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Mike Boxall, who has thirty years' experience as a consultant and commentator on strategic developments in higher and further education, finds evidence in recent news of growing and worrying divisions within UK higher education.
Mike Ratcliffe, Academic Registrar at Nottingham Trent University, reviews HE sector news in a week when T levels, educational “snobbery”, Oxbridge admissions, and a new universities minister made the headlines.
Higher Education wherever it is found
There are millions of students studying higher education qualifications at hundreds of different institutions. Any review of press coverage will find that only a proportion of those students are covered, unless you are in one of those unhappy weeks when a commentator wants to poke fun at a part of the sector.
This week the Government wanted to stress the importance of technical education, both at level 3, with the new T levels, and at levels 4/5 with the prospect of a new higher technical qualification. The focus was on Damian Hinds urging parents to drop their “snobby attitude” to technical education, committing the government to make this route a quality one. What was picked up was the ‘OPC problem’
“For so many opinion formers, commentators and, yes, politicians: vocational courses are OPC courses: for ‘other people’s children’.”
Is this an augury for Augar? The consultation on a new higher technical qualification will only come next year, so can be consistent with the review of post-18 funding, perhaps with more resource available for level 4/5 qualifications offered in HE. Ministers have barely mentioned foundation degrees since 2010 and the continuation of HNC/HND has been complicated by the boom and bust phase at some alternative providers.
There is a complication which was picked up - will the T levels and the 4/5 qualification lead into other HE provision? After all, even the DfE runs benchmarks on students’ progression into certain types of HE provision.
Oxbridge (of course)
The Sutton Trust produced a report with the very media friendly confirmation that some schools ‘dominate’ admissions to two universities. The focus is on what are these eight schools doing for their students that three thousand other schools aren’t? It’s one thing to train a select group of students to get into a highly selective university - the History Boys model. But what about the structural issue of whether the universities should better fit the national curriculum (rather than the national curriculum fitting some universities). Here we’re back to Hind’s technical education speech - a T level in ‘Health’ is unlikely to get a student onto a highly selective medicine degree, let alone a Digital Business Services T level getting you into Oxford to read History.
In all these things we need to focus both on causation and structure. Education isn’t a magic solution for all of society’ issues, although it will play a part. The two universities that the media love to focus on are not at the apex of a national system. They are private institutions in receipt of public funds who we require to behave properly, but they can make their own choices. The uneven prestige of the sector will remain a problem. We have to understand that people with talent will study throughout our education sector on all sorts of courses.
There are exceptions to the spread of diversity, after all you’ve no chance of being a Conservative minister of state for universities unless you’ve been to one of those two universities. Chris Skidmore’s appointment ought to have been the biggest HE story, but there was some fuss over whether to describe him as a Remainer (which he was at the referendum) or a loyal Brexiter (which he is today). Whatever the inherent qualities the new minister has, a key cause of his appointment will have been his desire to vote for the Brexit withdrawal agreement. In another reality, the Dr Chris Skidmore who completed his DPhil is worrying about his REF entries rather than being faced with the end of the fiscal illusion on student loans and the need to have a sustainable funding settlement for all post-18 education. Another Chris Skidmore might also not have played in that student band with those dreadful song titles.
Costs of Accommodation
There was less attention paid to the growing accommodation cost problem, adroitly captured in a report from NUS. It’s not just fees that Augar must tackle, but maintenance loans which increasingly flow into housing costs.
It was a quiet week for the press picking up on snowflake stories, the main discernible one being a student protest against a lecture theatre after the veteran BBC presenter and Women’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray. A campaign isn’t the same as something actually happening (see the endless references to no-platforming of Germaine Greer) but once again this is universities at the leading edge of a really complex issue about gender identification.
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