The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy & Funding in England (January 2023)

Post-legislative scrutiny of HERA

Wonkhe’s David Kernohan blogged on 15 December 2022 about the overdue but now delivered memorandum from DfE to the Education Select Committee reviewing the Higher Education and Research Act. He wasn’t impressed: “HERA hasn’t worked, the reason existing for HERA turned out not to be true, and HERA hasn’t actually addressed the problem as it was designed to.” It’s hard to disagree.

Government changes

It would take too long to report the changes in Secretaries of State and HE ministers in recent months, but at the time of writing Gillian Keegan is the latest Secretary of State and Robert Halfon is the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education. Halfon tweeted his delight at the appointment on 8 November 2022. Nick Gibb was back for yet another stint as Schools Minister; you can’t say he lacked experience in the role, but he either resigned or was sacked, or both, in one or more of the 2022 changes of administration. The new Science Minister was named as Nusrat Ghani, MP for Wealdstone, as Jack Grove reported for Times Higher Education on 3 October 2022, after David Willetts apparently let the news slip at the Conservative Party Conference at the time. He might, of course, have been deliberately trying to hurry the government up to fill an important gap. But she didn’t last long as Minister for Science and Investment Security, becoming  Minister for Industry and Investment Security almost immediately, but still with life sciences listed among her many responsibilities. The latest DfE line-up had no remaining trace of Andrea Jenkyns … who was still answering questions in Parliament with her HE/FE/skills brief on 26 October 2022. Worcester MP Robin Walker has been elected Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, replacing Halfon.

These changes all looked vaguely hopeful, with adults re-entering the room to consider some of the priorities identified by one or more of the previous five Secretaries of State in 2022. These included free speech in HE (more below), the brief now taken by Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing Claire Coutinho, but perhaps also partly taken to Culture, Media and Sport by its new Secretary of State and continuing true believer Michele Donelan. There was also what Michael Savage in The Observer on 27 November 2022 called the “mindless crackdown” on overseas students, where DfE does not seem to be making any of the running. The only consolation is that the running does not seem to be being made by Suella Braverman at the Home Office either, with the Prime Minister taking this on himself.

If you wanted to know where and what Cabinet members studied at university, HEPI had the answers for the Liz Truss version 1.0 of the Cabinet, on 14 October 2022. Nothing beyond that yet, presumably they got fed up with updating the information.

FE colleges reclassified as public sector institutions

FE News reported on 29 November 2022 that the Office for National Statistics had announced that FE corporations, sixth form college corporations and designated institutions in England will all be classified to the central government subsector of the public sector, for National Accounts and other statistical purposes. A recent change in international statistical guidance now treats the existence of legislation that allows a government to step in to appoint or remove members of a governing board of a further education institution as public sector control of those bodies if the extent of these powers determines corporate policy, even if the powers are not actually exercised. In England, such legislation already existed, allowing the government to intervene in mismanagement and a broad range of circumstances. New legislation in the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 extended the power to intervene to cases where the education or training provided does not adequately meet local needs. This means that the whole sector in England is now considered to be under public sector control. The impact on public sector net borrowing is expected to be small, because most FE revenue is currently recorded within government expenditure as grants. The impact on the public sector balance sheet, including on public sector net debt, has not yet been assessed.

Free speech and academic freedom

As the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill reached committee stage in the Lords it generated a swarm of blogs from HEPI and Wonkhe, including this from UUK President Steve West (West of England) and this from Jim Dickinson about the mess the Bill threatened to create by simple-minded enforcement aimed at Students’ Unions. Paul Greatrix (Nottingham) brought a sense of perspective and history with his contribution on 3 November 2022. Jim Dickinson for Wonkhe on 22 November 2022 reported three remaining issues with the Bill; how this might play out in practice we still don’t know how.

OfS issued Insight Brief No 16 on ‘Freedom to Question, Challenge and Debate’ on 15 December 2022, on the same day that it hosted an online conference on the topic. The first four speakers were Conservative peer Lord Wharton, chair of OfS, Claire Coutinho, the DfE minister with responsibility for freedom of speech legislation, Susan Lapworth, the OfS chief executive lambasted for slavishly following government lines, and John Tomasi, President of the Heterodox Academy, then Akua Reindorf, an EHRC Commissioner appointed by Liz Truss. I suppose at least we didn’t have anyone from Policy Exchange. But that speaker list did rather raise the question of which questions we are allowed to challenge and debate. Not helped by a chat function in which we weren’t allowed to see the questions, but could only hear those questions for Susan Lapworth which had been carefully chosen by the OfS host.

On 4 November 2022 a controversial academic freedom conference began at Stanford, with invited speakers including Scott W Atlas, who lobbied former President Donald J. Trump to let the coronavirus spread unabated through most people; Amy Wax, who is facing disciplinary action at the University of Pennsylvania for her statements about racial minorities and gay people; … Jordan Peterson, whose insistence that universities are “indoctrination cults” has won him a loyal following … and Peter Thiel, the tech billionaire who has repeatedly dismissed college as a waste of time and money. Stephanie M Lee reported for The Chronicle of Higher Education on 3 November 2022 that “The event, sponsored by the Stanford Graduate School of Business, was initially closed to the media. Following public criticism, the organizers announced that it would be live-streamed.”

Should student numbers be controlled?

On 8 November 2022 a reasoned debate broke out in the blogosphere, with HEPI’s Nick Hillman arguing there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ return to student number controls because the Treasury is too powerful. On the same day Wonkhe’s Mark Leach said that was only one part of the puzzle: “I don’t think the argument about student number controls in 2022 is a left vs right issue. … In 2014 when George Osborne removed the cap on university places, the country’s finances were indeed in better shape than today, and we had a Chancellor who understood and believed in universities. But he also had a way of financing the expansion – the so-called “fiscal illusion”. … there are multiple levers available to a government keen to control the cost of higher education. One of them is to restrict the number of places, a lever that continues to be strongly resisted. But if doing so looks politically difficult or is sufficiently opposed, it’s not as if the Treasury backs off and finds savings elsewhere instead. It can also:

  • Reduce the loan outlay – absolutely or in real terms – threatening the quality of what can be delivered in the process. It has been doing that by freezing in real terms.
  • Ask students and parents to pay more upfront or during – squeezing or killing off any argument about “free at the point of use” and harming the “full time immersion” of many who do get in based on financial circumstances. It’s been doing that too.
  • Ask graduates to contribute more in their 20s and 50s, framing that as “fair” because “it was a loan” when it was intended in part as a tax. The process of doing so is fully underway.

The point is not that the battle with the Treasury was won in 2012. It’s that the Treasury never loses – and has continued to exert control over student loans in ways other than “places”. …

I think it is legitimate to ask how expensive for graduates, how low the unit of resource should get, and how poor the maintenance package should be before what were previously clear benefits of unrestricted recruitment become significant downsides.”

Iain Mansfield, former DfE SpAd and now Head of Education at Policy Exchange weighed in too: “The biggest challenge is the fact you’ve got this declining unit of resource and there’s no obvious mechanism for how that gets reversed, under a Conservative or a Labour government… Declining funding will really threaten the quality of our university sector…as long as you have uncontrolled [student] numbers, then you will see a declining unit of resource.” But Gavin Moodie (RMIT) warned that: “Australia reimposed student number controls some time ago to strengthen Treasury’s control over spending on higher education. The response of the Government has not been the nuanced adjustments of enrolment caps and funding levels that Leach envisages, but ad hoc additions of new places to fields and locations considered desirable by the government for economic and political reasons.” Nick Hillman still disagreed with Mark Leach on 9 November 2022, and independent consultant Hugh Jones debated with himself what a good system of regulation would look like. A week later Glasgow students were calling for numbers to be limited in the interests of adequate student accommodation, and DataHE’s Mark Corver was reporting an unusual supply-led fall in the chances of entry to HE in 2022.

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