How the past year unfolded.
January started the year with doom, gloom and speculation by universities about the recommendations that might be revealed in the Augar report. TEFS suggested that teaching intensity might become the Achille’s heel of the system if addressed (TEFS Is teaching intensity the Achilles heel of our universities? 4th January 2019). January also revealed why Justine Greening lost her position as Education Secretary a year earlier to Oxford-educated Damian Hinds (TEFS Entering the Lion’s Den: Can the Conservative establishment be tamed? 25th January 2019). The sorry tale illustrated how the establishment closed ranks against one of the more enlightened and socially aware ministers.
February offered no respite from speculation about the impending Augar review and inspired little confidence in the government. Data from UCAS showed a wide access gap persisted between rich and poor students (TEFS ‘UCAS reports that a POLAR chill persists’ 1st February 2019). Damian Hinds demonstrated his tenuous grip on reality with a speech that celebrated "public school confidence" and the need for students “to be courageous”. He also suggested that “You learn a lot from Atticus Finch”. The irony of removing ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from the GCSE curricula in 2014 under the Gove reforms did not help to strengthen his position. Atticus Finch also said, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view....Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." (TEFS ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ 8th February 2019).
March yielded more ‘leaks’ from the Augar review and rumours of further delays. These fuelled fears that there would be a substantial cut in fees and thus income for universities (TEFS ‘Waiting for Augar………………’ 1st March 2019). With the new Social Mobility Commission apparently going AWOL, it seemed that progress was stalling (TEFS ‘Social Mobility Commission: Where are they?’ 22nd March 2019). HESA data revealed students from low participation areas were more likely to drop out and this prompted Damian Hinds to wash his hands of any government responsibility with “the figures suggest that some institutions are only interested in “bums on seats”, rather than offering all-round support for students.” Ouch! (TEFS ‘Bums on seats’ The government’s cynical view’ 8th March 2019).
April started with the Social Mobility Commission showing little signs of life (TEFS ‘Social Mobility Commission – “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action” 12th April 2019). Ignoring the TEFS projection in 2018 that showed parity in ‘widening participation’ was unlikely to be achieved, the government looked elsewhere (TEFS ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’ 19th October 2018). They pressed on regardless with advice for the Office for Students that bypassed social mobility; concentrating instead on pegging back grade inflation. By mid- April this issue was getting very hot in the media. TEFS provided considerable background to what was happening (TEFS ‘Grade inflation and contextualised admissions to university are stirring up a wasp’s nest’ 19th April 2019) and concluded that ‘contextualised admissions’ would be a better policy. This conclusion was based upon an excellent paper in April from the influential 'Durham University Evidence Centre for Education' (DECE) (‘Using contextualised admissions to widen access to higher education: a guide to the evidence base’).
May brought the big, but not unexpected, news that Theresa May would step down on the 7th June after repeatedly trying to broker a Brexit deal that failed to pass parliamentary scrutiny. In doing so, she set in train major changes for the UK’s future. In the background, more leaks from the Augar review strengthened the belief that it would recommend cuts in fees and that it would emerge before Theresa May resigned. It was her project after all (TEFS ‘May is almost over, so it must be time for Augar’ 24th May 2019). Sure enough, she popped up on the BBC on the 30th May speaking in defence of the review that had been just announced. The report was comprehensive and far-reaching; recommending a cut in fees but no minimum entry grades. If enacted in 2020 by those following her, the ripples would fan out well beyond its remit (TEFS ‘Augar stirs up the system: The ripples will go far beyond his remit’ 30th May 2019).
June triggered frantic analyses of the detailed Augar report by observers from many quarters; especially the universities. TEFS concluded that there would be a significant, unintended and negative effect on the provision of STEM subjects. This would arise because of how universities were likely to react to funding cuts; something Augar had missed (TEFS ‘Augar Under the Microscope: STEMing the Tide’ June 11, 2019). Meanwhile, the student experience survey of AdvanceHE and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) emerged to show much the same pattern of earlier surveys (TEFS ‘The student experience 2019: There is no such thing as an average student’ 14th June 2019). It seemed that little had changed since the surveys started in 2012. Indeed, the Social Mobility Commission had also achieved little since it began its life as the ‘Child Poverty Commission’ in 2012. It was almost as if the government wanted it to fail. In response, Labour set out its support for a Social Justice Commission (TEFS ‘Labour Reigniting the Social Justice Bill’ 8th 2019) as the sorry state of the incumbent commission finally came under the spotlight of the Parliamentary Education Committee. The hearing was like watching a ‘car crash in slow motion’. The chair of the commission and her officials skidded off the road at the first bend by failing to define ‘social mobility’ (TEFS ‘Social Mobility Commission boarding up the windows’ 18th June 2019). Its poor record in progress and lack of transparency were cruelly exposed (TEFS ‘The Office for Students, transparency and the Social Mobility Commission’ 21st June 2019).
July produced probably the most important news that really mattered in 2019. Boris Johnson entered 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister on the 24th and started to form his administration. The new education secretary, Gavin Williamson, comprehensive school educated and a social science graduate from Bradford University, was a world apart from the Oxford-educated, and unfortunate remain supporter, Damian Hinds. But time will tell of Williamson goes the same way as Greening in 2020 despite his Brexit support. A big surprise was that the Remainer, Jo Johnson agreed to return to his old post as Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. As the original architect of the Office for Students, he risked taking the blame if it had gone wrong. His predecessor, Chris Skidmore, seemed confused about where he stood on Brexit but moved to the Health position. Meanwhile, TEFS pressed ahead with uncovering more evidence that the UK has a two-tier higher education system with a report of the NatWest student living index for 2019 (TEFS ‘Student Living Index 2019: Hiding a two-tier ‘student experience’ in the UK’ 15th July 2019).
August led the BBC to reveal how students move into the top jobs in a fascinating documentary ‘How to Break into the Elite’. TEFS covered a detailed background of those interviewed and there was a surprise that some very extreme views, including what could be viewed as an incitement to violence, were discussed openly and aired. It seemed that the frustration of those excluded because of their backgrounds was boiling over (TEFS ‘Want a top job? Get ‘polished’ or have your hopes dashed’ 2nd August 2019). With the A-Level results out, UCAS persisted with a headline ‘Record number of disadvantaged students off to university’. This was in total defiance of the mounting evidence that using postcodes and the POLAR methodology as a proxy for measuring disadvantage was not appropriate (TEFS ‘The A-Level results are out: The big fish in small ponds to be released’ 16th August 2019). Meanwhile, TEFS revealed a further analysis of the AdvanceHE/HEPI student experience survey data going back to 2012. Surprisingly, a wide range of students are trapped into needing part-time work in term time and the situation is not a simple one. Disadvantage is widespread (TEFS ‘Students working in term-time: Challenging the ‘disadvantage’ shibboleth’ 9th August 2019).
September brought us the resignation of Justine Greening from her position as an MP. (TEFS ‘Justine Greening…Greening… Gone!’ 6th September 2019). Johnson had already removed many detractors from the party and no doubt she was honourable enough to walk away. She finished with a statement that exposed the terrible rift in our political elite “I am proud to have been the first comprehensive school educated Secretary of State for Education”. By the end of the month, the Attorney General had summed up the political situation with six words paraphrased from Monty Python “This Parliament is a dead Parliament” (TEFS 26th September 2019). The writing was on the wall for Labour that was already presenting itself as unfit to govern at its conference in Brighton. A motion to back remain in any future referendum was defeated without a card vote despite the chair declaring it was carried. Any notion of democracy was now dead.
October saw the political crisis accelerate and the government reached a deal with the EU to leave by the end of the month. They had simply betrayed Northern Ireland to break the impasse; something that Theresa May refused to consider. It also seemed that a generation of young people was being betrayed across the country (TEFS ‘Alienation and a betrayal of the next generation’ 18th October 2019). With no support from Parliament forthcoming, Johnson again called for an election. This time by the 28th, Parliament had agreed to one on the 12th of December. Meanwhile, life continued for many people who were struggling. The Standalone charity highlighted the plight of students estranged from their families by releasing figures obtained from the Student Loans Company. It appeared that the post-92 universities were taking in the majority. TEFS considered this to be the tip of the iceberg as many students deemed homeless had been recategorized by the government and councils after the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. This instantly hid the problem as a council could now decide a student was not homeless if family or friends agree to let them stay (TEFS ‘Tip of the iceberg: Estranged students at UK universities’ 11th October 2019).
November started with the electorate polarised on either side of the Brexit divide. It seemed that the election was to be a one-issue election with a surge in the number of young people registering to vote (TEFS ‘Election 2019: a one issue election for students’ 1st November 2019). This became increasingly obvious as the month progressed and the economy became entangled with the Brexit debate (TEFS ‘It’s the economy (Brexit) stupid’ 8th November 2019). By the end of the month, the manifestos had emerged with the Conservatives delaying until they had seen the others. Like Justine Greening, Jo Johnson quietly decided not to contest the election. On the other side, the Labour plans were far too radical and their fate was sealed as trust in Corbyn dissipated fast (TEFS ‘The manifestos: equality, environment, Brexit and the student vote’ 24th November 2019). With all parties promising to increase public spending, TEFS considered what it would cost to support students to study more and reduce the number of excessive hours they worked part-time. It seems they contribute more to the economy than expected and it will be hard to address (TEFS ‘The cost of equalising the HE experience’ 29th November 2019).
December revealed more about the attitudes of Johnson. But this was already too late as the polls showed he had a substantial lead over Corbyn and Labour. The sense that people were now voting for the least-worst option pervaded the media and it did not smell good. With the election just a few days away, one revelation caught the attention of TEFS. In a speech made to Centre for Policy Studies in November 2013, Johnson revealed a dangerous disdain for the electorate and support for an economy that serves to further entrench social class divisions. He championed the ‘qualities’ of envy and greed with “inequality is essential for the spirit of envy”. A video of the complete speech is available on the Centre for Policy Studies www site and here is a link to the full text (TEFS ‘It’s all about equality, Brexit, the environment and the economy, not envy and greed‘ 9th December 2019). By the early hours of the 13th of December, it was all over. The electorate had voted for Johnson, flaws and all, and gifted the Conservatives a large majority in Parliament. Despite a crushing defeat, Corbyn refused to resign immediately. In refusing to take responsibility he started to seal the fate of Labour in opposition for a very long time. Meanwhile, we were set to leave the EU at the end of January with ’no deal’ very likely before the end of 2020. But the signs are not good and there are major challenges ahead to make society more equal. The Queen’s speech and associated notes hinted that the spirit of Augar may emerge in the future in a new review of university finances. However, equality of opportunity took a backseat to ‘sustainability and ‘value for money’ (TEFS ‘A new government, austerity children and an old joke’ 20th December 2019)'
The decade has ended in acrimony, confusion and an uncertain future. It will be a long uphill struggle to ensure equality in our higher education system. The words of the re-established Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, illustrate the wide rift in perception and a gross underestimation of the problem with a tweet that described our universities as the “best and fairest HE system in the world”. There is a lot of persuading to be done in 2020.
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.