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.