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Kicking the can down the road in the face of a perfect storm.

‘Kicking the can down the road’ was the catchphrase of the week as the government lurched towards a Brexit crisis of its own making. It seems that scrutiny by parliament is to be avoided until it’s too late to do anything about it. Or until a new government is elected and it becomes their problem.

However, the 'can-kicking’ approach is not confined to planning for Brexit; it affects nearly every corner of government. It is marked by a failure to plan effectively followed by a panic reaction. 

Whilst Theresa May was fending off many of her own party’s MPs on Wednesday, the Office for Students (OfS) was preparing to release two very important reports the following day. The first, ‘A new approach to regulating access and participation in English higher education: Consultation outcomes’ sets out the expectations that they have of our universities. The second, ‘Access and Participation: Analysis of responses to the consultation’ summarises the concerns of many of the so called ‘providers’ in a consultation set up in September. Whilst the consultation seems a worthy exercise, the futility of the outcome becomes apparent. Some might welcome the aspirations of the OfS in ‘widening participation’ by students from low participation areas, others will see it as an ‘aeronautical pastry snack’ unlikely to get an airworthiness certificate. Frankly, the main target is for universities to reach parity in access for students from the five designated areas of participation in England. The proportion from the lowest ‘Participation of Local ARreas’ POLAR Quintile 1 must rise to match that of Quintile 5. However, this is planned to be achieved in 20 years! 

“To eliminate the gap in entry rates at higher-tariff providers between the most and least represented groups (POLAR quintiles 5 and 1 respectively) by 2038-39”.

It can also be achieved by setting a cap on numbers and lowering the numbers of students from the more advantaged areas. Something that will not be liked by many voters who have benefitted from the unequal system that hides behind a 'meritocracy' based upon attainment and not purely ability. 

The approach by government is to duck the issue and this is one of the finest examples of ‘highway can-kicking prowess’ to date. Yes, you read it correctly; the target is set for twenty-years hence. This means that children born in the next twelve months might expect to avail themselves of equality of access by the time they are adults. Those older will have to wait and another generation is lost. This has shades of past adventures and, just as for the Robbins report of 1963, it was a Labour Government that was left with the ‘heavy lifting’ needed to actually deliver the expansion of universities. 

The gap in access to universities between the most and least advantaged has been around for a long time. Ranking of the ‘elite’ universities in this respect ‘Gaining Access: Increasing The Participation of Disadvantaged Students At Elite Universities’ was released this week by the think tank, Reform. They concluded that the most advantaged students are 3.8 times more likely to enter higher education that the least advantaged and the situation has not shifted significantly since 2011/12. Marginal gains by some are matched by marginal sliding back by others. Using HESA data for the same period TEFS concluded in ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’ that it would take until 2042 to reach parity in the percentages. The OfS accepts that there are ‘risks’ to its slow progress plan not working with an astounding statement;

“While the extent of the gaps in equality of opportunity and the rate of progress are considerations of risk, this does not mean that the providers with the largest gaps are automatically considered to be the greatest risk”.

This is the reality of the situation and the fact that that the OfS is pressing universities to solve the problem as individual institutions beggars belief.  Most of us at some time or other have  worked with ineffective and irresponsible managers  who simply say “I don’t care how you do it, I just want it done”. Yet the roots of the inequality lie very deep in our society and they need to be addressed at numerous different levels. This takes leadership, not management.  It starts with children and poverty in the home; something getting worse not better. It then carries on throughout their education and formative years. This will require actions beyond piecemeal interventions for pre-sixteen and post-sixteen students by universities. Integration of a range of positive actions is needed and the glaringly obvious disparity in resources and time for many children and students to study must be addressed and not avoided. The Social Mobility Commission has such a wider remit, but it looks very ragged after the disruptions in its work over the last year or so.

Relaunch of the Social Mobility Commission.

Just as Theresa May was busy kicking the ‘Brexit can’ down the road on Tuesday, the Social Mobility Commission was quietly relaunched ‘SMC relaunch with 12 new commissioners and bigger research budget’ . This coincided with its new ‘research' output ‘Social Mobility Barometer: Public attitudes to social mobility in the UK’. The report catalogues, yet again, the disparity of opportunity across the whole of the UK. The observation that, “Just 25% of 18-24 year olds think that everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and hard work will take them” sums up the sorry situation. Their equally damning report from this time last year, ‘State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain’, emerged after all of the commissioners had resigned because of government inaction and poor resources (see TEFS December 3rd 2017 Social Mobility – The New Lie: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria pauperibus’). Despite a full complement of commissioners eventually appointed at this time, and a few more resources, the signs are not looking much more optimistic. It seems there is likely to be a ‘wringing of hands’ and more  'studies' before any positive action will be considered or taken. The situation has been well researched and known for a very long time and certainly in the lifetime of the conservative administration since 2010.

The perfect storm.

The dark clouds are gathering and they promise to unleash a perfect storm for our universities to face in the New Year. Only those with deep reserves will feel confident they can survive. The OfS is covering its back by expecting ‘providers’ to have plans in place in case of closure of courses or institutions, but with the promise of no external help. This is an example of surrendering to the crudest market forces at play. Add to this the impact of a botched Brexit, and the Augar Review possibly recommending lower fees in the New Year, and the storm is approaching fast. 

But the government has its own nemesis in the Office for National Statistics (ONS) report on student loans due out on Monday. They are on the last lap of reviewing the practice of government, via the Student Loans Company, issuing loans to students without apparently spending any money that adds to the burgeoning deficit. There has been speculation by some observers about how the ONS will respond to calls for more logical transparency in the recording of expenditure by government. Some think that there will be a compromise position taken that makes the increase in the deficit look better than it actually is. Although most do not think this is likely, the honest approach would be to record the issuing of loans and expenses as an outlay. Then record repayments, or sales of the loan book, as simply income. The impact of that approach on government efforts to balance the books will be significant and probably lead to lower loans for fees. The introduction of a cap on student numbers then becomes more likely. Indeed a new government would be left with little choice.

Can meaningful advances be made?

In the midst of all of this chaos is a sense that there is something fundamentally wrong about the approach taken. The perverse notion that the increase in fees and removal of a cap on student numbers has helped disadvantaged students seems to prevail amongst the government and its supporters. Yet the situation is not so simple. This week UCAS released its ‘End of Cycle Report 2018’ that collated all of the data covering demand for, and acceptances to, undergraduate UK higher education in 2018. The ongoing decline in the population of 18 year olds has led universities to stretch their admissions criteria further. This has manifest itself in more unconditional offers and an increase in students accepted with C and D grades at A-level that would not have happened years ago. But all of this is against a backdrop of more students going to university in the last few years and attempts to maintain the increased numbers. Yes, students from low participation areas have increased in number slightly, but so to have the numbers of all other students from more advantaged areas. The result is more students but no significant closure of the gap between the best and worst off. The result is many more students of lower attainment coming from the more advantaged areas. These are the majority beneficiaries of no cap on numbers and lower entry grades.

We need government to take responsibility.

The government, through the demands of the OfS, seeks to push all responsibility onto the individual universities, now called ‘providers’. This is an astounding failure to plan in any meaningful way. The ONS has the population data readily available and the workforce demands are very evident in relation to this. The economy is free to develop and the direction it is taking can be anticipated. The role of government is to set out a plan to respond and to do so in an environment of equality and fairness. That they steadfastly and wilfully fail to do this means that we are badly led. It will take more investment in the context of a thorough plan that will not fall prey to the anarchy of the marketplace. A new government will have to convince the electorate that change can be delivered and in a much shorter timeframe. Young disadvantaged people will not wait until 2038 or 2042 for completion of the Social Mobility experiment.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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