Truss government ‘must not let lifelong loans wither on the vine’

Philip Augar issues warning on LLE, but Lord Willetts fears new government ‘would like to’ restrict higher education entry

October 3, 2022

The Liz Truss government must not allow planned lifelong loans to “wither on the vine”, according to post-18 education review chair Sir Philip Augar, but a former minister suggested the new regime may aim to restrict student numbers.

The comments came at a Conservative Party conference fringe meeting on “the case for expanding higher education”, hosted by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change’s Future of Britain project, at a time when the balance of Tory opinion has shifted towards economic and cultural concern over higher education in its expanded form.

A Tony Blair Institute report recently called for a 70 per cent higher education participation target, building on the former Labour prime minister’s 50 per cent target, pinpointing the sector as one of the UK’s few sources of economic growth.

Sir Philip, who led the review of post-18 education set up by former Tory prime minister Theresa May, said of the right level of higher education participation: “I don’t know whether it’s 40, 50, 100 per cent.”

But whatever the level it reaches, “attention has to be paid to the mass of people who don’t go into higher education”, otherwise there will be a “divided society of highly educated, highly rewarded graduates, and the rest”, he added.

The future was “likely to involve different kinds of [higher education] institutions to those we have now”, he continued.

There was a “big opportunity” for universities in the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, which former prime minister Boris Johnson pledged to introduce by 2025.

The Liz Truss government is already seeking major public spending cuts – and the future of the LLE may not be certain.

It was “vital the current government doesn’t just allow this to wither on the vine, but hammers home the opportunity with proper funding”, said Sir Philip.

Many in the Conservative government have called for a “rebalancing” from higher to further education, but Sir Philip said: “I don’t sign up to the FE versus HE divide. The only thing that matters is that the system delivers what’s required from tertiary education.”

Rachel Sylvester, the Times columnist who led the Times Education Commission, which called for higher education to be seen as central to levelling up in the regions, said that in private conversations with “current and previous” government members, she had encountered “a sense among some strategists that graduates just don’t vote Conservative, therefore you shouldn’t create any more of them…That’s not [a] reason to make public policy.”

Education policy should be formed “not on one party’s narrow self-interest” but on the basis of “the good of the country”, she added.

Lord Willetts, the Conservative former universities minister, said of such attitudes in the Tory party: “I cannot think of a worse political strategy.” Restricting higher education entry is “not a way to win young voters over to the Tory party”, he added.

He argued that instead, policy on higher education should be decided by looking at personal and collective benefits, plus economic and non-economic ones. That gives “four quadrants” and “any one of those makes a case for increased participation”, he said.

But he added: “It is not where the government is at the moment. If they could find a way of restricting people from going into higher education, they would like to.”

However, he was more optimistic about skills minister Andrea Jenkyns, responsible for higher education, particularly given her previous role at a University of Bolton-funded thinktank.

There was a need, he said, to “liberate us from the single model of British universities”, with Oxbridge seen as the pinnacle, followed by other Russell Group universities and accompanied by an attitude that is “appallingly dismissive of ex-polytechnics”.

“I have high hopes of her liberating the [Tory] party from some hang-ups that have dominated the party for some time,” Lord Willetts added.

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