by Rob Cuthbert
The long-awaited Cabinet reshuffle offers a faint hope for some improvement in HE policymaking in England: there is of course plenty of room for it. Former Secretary of State Gavin Williamson never recovered from the A-levels debacle of 2020, having already been held in low esteem before then. His standing in the HE sector was at a record low after a series of increasingly frenetic measures which seemed more like attempts to curry favour with the Conservative Party and the right wing press than coherent policy initiatives. Those measures included T-levels in post-16 education, a consultation on initial teacher training reform, the Free Speech Bill working its way through Parliament, comments on post-Covid behaviour by universities, rumoured moves on HE tuition fees, and various initiatives taken by the Office for Students in response to the Secretary of State’s frequent ‘guidance’ letters.
Announcing his departure on Twitter, Williamson said it had been a pleasure to serve in the role and that he was proud of the “transformational reforms” he had led in post-16 education. FE and schools begged to differ. A coalition of influential education bodies had written to Gavin Williamson about his T-level proposals on 29 July 2021 saying: “It is impossible to square the government’s stated ambition to ‘level up’ opportunity with the proposal to scrap most BTECs, including all larger versions of the qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A levels or T levels (86% of respondents to the review disagreed with your proposal to remove funding for qualifications on this basis) … Many young people will be adversely affected by this proposal, but disadvantaged students have the most to lose, a conclusion that your Department’s own equalities impact assessment supports.” We can hope that the new DfE team will think again.
Similarly, the consultation on ITT has been universally criticised. Oxford and Cambridge suggested in response that they might pull out of ITT provision, and two senior former inspectors savaged the recent Ofsted inspections purporting to justify proposed reforms. Anna McKie reported for Times Higher Education on 3 August 2021, and Terry Russell and Julie Price Grimshaw blogged about ITT inspections in July 2021 for Teach Best: “The reports show that the evidence base for the judgements made are flimsy in the extreme, repetitive, poorly written, hyper-critical, demoralising and humiliating. It is totally unacceptable that programme leaders across the whole sector, who have turned themselves inside out for two years in order to ensure that trainees get the best possible deal, can be treated like this. We know that some course leaders have suffered illness and extreme anxiety as a direct result of these inspections. Already we are seeing providers taking the decision to close.” A strongly negative response from MillionPlus on 20 August 2021 called for the ‘reform’ to be ‘paused’: “If change is forced through in spite of a near-unanimous sector backlash, it is likely that numerous modern universities, currently the backbone of initial teacher training, will re-consider their provision in this area. This could critically damage the pipeline of new teachers into the profession, potentially hitting hardest the very regions and communities the government has pledged to level up.” Caroline Daly (UCL) blogged for UCL on 13 August 2021: “This is no time for a mass experiment on teacher education”. We might hope that the new DfE team will quietly let this one disappear.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently before Parliament embodies the culture wars so popular in the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph, and is reported on more fully elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. Whatever its supposed merits, we can but hope that the slavish desire to cater to right wing prejudice will be tempered somewhat in the new DfE team.
The installation of Lord Wharton as chair of the Office for Students, and his refusal to stop taking the Tory whip in the Lords, meant that OfS was never going to be the kind of independent regulator required by statute; recent OfS initiatives have reinforced those feelings. The preliminary OfS consultation on a range of quality and standards issues during the winter of 2020-21 was followed by a further consultation published on 21 July 2021. This made detailed proposals about new regulatory requirements, saying: “the UK Quality Code, including its common practices, advice and guidance, risks creating a homogeneous approach to quality and standards assurance that stifles innovation and overly focuses on policy and process rather than outcomes for students. By contrast, our intention is to establish an approach to regulation that protects all students through the articulation of a clear minimum baseline for quality and standards in the regulatory framework, while enabling competition, student choice, provider autonomy and innovation to develop freely above the baseline.”
Picking their way through the weasel words, David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson of WonkHE summed up (on 20 July 2021) its intention as being to sweep away the existing Quality Code, “a longstanding agreed sector standard developed by the Quality Assurance Agency … on behalf of the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment (kind of the sector’s representative body on quality assurance). The code is short, clear, comprehensible … Everybody knows where they are with it (from PSRBs to providers), it is popular, UK-wide, and internationally recognised. And it’s symbolic – insofar as it is a piece of co-regulation.” The first consultation spoke of “up-to-date” content and “effective” assessment. Perhaps this was, as Kernohan and Dickinson said, “meant to give providers flexibility to make their own decisions … [but] in practice it made them concerned that their definitions of these terms may not match the regulator’s own impressions.”
The Teaching Excellence Framework was evaluated in unflattering terms by the independent review reluctantly accepted by DfE as part of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. That review, completed long ago but published much more recently, seemed to have put TEF in the deep freeze, but OfS now envisages a new-style TEF as an enforcement mechanism for its new ‘definitions’ of quality and standards. The WonkHE writers conclude: “As usual, there’s little on making students feel more powerful – but plenty for OfS.” The attempted reassurance in the OfS blog by Director of Regulation Susan Lapworth on 20 July 2021 failed to persuade, and the THE pronouncement on the same day by OfS chair Lord Wharton that “Good universities have nothing to fear from the OfS’ quality crackdown” smacked more of loyalty oaths than higher education standards.
Those suspicions were fuelled, to put it mildly, when OfS issued on 7 October 2021 probably its most fatuous review to date, about spelling, punctuation and grammar. This followed a series of media scare stories earlier in 2021 about universities supposedly being told that ‘cutting marks for bad spelling is elitist’, as the Mail on Sunday headline had it on 11 April 2021. Minister Michele Donelan duly deplored such alleged behaviour in the House of Commons, as Jim Dickinson noted in his WonkHE blog on 7 October 2021. OfS then conducted a review over Summer 2021 in “a small number of higher education providers … focused on spelling, punctuation and grammar in written assessment” identifying a “cause for regulatory concern”. There will always be stories and cases of daft behaviour by some universities, on issues like spelling, just as on issues like freedom of speech. They need to be dealt with proportionately and the regulator must decide whether there is a substantive case to answer for the whole sector. Here the OfS jumped to the remarkable conclusion that “The common features we have seen in the small number of cases in this review suggest that the practices and approaches we have set out in the case studies may be widespread across the sector.” This is not an independent regulator, this is a body in a hurry to do what it thinks the Minister wants. We can hope that the new DfE team might discourage such excessive compliance, led as it now is by someone who made a success of asking different people for their opinions.
Williamson’s last turn in HE was his speech at the Universities UK conference in Newcastle in September, when he urged universities to get back to in-person face to face teaching – speaking by videolink (!) as Times education editor Nicola Woolcock reported on 9 September 2021. Richard Adams, The Guardian’s education editor, described his speech as ‘combative’: Williamson “accused some universities of being more interested in “cancelling national heroes” and bureaucracy than improving the lives of students and staff, telling vice-chancellors they risk undermining public confidence in higher education.” He went on to attack universities with high drop-out rates and announced that “in the future institutions in England would not be able to count disadvantaged students enrolled on courses with high non-continuation rates towards meeting their access targets.” The Secretary of State’s willingness to take on the universities, albeit remotely, was not of course sufficient to save his job. We can hope that the faux outrage of the culture wars and the faux consultations on decisions already made might give way in future to something more approaching evidence-based policy and proper consultation.
The signs are that real politics might be re-emerging. The restructuring of the DfE entailed the abolition of the role of Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. This seemed to run contrary to levelling up, as the FE News report on 15 September 2021 noted, with Toby Perkins, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Further Education and Skills, quoted as saying: “Skills shortages are holding our economy back. For all his warm words, the Prime Minister’s decision to scrap the dedicated skills minister shows he isn’t serious about reskilling our workforce for the future.” But the SoS has a track record in this area, so this at least sounds like a reasonable difference of opinion about how to achieve a policy objective.
More fundamentally, we are expecting what the media call an ‘overhaul’ of HE funding, as Richard Adams wrote in The Guardian on 9 July 2021. The options might include tuition-fee cuts, a cap on student numbers for some courses and minimum qualifications for HE entry, in a much-delayed response to the Augar review of tertiary funding. After Covid the government, of course, needs to find or save a great deal of money and the student loan system is a prime target. After long-running disagreements between No 10, DfE and the Treasury over how to achieve savings, there were straws in the wind as first Nick Hillman for HEPI on 10 June 2021 and then David Willetts (in HEPI Report 142) on 30 September 2021 spelt out the possibilities for savings, supposedly while ‘boosting HE spending’ according to Willetts. Consider these – however unpalatable – as the centrist Tory case for savings: it amounts to ‘make graduates pay more’. A different position would involve fee reductions, meaning funding cuts for institutions, student number caps and/or minimum entry qualifications, restricting access and HE numbers. The latter was more likely to have been adopted by the former DfE regime. We can hope there are higher chances now of the more ‘moderate’ course.
The new Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi arrives with a better reputation than his predecessor, and there have been significant ministerial changes at DfE, not least the departure after a very long tenure of Nick Gibb as schools minister. However Michele Donelan remains and has been promoted as Universities Minister, adding post-16 responsibilities to her brief, and she will in future attend Cabinet. She remains something of a blank canvas, having until now loyally followed her SoS’s lead. More worryingly, former Gavin Williamson special adviser Iain Mansfield tweeted on 2 October 2021: “Delighted to be able to confirm that I will be staying on in Government, as Special Adviser to Michelle Donelan, Minister for Higher and Further Education”, as ResearchProfessionalNews had divined some weeks earlier. Mansfield was formerly a DfE civil servant known principally as the architect of the first version of TEF, later as an evidence-defying supporter of grammar schools. And of course Lord Wharton remains as chair of the OfS.
We can only hope that there will at least be something of a return to more sensible politics as the new ministerial team settles in. We can be fairly sure that hard times are coming for HE funding in the government spending review, with institutions, staff, students and graduates paying the price. So there it is, the short term future for higher education policy in England: hope and pay.
SRHE News Editor Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics email@example.com. Twitter @RobCuthbert