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A clearer picture is emerging of the government’s plans for HE

There are signs in the past week’s higher education news of a bigger picture emerging from the apparent direction of government HE and FE policies, suggests Rhiannon Birch, Director of Planning and Insight at the University of Sheffield.


In a week when many in HE will have been grappling with the impact of UCU strike action and scenario planning for Covid-19, we also saw the launch of the OfS’ consultation on admissions as well as a flurry of policy analysis which suggests that more change is on the horizon.

While we wait for a response to the Augar Review it’s handy to have something to keep the sector occupied, and the “Consultation on the higher education admissions system in England”, launched on Thursday, doesn’t disappoint. With numerous reviews taking place over the last 20 years, there is a long history to draw on with the consultation rooted in the recurring themes of fairness and transparency, accurate data to help with decision-making and using admissions to enable widening participation agendas.

It’s fair to say that this is a comprehensive piece covering all the angles in a mighty 87 questions. The Independent has latched onto the potential for post-qualification admissions with enthusiasm as well as suggesting the end of unconditional offers and personal statements. Interestingly, while there is no direct mention of the marketisation of HE, there are some tantalising glimpses of a possible future in the section on Clearing (paragraph 127 to be precise). The suggestion that “entry to higher education becomes less of a ‘buyer’s market’” is particularly interesting in a week where there was also speculation about a return to Student Number Controls.

From a Planning perspective, the days of the Maximum Student Number (MaSN) and SNC are writ large in the collective memory. But would reintroducing a control on numbers going to university be so unexpected in the regulated market in which universities now operate? WonkHE provides a solid run round of the issues which may signal that an SNC is back on the policymaking cards, while the Telegraph features a piece arguing that we need more places in computer science, maths and engineering if the UK is to compete internationally. Combine this with a reminder from the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, that apprenticeship funding should be used to address wider skills needs rather than funding management qualifications for senior leaders and Claire Callendar’s HEPI blog on the decline of part time study, and a picture starts to emerge.

If you accept that there is a historical trajectory to be drawn from the warm fuzzy days of the University Grants Committee through the buffer body that was HEFCE to the sharper regulatory agenda of the OfS, then controlling student numbers and, potentially, course portfolio and admissions is a logical step for a government wishing to manage (or regulate) HE. Especially when the government’s view seems to be concentrating on the learning and teaching delivered by universities rather than research. Add some technical and skills-based provision via apprenticeships, work out the fit with further education and schools, keep some form of lifelong learning and you could be argued to be moving to embracing HE as part of a wider education system. With the separation of the science brief and suggestion that the Universities Minister in the DfE could also look after FE, it all starts to look very consistent, which is unusual in an environment where piecemeal is the preferred approach to policy development.

Change in higher education feels continual and often disconnected, but this week’s news suggests that several different policy agendas are beginning to become interwoven. To end on a positive note, Vincenzo Raimo advises that there is a lot to be learned from the ethos of start-up companies and that some of this agility and drive could address embedded ways of university thinking, enable change and create different ways to respond to current challenges. Maybe the way forward is actually to respond differently!