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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.

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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.

After a week of 'people power' it is time to listen to students

Jonathan Baldwin, managing director of higher education at Jisc, reflects on a week that’s felt the force of people power – and says it’s time for university leaders to respond to students’ calls for change.

Eventful week sees HE buffeted by spelling and campus re-opening rows

Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, reviews another week in which higher education found itself in the spotlight, even when a royal funeral dominated the headlines.

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.


We are collectively holding our breath, not to mention washing our hands and hugging only cautiously, hoping that the light ahead is the end of the tunnel and not the oncoming train of a new variant.

Full on-campus teaching was allowed again this week for all courses – just as the semester finished in many universities and some universities decided to keep lectures online for a while yet. Meanwhile, even if the pandemic tide is ebbing in this country, international travel – and international students – will be slow to return.

Nevertheless, surely now is a moment for pause, reflection and steeling ourselves for challenges still ahead? We should be so lucky. The echoes of the Queen’s Speech are still reverberating and the new legislative agenda of the English Government has begun in earnest. Meanwhile, after elections in Scotland and Wales, new ministers are taking up their posts.

The pandemic has felt like a battle on multiple fronts. Now the policy agenda may be shaping up that way too. For better or worse, it seems the Johnson administration feels it is finally able to start troop manoeuvres.

But the policy agenda is not what we have come expect from Conservatives. Interventionism is suddenly all the rage: in university admissions, the levelling up agenda, and possibly in research and development spending through the drive to 2.4 per cent and the creation of ARIA. I mean, they’re even renationalising the railways (sort of).

However, there were three higher education-related stories this week that for me really highlighted the new political landscape.

We are getting hints at what the Government’s response to the Augar Review may look like. The Government is intending a fee cut to £7,500 with top-ups for “priority” subjects, according to various media, which suggests a deliberately kite-flying exercise by the DfE.

Meanwhile, Gavin Williamson has added “dead-end degrees” to his lexicon of “low-value“and “low-quality” courses. The evidence that such courses are genuinely dead-ends is itself a blind alley, but even if the hope is to support high-cost STEM courses at the expense of arts and humanities, that is not what the measure would achieve.

It is only because some courses cost less that those that cost over £9,250 a year can be afforded (not to mention the cross-subsidy to research). If you cut the potential to cross-subsidise, it will be the low-cost courses that survive even if there’s extra funding for higher cost ones – unless, that is, you fund all courses what they actually cost, which would be a highly interventionist and prescriptive approach to running the HE sector.

Meanwhile, the Government’s free speech bill, published last week, has continued to take a battering. To some extent, this doesn’t matter. The more that wokerati academics and commentators sling mud, the more the Government feels it is fighting a just battle for freedom of thought and expression, however muddled it might be. The weird truth is that making laws to protect freedom is, by definition, a freedom-limiting exercise.
This cannot end well. An eighty-strong majority government will not back down, so an interventionist law will be passed that either makes no sense, is draconian, is ignored, or is some combination of the above.

Talking of laws, the Government’s Skills for Jobs Bill has been published. It has much to commend it, highlighting that, for many people, traditional higher education is not the pathway to work. If we are to “build back better” (and thanks not only the Covid, but also Brexit and the climate crisis, major reconstruction is required), a new deal on education and skill development is needed.

As someone who is a bit obsessed with the concept of employability, the idea of ‘skills for jobs’ bothers me. Job-specific skills might pass muster on a CV, but they do not age well as industries innovate, technologies change. ‘A rounded skillset and other employability attribute for lifelong careers’ isn’t as catchy, but that’s what’s needed and if building back better is more than a slogan, the Government needs to set its sights higher than this bill in meeting the needs of working people and the labour market.

And of course, the Bill doesn’t miss the opportunity to hand more interventionist powers to the Office for Students.

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