Minister: looking at which groups don’t enter HE ‘doesn’t matter’

Universities minister Michelle Donelan calls for focus to be on jobs outcomes and individual needs rather than ‘box-ticking’ access measures

July 15, 2020
Michelle Donelan

England’s universities minister has said that it “doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university” because the emphasis should be on outcomes and what is in the “best interests” of individual students, while stressing that “we don’t necessarily want everybody to go to university”.

Michelle Donelan also told MPs on the Education Select Committee that the government would be bringing forward details on a “restructuring regime” for universities as a “last resort” for those in financial trouble following the pandemic crisis, and that ministers are “not excluding legislation” on free speech in universities.

Ms Donelan’s comments on university access are likely to alarm many in the sector, who fear that the government’s apparent desire to channel some students away from higher education into further education is likely to accentuate social divides.

The Office for Students, the English sector regulator established by the Conservative government in 2018, has set a target to eliminate the gap in entry rates at between the most and least represented groups at the most selective universities by 2038-39.

In her appearance before the committee, Ms Donelan returned to the theme of her speech criticising recent expansion of higher education and that of a recent speech by education secretary Gavin Williamson, in which he billed himself as “tearing up” Tony Blair’s 1999 target for 50 per cent of young people to enter higher education and instead prioritising a “German-style” further education system.

“We don’t necessarily want everybody to go to university; that was very much the essence of the secretary of state’s speech last week,” Ms Donelan told MPs.

"Whether you’re advantaged or disadvantaged, HE is not necessarily the best route to get where you want to go in life. I want to see a system that promotes the individual’s needs, and the individual’s desires in terms of their progression,” she added.

She set out an aim to “move away from this focus on how many students go to university” and focus on students “completing high-quality, academically rigorous courses that then lead to graduate jobs – that is the important measure we should be looking at”.

Caroline Johnson, a Conservative member of the committee, asked Ms Donelan “which groups are least likely to go to university” and “what is being done to support them” in “considering” higher education “as an option…where they have the capability to do so”.

The universities minister replied that “we do have record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university. There are still challenges within different sections of society, including white working-class students.

“But I actually don’t think it’s a good measure to look at anyway. It’s the wrong question, if you don’t mind me saying. Because it doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university. It’s about making sure that those groups that do go complete, that [courses] lead to graduate jobs, but also looking at what’s in that student’s best interests.”

The focus should not be on “targets”, but on “the individual and unlocking social mobility, but true social mobility, not box-ticking and target-driven social mobility that makes us feel good, but social mobility that really leads to life chances being improved for these individuals”, continued Ms Donelan.

On access targets set by the OfS “for the next five years”, she said that she wanted to see universities emphasise outreach and “trying to lift the quality bar in schools, rather than simply trying to tick quotas; that’s not social mobility”.

The focus should be on providing role models, on students completing and getting graduate jobs, “much more about the journey than how many they [universities] get in in one year”.

On university finances, Tory MP and committee chair Robert Halfon asked the minister whether the government would “bail out” universities in trouble because of the crisis or introduce “managed restructuring” focused on “rebalancing” institutions towards the “skills needs” in the economy.

Ms Donelan said that the government would be coming forward with details of a “restructuring regime”, to be used in a “last resort scenario”.

“There will be conditions attached,” she added.

Asked about “challenges and opportunities” in the sector, Ms Donelan said that these had been “changed and shaped by Covid”, and included a need for universities to innovate and “diversify” their income, to focus on people’s needs to “reskill and upskill”. She aimed to be “incentivising” part-time study and degree apprenticeships, she added.

The minister also said that incentivising universities to provide degree apprenticeships will form “part of our response” to the Augar review of post-18 education “later in the year”.

On pay, Ms Donelan referred to vice-chancellors and senior university staff volunteering for pay cuts of “10 to 30 per cent” in the crisis. She added: “I want to see that, hopefully, continue and be the start of something.”

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

I strongly agree with the sentiments expressed by the Minister but she "could do a lot better" in explaining exactly what she wants and why. Her focus on students “completing high-quality, academically rigorous courses that then lead to graduate jobs" begs the questions of what constitutes "high-quality" ( does this mean level 3 and above?) and "academically rigorous" (why "academically", I thought her focus was on technical skills not reading books) and as for "graduate jobs" (this really needs better definition.) Any job done by a graduate is a graduate in a job. Does she mean a skilled, well paid job that challenges the individual and brings benefits to society, like an engineer, lawyer, doctor or simply one that pays well so the Student Loan Company can get some of the loan repaid? This is not good enough and unfair on Universities. Robust clarity is needed from Government so HE institutions can respond sensibly to what the Government wants and prospective students understand what they are likely to get. All stakeholders need to be involved in developing clear objectives. Government and the students who repay the loans are the ones who can demand what the piper (HE providers) will play.
The universities minister replied that “we do have record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university. There are still challenges within different sections of society, including white working-class students." Like so many she knows but dare not mention the elephant in the room, the massive under achievement and representation of white working class boys, only Roma/gypsy ME have lower university representation, as some teachers in unguarded moments will reveal, girls are better behaved and easier to teach and most Asiatic parents enforce strict discipline and understand the value of education to get ahead. What they won't say is the skewing of teaching staff towards women, especially in the primary sector, with the often dismissive attitude towards boys from such teachers does immense and lasting damage, something not so common in private schooling provision enjoyed by the better off. The only way this will ever change is to start acknowledging differences exist, both in pupils and teachers, and that sexually segregated schooling, rather than the current 'one size fits all' which clearly doesn't, mess might actually be better. As might getting rid of the neo-Marxist intersectional ideology where everyone else is a 'victim', except the working class males who are the victims of the system being run by such neo-Marxists, who see them as the root of all evils for failing to revolt in the 1920's.

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