International experts question Tory attacks on higher education

Conservative government’s turn against university expansion as party prioritises ‘red wall’ voters prompts scepticism

July 19, 2020

Ministers’ trumpeting of the end of English university expansion and a “rebalancing” towards further education have raised scepticism and concern among global education experts.

A new stance among education ministers appears to have been prompted by the Conservatives’ desire to tailor English education policy to fit their new electoral coalition, which, following the Brexit vote, is increasingly tilted towards non-graduate voters in deindustrialised Midlands and northern towns with further education colleges but without universities. This has meshed with government concern about “low value” degrees, founded in contested graduate earnings data.

Key questions around the practicalities of “rebalancing” to further education would surround whether the government sought a direct means of restricting numbers entering higher education, or prevented loan access on certain courses, or more indirectly promoted the further education route.

Andreas Schleicher, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s director for education and skills, questioned “whether the distinction between higher education and further education is still relevant”.

“I think it is important to better anticipate the evolution of the demand for knowledge and skills, ensure that those signals are visible to potential learners – that’s currently clearly not the case in the UK – and then to design policies and incentives that configure the people, spaces, times and technologies in order to provide the right mix of learning opportunities to learners of all ages.

“Employment outcomes can be one of the metrics to use in this process, but overreliance on these is risky, because it ties you to the past economy, not the future economy.”

Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, said that “to argue that universities alone are responsible for [graduate] salaries is to be wilfully blind to the ways social allocation and labour markets actually work”.

“For a time, in the pandemic and the recovery period”, the state of labour markets “will be overwhelmingly more important in determining graduate salaries than will anything else”, he added.

Professor Marginson asked: “Why can’t we have two healthy post-school sectors that are valued, respected and encouraged by government, industry, society, families and students?”

Some sources referred to suggestions that the Conservatives have carried out polling that indicates criticism of universities could play well among some voters in newly Tory “red wall” seats, where voters supposedly perceive universities as pro-Europe, “elitist” institutions.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, in a Brexit-backing city, said: “I don’t ever pick up a sense that people [in Sunderland] are wanting to ‘bash the university’.

“As long as we provide the sorts of courses local people want, it’s quite hard to make the ‘elitist’ label stick,” he added. The government’s Augar review and debate since “underestimates the aspiration that people have to go to university”, he suggested.


Print headline: Rebalancing act: international experts question Tory attacks on higher education

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Reader's comments (2)

A comment such as “whether the distinction between higher education and further education is still relevant” just shows how out of touch the speaker is. Higher education is what takes place in universities or used to. Those of us who actually work in university departments see the effects of blurring the distinction. Students are unhappy because university does not (and should not) provide training and purely practical job skills; staff members are unhappy because students lack the confidence and basic skills necessary to tackle truly work at the right level.
Indeed it is a time for extreme caution: we can all see how political interference and meddling has served primary & secondary education so badly - we do not wish, cannot permit, a similar disservice to universities. The comment above is also interesting. I taught HE courses in FE before slithering into a university. The dead hand of OfSTED was already diluting any attempt to make HE distinct from FE in the FE college setting, indeed that is why I left the last post!