What did Williamson say at HEPI conference?

It says here that Gavin Williamson spoke to the HEPI conference on the importance of learning from the pandemic, but apparently didn’t reference the HEPI/Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey with its feedback from students on value, damaged education or mental health.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

In reality, despite the headline theme being set as “learning from the Covid crisis”, Williamson instead used his speech to the event to set out some signals on the impending response to the Augar review.

As well as the usual mood music around flexibility, meeting regional and employers’ skills needs, and an urge to respond to the opportunities presented by the skills bill and more modular, flexible provision, we got some significant rattles of the sabre.

The hunt for low value providers

We’ve long been searching for what government actually means by “low value” courses, and so to get started, Gavin has found some low value providers:

I am sure you are all familiar with the Office for Students’ Proceed statistics which were published for the first-time last month. These project the likelihood new students will find some kind of professional employment or take up further study in the year after they graduate. And while higher education remains a good investment for most, at 25 higher education institutions, fewer than half the students who begin a degree will go on to graduate employment or further study.

And thanks to OfS, he’s found some low value courses too:

For example, while there are many good psychology courses, at one university only 39% of those who enrol in psychology go on to graduate employment or further study. This is not good enough. While there are many good bio-science courses, at one university only 38% of those who enrol in bioscience go on to graduate employment or further study. This is not good enough. While there are many good computing courses, at one university only 35% of those who enrol in computing go on to graduate employment or further study. Again, this is just not good enough.

OfS has said it isn’t intending to use “Proceed” in regulation – but that may not last:

I welcome the Office for Students’ consultation on regulating quality and standards in higher education which sets out clear foundations for driving up quality. And I expect it to lead to real results.

Spelling it out

Remember that silly story that wouldn’t die a few weeks ago about inclusive assessment policies? We were bemused to see that OfS had launched a whole review into a moral panic story from the Mail on Sunday this week, but now get a clue as to why:

I want to be clear that certain practices, such as the lowering of literacy standards in degree assessments, are unacceptable and must come to an end. If a graduate begins a job without basic literacy, this serves no-one – not them, not their peers, not the employer and not the nation. It undermines the value of the British honours degree. High standards are the bedrock on which our universities’ reputation rests, and they must be maintained.

More proof, if we needed any, that while OfS might be called the Office for Students, there’s not much evidence that it’s students setting the priorities. What’s next – an OfS review into the fancy dress costumes allowed at SU club nights?

Mills and boon

It looks like we might end up with government support for the latest attempt by a parliamentarian to get legislation on essay mills:

I also welcome Lord Storey’s Private Member’s Bill that seeks to put an end to the scourge of essay mills, and we would like to work with Lord Storey to see if we can deliver it.

Minimum entry criteria

We also got the clearest signal yet that the government’s preferred approach to “minimum entry criteria” will be to set a floor at Level 2 (ie GCSEs) rather than Level 3:

We expect the same rigour in admissions as we do in every other aspect of the higher education experience. Is it really in anyone’s interests if entry requirements are relaxed so much that an 18-year-old who has not yet passed their English or maths GCSEs should progress straight to an honours degree?

There were some signals on exemptions and a consultation to come, but this is clearly the preferred option.

Outcomes based regulation

Finally, we got another run at the debate between what kind of equality we’re aiming at:

What we need is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. As the Chair of the Office for Students said in a recent speech, widening admissions is never an excuse for lowering standards. And I have been clear in the job advert for the new Director for Fair Access and Participation that a key priority for them will be to challenge courses not delivering positive outcomes for students.

That’s a strange position to put an outcomes-based regulator in – and either the quote is mood music around the replacement for Chris Millward as OfS director for fair access and participation, or we’re being softened up for accepting some hits to entry rates for some WP categories in the name of “they’re on the wrong course”. Post 92s and many smaller private providers – especially those in and around London – will be nervous.

Cross purposes

Oh and one other thing – in case you were wondering

We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills that will lead to a fulfilling working life.


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