The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy and Funding in England (April 2020)

DfE portfolios confirmed

Chris Skidmore, the well-liked Minister for HE, lost his job in the February government reshuffle, as John Morgan reported for Times Higher Education  on 13 February 2020. Diana Beech (Warwick), once of HEPI and former policy adviser to three recent ministers, blogged for HEPI on 13 February 2020 with advice about ‘#RESHUFFLE – The 10 crucial things any new Minister for Universities needs to know’.

Department for Education ministerial teamEducation Secretary Gavin Williamson will continue to have overall responsibility for the Department for Education. Nick Gibb will continue as Minister of State for School Standards. Michelle Donelan takes on a new portfolio and has been appointed as Minister of State for Universities. Vicky Ford has been appointed as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families. Gillian Keegan has been appointed as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills. Baroness Berridge has been appointed as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System.

While Chippenham MP Michelle Donelan has been named as universities minister in the UK government, the science brief will be taken by a separate minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, ending the integration of the two which dates from 2010, as Chris Havergal reported for Times Higher Education on 13 February 2020. Midlands MP Amanda Solloway was eventually named as the new science minister, prompting Nature’s news report on 21 February 2020 to ask if this was a demotion of the role to facilitate tighter control from No 10.David Kernohan (Wonkhe) turned his forensic attention to the new Science Minister for Wonkhe on 2 March 2020, and was less than impressed.

Iain Mansfield, previous special adviser to Jo Johnson as Universities Minister, has been appointed as special adviser on post-18 education and skills to Gavin Williamson. He will leave his post at Policy Exchange.

Emma Hardy appointed as shadow FE and HE minister

Emma Hardy, MP for Hull West and Hessle, was appointed shadow FE and HE minister by shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner, as Kate Parker reported for Times Education Supplement on 7 January 2020. Hardy replaces Gordon Marsden, who lost his seat in the December 2019 election.

Government abandons pre-2012 student loan sales in 2020 budget

Andrew McGettigan was one of the first to spot the small print in the 12 March 2020 Budget statement, abandoning further attempts to sell off student loans.

Peter Lauener is new Chair of the Student Loans Company

All-purpose safe pair of hands Peter Lauener was appointed as new Chair of the SLC from 1 April 2020. Lauener was previously interim chief executive of the SLC after chief executive Steve Lamey was sacked for misconduct. Lauener is also chair of NCG, a group of FE colleges, and the Construction Industry Training Board. Billy Camden reported for FE Weekon 16 March 2020.

Current issues in HE

Ed Byrne (VC, King’s College London) and Charles Clarke, former Education Secretary and a visiting professor at King’s, have a new book, The University Challenge: Changing Universities in a Changing World and promoted it with a report by Ellie Bothwell in Times Higher Education on 10 February 2020,. They argued that OfS demands on institutions are continuing to increase and  it is “not a desirable state of affairs that the government and the Office for Students set down a set of directives to all universities on how they behave”. It was reviewed by Nick Hillman of HEPI for Times Higher Education on 27 February 2020: “The end result marries the accessible messaging of politics with the deep expertise of an experienced university leader … the boring edges of insular university politics and the more partisan elements of national politics have been shaved off (except perhaps in the disappointing sections on student fees and vice-chancellors’ pay, which try to settle too many scores). What’s left is a coherent and thought-provoking take on today’s systems of higher education around the globe, particularly in the Anglosphere.” Sean Coughlan’s angle for the BBC on 28 February 2020 was that “Universities need to lose ‘sense of entitlement’”. 

Hillman, a Queen Mary’s alumnus, gave the annual Drapers’ Lecture staged by QMUL, on 10 February 2020, a well-received tour d’horizon available on the HEPI website.

Lucian Hudson, a former communications director in government departments and several universities, and Iain Mansfield, former DfE civil servant newly appointed as special adviser to the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, wrote a much-publicised paper for think tank Policy Exchange, Universities at the Crossroads, published in February 2020. Hudson interviewed 50 senior figures, mostly university chairs and current or former VCs and produced a long list of rather unspecific recommendations: “Have a meaningful dialogue with UK Government on what the sector can achieve within funding constraints and reductions in income … Be proactive and deliberate in engaging with employers … Encourage government to adopt a joined up strategy to improve social mobility” and much more in the same vein. The Times was quick to spin it: “Grade inflation, fat-cat pay and a “sneering” attitude towards patriotism have meant universities have lost the trust of the nation, according to vice-chancellors and senior governors. They fear Britain’s higher education sector is viewed as out of touch and is a “sitting duck” for the government as it draws up policies to appeal to newly-won northern seats.”

Will the Augar Report’s recommendations stem the decline in part-time study?

No, said SRHE Fellow Claire Callender (UCL/Birkbeck), in her HEPI blog published on 28 February 2020.

Alarm at Ofsted-style plan to rank universities by graduate earnings

Anna Fazackerly wrote a typically well-informed piece for The Guardianon 10 February 2020 about fears that the government planned to use LEO data on graduate earnings to identify ‘low quality’ courses and/or universities.

Is university a good investment?

A team from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Jack Britton, Lorraine Dearden, Laura van der Erve and Ben Waltmann) wrote a widely-reported paper (published 29 February 2020) on The impact of undergraduate degrees on lifetime earnings: “Going to university is a very good investment for most students. Over their working lives, men will be £130,000 better off on average by going to university after taxes, student loan repayments and foregone earnings are taken into account. For women, this figure is £100,000. (These and other numbers are in “discounted present value” terms, which means counting earnings later in life less than those earned earlier on. Without discounting, returns look much bigger.)” The media, even The Guardian, played up to the government narrative on supposed ‘low quality courses’ by gleefully highlighting the IfS finding that: “while about 80% of students are likely to gain financially from attending university, we estimate that one in five students – or about 70,000 every year – would actually have been better off financially had they not gone to university.” (emphasis in original). There was in general much less acknowledgement that: “At the other end of the spectrum, the 10% of graduates with the highest returns will on average gain around half a million pounds in discounted present value terms.” However the media were happy to lay into the creative arts, as the IfS explained that: “Much of this variation is explained by the subject studied at university: students of medicine and law, for example, achieve very high returns on average, while few of those studying creative arts will gain financially from their degrees at all.”

How students see value for money

SRHE members Steven Jones (Manchester) and Katy Vigurs (Birmingham City), and Diane Harris (Manchester) had an article in the Oxford Review of Education (online 26 January 2020) exploring the emergence of ‘value for money’ (VfM) discourses in English HE: “Using Bourdieu’s thinking tools, we explore how VfM is conceptualised by final year undergraduates paying different levels of ‘headline’ tuition fees at a Russell Group and a Post-92 university. Unsurprisingly, we find qualitative evidence of an increase in VfM negativity as fees rise. However, this does not distribute evenly across different groups of students. At both institutions, undergraduates approach VfM in complex and unexpected ways, drawing on different capitals and often pushing back against dominant discourses. A key finding is that many students report high levels of satisfaction with their institution, course and teaching, while simultaneously expressing VfM negativity because they feel tuition fees are too high.”

The nine worst policy debacles of the last decade

David Kernohan of WonkHE was on good form on 8 January 2020.

From Tech to Uni

Eugenia Katartzi (Nottingham) and Geoff Hayward (Cambridge) brought both Bourdieu and Bernstein to bear on thinking about the difficult transition from vocational education and training programmes to HE, for their article in the British Journal of Sociology of Education (online 30 December 2019): “We utilise the Bourdieusian tools of field, habitus and capital to capture the relational, material and cultural aspects of HE transitions. In using a Bernsteinian lens we shed further light into how social agents acquire differentially structured and valorised knowledges and develop a sense of themselves as hierarchically positioned knowers. The metaphor of transitional frictions is utilised to capture the ongoing struggles that students with a VET background experience as they make the transition to HE. We argue for the need of widening epistemic access and putting in place enabling pedagogies that can ease these transitional frictions, thereby potentially increasing the chances of successful HE participation and completion.”

Challenging the privatised university

Australian Universities’ Review had a themed issue (58(2), 2016) on ‘Challenging the privatised university’, including a contribution by Andrew Bonnell (Queensland): ‘Democratisation or management and corporate capture? Theses on the governance crisis of Australia’s semi-privatised public universities’ (pp 26-32).

Markets aren’t about marketisation, they’re about centralising control

That was the argument of Antonino Palumbo (Palermo) and Alan Scott (Innsbruck) in their paper for the 2017 annual meeting of the Finnish Political Science Association.

Leave a Reply