Don’t rush potential higher education White Paper, Zahawi urged

Suggestions of significant ministerial plan to ‘improve higher education’ this month bring warning not to harm universities’ levelling-up work

November 9, 2021
Nadhim Zahawi
Source: Getty

Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has been urged to “take his time” amid suggestions that the “stage could be set for significant reform” through a government White Paper this month intending to “improve higher education” in England.

After expected policy proposals to restrict entry to higher education or “low value” courses and to increase student loan repayments failed to materialise at last month’s spending review as originally scheduled, Wonkhe reported that a White Paper tying together a range of plans for the sector is being drafted.

A White Paper is planned by the Department for Education for launch in the week of 24 November alongside a major speech by Mr Zahawi, one source told Times Higher Education. However, any White Paper will require backing across government.

The White Paper’s overarching aim is billed within the DfE as being to “improve higher education for young people across England”, it is also said.

However, another sector source downplayed the prospects of a full-scale White Paper being published, saying the DfE had indicated only that there will be something in writing “before Christmas” setting out government plans to be consulted on.

White Papers set out government plans for legislation and consult on those plans. Moves under consideration within the government and causing concern among universities, such as introducing a minimum entry requirement to qualify for student loans using GCSE English and mathematics grades, or to restrict student loan funding for courses at particular institutions deemed “low value”, would require legislation. So, too, would any move to lower the fee cap, with The Guardian recently reporting that the Treasury wants to lower the cap from £9,250 to £8,500.

Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and a former policy adviser to Conservative universities ministers, said: “After years of waiting for the government to make its move on higher education following the Augar review, the stage could now be set for significant reform of the sector.

“While the jury is still out as to the exact aims and intention of any potential White Paper, if the government is serious about lifelong learning and enhancing opportunity for all, then future reforms need to be inclusive…avoiding measures which could see people shut out of higher education and [ensuring] everyone, irrespective of age, gets the skills boost they need.”

Sir David Bell, the University of Sunderland vice-chancellor and former DfE permanent secretary, said he hoped Mr Zahawi, appointed in the September reshuffle, “takes his time”, adding: “He is a serious figure and might be the first secretary of state for a number of years – possibly since Michael Gove? – who has both the clout and influence to steer his own path.”

While it would be “naive in the extreme to wish for nothing to change”, Sir David could not see “any political advantage for the government in seriously damaging income flows into universities, particularly those in areas like Sunderland where there is a major focus on levelling up and widening access”.

But he added: “Don’t rule out, though, a whole set of incremental changes that, taken together, could add up to something quite significant.”

Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester and a former ministerial adviser on universities and skills under Labour, said that measures such as a move to post-qualification admissions and changes to student loans were “readyish to go”.

“But then there’s a whole host of things”, such as definitions of “low value” and any minimum entry requirements, along with any moves on fees, where the Treasury, the DfE and No 10 need to finalise detail and “to find agreement” absent to date, he added. “So it feels to me like there’s still a lot to do.”

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