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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.

New policy papers prompt contrasting views on the way ahead for HE

Rhiannon Birch, Director of Strategic Insights and Planning at the University of Derby, observes how the recent deluge of HE policy papers has brought contrasting reactions and opinions on how the sector should engage with government proposals.


A couple of weeks ago, Nicola Owen wrote for this Blog on the avalanche of policy papers which had emerged from the DfE. With the sheer quantity of policy thrown at the sector, it’s been interesting to observe how responses have percolated through, and this week’s news provides some points for comparison.

One way of responding to a policy deluge is to think about the sector’s positioning and its options to influence future policy development. In terms of a direct approach to policy engagement, Stephen Meek’s piece on the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) highlighted that the relationship between research and policy making has mattered more than ever in the past year, and outlines how policy networks can facilitate direct engagement with government.

However, the open relationships developed by such networks could also be used for more pecuniary benefit. In a HEPI blog, Nick Hillman sets out the wider context of a forthcoming comprehensive spending review and suggests that the sector has a shortage of allies to support the case for better funding. He encourages the sector to up their lobbying game and invite more policymakers onto campus to remedy the situation, while also suggesting a need for friends in Treasury and Whitehall.

The two make good comparative reading, especially as neither mention sector bodies such as UUK or conversely, the OfS. In the current political environment, the consensus seems to be that if you want to influence policy, and thereby funding, talk to government direct.

The DfE papers also went further in reiterating the government’s commitment to Further Education and a focus on skills. The question of whether the days of academic knowledge for its own sake are over was posed by Vishanth Weerakkody, who put the case for making skills and applied knowledge an integral part of the curriculum, as a means to improve student employability and address issues such as attainment gaps, decolonising curricula and financial sustainability. His proposals chime with University Alliance’s warnings against further stratifying level 3 qualifications into ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ routes to avoid perpetuating an academic/vocational divide, Tristram Hooley’s proposal for a lifetime career guidance guarantee to sit alongside the lifetime skills guarantee and Mary Bishop’s blog on microcredentials and credit transfer.

All very practical and on message with recent policy announcements. In contrast, David Manning takes a different tack and proposes a return to scholarship and quality of academic thought. He suggests that in marketising higher education, both in terms of teaching and research, the focus has shifted towards niche and novel provision which will “condemn our collective future to an unprecedented level of intellectual mediocrity in academia”.

All of which sets the context for the release of UCAS data on the 2020 admissions cycle. The data showed not only winners and losers in terms of recruitment, but also changing subject demand, with significant increases in applications to study science and technical subjects such as artificial intelligence, as well as medicine, while demand for arts and humanities and languages disciplines slumped. In the current context of lockdown and the suggestion that it may encourage applicants to choose more local Universities, David Kernohan analysed whether there was a regional impact on recruitment, as well as who benefitted from last summer’s debacle.

So a week of contrasts, on how Universities should engage with government on policy, our role in delivering the skills and research agendas, and a changing picture on student demand.