Universities ‘squeamish’ about boosting school standards

New government focus on universities raising pre-18 attainment could be a ‘challenge’, but also indicates positive shift

November 24, 2021
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The English higher education sector has been “squeamish” for “too many years” about its role in school standards and may find it a “challenge” to shift its focus towards helping to raise pupil attainment, Times Higher Education’s THE Campus Live event has heard.

Anne-Marie Canning, chief executive of access charity the Brilliant Club, welcomed new announcements from the Westminster government on ways to improve fair access. She said many of the policies had been on the sector’s “wish list” for a while, but she added that universities could find a focus on schools “really tough to get right”.

She was responding to plans, announced earlier at the event by universities minister Michelle Donelan, for a “reboot” in access policy to include institutions being required to “improve outcomes for disadvantaged children by driving up education standards in schools and colleges in the local community”.

“I think the challenge for the sector, the really tough thing to get right for universities, is going to be shifting their focus on to school standards and raising attainment,” Ms Canning said.

“I think we’ve been squeamish about this for too many years. I think we have baulked at that idea of really stepping into that shared space with schools, and now it will be mandated.”

Jonathan Simons, head of the education practice at the political consultancy Public First, said it was “very interesting” that the Department for Education had seemed to have “grown impatient with what it sees as some of the weaker excuses of the sector as to why they have not engaged in this [schools] agenda”.

However, he added, a positive for universities to take away from the announcement was that it would now be “almost impossible” for the government to take away money earmarked for access.

“Government has now set a very clear expectation of what that money is spent on; they cannot now take that money away,” he said. “I think that is a big gain for the sector.”

Mr Simons also said there did not appear to be any restriction on how universities should go about trying to help raise school attainment.

“That flexibility hasn’t always been the case in government; they have been very prescriptive over some interventions. I think that [prescription] was welcome by its absence today.”

Meanwhile, Ms Canning also told the session – which focused on “making the case for inclusive HE in a politically hostile environment” – that the government’s announcements seemed to be less hostile to the sector than its approach before Gavin Williamson was replaced by Nadhim Zahawi as education secretary in September.

“I actually think this is a massive step down from the hostility that we saw through the Williamson years. I think today’s announcement is very constructive, and it makes it really clear that the DfE needs universities and universities need the DfE right now.

“Don’t get me wrong, it is demanding. But it is constructive in a way that we’ve not seen for quite some time.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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