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Government plans mark a seismic shift in higher education policy

Statements from ministers this week have made it clear that higher education in England is facing significant reforms, re-setting its focus towards helping to plug the UK's skills gaps and rebuilding the economy. Fariba Soetan, Policy Lead for Research and Innovation at the National Centre for Universities and Business, argues that the proposed changes bring a welcome focus on graduate outcomes and supporting the careers of young people.

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Government plans mark a seismic shift in higher education policy

Recent statements from ministers have made it clear that higher education in England is facing significant reforms, re-setting its focus towards helping to plug the UK's skills gaps and rebuilding the economy. Fariba Soetan, Policy Lead for Research and Innovation at the National Centre for Universities and Business, argues that the proposed changes bring a welcome focus on graduate outcomes and supporting the careers of young people.

 

If the policy shift from Tony Blair’s two decade-long access target to “the forgotten 50 per cent” was an indication of change, last week’s Government proposals marked a seismic shift and calibration in how we are meant to see and perceive higher education.

Ministerial proposals for change were in abundance last week with early announcements designed to overhaul higher technical education, closely followed by an announcement picked up by THE, FT, and the TES outlining a series of reforms to the higher tertiary education system “to help plug the skills gaps and level up opportunities to support the UK’s economic recovery”.

Interestingly, the proposed new changes to level 4 qualifications can be delivered by HE providers registered with the Office for Students, and indeed GuildHE responded with enthusiasm to the proposals, recognising this may be an opportunity for smaller institutions to stay relevant amongst a slew of proposals and support packages that have mainly targeted research-based HEIs.

On Wednesday, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan stood before the House of Commons Education Select Committee and returned to the theme of her recent speech that the HE sector must play a bigger role in reskilling and upskilling, reiterating the refocused effort on graduate outcomes rather than access. Both the Guardian and the Daily Mail covered her speech, while iNews picked up on some comments on senior staff pay and the Telegraph reported that universities could be legally obliged to fund security for controversial speakers on campus in order to protect freedom of speech.

The reforms to the higher technical education system, however, were not the only driver ministers rolled out last week to refocus tertiary education on graduate outcomes. In plans announced by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Thursday and covered by iNews, THE, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, HE providers in England at risk of  insolvency will be able to access repayable loans in order to restructure their course delivery in line with the Government’s plans “to focus the sector towards the future needs of the country, such as delivering high quality courses with good graduate outcomes”. Recognise a theme here? Without doubt, the announcement is sending clear signals to the sector that changes are inevitable with an overt expectation that the sector will “look very different by 2030”. 

With the latest report from the Institute of Student Employers indicating that graduate employment has declined in 21 countries due to Covid-19, a renewed focus on graduate outcomes is not only welcome, it is essential to protecting the welfare of our young people, ensuring that 16-21 year olds are not the sacrificed generation to have their HE experience, skills and job opportunities cut short by the impact of Covid. This theme was picked up by the Guardian and AdvanceHE which both featured the views of a number of school leavers, their graduate prospects and how they feel about their uncertain future, including going to university.

The value of short-term, job-linked training, and longer-term personal growth in a wider set of skills for young people are all part of a general national conversation that is happening at all levels, HE and FE included. If Government proposals are an indication of change, there is definitely no shortage of effort or commitment to young people towards achieving this goal. Government departments and HE and FE providers alike will need to work together to ensure a joined up approach, offering a diversity of options so that every young person can benefit.

 

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