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Another fine mess

by Rob Cuthbert

The overweight man in charge had an unprepossessing thin sidekick doing his bidding, but constantly making things worse, prompting Laurel and Hardy’s famous catchphrase[1][2].

In unrelated news, if English HE was a movie, what is the story so far? It features the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Education, government and HE policy. English HE continues to enjoy a very high reputation worldwide, not least with potential future students. Numbers of home applicants continue to exceed expectations, promising a student population which outstrips even the boost given by the demographic upswing in numbers of 18-25 year olds. After the pandemic all public services face questions about financing acceptable levels of service, but HE might seem partly insulated from the problem because of the continuing demand by fee-paying students. However the real cost to government of subsidised student loans has been made apparent by watchdog-driven changes to government accounting; those changes make costs obvious and applicable now, rather than in 20 or 30 years’ time. The Willetts reforms to HE and student finance, by their lights well-intentioned as redistributive, might have worked in theory, but they have failed in practice as the cost to government of subsidising partial loan repayment has steadily risen.

Despite the rising demand for places, students are not happy with the level of service they get in the current ‘market’. Student campaigns like the one at the University of Manchester for fee reductions are misconceived unless they deliver cash in hand for the students, because fee reductions make no difference for most graduates. Otherwise they help only the highest-paid graduates, the small minority who would actually fully repay their loans, but – crucially – lower fees would reduce the costs to government. Next year, students want a return to the teaching-in-person experience they expect, and are already bridling at the prospect of on-line-only lectures. Too many institutions seem to have a tin ear in responding to such opinion. Meanwhile students are reporting mental health problems, discrimination and harassment at unprecedented levels. UUK has issued guidance on avoiding sex and race harassment, and the inequalities in admissions and student achievement based on socioeconomic, racial or other disadvantage are a central institutional concern.

Most HE staff have gone many extra miles to adapt their practice to the pandemic restrictions, problems made worse because there are cohorts of students lacking preparation for HE because of their interrupted school experience. At the same time many are enduring worsening staff levels, the threat of redundancies, reductions in pension benefits and more, because the supposed ‘boom years’ for HE (as labelled by James Forsyth in The Times on 4 June 2021) have brought worsening financial problems for many institutions. The continuing trend to deterioration in management-staff relations is not helped by too many examples of excessive VC salaries and insensitive managerial actions. It is the staff who have made it possible for government ministers and institutional leaders to maintain their challengeable position that the quality of the HE experience has not diminished, a position built on the need to keep tuition fee levels at their very high level.

This, then, is the context. How did the government’s proposals address these key problems? Consider the Queen’s Speech for the new Parliamentary session, recent ministerial speeches and consequent initiatives from the Office for Students – the ‘independent’ regulator chaired by the campaign manager for the Prime Minister, who still takes the government whip in the House of Lords.

The government response to fast-rising demand is to propose a reduction in HE places, with a supposed shift of resources to FE and training. Governments of all kinds have often proposed spending more on FE; FE is still waiting. Not only would reducing the size of HE be a world first, reversing the global trend to HE expansion, it would no doubt do much to ensure that FE is ‘for other people’s children’, as government adviser Alison Wolf once said. Alternatively, and if it were ever achieved, more likely, it would convert the balance of payments surplus on HE to a deficit, by driving many well-qualified home applicants abroad and choking off international recruitment. It might become an electoral and economic mess.

Ofqual, having shared culpability for the 2020 A-level and GCSE examinations shambles with DfE and the Secretary of State, has a new chief regulator and a new chair. The newly-confirmed head is Jo Saxton, most recently an adviser to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson. Before that she was the much-criticised head of a chain of academy schools in Kent, embodying the continuing patronage which delivers government supporters into key unelected roles, via the ‘strict’ public appointment procedures which have already seen Lord Wharton appointed as chair of the OfS. This will not inspire hope or confidence among school heads and staff, after the resignation of the widely-respected Sir Kevan Collins, the Education Recovery Commissioner – tsar of catch-up for schoolchildren who missed learning in the pandemic – because the government fell woefully short of the investment he deemed necessary. It might become an educational mess.

Government, while continuing to assert that the quality of HE has been maintained, at the same time asserts that there is a problem with ‘low quality courses’, a continuing theme of almost all recent Conservative ministers for HE, which Jo Johnson used to justify his 2017 legislation for the HE market. None have yet passed the ‘Skidmore test’, calling on anyone discussing ‘low quality courses’ to name and shame them, or else succumb to ‘low quality argument’ (Chris Skidmore being the honourable exception in that list of recent ministers). Serious attempts to identify ‘low quality courses’ through data analysis invariably collapse, as Wonkhe’s David Kernohan has shown. But the OfS has pressed ahead with its ‘Proceed’ initiative, which simply multiplies completion rate by the rate of progression to graduate employment, and the odds are that these ‘experimental’ data will become the measure of ‘course quality’. The Skills Bill now published gives the OfS carte blanche to decide which measures it might use to identify ‘low quality’. The many other issues affecting both of the flawed component measures mean that using such a metric will probably work directly against the government’s ‘levelling up’ mantra by targeting universities which take many disadvantaged students, not least in the ‘Northern wall’ and those with high proportions of BAME and socioeconomically disadvantaged students in London and the South East. It might become a political mess.

Government also envisages changes to HE financing, which might involve reducing fees for some (non-STEM) courses. This is being strongly urged by the Treasury, which is more worried about the fast-growing burden of subsidy for student loans than the prospect of financial collapse for the most precarious HE institutions – many of which would actually be prime candidates for support if ‘levelling up’ were taken seriously. A different group of institutions, for the most part, are also facing the long-running and growing threat of a potentially unaffordable revaluation of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The prospect of significant diminution of pension benefits has already led to widespread strikes and other industrial action in recent years. With no solution in sight, staff morale and commitment will be even more challenged. It might become a managerial mess.

However, none of this was the HE headline in the Queen’s Speech, which was reserved for the long-awaited legislation on free speech, the latest twist in the so-called ‘culture wars’ and the ‘war on woke’. The summary of informed commentary, beyond the hard core government supporters, seems to be that at best such legislation would be a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Even Conservatives like Danny Finkelstein argue that this kind of legislation will cause many more problems than it might solve. So the headline act of government in the near future will be to focus on a problem which, if it exists at all, is well down the priority list for any well-managed university. It is bound to become a mess at every level.

In sum, government HE policy is in something of a hole, pursuing internally contradictory policies which might play to a wider ‘anti-woke’ agenda but in economic and political terms seem likely to run counter to any thoughts of levelling up. But the Secretary of State keeps digging, even after the great A-level disaster of 2020. It may not be too long before this becomes another fine mess.


SRHE News Editor Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics rob.cuthbert@btinternet.com. Twitter @RobCuthbert

[1] They never actually said ‘Another fine mess’, despite making a movie with that title. The phrase Oliver Hardy often uttered was ‘Another nice mess you’ve gotten us into’.

[2] As well as Another Fine Mess, their movies included A Chump at Oxford and Chickens Come Home.

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Doing academic work

by Rob Cuthbert

Summer holidays may not be what they were, but even so it is the time of year when universities tend to empty of students and (some) staff – an opportunity to reflect on why we do what we do. What do universities do? They do academic work, of course. What exactly does that involve? Well, as far as teaching is concerned, there are six stages in the ‘value chain’. For every teaching programme a university will: Continue reading