Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

The Future of UK Higher Education: QAA conference keynote 10 May 2017


I’ve got 15 minutes to talk about the next 10 years in higher education. Which is 90 seconds a year. But rather than do it year by year – there are some dull ones but 2024 is a cracker – I’ll talk about three things – the Bible, the Conservative Party (or Theresa May’s team as we must now learn to call it), and technology.

First. Galatians Chapter 6: verse 7 – This is the bit about reaping what you sow. A lot of what will be reaped in higher education in England for the next 10 years has been sown already by the shift from grant to fees; the removal of student number controls; the TEF and the Higher Education and Research Act 2017; and the vote on Brexit.  

GuildHE always argued that we needed new higher education legislation so that all providers would be regulated fairly, consistently and on the basis of risk. There are other important protections in the Act – for university autonomy, for sector-defined standards and for a designated quality body. And remember – we are all providers now: there isn’t a separate sector that some providers are defined as “alternative” to.

What is that harvest? For institutions, it will continue to be very competitive. The number of 18-20 year olds continues to decline until 2020, and then starts rising. Only in 2027 will it be back to the levels of 2010/11; older students are less attracted by student loans; recruitment of EU and other international students looks at best.….volatile? Last end of cycle report showed some universities facing successive years of declining acceptances while others had enjoyed successive years of growth. So far that competition has been driven by removal of student number controls, not by new entrants to the market.

Will there be significant growth in new entrants? We’ll see. But I can say that when I worked in government and talked to large multi-national HE providers there were three things they saw as baseline requirements for investment: a stable regulatory environment; no student number controls; a clear route to acquiring DAPs and UT in the UK. Arguably those have been put in place with HERA 2017.

There will be an Office for Students and I don’t think it will feel like or behave like HEFCE minus the research bit. I think it will need to develop a different operating model and culture; the professional skill set required to be first and foremost a regulator that also distributes a bit of funding for priorities set by government. How will it express its new duties? What balance will it strike between potentially conflicting priorities?

I think one of the things we’ll see from the regulator (and from government) will be a renewed focus on the value for money of the system and the general efficiency of universities. Partly, because government always at some point returns to worrying about whether universities are efficient.  And I’ve been a bit surprised for the last couple of years that this dog has not been barking and I think it’s overdue. And partly because students will rightly demand good value when they are paying fees at this level. But also because of the data cornucopia that is LEO: Longitudinal Education Outcomes. Publication of the latest experimental data set being something we can all look forward to after the Election. With earnings and employment data by course and institution, LEO is going to be telling us who earns how much, courtesy of what and where.

The political narrative (pre and post 2010) around the student loans system has been that it is a way of sharing cost and insuring the individual against risk. Universal loans mean that any student, whatever their parental income can afford the tuition fees and living costs; income contingent repayments and an eventual debt write off insures the individual against lower future earnings. Within government, the narrative says investing more public pounds in higher education (rather than – say – railways or adult social care) pays off for individuals and the country. On average.  

Having these data available makes possible a fundamental change in the public discourse about the student loan system and the funding of higher education teaching in general.  It becomes increasingly possible to talk about the individual (student; institution) rather than the collective experience in discussing economic winners and losers. Not the value for money of the system but of the course at institution X. Essentially, the core of future regulation will be quality and data. And this is new data that will be brought to bear at some point.

TEF. A few people have asked me if I think the TEF will survive. The short answer is “yes”. The longer answer is that government has gone to a lot of trouble to establish – effectively – a performance management framework for teaching. A way for OfS and government to hold higher education providers to account for the thing that is being funded and regulated. So lessons will be learned, and the independent review will report, and things will happen on a different, slower timetable to the one government originally intended, and the names of the ratings may change, and a new Minister, if there is one, might be less wedded to some of the plans and aspirations than Jo Johnson is, and it will continue to develop over the next ten years.  Compare the REF: the first assessment of research performance was carried out by the University Grants Committee thirty years ago.  And that process developed into the RAE and then the REF and along the way there were reviews and considerations by Select Committees but nobody gave up on the fundamental principle of having a system that incentivised and rewarded research performance. There will continue to be a TEF.  It won’t go away.

Secondly, if the opinion polls to be believed, if the local election results a reliable guide then you would conclude that these ten years will be Conservative ones. Are there things to be expected from a new Conservative government that are over and above the working out of what we already know? Specifically, are universities and their values natural targets for the next government?  They have been in the past: certainly that feeling in the 1980s. There’s a view that there are already enough straws in the wind to suggest that Theresa May and her brand of conservatism – by the way I am sceptical that there is at the moment such a thing as Mayism – is antipathetic to universities. For a start, the PM is supposed to have disliked universities for their lobbying over international students and – for reasons I certainly don’t understand – changing her mind on international students is not something the PM is ready to do whatever is said to the contrary by many of her Cabinet (in last government) by the Sun, the FT, and party members polled by Conservative Home (that’s Conservative Home – the spiritual home of Mayism – if we believe Mayism exists) where 3 out of 5 said international students should be taken out of immigration figures.

There is a good WonkHE article by David Morris that suggested this strand of Conservatism was wary of expanded HE. It quoted the Conservative Home call to “transfer resources from bloated university sector….towards vocational education” – though these calls tend to forget, or not understand that almost all of those resources are now loans.  I imagine teaching grant will be cut further but I’d have expected that from any government still worried about the public finances and the idea of getting three years of inflation rises on fees and simultaneously leaving teaching grant untouched looks unlikely.

And from one perspective, the “too many people go to university” theme doesn’t, sit that easily with being the party of aspiration, of blue-collar conservatism, of tanks firmly and permanently on Labour lawns in the midlands and the north. Because the people in the party who say too many people go to university, don’t mean that too many people from their own constituency go to university. They mean too many from the constituencies they hope to win this time round and hold on to in 2022.

But let’s explore this a bit. Because you do now have, in a way you didn’t before, the development of an alternative product in degree apprenticeships; with its own funding stream through the levy; and in the context – finally – of what looks like a broadly sensible approach to reforming technical education. Those reforms need time. And above all they need patience. The biggest policy problem for technical education for decades has been constant tinkering by Ministers, civil servants and quangos. And that constant tinkering and confusion strengthened a policy advantage for higher education – having a clear progression route from school that students, teachers and parents all understood. But if they’re given time then you could see a genuinely alternative route developing to the traditional degree. And that’s both threat and opportunity for the HE sector. You could have a more nuanced position that “not enough people are getting HE qualifications but too many of those who do, are doing so as full-time undergraduates”.

I worry that government tends to think in terms of FE = technical; HE = academic and fails to grasp that there has always been excellent technical higher education going on in all sorts of universities. Indeed with some GuildHE member universities, every course they offer could be described as technical HE. And if ten years from now that technical route has developed and we’re seeing serious numbers of people taking it, then government will need to bring the funding systems closer together. Long term it isn’t sustainable to have one route = no debt (or no additional tax liability) for student and all the cost on the employer and the other = all debt (or 9% additional tax liability) and no cost on the employer. You will need loans for degree apprentices for part of the cost and the levy should fund work relevant HE – and perhaps be part of the solution to the decline in part time study.

The other critique levelled at universities is that they are “anywheres” – their values and behaviours, the attitudes and values acquired by their students, are not connected to a community, a place, a somewhere. They are instead part of that globally connected world, open to immigration, beneficiaries of liberal economic consensus of the last 30-40 years. And they took a very public stance for Remain. But I have two problems with seeing that analysis having anything other than a marginal impact on how government treats the sector. The first is that it isn’t exactly true (or let’s say it isn’t the whole truth). Universities are connected to place. They may open branch campuses in London (and perhaps if they want Theresa May to like them more they should stop now) but generally they are the big economic actor that tends to stay put – the University of Nottingham has campuses in China and Malaysia but it’s still here in Nottingham.  And there are plenty of examples of them acting in a “somewhere” manner. Whether that is the research intensive like the University of Sheffield, with its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and investment in apprenticeships, or the teaching focused university where 98% of students travel daily. That doesn’t mean to say they couldn’t be better at it. They could. But the fact that they can be crucial as makers of place, as drivers of local and regional economies is well recognised elsewhere in the Conservative party – see the Industrial Strategy Green Paper.  And I agree with those commentators that have suggested the industrial strategy is the best policy chance universities have to demonstrate usefulness.

I know that having a good case on its own isn’t enough – the politics often trumps the evidence. But my second reason, and I admit this is the result of my many years as a civil servant, is that I’m always a bit sceptical about how likely this sort of big idea analysis will translate into a practical programme of government. And I’m particularly sceptical when the government machine is facing its single biggest challenge since – well, rebuilding the country after the Second World War.

So it’s the bandwidth problem. Before election called, Institute for Government research had found that departments have been asked to prepare for Brexit on top of pre-referendum manifesto commitments, as well as continuing to implement spending and headcount reductions.  We haven’t seen Manifestos yet but the conclusion the Institute for Government made then remains valid whether talking about 2015 commitments or a new domestic policy agenda for a new government. In order to free up capacity for future stages of Brexit, departments need a steer from the Government as to what policies can be delayed or dropped. So rather than active antipathy, I think a degree of policy neglect is more likely – but as I’ve said, the seeds already sown are more than enough policy to be going on with.

Finally, technology. I’ll start with what I don’t think. I don’t think that in the next ten years the basic pattern of young, full-time participation will be disrupted by technology – I think young people will travel to a local provider or move from South to North or vice versa for the residential HE experience because they’re not price sensitive, they don’t see loan debt as real debt and because the HE experience has become a fundamental part of growing up for a large part of the population and for their parents. And that isn’t a weirdly UK phenomenon, it’s a global one. As people get richer it’s one of the things they want.

As a bit of an aside – but also to check against my own technology prejudices – I did look at what jobs are most likely to be replaced by robots. BBC news (based on an Oxford university study with Deloittes) has a helpful webpage called “Will a robot take my job” in the next twenty years and you can search by job title and the good news is that for higher education teaching professional, the answer is “quite unlikely” as there’s only a 3% chance. But if anyone is looking to make themselves even safer, the least at risk job is pub landlord.

But where I think technology will continue to transform is in the practice of teaching and learning. Through learning analytics – by understanding more about how and why students learn best as you understand more about the process of learning; through better tracking of progress, and through technology backed innovations in teaching:  flipped classrooms; educational technology and and augmented and virtual learning environments that allow practice in technical and professional HE. And these environments can be extraordinarily lifelike – I’ve climbed up to the maintenance platform of an offshore wind turbine in virtual reality and felt actually seasick when I got there.

In the end, this is just my personal view and predicting anything in politics nowadays is a mug’s game. If you don’t like my view, I can offer an alternative prediction from some American evangelical groups that the solar eclipse on August 21 2017 will trigger the end of times and that we’ll see the destruction of 75% of all life by 2024. So just think: the sun is shining here in Nottingham and this may be as good as it gets.

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