The DfE’s policy responses mix weak soup with meaty steak

Augar’s questions remain largely unanswered but proposals for further education are largely comprehensive and coherent, says Nick Hillman

January 21, 2020
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I have rarely used the word “slew” before, but it is the right term to describe today’s dump of documents by the Department for Education. They are a disparate bunch of papers, united primarily by the fact that they are nearly all overdue.

Other four-letter words beginning with “s” (not that one…) also spring to mind for some of the individual documents. The “interim conclusion” to the Augar review is a watery soup. There are just eight pages of spaced-out text, largely rehashing information we already knew or which is covered in other documents out today, along with a further eight pages that are blank or just show the contents and the title.

If you want to know what will happen in response to Augar’s proposals to cut the tuition fee cap to £7,500, impose minimum entry standards for degrees and abolish funding for foundation years, you won’t find it there. That is frustrating, but it is also understandable given that big decisions must generally wait for Treasury sign-off as part of multi-year spending reviews.

The further education white paper is, in contrast, a meaty stew, covering qualifications, learners’ entitlements and new expectations on employers. Any party that has been in office for as long as the Conservatives have can only play new tunes by rejecting their own old ones. A decade ago, an education white paper boasted of putting “students at the heart of the system”. Now, according to the very first paragraph of the new white paper, we are to have “employers at the heart of the system” instead.

This may well make sense because employers know best what skills they need – just so long as the current skills of today’s big employers do not squelch the needs of smaller specialist employers and the fast-growing sectors of tomorrow. Overall, the white paper is comprehensive and coherent, also encompassing – for example – careers advice, the needs of disadvantaged learners and further education capital projects. I am not surprised that the Association of Colleges has so warmly welcomed it.

But the white paper does waver on how best to solve the shortage of so-called “higher technical skills”. It is not always clear whether it wants to shift people down from full honours degrees (Level 6) to lower-level qualifications (at Levels 4 and 5) or to propel people who would otherwise stop at Level 3 (A-Level or equivalent) up to Level 4 and beyond.

This shouldn’t be a hard issue. In general, especially at times of economic crisis, it is better to deliver more education rather than less – so long as it is good quality. It makes most sense to fix a shortage of higher technical skills by getting some people to study for longer than getting others to study for less time. If you do better in the OECD rankings at Levels 4 and 5 by falling down the rankings for number of graduates, you cut off your nose to spite your face. I remain confused as to why the political party that accepted the Robbins report on expansion, that set targets for higher education expansion long before Tony Blair did and that turned polytechnics into universities no longer unequivocally backs university expansion.

Among the other documents out today, the consultation on a new university admissions system is the least interesting. It provides a useful summary of the existing evidence but doesn’t include a clear statement about which model the government prefers. The government’s response to the review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) sets a path for reducing bureaucracy and means the end of the subject-level TEF. These changes will be widely welcomed, even if an institutional-level TEF can only ever tell you so much.

Given the volume of information issued today, it would be easy to overlook the letter from the Secretary of State to the Office for Students about the use of the remaining teaching grant, which still amounts to a chunky (but effectively frozen) £1.4 billion a year for institutions. There is more money for some areas, such as so-called “hard STEM”, but less for others.

Gavin Williamson proudly told the House of Commons that he is “slashing” funding for media studies. He is also drastically reducing funding for London institutions by nearly 14 per cent. That reduces funding for the golden triangle and bolsters the levelling-up rhetoric. But not all London institutions are wealthy and all face high costs. Moreover, politically, it could be a tactical error to make an enemy of London’s big cheese vice-chancellors.

Overall, we are better placed than we were because we have a clearer idea of the government’s priorities and policies for post-18 education. But if the past few months have shown anything, it is that things do not always turn out the way the policymakers hope. Covid has forced much urgent decision making (such as shutting schools with less than 24 hours’ notice) and accelerated changes that might have happened anyway (such as adoption of more edtech). Yet even in normal times, policymakers follow as well as lead. Peter Mandler’s recent history of post-war education paints a persuasive picture of education ministers being at the mercy of changes in society when it comes to educational demand.

So one key question today is how will learners respond to the new policies? Given that 97 per cent of mothers hope their children will make it to university, time will tell if the Department for Education has done enough to shift people’s choices about their own lives.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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