As Sunak used to work with Policy Exchange (as Head of the Black and Minority Ethnic Research Unit, no less) it might be the think tank to watch during this iteration of conservative government.
And with former DfE special advisor Iain Mansfield new in post, the higher education proposals in this morning’s Balancing the Books report are both familiar (from those far off days when Nadhim Zahawi was Secretary of State) and troubling.
First on the menu is a continuation of the loan freeze – with fee limits (which were once supposed to rise with inflation) remaining at £9,250 until debt is falling as a share of GDP, or indefinitely for all practical purposes. PX suggest the repayment thresholds should also be frozen – pulling graduates earning far lower than the national average gradually into repayment earlier in their careers.
On direct funding (via the Office for Students) the central recommendation is for a further cut for price group C1.2 (creative arts, media) – something that would be particularly damaging to specialist arts-based providers. The fact that this would save a meagre £18m speaks volumes here – and we note in passing that the long run cost of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to the sector is north of £50m.
Slicing the salami
Other budget lines facing scrutiny under these plans are the overseas study programme (£28m), and Uni Connect (£30m) – and there’s a call for a 20 to 30 per cent reduction in student premiums.
It’s worth unpacking each of these – the overseas study programme basically amounts to support for universities engaging in the Turing scheme, while Uni Connect is a central pillar of John Blake’s welcome emphasis on raising school attainment via university partnerships. These are long standing policy priorities, and the government has long enjoyed leaning into both as evidence of commitment to the sector as a force for social good.
These days you’ll know the student premium funding as constituting DfEs magic money twig – flagging the way it can now be vired directly to student hardship funds at provider level. It is supposed to cover the additional costs incurred by providers in enrolling and teaching non-traditional students. The idea that this is now 20-30 per cent cheaper for providers to do is, frankly, for the birds.
The minimum eligibility requirement (that DfE consulted on early this year – we’re a ways off a response by all accounts) returns as a “minimum entry requirement” set at either two or three Es at A level (or, I guess, equivalent), with exemptions for mature students and those who have done an Access to HE course or – interestingly – a foundation year. The report notes that this would have an impact on 1 per cent of current entrants, saving around £300m on student loan outlay. And importantly, a lot of the policy and implementation work is already underway.
If you recall the brief excitement abolishing the Office for Students over the summer, you’ll be interested to note that a review of arms-length bodies (ALBs) is proposed (again) though there is nothing specific for education the report broadly takes aim at policy and communication functions and ALBs.
Policy Exchange recommends the continuation of government commitments to research and development – with the now superseded 2.4 per cent of GDP target restated, and new commitments to ARIA, and to Horizon affiliation or a “match every penny” alternative. This preserves the spending review settlement.
Elsewhere in the document we see bad news for providers working with the police on new university level qualifications provided as a part of officer training – Policy Exchange wants the initial degree requirement for police officers scrapped, with the notably culture wars rationale that:
It is now a view held by many within policing that the implementation of the PEQF is having a potentially negative impact on forces’ ability to serve the public. There are also concerns that moving to a graduate-only police force will be socially divisive and run contrary to the widely accepted maxim that, in a society that operates policing by consent, a police force should reflect the wider society it polices.
It’s all fairly bleak stuff. And this is pointed at the revised estimates of the funding gap as being around £25bn to £30bn, not the initial estimates of nearer £60bn.