The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Radical proposals in leader’s conference speech

by Rob Cuthbert

The leader’s speech to Conference was expected to include far-reaching proposals for higher and further education. We obtained this leaked text of an early draft:

“It is time for radical change. We will introduce the new rigorous, knowledge rich Advanced British Standard which will bring together A-Levels and T-Levels into a new, single qualification for our school leavers. At the next level, what we used to call further and higher education will be swept away to create a new Higher Skills curriculum. The first part of this (HS1) was achieved some years ago through investment in infrastructure connecting the UK with the rest of Europe. But now we need to change course. We committed to a second phase of the project (HS2) through legislation in the Higher Education and Research Act in 2017. The first part of HS2 is progressing but if we are to create change and drive growth across our country, then we must get our infrastructure right. HS2 is the ultimate example of the old consensus. The result is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed.

Universities are overcrowded, because too many students want to be in higher education. The Labour government pursued the false dream of 50 per cent of children going to university … one of the great mistakes of the last 30 years. We now have an Office for too many Students – student choice must be paramount, but only if they are the right students. The previous government’s efforts (well, alright, it was this government, but that was three prime ministers ago) to transfer most of the cost of HE to the students has been thwarted by the Office for National Statistics, which forced us to account for fees and loan repayments properly, and of course by the previous government’s mistakes in changing repayment thresholds (well, alright, it was this government, but that was two prime ministers ago). We have of course now changed repayments to ensure that loan repayments will cost graduates a lot more, which should help in choking off demand from poor students.

Our country’s economic competitiveness demands that we now cut back on higher education and graduate skills. Our Secretary of State for Education has pointed out that “people go to university because they don’t know what else to do”. We already lead the world in tuition fee levels for public universities, and we can also be world-leading by slashing student numbers, which will differentiate us from every one of our major competitors, indeed, probably the whole world (apart from Afghanistan). In this way we can also prevent further recruitment to rip-off courses which prepare students for their future employment in our low-wage economy [Speechwriter’s note: you may need to rephrase this bit]. Identifying rip-off courses has been a bit tricky, but I have asked the Office for Students to redouble its efforts to find them by concentrating the search on universities in unlikely places in the North and the Midlands. If all else fails we can rely on the OfS Proceed metric, which generally avoids  drawing attention to courses in London and the South East where graduate salaries are much higher. Of course the cost of living is much higher there too, which ensures that graduates still have virtually no chance of buying a house, unless they enjoy inherited wealth. To support the housing market I am therefore considering abolishing inheritance tax.

Student accommodation is a problem for many universities, but I welcome the innovative solution of universities like Bristol, which has decided to house some students in a different country. A similar approach has also been mooted for our prison population, and this has led us to consider extending our agreement on migrants with Rwanda. At our expense, naturally, they are willing to construct a series of new universities to accommodate students unable to gain admission to our own elite institutions. The Rwanda Institutions Providing Offshore Courses (RIPOff Courses) project should drastically reduce demand and the pressure on our universities in the same way that for immigration, with the prospect of Rwanda, small boat crossings are, for the first time since the phenomenon began, down 20 per cent this year. In some disciplines Rwanda may have a problem recruiting sufficient staff with the necessary expertise, but we propose to offer them the staff from places north of London which really shouldn’t have a university. We can also re-use the small boats abandoned by people traffickers to provide free cross-Channel transport for socioeconomically disadvantaged would-be students who prefer to take their chances in Europe. This will further enhance our student support measures.

HS2 has of course reinforced the golden triangle, in line with longstanding bipartisan government policy, but that means it has so far only reached as far north as Oxford and Cambridge. I welcome the new challenger institutions, almost all innovatively offering business courses in London, which have done so much to drive up the pay of their senior managers and their profits or surpluses from student tuition fees. However the number of institutions willing to provide such cheap courses has overall been disappointing, and therefore the cost of the HS2 project has continued to rise. The result is a project whose costs have more than doubled, which has been repeatedly delayed and for which the economic case has massively weakened. I say, to those who backed the project in the first place, the facts have changed. And the right thing to do when the facts change, is to have the courage to change direction. And so, I am ending this long running saga. I am cancelling the rest of the HS2 project.

In its place, we will reinvest every single penny (of what’s left after deducting the costs of RIPOff) in hundreds of new projects in the North and the Midlands, and across the country. We are putting in infrastructure improvements in selected places to form a new Network North. Durham, of course. York, probably. A bit for Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds, if we must. Nothing for Liverpool, except where there are people in marginal constituencies unable to travel to anywhere better. Nothing at all for Bradford, because my vice-Chairman says no-one wants to get there.

My main funding priority in every spending review from now on will be education. No more rip off degrees; no more low aspiration; no more denigration of technical education. Just the best education system in the Western world. But we will go further towards this vision. The pernicious effects of arts and humanities, and I might add social sciences, have already received one welcome corrective with the decision of the Arts and Humanities Research Council to cut PhD studentships by 25%. We will therefore extend the proposals on smoking for younger people, because if we are to do the right thing for our kids we must try and stop teenagers taking up arts and humanities in the first place. Because without a significant change thousands of children will start studying arts, humanities and social sciences in the coming years and have their future prospects cut short as a result.

People take up these subjects when they are young. Four in five sociologists have started by the time they are 20. Later, the vast majority try to quit. But many fail because they are addicted and they wish had never taken up the habit in the first place. If we could break that cycle, if we could stop the start, then we would be on our way to ending the biggest cause of preventable left-leaning wokery in our country. So, I propose that in future we raise the age at which young people are allowed to enrol on any arts, humanities or social science degree by one year, every year. That means a 14 year old today will never legally have access to any knowledge that doesn’t have Maths in it, and that they – and their generation – can grow up free of any understanding of culture and society.

Be in no doubt: it is time for a change. And we are it.” Editor’s note: the italicised text survived unchanged in the final version.

Rob Cuthbert is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management, University of the West of England and Joint Managing Partner, Practical Academics Twitter @RobCuthbert

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Reputation in Ashes

Rob Cuthbert – Editor, SRHE News

This editorial is in affectionate memory of policy
making for English higher education, whose
demise is deeply lamented.

The signs of decline had been evident in the recent series of policy decisions, especially the ‘Not-the-Higher-Education-Bill’ series in 2011-2013. England had claimed a dubious victory in the infamous ‘White Paper Test’ by simply telling everyone how marvellous the result would be, without actually playing the game. In the legislative series after the White Paper Test, matches were repeatedly scheduled then cancelled with nothing more to show than the odd shred of policy, until England captain Alastair Willetts finally announced that the series had been won and it would not be necessary for his team to take to the legislative wicket at all. Nevertheless he was repeatedly caught in slips without scoring… Continue reading