Tories higher education strategy goes off the rails?

The pandemic has caused a serious crisis for Tory higher education policy. Wanting the university sector to be restricted to ‘the few’,  or at the very least, highly stratified, with the right students in the right institutions, Conservative governments have tried to establish an alternative vocational route for young people by  introducing new ‘technical’ qualifications and talking up the faltering apprenticeship scheme.  More students also means an even greater student loan bubble with some estimates showing that over half of the loans issued last year will end up having to be written off. This is a massive political headache for a government committed to reigning in the national debt.

However, school leavers, facing uncertain economic futures, have continued to sign up to the academic (A-level) route, with the aim of progressing to higher education.  By the end of June this year there had been 310,000 (10% more than last year) applications from 18 year olds.

The Tories have policed the grading of A-levels (and GCSE) by using a ‘comparative outcomes’ formula where numbers reaching various levels stay broadly in line with  previous years and prevent the ‘grade inflation’ which they blamed on the policies of previous Labour governments.  But forced to cancel exams for two years and in 2021, after last year’s bungled policy, relying on teacher assessment completely, this policy is in shreds. Teacher assessments will judge students on the basis of what they know, understand and can do, rather than how they are ranked in comparison with others –what the exams do.

Now, with a 10% increase in grades and with 40% of candidates being awarded A’s or A*s, the ‘selecting’ universities (the Russell group and a few other campus universities) many of whom took up to 20% more students last year, have been besieged. While they can turn away ‘near miss’ applicants, this year, 15% more students have met their offers in full with many others now having entrance requirements. Promises to provide accommodation for first year students will mean overcrowded residences with little chance of any ‘social distancing’   and institutions having to place freshers in outsourced accommodation rather than halls. It is also reported that some universities have offered cash hand-outs to students if they defer.

It not clear how the Tories will try to resolve this crisis, or even if they can. Moving to full blooded marketisation and allowing universities to charge what they want, therefore ‘pricing out’ many young people from more elite and potentially more expensive universities could have disastrous electoral consequences if parents turn against them.  As attending university increasingly becomes the norm, then making extensive cuts to the sector as part of a more general return to ‘austerity’, could also turn out a high risk strategy.

 In the immediate future, as well as wanting to restore ‘proper’ exams for 18 year olds tighter grade boundaries and greater differentiation at the top will probably be introduced.  It is also likely the Tories will continue to push a ‘value for money’ approach, requiring universities to offer courses considered to have direct  labour market ‘value’, yet this has mostly been directed at those institutions lower down the pecking order (which the Tories want to make more like FE colleges) and which already offer an array of ‘vocational’ courses.   However, as these institutions might also struggle to fill courses because so many students have ‘traded up’,  a capping system may have to be reintroduced to strengthen differentiation within the sector.

3 thoughts on “Tories higher education strategy goes off the rails?

  1. The pandemic has significantly increased the immediate tensions and pressures, I don’t want to understate that.

    But these are all issues that caused a similar “HE crisis” for the Labour UK Government, with its fees and number control flip-flops, and, given the current state of devolution and the UK-wide nature of middle class university student mobility, it will also haunt the SNP government (maybe soon to be SNP-Green government?) in Scotland and the Labour government in Wales (Ireland has its separate challenges, with the current two states, of course).

    Labour in England doesn’t seem to have a clue what its alternative is. The SNP have tended to push growth in FE college recruitment of HE students (followed by progression, on the US community college model), but have very little powers to affect the elite university sector’s less dependence on Scottish government policy by recruitment from England/international and still feel the need to trumpet the ‘world class’ nature of elite institutions as part of its nation-building propaganda. I don’t know as much about the Welsh Labour government’s attitude and policies, but the more limited nature of fiscal devolution there and the extensive student mobility market between England and Wales are certainly major factors limiting them over alternatives.

    The issue that follows from the article is therefore: what broader alternative to the neo-liberal model for higher education? The Tories in England are its most extreme challenge, but it’s much wider than that across the whole of Britain/UK state, especially in terms of identifying alternatives.

  2. In a number of respects, New Labour under Blair & Brown had a different strategy for HE and for education generally. Hooked into arguments that improving national economic performance required more and better ‘human capital’ it expanded participation and tried to reduce differences between academic qualifications etc.

    In the absence of any other redistributionist policies, Increased participation in education was also considered a way of reducing social inequalities. Even though at the same time, this wasn’t consistent, NL introduced HE fees and ‘choice & diversity’ in the school system etc.

    Since the Tories have been back in office they’ve overseen what Patrick Ainley and myself termed a ‘Great Reversal’, ( wanting to restore tradition divisions and create a new correspondence between education and the economy (‘education without jobs’) as the economy and employment opportunities continued to decline.

    We’d expect current /post-Corbyn Labour (if it ever got elected) to fall in behind this, backing a vocational route into non existent employment and so on…

    1. One of the greatest expansions of full time higher education participation in the post war years was under the Tories during the 1980s, when they allowed the Polytechnics (in England) a large amount of free rein to expand degree opportunities in both vocational and (notably) ‘academic’ subjects on what was then a ‘fees only’ basis (the fees then being paid by local authorities, not students, and reimbursed by central government). The parallel university sector decided not to dilute the ‘unit of resource’ and initially introduced cuts in student numbers instead. Under the impact of the Tories’ use of ‘market forces’, the Polytechnic sector rapidly outgrew the size of the then university sector, but largely through growth in full time bachelors degrees being available geographically more widely and on a significant non-residential basis. I’d need to look up the exact figures but my recollection was that the age participation rate in FT HE rose from about 10% to 30+%, over a couple of decades from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s.

      This Tory period also culminated in what was one of the biggest single changes in the school system enabling mass HE participation – the abolition of the O Level and CSE qualifications into the GCSE after 1988. The abolition of the ‘binary divide’ then became inevitable and Polytechnics were de-municipalised and made ‘universities on the cheap’ as a reward. This really was a ‘great reversal’ of traditional Tory elitism towards HE participation of the 1960s and much of it was driven by their underlying commitment to market forces and the parallel process of deindustrialisation they instigated.

      While the Labour government of 1997-2010 is often seen as a break, with a seemingly positive formal target of “50% participation” (actually watered down to “50% by the age of 30 completing only 1 year equivalent of HE”), the heavy lifting of the expansion from an elite to a mass system had already been done by the Tories.

      The price of the New Labour’s completion of the ‘massification’ process however was the introduction of a new ‘tax on learning’ by the contribution to student fees through state funded loans paid back in the tax system (in England).

      The other price of the full time degree expansion however was the collapse in vocational qualifications, including those offered part time at HE level by the Polytechnics, such as HNC/HND and external examinations of professional bodies such as in accountancy and engineering. At least 100,000 such students formally disappeared in England. Some would argue that full time state funded (at least upfront) HE, often on a boarding school principle, is preferable to the ramshackle night school/day release systems of old; but of course the cost of training in work previously largely covered by employers was shifted to pre-entry training funded by students (with the taxpayer as funder of last resort).

      The figures for participation were also ‘doctored’/distorted from the mid-1990s onwards by the introduction of ‘Project 2000’ within the NHS, wherein previous on-the-job employee training in the largest employer in the UK in the form of ‘student nurses’ employed by the NHS were moved into the HE sector – in the form of ‘nursing students’ registered with HE institutions, initially on diploma courses and protected from the grants/fees system by bursaries/teaching contracts, but eventually being full integrated. Dozens of large nursing ‘colleges’ (employer training centres) became parts of universities and faculties of nursing and other allied subjects became among the largest within many universities.

      There were several important aspects of New Labour policy that were different to that of the Tories. I don’t disagree with you on that. The most important of these was actually in FE – the introduction of Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMAs) for 16-19 year olds staying on was a flagship policy with many important elements to help participation. However it was introduced very slowly with a painful roll out of arbitrary geographic pilots before becoming mainstream towards the end of Labour’s term – largely too late before its abrupt end under the Coalition to have a massive long-term effect on the overall system.

      However, robbed of its ability to innovate in FE/HE through local Labour councils by the anti-democratic demunicipalisation that Labour never really fought, Labour’s actual achievements in government were a pale shadow of what they could and should have been. Blunkett and Brown put narrow business interests in charge of FE, in the form of TECs, and in Labour’s increase of fees in 2003 paved the way for the coalition changes of 2010 to fully marketise HE (except in Scotland of course where Labour collapsed electorally and politically after 2010).

      I’m sceptical of the claim that the Tory policy has been a ‘Great Reversal’. Rather it’s a case of ‘What could have been’ had Labour embarked on a different direction. The Corbyn leadership provided an opportunity to re-envisage an alternative approach. Despite leaving the Labour Party after 25 years of activity in England in 2001, I reluctantly voted for my Labour candidate in the 2017 General Election, not because the candidate was any good (it’s Scotland, finding good principled candidates from Labour certainly comes close to a needle in a haystack affair), but because the party programme at least appeared to offer a way forward. Sadly I fear that is now a lost cause with the accession of Starmer to the leadership – a boat barely afloat and certainly without a rudder.

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