Number 10 photo gaffe: what it reveals

John Morgan looks at potential embarrassment for BIS on TEF and private provider plans

April 19, 2016
Downing Street

Higher education now has its own story in the well-established “bungling official photographed walking into Downing Street with confidential papers on show” genre of political reporting. A handy checklist for anyone running the gauntlet of photographers in Downing Street could be: check your skirt isn’t tucked into your tights/your flies aren’t undone, don’t fall over like Michael Gove did once and place all your documents in a non-transparent file.

The document was helpfully displayed by an “unnamed official”, The Daily Telegraph reported. It is a briefing (seemingly one for Number 10) on the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ forthcoming higher education White Paper. While the Telegraph focused on the document’s suggestion that institutions including “some in the Russell Group…do not offer the quality and intensity of teaching we expect for £9K”, other elements of the paper will be more interesting to the sector.

The document confirms that BIS is scheduled to publish the White Paper “alongside the Queen’s Speech” with a bill planned “shortly afterwards” for the second session of Parliament. The Queen’s Speech is on 18 May. So this has been a pretty tight timescale, given that BIS had more than 600 responses to November’s Green Paper to plough through.

This timing fits with what I have reported in a news story today – that the White Paper has reached the “write round” stage in which members of the Cabinet are asked for their department’s views, and that Theresa May wants it to protect a UK-wide system of quality assurance.

“BIS are trying to solve real problems of quality and regulation. But it is not clear they have figured out how and there is a risk that the bodies and rules they will establish in legislation will not solve teaching quality, while creating poor quality provision for marginal students,” says the document.

This will be embarrassing for BIS – friendly fire shooting at the teaching excellence framework and regulatory changes – and offers easy material for Labour should they choose to oppose parts of a bill.

One definition of marginal is “of interest to only a few people”. Do people in government really think that some students are “marginal”? If so, it would be worrying.

The document also says that “price competition hasn’t emerged” – always a goal for any believer in the idea that a market should be created in higher education.

And it references the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies research, saying this shows that “some degrees, and entire universities, have a negative return” in terms of graduate earnings. While observers on the left have taken the message from the IFS research that graduate earnings mainly reflect pre-university social background, those on the Right have taken a message about “underperforming” universities.

On private providers, the document notes that the National Audit Office found evidence of “fraudulent claims at the student and institutional level” and “very high dropout rates”. BIS would like to “hand over regulation to an organisation that knows how to allow good ones to offer £9K in loans and expand”, it adds.

On David Cameron’s goal to double the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education between 2009 and 2020, the document says: “BIS think we will never achieve this from the established sector alone (probably because of a combination of high entry requirements and reluctance to expand too fast) – and the extra boost in access could come from growth by alternative providers.”

Perhaps this is what prompted the official to warn that BIS’ plans risked “creating poor quality provision” for those so-called “marginal students”?

It seems that BIS is trying to tell the PM that he risks the embarrassment of missing his access targets unless there is a further expansion of private provision. And it seems from this document that Number 10 is yet to be convinced.

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