The Society for Research into Higher Education

Policy & Funding in England (April 2021)

Emma Hardy resigns as shadow FE and universities minister

Hull MP Emma Hardy stepped down on 7 March 2021 as shadow minister, citing a need to spend more time with her constituency. Her replacement is Matt Western, MP for Warwick and Leamington since 2017, a geography graduate from Bristol married to a professor at Warwick. John Morgan interviewed him for Times Higher Education on 31 March 2021:“Labour’s new shadow universities minister believes that higher education is a “collective benefit” and that the system should not “individualise the debt and the cost”, ahead of potential future battles over the party’s policy on English higher education funding.”

21 January 2021 was a big day for DfE publications

Gavin Williamson wrote to OfS on 19 January 2021, setting out the 2021-2022 teaching budget and his spending priorities, before a mass of DfE publications two days later. Nick Hillman’s HEPI blog on 21 January 2021 was a ‘fast response to slow thinking’: “Today, the waiting is over. The Government is finally publishing:

  • the Pearce review on the Teaching Excellence Framework, along with an official response;
  • a consultation on post-qualification admissions;
  • the further education white paper;
  • changes to the teaching grant that flows through the Office for Students; and
  • an interim response to the Augar panel’s proposals.”

Mark Leach of Wonkhe, in his 21 January 2021 blog, said: “The government’s failure today to fully respond to the Augar review and tackle the question of tuition fees, comes as no surprise to long-time watchers of the review but will have real-world policy and political consequences that will be felt deeply by the sector this year.” OfS wrote to institutions on 21 January setting out the government announcements.

The blog by Alun Francis, Principal of Oldham College, and Andy Westwood (Manchester) for Policy Exchange on 18 January 2021 speculated on what the long-awaited post-Augar White Paper on FE might and should contain: “… the priority is to build autonomy, flexibility and capacity in colleges (as well as the resources that must accompany this) so that they can work more strategically with employers, employment services and with universities on R&D, higher level skills and economic growth. This is the approach that works best in our other great local institutions including universities, local government and also in the NHS, the BBC and in a host of leading private sector organisations. We should trust FE with the same approach. If DFE’s White Paper and devolved authorities’ plans for growth and further devolution are really radical, then this is what they should be aiming for.”

Graham Galbraith (VC, Portsmouth) blogged for HEPI on 18 January 2021, arguing that recent HE policy initiatives in England suggest that: “Increasingly, short-term labour-market needs will determine the subjects that people are encouraged to or able to study.” Dave Phoenix (VC, South Bank) followed up for HEPI on 24 February 2021 with a warning that: “The ‘policy avalanche’ on 21 January, for which the tertiary education sector in England was bracing itself, has now been written off by many (particularly within higher education) as a non-event. But while there were few eye-catching headlines, taken together with other recent proposals, the White Paper represents a further step in the Government’s re-exertion of control over tertiary education. This could lead to a stronger system that supports opportunity but it might equally force a move away from an approach based on independence and student-choice to one that limits options and undermines social mobility.”

The key reforms in the FE White Paper were helpfully summarised in FE Week on 25 January 2021 by Billy Camden. The Skills White Paper is ‘what happens when policy is made in a vacuum’, said Andy Westwood (Manchester) in his HEPI blog on 25 January 2021: “The Skills for Jobs white paper fails to engage with the lessons of policy history and with contemporary government policy realities”.

Scott Kelly (New York), a former ministerial adviser in the UK, blogged for HEPI in 26 January 2021, also criticising the White Paper: “Instead of engaging in yet another pointless overhaul of qualifications, the Government would be better advised to focus its efforts on removing the real impediments to the growth of higher technical learning. This must mean simplifying the complex system by which this provision is funded and replacing it with a structure that facilitates collaboration between HE institutions and FE colleges.” And the government’s proposed clawback of funds from many FE colleges has left them ‘raging’, according to Julian Gravatt, funding guru at the Association of Colleges, in his article for Times Education Supplement on 26 March 2021.

The HEPI guide to when changes might happen was published on 23 January 2021:

Gavin Williamson says some three-year degrees are ‘dead ends’

The Secretary of State for Education said on 25 February 2021, at the launch of Michael Barber’s review of digital teaching and learning, that he wanted to end the dominance of the three-year bachelor’s degree, asserting that some “dead-end courses” give students “nothing but a mountain of debt”, as Ellie Bothwell reported for Times Higher Education on 25 February 2021.

Windows of opportunity and organised anarchy in policymaking

Sean Kippin and Paul Cairney (both Stirling) reflected on the 2020 A-levels fiasco in British Politics (online 19 February 2021) and drew some lessons for policymaking: “We explain these developments by comparing two ‘windows of opportunity’ overseen by four separate governments, in which the definition of the problem, feasibility of each solution, and motive of policymakers to select one over the other lurched dramatically within a week of the exams results. These experiences highlight the confluence of events and choices and the timing and order of choice. A policy solution that had been rejected during the first window, and would have been criticised heavily if chosen first, became a lifeline during the second.”

Student finance in England

Alan Roff (Central Lancashire) wrote Debate Paper 25 for HEPI about student finance, arguing for abandoning the current system of ‘fiscal illusions’, ‘debts’ and ‘loans’ in favour of something more like a graduate tax, in a beautifully clear exposition of recent policy developments and their shortcomings.

DfE gets £13.5billion extra for 2020-2021 loan impairments

Andrew McGettigan blogged on 25 February 2021 with news of a supplementary allocation of £13.5billion to DfE for impairment of 2020-2021 student loans, likely to be nearly fully used, and implying a possible hit to HE budgets in 2021-2022. McGettigan returned to the theme on 5 March 2021, analysing the latest budget figures for student loans, which are now split into two for the purposes of national accounting. 55% of loan outlays are not projected to be repaid, so they appear as capital expenditure, as McGettigan explained with his usual clarity.

UK universities are helping money laundering by taking ‘dirty money’ for tuition fees

Sara Lewis and Samuel Okacha reported for University World News on 15 February 2021 that UK universities received an estimated £30million a year from West Africa, mostly Nigeria, in tuition fees suspected to be ‘unexplained wealth’. The information came from a paper by Matthew Page (Chatham House): “Commissioned by the British High Commissioner to Nigeria … West African Elites’ Spending on UK Schools and Universities: A closer look, flags up the “unexplained wealth” used by Nigerian politicians and public officials to pay British university and boarding school fees.” The story was picked up by a leader in The Times on 22 February 2021, condemning the ‘loophole’ and urging it be closed.


England’s biggest apprenticeship provider is being investigated by ESFA and may go bust

Billy Camden reported for FE Week on 4 February 2021 that (UK) Ltd, which only became a government-approved apprenticeship provider in March 2020 (at which point it swiftly changed ownership), had since then recruited more than 1,100 apprentices, mostly working in nursing homes, worth almost £5 million. “… it is understood the owner is now looking to sell the business or face going into liquidation following the ESFA’s decision to stop releasing funding.”


We need a review of ITT, but not this one, and not now

David Spendlove (Manchester) pointed out the many failings of the many previous government reviews and reforms of teacher education, for WonkHE on 28 January 2021. Peter Neil (VC, Bishop Grosseteste) blogged for WonkHE on 25 February 2021 restating the value of the university contribution to the partnerships which are essential for initial teacher training and education.


The end of Erasmus+ but not Horizon

On 1 January 2021 in Universities World News Anne Corbett (LSE) bemoaned the UK decision to ditch Erasmus and establish a new Turing programme for student exchange, while Brendan O’Malley reported the decision to stay in Horizon on 31 December 2020.

Cold spots for the humanities?

SRHE Council member Harriet Barnes (British Academy) blogged for HEPI on 13 January 2021 about the dangers of HE restructuring and cutbacks for the availability of humanities provision in some parts of the UK.

Surveillance and the National Student Survey

The 2019 article by Jonas Thiel (Manchester Metropolitan) in the British Educational Research Journal argued that “it is through the amalgamated forces of intersecting panoptic gazes, on the one hand, and neo-liberal free-market principles, on the other, that student feedback develops its power to govern.” But the NSS is now out of favour: the latest SoS guidance letter says “It is my strong view that the NSS should play at best a minimal role in baseline quality regulation.”

Pointless, moi?

Gavin Williamson plumbed new depths of pointlessness with his utterly fatuous letter of 26 March 2021 to all ‘young people’.

Office for Students

OfS writes to HE providers saying ‘no leeway, no excuses’ (we paraphrase)

On 14 January 2021 the OfS wrote to universities and other HE providers, hard on the heels of a DfE letter to OfS, saying that the regulator expected institutions “to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their provision and to inform students about their options for refunds or other forms of redress where it has not been possible to provide what was promised.”

Royal Holloway Principal calls for OfS to be a strong regulator

Paul Layzell, Principal of Royal Holloway University of London, blogged for HEPI on 20 January 2021 about the need for the OfS to develop a better working relationship with the HE sector. His proposals were mostly appropriate, but to get to them you had to take this assertion seriously: “Today, Ofqual is a strong and engaged regulator, that acts with competence and confidence, although, as we saw in the Summer 2020 results season, political intervention and the court of public opinion can create challenges for even the best working relationships.” I don’t think so.

Student contracts could streamline regulationAndrew M Boggs blogged for HEPI on 29 January 2021 with a well-argued case for introducing student contracts as a way to avoid or minimise some current difficulties with regulation by the OfS.

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