Zahawi arrives with entry bar and loan changes on agenda

New education secretary may have limited opportunity to significantly change direction of travel at Westminster, say experts

September 17, 2021

Nadhim Zahawi takes over as education secretary ahead of a spending review crucial for English universities – but he may have little scope to influence the outcome, which is tipped to be a government-preferred option of entry restrictions combined with making loan repayments kick in for lower-earning graduates.

Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle on 15 September, which saw Gavin Williamson sacked as education secretary, came after the deadline for departmental submissions to the Treasury in the comprehensive spending review, the outcome of which will be announced on 27 October.

The Department for Education originally pledged a consultation with the sector in the spring around potential changes – including a minimum entry requirement restricting access to university and changes to student loan terms – ahead of a final response to the Augar review of post-18 education at the spending review.

But that has been held up by an impasse between the DfE and the Treasury, with the latter said to favour prioritising savings in the student loans system above the “rebalancing” from higher to further education sought by the former.

There are suggestions that the consultation will now come with the spending review and consult only on a preferred option from the government: a minimum entry requirement and changes to student loan repayments.

The DfE has been considering using GCSE “pass” grades in English and maths to set a bar for student entry to university, as first reported by Times Higher Education in March.

Meanwhile, THE understands there has been interest within the government in proposals in a recent report by the EDSK thinktank to “encourage students to seek out the courses and institutions that will offer them the greatest value” by lowering the repayment threshold for loans from its current threshold of £27,295 in the newer system and changing the 9 per cent repayment rate.

The EDSK report said there should be a “tiered” system of repayment rates: 0 per cent for earnings up to £12,570; 3 per cent for earnings between £12,570 and £17,570; 6 per cent for earnings between £17,570 and £22,570; and 9 per cent for earnings above £22,570.

Mr Zahawi, appointed after a successful spell as minister for Covid vaccine deployment, combined with a role as minister for business and industry, arrives after such discussions.

“While a new minister can on occasion put a brake on things and change their predecessor’s initiatives, this is not the case here,” said Jonathan Simons, a director at the political consultancy Public First and head of its education practice. “The departmental submission to the Treasury for the spending review has gone in, and so while Nadhim Zahawi will be able to negotiate around the edges, the major parameters for decisions – on fees, repayment terms, minimum entry requirements or whatever else may be on the table – are fixed.”

However, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said his experience in 2010 as special adviser to Lord Willetts, who was then the Conservative universities minister, suggested that “deadlines are there to be broken in Whitehall”.

“Back in 2010, [the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills] had a settlement with [the Treasury] which was then reopened the weekend before the spending review,” securing an improved outcome for research funding, he said.

“So if the new secretary of state wanted to start again with the Treasury on some issues, the Treasury may or may not agree to play ball. However, having said that, it seems fairly unlikely that he will enter the department with a fully worked-up programme, and some of the key people [in the department] are the same as before, so the spending review agenda may not change all that much.”

Mr Hillman also noted that Mr Zahawi had previously been a minister in the DfE responsible for early years, an underfunded sector.

“With a limited pot of money, other parts of the DfE may be in the firing line if he wants to improve or even just protect early years spending,” he added.

At the time of writing, there had been no confirmation about whether Iain Mansfield, formerly special adviser to Mr Williamson, would exit the DfE or secure a new post. Mr Mansfield was often viewed as the key figure shaping policy in the department.

No 10 also said that universities minister Michelle Donelan would keep her post as a minister in the DfE and would now attend Cabinet, though at time of writing any changes to her brief had not been officially confirmed.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I would have thought that GCSE passes in English and Maths were a must for university study. When I applied, you needed a foreign language as well. Thankfully, in my current department students are well-qualified but in my past career, I have experienced the effects of the current mass system seeing students whose Maths and English skills were (to put it mildly ) weak.

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