The UK prime minister’s plan to force English universities to run schools has been strongly opposed as “narrow” and threatening “negative unintended consequences” by Universities UK, which represents the country’s higher education sector.
The Russell Group, which represents 24 major research-intensive universities, also warned against a “one size fits all” approach to social mobility in a statement on the plans.
“We believe that ensuring universities maintain the freedom to decide how they work best with schools is the optimal way to ensure that students are supported to succeed,” said the group’s director general, Wendy Piatt.
On 12 December, the Department for Education closed its consultation on proposed school changes in its Schools that Work for Everyone Green Paper, including requiring universities to sponsor schools as part of their access agreements with the Office for Fair Access, which are needed for universities to charge above the basic tuition fee level (currently £6,000).
University involvement in school education is a global issue in higher education.
Theresa May, the prime minister, had said in a September speech that the government would “reform university fair access requirements and say that universities should actively strengthen state school attainment – by sponsoring a state school or setting up a new free school”.
Justine Greening, the education secretary, is said to be open to the idea of removing a mandatory requirement for universities to sponsor schools – but whether No 10 can be persuaded is another matter.
UUK warns in its consultation response: “If the government chooses to adopt the proposals as set out in the green paper, essentially prioritising school sponsorship over other types of contributions, we believe this approach would result in negative unintended consequences. These would include damaging existing partnerships between schools and universities, focusing resources on fewer schools, and skewing incentives for university involvement.”
And it adds that despite the breadth of university engagement with schools, “the intent of the green paper in relation to sponsorship appears to be relatively narrow, instead of focusing on the many ways in which universities currently utilise their expertise to support school attainment, and exploring how this could be developed and expanded”.
UUK highlights existing university engagement with schools across areas including teacher training, curriculum development, educational research, support for specific subjects or departments, school sponsorship and establishing new schools.
Universities are already involved in sponsorship relationships with about 150 schools, it notes.
But it says that while there are examples of success in university sponsorship of academies, “there are also examples where this had proved challenging”.
UUK warns: “If the ability to charge higher fees is tied to a prescriptive requirement to either sponsor or establish a school, there is a risk that these motivations become focused on fulfilling a requirement and ensuring financial stability, rather than on the ultimate objectives of raising attainment, increasing school performance and improving opportunities for children.”
Dave Phoenix, chair of the MillionPlus group of modern universities and vice-chancellor of London South Bank University, said that rather than a mandatory approach, it would be “far better for education ministers to ensure that the Office for Fair Access promotes best practice in university-school relationships”.