Welcome shift of emphasis to vocational training but big questions for PM’s review of University funding

February 20, 2018

The Prime Minister’s speech today, setting out the terms of a review of the funding arrangement for “tertiary” education, is important for a number of reasons. By no means the least is the use of the word “tertiary”—that is, this review will cover not only the funding of England’s 100-plus universities, but all the other places where young people go to study when their time in compulsory education in finished. That includes further education colleges and in-work training providers. This is entirely right. For far too long in England, the interests and experiences of those who attend university have dominated the conversation about learning after school. This wide focus is in keeping with the Prime Minister’s commitment, made in Downing Street at the beginning of her premiership, to people from groups that government has all-too-often overlooked, and representatives of the FE sector were welcoming this attention today.

But it is undeniable that the review is also important in part precisely because the briefing around it has been aimed so squarely at universities. Although the review is scheduled to take a whole year, there seems little doubt that an intended outcome is that at least some degrees will be available for less than the current £9000 charged by almost every university for almost every degree. In one sense, this is nothing more than the restatement of government policy as it has been since the decision to raise the maximum fee in the early days of the Coalition government. Then, it was expected that fees would not all rise to the highest point, but instead that universities would vary their fees to reflect cost and attract applicants. May has hinted strongly that she would like to see this system happen in fact as well as in theory.

The question is, of course, how? The government has largely foresworn giving direct instructions to the university sector—quite properly, the sector would reply, given they are independent institutions—and the recent Higher Education Act only reinforced that trend. It did introduce the Office for Students, which has already flexed its muscles a little on the contentious question of Vice Chancellor’s pay, but the OfS is more about arms-length nudges than compulsion.

Moreover, differential fees pose some questions for the social mobility agenda the government has also proclaimed. Should a young person from a working class background, in possession of the grades to go to Cambridge but filled with fear of debt, choose a less prestigious (and less economically beneficial) degree? Ensuring effective widening participation work counter-acts such pressures will not be the least of the review’s conundrums.

But May is not wrong to pose questions about the cost effectiveness of universities. Despite the sector being awash with money since fees were increased in 2010, students are facing the prospect of disrupted examinations this summer as the universities have locked themselves in a bad-tempered battle over pensions with their own staff. The question of Vice Chancellor pay can be a little overdone—some of these people are managing what are in effect highly successful multi-national entities with many millions of pounds in turnover—but given how much teaching is done by early career academics, on low pay and unsecure contracts, it is right universities be put under the financial spotlight.

The other big theme of the review is May’s determination to enhance the standing of vocational education. This is a laudable aim, and does chime well with her social mobility agenda, but today is not the first time it has been raised, and May will need to push the review’s authors hard to come up with some original thinking powerful enough to counter-act the English middle-classes’ ingrained preference for their children to acquire a graduate’s gown and not an apprentice’s overalls. In particular, the review has to do more than repeat the demand for “parity of esteem” between vocational and academic qualifications. Such a thing is not in the gift of politicians, it is in the mind of the young people (and their parents) who decide on their routes through education. When businesses take vocational qualifications sufficiently seriously to routinely direct good salaries to those who hold them—and there is some encouraging movement in that direction, such as City firms operating non-degree apprenticeships and giving equal attention to non-graduates in their leadership streams—then their esteem will be enhanced.

Ultimately, with her concern to ensure England’s young people are not ripped off by their universities, nor short-changed by a lack of training options at 18, the Prime Minister is asking the right questions. The former banker and writer Philip Augur, who is to lead the review, has a year to find her some compelling and convincing answers.

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