By Rob Cuthbert
Since Britain voted to leave the European Union in June it is getting harder and harder to know which way the wind is blowing for higher education, and the outlook is no clearer after Theresa May’s first Conservative Party conference as Prime Minister.
The last Conservative government, the one that was only elected a year ago, had a manifesto commitment to introduce a Teaching Excellence Framework. Although it was rumoured that the Higher Education and Research Bill might have to make way in the Parliamentary timetable for EU referendum business, the Cameron government made HE a high priority and the Bill survived. No doubt this owed something to Minister Jo Johnson’s close links to No 10, where he had been head of the Policy Unit. The Bill followed the lines which had been clear for some time in the White Paper and before, continuing the drive to turn students into consumers, making it ever easier for new for-profit institutions to enter the market, and aiming to push universities and other providers into ever more intense commercial competition with one another.
Then came Brexit, and (some) things changed dramatically. Jo Johnson, despite his closeness to Cameron, his friendship with George Osborne, and his Eton-Oxford-Bullingdon Club history, survived the cull of ‘Cameron’s cronies’, and survived the split of his responsibilities between two new government departments. He remains Minister for Universities and Science but must now divide his time between the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the new Department for Education, with universities restored to the Education fold. Did this signal no change for HE? Apparently not, because in summer we had the leaked education announcements which were to have been part of Theresa May’s speech for the Conservative Party conference. It was back to the future with more grammar schools (a spectacular example of evidence-free policymaking, with potentially profound implications for HE admissions). Universities were also warned that to qualify for charging higher fees they would need to establish a new school or sponsor an underperforming one. The latter idea was given short shrift by the new Oxford VC but it was fascinating for the U-turn it seemed to represent in thinking about the relationship between universities and the school sector. 30 years of bipartisan hostility to universities’ involvement in teacher training was apparently overturned in one accidentally-photographed briefing note.
The HER Bill continued to work its way through Parliament, with Jo Johnson accepting only comparatively minor technical changes. There was much huffing and puffing in HE about the TEF and – as the latest round of university league tables put some very prestigious universities near the bottom of the heap for teaching – it was rumoured that some Russell Group institutions might opt out of the TEF altogether. Many noted that the supposed incentivisation (through differential fees) of universities to ‘go for gold’ in the TEF would make very little difference to the levels of fee which could be charged.
Then came the Conservative Party Conference in early October. The new Prime Minister announced that Article 50, declaring the UK’s intention to leave the EU, would be invoked in March 2017. It was still completely unclear what the terms of the exit might be, but hints of a ‘hard Brexit’ in which Britain leaves the single market were enough to send the media into opposing paroxysms, either declaring that Brexit could mean only that, or declaring that the referendum result meant no such thing. Clearly something was needed to fill the vacuum behind ‘Brexit means Brexit’
Theresa May had also declared a return to proper Cabinet government, as opposed to the ‘sofa government’ of New Labour and the supposed cronyism of the Cameron administration, but she had not abandoned a Blairite determination to manage the news agenda, and the mantra was a government ‘that works for everyone’. For every new minister this meant a scramble to come up with an eye-catching policy or two, ‘that works for everyone’: furthest out on that particular limb was Home Secretary Amber Rudd. Conscious of her leader’s track record as Home Secretary of hostility to international student recruitment during the coalition government, she offered two initiatives. First, a new crackdown on international student recruitment, and second, a proposed requirement for all employers to compile lists of foreign nationals so that those denying British jobs to British workers (as Gordon Brown would no doubt have put it) could be named and shamed.
Unfortunately for Rudd it soon appeared that naming and shaming employers of foreign workers did not work for anyone, and within days ministers across government were denying that it had ever been more than an idea, or that it had even been an idea at all. Which perhaps made it even more important for Rudd to save face by clinging to her other announcement that the Home Office would be “looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses”, a move which WonkHE said left HE ‘aghast’.
It certainly seemed to surprise the Minister in charge of universities: Jo Johnson had been speaking before the conference about trying to remove international students from the government’s net migration targets. Even within No 10 the message had not percolated far. The HE show at Olympia in London on 11 October 2016 had a plenary session by Conrad Bird from the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office communications, pushing GREATBritain, a campaign to promote the UK abroad. The conference agenda said he would be promoting a ‘major international campaign to increase numbers of students choosing to study in the UK’.
How might the Home Office decide which are the ‘best’ and which are the ‘lower quality’ courses? Under Theresa May the Home Office had a track record of making its own mind up about university ‘quality’, but surely now the TEF must be used for this purpose. However, as WonkHE pointed out in its 10 October Monday Morning Briefing, “the supporters of this new hardline crackdown, including the PM’s co-Chief of Staff Nick Timothy, implicitly or explicitly substitute the Russell Group for “best” in their rhetoric. And there is no guarantee at all that the top TEF performers will all be from the self-appointed elite group.” Moreover, the new private institutions encouraged by the HER Bill will also struggle to show they are among the “best”. A new CGHE study of private and for-profit HE in six countries suggests, on the contrary, that new private providers tend to be of lower quality and more expensive. All in all, an interesting task for the civil servant who has to draft the Home Office consultation document on how exactly this will work. Will there be a target for overall recruitment? Will there be quotas for each institution allowed to recruit overseas? Will there be special rules to get round the TEF for Jo Johnson’s ‘challenger institutions’ and/or the Russell Group? And will the Department for International Trade be happy to limit the export opportunity created as the fall in the pound makes UK HE much cheaper for international students?
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s conference contribution included a proposal to reduce the UK’s reliance on overseas doctors by increasing the numbers of UK doctors in training by 25%, from 6000 to 7500 a year, something else which probably surprised the minister in charge of universities.
As if this was not enough, a row broke out on 7 October between LSE and the Foreign Office about which academics might, in future, be allowed to advise on EU issues. At a meeting between the Foreign Office and LSE’s Professor Kevin Featherstone, LSE say they were told that academics working with the FCO in this area in future would need a UK passport. They emailed LSE staff accordingly and the story exploded over the weekend; the Foreign Office said there had been a ‘misunderstanding’.
It is hard to resist the impression of a government making it up as it goes along, department by department, without co-ordination, perhaps even without consultation with the minister supposedly centrally involved. This is not a higher education system ‘that works for everyone’, but a higher education system that may not even work for every government department.
Who can tell if the climate is changing for HE? The weather is still cloudy but the outlook is, we hope, changeable.
 Thanks to Ian McNay for spotting this.
Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England, Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics firstname.lastname@example.org, and Chair, Improving Dispute Resolution Advisory Service www.idras.ac.uk