (by which, she of course means updated to reflect new guidance from OfS). “Not just getting in but getting on” saw a respectable number of airings too – and she prided in “four of the best universities in the world” being in England.
But the big favourite was “boots on the ground”. Donelan was unreasonably impressed by what she characterised as
The first time ever in this country we have had regulator investigations into universities like this
Which is true unless you include nearly two decades of cyclical reviews at the behest of the regulator, specific investigations of providers of concern (Thames Valley, London Met…), and – frankly – the 1850 Royal Commission on Universities. I am touched that my calls to reinstate subject review have been unexpectedly heeded, but I don’t think it is as revolutionary as all that.
These comments came in response to questions about a lack of face-to-face teaching – we are down to a “stubborn” minority of providers that have not returned to normal, and Michelle is putting in the hours on the phone to vice chancellors wherever she hears complaints. Surprisingly, Halfon appeared to think that the total number of complaints OIA dealt with last year had some bearing on the current situation.
I’ll keep waiting
After recent events we were expecting the committee to return again to the topic of antisemitism in higher education. The chair asked about the conditions under which NUS would be allowed back around the table (when the Union of Jewish Students are happy the recommendations of the independent review), whether Shaima Dallali was actually eligible to run for election as NUS chair (“unfortunately so”), and whether the OfS would make action on antisemitism a condition of registration (it will fall under the new harassment condition, and Donelan is currently satisfied that voluntary calls to sign up to the IHRA definition were working but she would act if she was not).
It fell to Kim Johnson – who appeared to be the only opposition voice we heard from – to ask about the chair of the government’s regulator’s appearance at CPAC Hungary. The official response was a straight as a die:
The OfS chair did a video message to a conference. He wasn’t aware of who else was going to be at that conference…He didn’t go in his capacity as OfS chair.
There was no follow up – perhaps because Johnson inadvertently accused Wharton of consorting with “known right-wingers”, prompting the minister to note there was nothing wrong with being right-wing – though she didn’t fall into the trap of quotably differentiating her kind of right wing with that of Hungary.
Two in a million
Michelle Donelan hadn’t read the Times Education Commission report, much to the chagrin of Robert Halfon who was on the commission, and was unpersuaded of the merits of a baccalaureate replacing “tried and tested” A levels. A series of questions from Anna Firth revealed only that Firth did not understand the way student finance worked.
The minister trumpeted her mortgage-style disclaimers about completion rates and graduate destinations (not long after reassuring Firth that the student fee loan wasn’t comparable to a mortgage), and gave 2025 as the date we could expect to see Sharia-compliant loans brought in alongside the Lifelong Loan Entitlement – eleven years after the issue was originally raised. I’ll bet you a fiver it is pushed back again.
Tom Hunt couldn’t draw anything out of the minister to support the current obsession in certain parts of his party with the Equalities Act overriding the right to freedom of speech. In response to a question on mental health we learned that Student Space has helped “over 200,000 students”.
Kim Johnson asked some useful questions on demand for trained teachers and vets. Donelan was clear that even if providers did not get accredited they could still offer ITT in partnership with providers that did, and reminded us that the cap had been removed from veterinary science courses.
And don’t hold your breath on the HE Reform or Lifelong Loan Entitlement consultation responses – these will appear in the “next few months”