What did Robert Halfon have to say to HEPI?

The ministerial address at sector conferences is increasingly being delivered as a pre-record rather than an in-person Q&A.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The most absurd example was that time when Gavin Williamson jumped on Zoom to castigate the sector for delivering lectures on Zoom.

More generally, for a government so determined to protect free speech and debate on campus, it is miserable that the conversation from those imposing that legislation is so often one way.

Halfon opened with a tease:

We hope to soon respond to the ideas proposed in last year’s higher education reform consultation.

That’s your signal, folks, that we are more likely than not to get an answer before the summer on minimum entry criteria, student number controls for “mickey mouse” courses or providers, foundation year fees and maybe even the long lost National Scholarship Programme.

The body of the video gave us a traditional three priorities – and no, of course the MAB wasn’t mentioned and of course cost of living wasn’t in there, presumably because he hadn’t read the Student Academic Experience Survey in advance.

If he had, or at least if he’d dived into the data tables that it would have been embarrassing for HEPI to headline on, he’d know that his first priority – Degree Apprenticeships – has a cohort of students that:

…have the lowest scores of all the qualification types on expectations met, value for money, belonging, unstructured/disorganised teaching, teachers that are poor at explaining things, and … considering leaving because of finances.

I know, I know, I’m quoting my own blog here. But as I said:

It’s almost as if apprenticeship wage rates are scandalously low, and being a full-time one stops you getting additional part-time work.

If he had he’d doubtless have argued that the above is all the sector’s fault – but what he did do was remind the sector that up to £14m is available over the next two financial years for higher education providers to expand degree apprenticeships and enable more people to access them.

Even if providers had the time and businesses had the inclination, who is roaming around the sector desperate to expand provision that would likely wreck their student satisfaction scores?

Next we got a Chat-GPT remix of every higher education ministerial speech for years – it’s the outcomes that matter.

Trumpeting that eighteen B3 three investigations are going on (and on, and on) over continuation, completion and progression, he tried to convince the room that OfS might one day take action.

Next he revived Jo Johnson, Gavin Williamson, Michelle Donelan and Nadhim Zahawi’s previous runs at providers being required to deliver on their promises – often made four years out while inflation runs at 10 per cent and fees are frozen:

What should be universal is clarity for students on how teaching will be delivered, and how many teaching hours to expect.

He reminded the audience that the Competition and Markets Authority recently revised their guidance on consumer protection law, and framed “material information” that students should get as including the number of contact hours, how they will be provided, and the overall balance between online and face to face teaching.

That was all in there in 2015 Rob, when the unit of resource was still just about covering the costs of teaching. Nobody’s enforced it since, and he offered no sense that anybody was about to enforce it now.

Next we got onto disadvantaged students, and some will crow about a belief that universities should exist “to advance social justice” and should not exist to “reinforce privilege”.

I’m less worried about that – I’m more worried that the presentation that followed his video address reminded us viscerally of the way in which his maintenance system is making that tale of two students significantly and dramatically worse.

The Lifelong Loan Entitlement got a mention (with the usual silence on maintenance) and then we got to mental health, where his strategy has three pillars – funding, best practice and responsibilities for providers and the protection for students.

Pillar one didn’t get another mention, which was probably just as well on the day that his regulator announced a reduction in funding for mental health and hardship from £30m to £15m, under his instruction.

Apparently, “really positive progress” was that whereas half of providers had a mental health or wellbeing strategy in 2022, that’s now two thirds – significantly less than the percentage of students that universities need to cling onto for fear of fines as their students attempt to balance full time work with full time study.

A task force is coming (it always is) involving bereaved parents and students to deliver better mental health support across the sector, a national review of student suicides is on the way, and of course he’s busy cracking the whip on adoption of the University Mental Health Charter programme as a way of avoiding the other “one size fits all” solution that the bereaved parents and students are actually calling for.

I know you’re eagerly awaiting the results of the 2023 student academic experience survey… and I look forward to seeing the analysis in full.

Someone should have warned him.

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