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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.

Is the government missing the real 'levelling up' value of HE?

The Westminster government should wake up to the full potential of higher education to help it meet its ‘levelling up’ goals, argues Professor Martin Jones, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Staffordshire University.

Common path visible amid avalanche of DFE policy papers

Nicola Owen, Deputy Chief Executive (Operations) at Lancaster University and Chair of AHUA, identifies the key themes and direction of policy travel amid last week’s deluge of HE and FE papers published by the Department for Education.

Last week was a busy week in the DfE, particularly last Thursday, when a shed load of long awaited releases came out.  Whilst the HE sector continued to firefight after the previous weekend’s Twitter trigger happy messages to students from the HE Minister, officials were busy dusting off a number of responses and consultations which had been sitting on the desk of Gavin Williamson for some time, waiting for the right moment. He also found time to send the most directive funding letter yet to OfS.

The really significant publication was of course focused on Further Education. The heralded Skills for Jobs white paper sets out ambitions to place FE more squarely in the spotlight as a valued contributor to the nation’s need for high level technical skills, where FE students can attract the same parity of prestige, quality and funding as those in HE.  The focus on, and recognition of, FE is to be welcomed and it has for too long been the poor sibling to HE in the minds of the public, students and government. Aligning with the key conclusions of the recent ‘College of the Future’ review, it sets out proposals for a boost for higher technical routes at levels 4 and 5; a lifelong loan entitlement which would provide equity of access to finance for those undertaking those qualifications; a more flexible, modular and employer led approach to provision; and a strengthening of post-16 providers in terms of planning and governance and expansion of the Institutes of Technology.  Crucially however beyond these ideas it doesn’t propose how this vision for FE would be funded.

In many ways the impact of publishing so many items in one day, in addition to the continuing focus of the press about schools opening, as Rachel Hewitt points out in her HEPI blog meant that the potential import of the White paper got a little lost. One might question the effectiveness of the DfE avalanche, however there are many common threads woven across the spectrum of the FE and HE papers, which paint a consistent picture of ethos and priorities of the view of government about post-16 education.

In the response to Augar, which largely kicked the can down the road, there were however key references of note – the alignment of the Lifelong loan entitlement; the rebalancing of funding towards high cost STEM subjects; the continuing focus on driving out ‘low value’ courses as defined by entry qualifications and employment outcomes; and more employer informed, modular, flexible provision. There is a sense of continuum across the FE White Paper and the response to Augar as the blog by Debbie McVitty highlighted in WonkHE, and at least there is a level of agnosticism about where higher technical provision is taught which recognises the importance of the interface and routes through for students.  However, the Augar review was asked to consider how to address the funding inequities between FE and HE for higher level qualifications without adding to the cost to the public purse. The only way to achieve this is by rebalancing between the two. The response to the Skills paper consultation is due at the same time (‘the Spring’) as further pronouncements on Augar in advance of the Comprehensive Spending Review, so we should expect connectivity between the two in terms of funding plans.

Whilst the Augar response was labelled “interim”, its policy themes continued in the other publications.  The continuing obsession on the metric of employment outcomes is signalled in the shift from ‘Student Satisfaction’ to ‘Student Academic Experience’ in the government’s response to the independent review of the Teaching Excellence Framework and also as part of informing students on admissions decisions post-qualification. The policy focus of ‘levelling up’ is also evidence in the recognition of regional impacts on outcomes metrics and the slashing of London Weighting in the Williamson letter to the OfS.  The detailed proposal for rebalancing on high cost subjects to STEM letter will have some immediate effects for subject areas even prior to any announcement on fees.

When I wrote a blog for Media FHE in early February 2020 I warned of a potential black swan on the horizon as coronavirus had at that point led to temporary closure of Chinese schools. What by now feels more like a flock hasn’t passed us yet and it’s difficult to yet see how the transformation that higher level education is going through will change the face of provision for the long term, irrespective (or in spite of) the government’s policy aspirations set out last week.