Conservative conference 2017: the revival of ‘more means worse’

John Morgan asks whether laments for the polytechnics may have policy impact

October 4, 2017
Balloon popped

The Conservatives may have removed the cap on student numbers, but sections of the party retain an umbilical attachment to a “more means worse” view of higher education. A fringe event at the Tory conference yesterday provided a reminder of this. There were eye-popping views about some young people being “not supposed” to go to university from one panel member; and another, Lord Adonis, untethered one of his favourite hobby horses: the “mistake” of allowing the polytechnics to become universities.

With the prospect of a review of higher education funding hanging in the air, the anti-expansion argument may yet become highly relevant.

The fringe event was hosted by the Education Policy Institute and Sheffield Hallam University, with the latter hoping to nudge attendees away from the perception that there is a binary choice between vocational and academic education.

Steve Mastin, chairman of the Conservative Education Society and a history specialist at an academy trust in Norfolk, was one member of the panel. He asked: “Is it a heresy to say there are far too many people going to university?” Not at a Conservative conference fringe meeting, no. Expansion had created an “unsustainable higher education funding system”, he argued.

Mastin added: “Students that I teach are being channelled down this road to go to a university and they are not supposed to go to universities. It’s not that they are unskilled; it’s not that they are not bright; it’s that university is not for them.”

Husbands responded by citing a figure of 27 per cent for the proportion of 18-year-olds who entered higher education this year, against 78 per cent for South Korea. “We do not have a university system which is over-large,” he said, also pointing to the strength in rates of return in terms of earnings for graduates. “We can shrink our university system,” Husbands said. “The consequence of that will be to significantly weaken the labour market.”

The Hallam vice-chancellor followed up by arguing that the nation needs a vision for vocational education in higher education. “Look at where industry is going, look at the high level of skill demanded,” he said.

Yes, Adonis replied, university participation is high in South Korea and also the US, but it is lower than the UK in Germany and Singapore, both “very successful economies”.

Singapore opted not to turn its vocational institutions into universities or greatly expand higher education “at the time we were making what I now think of as a mistake, which was converting all of the polytechnics into universities,” said Adonis. “I think we should have converted some of them, but not all of them. I think we lost a very big technical higher education capacity by every university trying to ape every other university.”

Ken Clarke took that decision on the polytechnics as Conservative education secretary “literally overnight, because he needed a line for a speech,” claimed Adonis.  But “a Labour government could never have done that,” he continued. “Can you imagine the [claims of] dumbing down we [Labour] would have been greeted with…if we had said that South Bank poly was going to have the same legal, institutional…class as the University of Sheffield, to take a prestigious university? It wouldn’t be possible.”

Adonis was enthused by “prestige” opportunities for apprenticeships being offered by KPMG and the civil service as an alternative to university (whether or not these were degree apprenticeships was not made clear).

View more of our political party conference coverage

University Alliance chief executive Maddalaine Ansell countered Adonis from the floor: turning polytechnics into universities was “brilliant” as it meant increased investment for their working-class students (as universities had greater per student funding), while there had been no loss of focus on their applied, vocational, professional specialisms among post-92s.

But the prime minister once expressed similar views to Adonis on polytechnics. In a 2000 interview with Times Higher Education as shadow education secretary, Theresa May said: “When we made the polytechnics into universities I think one of the things that happened was that those institutions tried to offer a full range of courses, rather than consolidating niche courses.” Some post-1992s had “lost their way,” she added. Under the influence of her former adviser Nick Timothy, as prime minister she set off down the road of creating a “credible alternative” to university in vocational Institutes of Technology (she hasn’t got very far down that road).

Timothy is a notable anti-expansionist who warns of poor returns for students choosing the “wrong institutions” (May and Timothy have been reported to still be in regular contact).

Given Adonis’ record of gaining media coverage, there’s every chance that he could attract some attention if he continues to push the line about the “mistake” on polytechnics. During the conference he tweeted about “the ex-polytechnics fleecing their students in the £9,250 fees cartel”.

While post-1992 universities cannot be turned back into polytechnics, perhaps there are some in government who share the view of a “mistake” and want to redress it in other ways.

If there is to be a review, you might stir in the prime minister’s views about polytechnics; her former adviser’s views about the “wrong institutions”; the hostility to university expansion seen in large sections of the Conservative party; a dash of outright snobbery also seen in quarters of the party about how some are “not supposed” to go to university; the questionable view that expansion of vocational education must mean a reduction in university numbers; and add a £2.3 billion dollop of pressures on the higher education budget from the government’s decision to increase the loan repayment threshold.

The odours emanating from this brew may be rather noxious for the idea of higher education expansion and, perhaps, for post-1992 universities in particular.​

Video: Lord Adonis and Lord Willetts debate university funding (from September 2017)


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Reader's comments (1)

It seems plain to me that even a target of 50% participation is not sensible for universities as traditionally defined because it means that someone of average academic ability will go to university. This argument is not applied in general as I am sure that an average footballer (or tennis player) would not be accepted into a football (or tennis) academy. Whilst I am on the subject, the word "elite" is applied to top sports facilities so it seems that it is OK to use that word for physical prowess but not for its intellectual equivalent. Oh to have been born with abilities in my feet and not my head since I could have then earned in a week what I now do in a year...