Michelle Donelan at Education Committee

Universities minister Michelle Donelan’s third appearance before the Commons Education Committee was notable less for her perfunctory, on-message answers and more for the content and tone of the questions.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe


Maybe there was never a golden era of select committee scrutiny, when members had actually read up on their brief and held ministers to actual account for their promises. Either way, much of the session felt surface-level and shouty – emanantly clippable for Twitter, but not actually serving the public in any meaningful way.

Committee chair Robert Halfon kicked things off with the usual question about students who don’t feel that they have had a “quality” higher education this year, which naturally generated the usual disingenuous answer about students being able to complain to their university and then the OIA.

In the unlikely event that anyone was labouring under the impression there might be a structural solution to a near-universal diminished experience, Donelan was on record again as saying “no”. As usual, we got nowhere near exploring the basis on which a student might be entitled to launch a complaint, and instead we just heard that the process does not mean the “onus is heavy”.

Her reasoning for that was linked to “innovative provision and mitigation” from providers – so she’s clear that the experience of students during the pandemic has not been uniformly or universally bad. Which ought to have prompted questions like – what would she do if she thought it was? How would she know? What’s all this “monitoring” that you’ve been saying OfS has been doing? But it didn’t.

Tom Hunt (Con, Ipswich) was worried about the impacts of students missing out on various aspects of the student experience. Turns out Donelan is worried about that too:

Building back and sort of catching up on the student experience, if you like, is a priority for myself and for universities, not just the academic side. It’s something that we’ve been regularly discussing on the taskforce. And I’ve asked UUK to be sharing best practice in this area.

That is easier, if you like for those current year, first year and second year students, whereas it is much harder for those final year students. That’s one of the reasons why we also wanted to get them back, even if their courses are academically finished, and give them the opportunity to go back from the 17th of May.

But you’re quite right, that that doesn’t need to be a focus next year, because it’s all the other side of the university that is is valuable in forming those networks and your confidence and your other skills, as well as you’re part of the experience that university students expect and go to university for as well as the academic side.

That’s odd. Earlier the extent to which students had missed out on learning was so individualised that no structural or systematised solution on tuition fee rebates could even be contemplated. Yet now the experience of missing out of this “side” that isn’t the “academic side” is universal enough to be identified and worthy of a UUK best practice exercise.

This artificial divide between the “academic side” and the “social side” is one of the department’s (and the sector’s) favourite splits. If you’re “paying” for the former, and people have missed out on the latter, you can hold the argument on fee rebates. But as we know – learning is social, social is learning, and fees fund all of it.

Next we got a twenty minute section of questions on “Opportunity Areas” – a little-known corner of Michelle Donelan’s ministerial responsibilities, which don’t have much to do with universities and which are due to end soon. An announcement is coming – after the Queen’s Speech, and before the summer.

The interesting bit was the committee’s suggestion that “levelling up” could mean places not marked up as “opportunity areas” getting some cash, but Donelan was as vague as the government always is on the meaning of “levelling up” here:

Well, well, the other areas will be getting other funds because that is part of our levelling up agenda and working with other government departments to assist in that fact.

Next there was a long and headline-grabbing exchange over the University of Bristol / antisemitism / David Miller story. Halfon and a couple of committee colleagues did their best to draw Donelan on the specific case, but naturally she stuck to process and autonomy over a live investigation, and when the case was linked to the government’s urging of universities to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, she pointed out that Bristol was one of 98 universities that already had – and so it was “not a panacea”.

We are not sure when Donelan says “98 universities” whether she means “98 universities”, or what would be a rather less impressive “98 higher education providers” – the former would beg the question “haven’t you counted anywhere else”, the latter “is that all”, but we’ll check and amend this piece when we hear.

Halfon went in particularly strong on this one – at one stage saying:

Why would you not intervene, to deal with this and tell Bristol, the Vice Chancellor that enough is enough, and that we’re not living in 1930s Germany, and that they should deal with this problem and make sure that Bristol University is not a hostile environment to Jewish students.”

…and later arguing that funding conditions should be used to ensure incidents are dealt with. Donelan had to dig in on autonomy:

Universities in this country are autonomous…I am awaiting the conclusions of the review, after which I will, indeed, speak to the vice-chancellor.”

But Halfon wanted answers:

If you can’t intervene…then it’s just words… surely you should look at things like funding”.

Jonathan Gullis (Con, Stoke-on-Trent North) then used a case at Warwick to call for similar intervention from central government, calling vice chancellor Stuart Croft “the biggest embarrassment to students at his university” over the handling of complaints about a professor’s comments on antisemitism in the Labour party:

We need to go further just finally, we need to start sacking people, Stuart Croft… until we start bringing that kind of scrutiny and action into our university sector like you would do if you’re in a primary or secondary school, these incidences will keep happening.”

The committee never really got close to exploring some of the potentially uncomfortable contradictions inherent in the government’s free speech agenda and its views on antisemitism, but it did at least get near to a related issue – that the government is intending to legislate over free speech (where there are already specific legal and regulatory duties) but is not intending to legislate over campus racial and sexual harassment and misconduct (where there are no specific legal and regulatory duties).

Underpinning the whole discussion – from an antisemitism perspective, a mental health perspective and from a gender based violence perspective – is the ongoing, undefined sense that universities have a “duty” to provide a safe environment and a “duty” of care over students – without ever properly establishing those duties, or providing sanctions for those that don’t exercise them.

Contrast that with the agenda over freedom of speech. Both Tom Hunt and Jonathon Gullis highlighted, exaggerated and embellished some of the dodgier stats from that Policy Exchange report, with the latter demanding to know why the “woke mob” is “ruining higher education”:

Do you agree with me that this is one of the probably many reasons why lots of kids now are looking for alternatives other than university because they don’t want to be in a self censored sort of regime that seems to be taking over universities.”

Donelan didn’t quite agree – perhaps partly because applications are at an all time high – but when challenged over her views on decolonization, she had a run at her own quip being turned into a insta-friendly clip:

If we look at the recent issues around Sheffield, where potentially they’re looking at removing Newton from Physics…”

It was left to Fleur Anderson (Lab, Putney) to gently point out some of the potential contradictions:

You mentioned that you would be considering or actually bringing in free speech work as to be tied to universities’ registration conditions. But before when we were talking about the IHRA definition of anti semitism, and about sexual harassment conditions, you said you wouldn’t be bringing that in as to tie that into universities’ registration conditions, and you’d be waiting for consultations and seeing how it goes – why is it that you would bring it in for free speech, but not for those two other areas of high concern for students?”

…and several hours of waffle later came the bizarrely circular response…

Freedom of speech… it was in our manifesto, it’s been worked out. We’ve done a paper on it. That’s why I went down the road on that area if you like”.

Ian Mearns (Lab, Gateshead) wanted to know why there’s not been an immediate inquiry – given that in schools there is to be an urgent review of the situation:

Why don’t you mirror that in universities and where, in universities victims of harassment and assault often complain of being left in the dark about the outcome or or the progress of university investigations and quite often feel that their disclosure has been a waste of time, traumatising, but fruitless? So is it not requiring more urgent ministerial action than a statement of expectations from the Office for students?”

Donelan said that UUK will be publishing a report and that she’d be meeting with OfS, which does make you think her theory of change might be faulty.

There were various other bits of bobs of little importance – along with an intriguing section on minimum entry requirements as part of a potential Augar response. Donelan wasn’t going to be drawn on a view, stressing a consultation (where? when?) instead – but did offer up the justificatory stat in the Augar report:

From the 2016/17 cohort, as many as 12.8 per cent of students with UCAS tariff points between 0 and 100 (equivalent to D and E at A-level in the old tariff scheme)… did not progress past their first year of a degree. This is about double the 6.3 per cent drop out rate for students as a whole.“

Would there be a need to implement carefully and with contextualisation for socio-economic background? Yes. Was Donelan opposed to the principle?

I’m not opposed to the principle, it’s important that we get it right. “

Bonus data with DK

That minimum entry thing – I was perplexed in that it feels like students with lower UCAS tariff points are also more likely to be from deprived backgrounds, and students from deprived backgrounds are more likely not to continue with studies for a whole host of issues. Academic capability cannot safely be read as an indicator of successful continuation is my point here. Anyway, here’s some data from HESA:

[Full screen]

I’ve got the proportion of the young intake to full time undergraduate first degrees on the left holding each qualification who come from low participation areas on the left, and the proportion of who don’t continue on the bottom – the size shows the total number of students holding these entry qualifications and the colour shows qualification type (A level points are darker blue the lower you get – other qualifications are other colours).

What we see is that there’s a clear relationship between the two – demonstrating that a minimum entry qualification rule would disproportionately affect young people from disadvantaged backgrounds (no levelling up here!) and that we have a problem in retaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds anyway.

2 responses to “Michelle Donelan at Education Committee

  1. Slight correction, but it does makes a difference in terms of interpretation. Donelan did not say, in answer to Anderson’s question, ‘… that is why I went down the road on that area’. She said ‘… that is why we are further down the road on that area’. In other words, because it had been a manifesto promise and there had been research on it, the government had got further on this than on the other matters Anderson raised.

    Probably not worth pointing out that where you say Donelan had engaged in several hours of waffle before coming to a bizarrely circular conclusion, what she had actually done was give a two minute answer to a question. Not an answer I particularly agree with, but it was at least concise and logical.

    I only noticed all this because I happened to watch the Committee hearing on the parliament channel yesterday (I know, very sad, I couldn’t sleep), I would normally just rely on WonkHE to catch up on such things. Interesting to compare the coverage here with what was said in the Committee.

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