The Conservatives should pursue bold HE plans with measured ambition

The new government should work side by side with the sector to make significant improvements to admissions and course quality, says Graeme Atherton

December 13, 2019
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The UK’s general election result, while disappointing many in the sector, should at least, in theory, give some stability to higher education policy that has been imperilled over the past year by a revolving door of ministers.

As for what this policy could look like, there will likely be a dusting-off of the recent Augur review. While the headline commitment to reduce the cost of higher education looks off the table, some cherry-picking of the review’s more than 50 recommendations is likely. To judge from the Conservative manifesto, promises to tackle grade inflation, low-quality courses and reassess the admission system appear the areas of priority. In confronting these issues, there are things that could be done, but equally, other things that might be best avoided.

The increases in the number of first- and upper second-class degrees does reflect, to an extent, better student performance, but also is a consequence of the intensified competition between universities.

One way to address this rise would be to reduce the intensity of competition. However, it is unlikely that the government will take this approach, and competition is, to some degree, an inevitable consequence of the environment that successive governments have created.

The government could, though, look with the sector at how qualifications are classified. The archaic and blunt three-tiered classification system is ripe for reform. A system with greater granularity that is based on a clearer descriptor would allow universities to better reflect the improvements in teaching and student performance that they claim are happening.

It would also have the added benefit of making a big part of what universities do more understandable to those outside – in particular potential students from widening access backgrounds for whom the present system is just another example of how universities are for “insiders” only.

Course quality is an area that the Augur review does spend some time considering. However, suggested changes such as introducing minimum entry thresholds to try to steer students away from certain courses should be avoided. The government would be better served by starting with some specific work on what course quality means. The Augur review was too simplistic in relating quality solely with earnings outcomes.

There needs to be a more holistic understanding of quality development. The consequence of pushing forward with an earnings-only approach for the government in the post-Brexit era will be particularly damaging for other policies that it wants to pursue. For example, increasing nursing numbers actually means providing more course places for students who will, in the majority of cases, enter and stay in what is, compared with many other occupations that require a degree, a low-earning career path.

Finally, with the Conservative promise to examine undergraduate admissions, there is, as with degree classification, an opportunity for the government to be bold. The present system that is based around the making of course place offers before students receive their results is a relic of an era when only a minority of students went to university.

A move to a post-qualifications admission system would require a possible shift in both A-level and first-year university timetables. It would also need to be accompanied by a significant investment in information, advice and guidance to get a system that really works for students.

This is an ambitious reform, and it is not one that the government should attempt to rush. But it would, if done properly, enable better choice-making, allow schools and colleges to actually prepare students better for university study and also help students to better transition to higher education.

The government’s majority gives it the ability to implement significant reforms across the public sector if it wants to. Higher education is no exception, and in many ways it should not be.

In all the areas I’ve mentioned, and in particular grade classification and admissions, there are opportunities to modernise outdated parts of the system. It is always good advice to be measured with how you use power, and the government should heed this warning. By working with the sector, and especially those in it who favour modernisation over inertia, it can make a positive difference to the higher education that students receive over the next five years.

Graeme Atherton is the head of AccessHE and the director of the National Education Opportunities Network, both of which are part of London Higher. He writes in a personal capacity.

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