Skip to main content

Government minister points the finger of blame and inadvertently admits government policy on universities and social mobility has failed


The universities minister attacked universities directly earlier today with “For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals”. For a minister in a government that has ruled for ten years, it can only be a staggering admission of failure. The expansion of student numbers in a poorly regulated market lies at the core of the problem as she sees it; if indeed there is a problem. Attacking universities that did what they could in a competitive environment fostered by a conservative government is a very low punch unworthy of a Minster. Meanwhile, in the context of a widening access conference, the chance to reassure everyone that support for hard-pressed students would be coming soon was painfully lost. 


Earlier today the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan (see*Note below), called for “true social mobility” in a speech for the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). The hope was she would tell us about support for students and universities emerging in the coming days. Although a comprehensive spending review has been put back again, the Treasury announced on Twitter yesterday that there would be an ‘Economic Update’ next week on Wednesday 8th July. This was a golden opportunity for Donelan to indicate what help we could expect. Instead, it turned out to be an unjustified attack designed to cover up the admission of failure. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn't sit for a month”. Another member of the Roosevelt family, FDR, had more advice for her, “Do Something. If it works, do more of it. If it doesn't, do something else”. 


The main focus of the NEON meeting ‘Where to now for outreach? Innovation and impact of Covid 19 on widening access to HE work in 2020-21’ was to launch a new initiative ‘Uni4Me’ that brings together 250 online activities from 50 organisations in the higher education (HE) sector to help improve access to university. The whole idea is predicated on universities offering opportunities in their courses. 

Michelle Donelan’s attack on universities, therefore, seemed inappropriate in the circumstances. It may go unnoticed in the COVID confusion and babble coming from government but it does nothing to help either. 

After a few benign platitudes, she opened fire with “But today I want to send a strong message – that social mobility isn’t about getting more people into university”. 

“For decades we have been recruiting too many young people on to courses that do nothing to improve their life chances or help with their career goals”. 

This was not really followed by any sensible idea of what 'Social Mobility' really is other than a few ‘truths’ 

“True social mobility is about getting people to choose the path that will lead to their desired destination and enabling them to complete that path”. 

“True social mobility is when we put students and their needs and career ambitions first, be that in HE, FE or apprenticeships”

Failing to mention the utility of degrees in politics as a career option (see*Note below) she ploughed on with “Whatever path taken, I want it to lead to skilled, meaningful jobs, that fulfil their ambitions and improve their life earnings, whether that’s as a teacher, an electrician, a lawyer, a plumber, a nurse or in business”. 

She did not stop the attack there. 

“Too many have been misled by the expansion of popular sounding courses with no real demand from the labour market”. 

“Quite frankly, our young people have been taken advantage of” 

“And too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down” 

“We have seen this with grade inflation and it has to stop”. 

As an aside on the latter point, see TEFS 19th April 2020 ‘Grade inflation and contextualised admissions to university are stirring up a wasp’s nest’. She would do well to hold back on such assertions or risk getting stung. 

This all seemed internally inconsistent with her comment that “But don’t get me wrong - higher education should be open to all, all those who are qualified by ability and attainment” 

All of this also seems to signal that the government will continue to control numbers into the future alongside determining the types of course to be offered. This has little to do with ‘Social Mobility’ but it has everything to do with abandoning the ‘free market’ approach of the last ten years. 

An admission of government failure. 

Remember that a conservative government has ruled in either coalition or alone since 2010. That is for ten years. Therefore Donelan’s assertion that “the 2004 access regime has let down too many young people”, and led to the problem in universities identified by her today, hardly goes back to the Higher Education Act of 2004 under a Labour government. That is patently ludicrous. All universities were calling for more funding in 2004. A Labour Government, who allowed universities in England to set their own tuition fees up to a cap of £3,000 a year, hardly led to the current mess. Instead, the developments since a major hike in fees were voted on in December 2010 would appear to be at the root of the ‘problem’. The Conservative Government engineering this deliberately. Teaching grants were also phased out in a deliberate move to create a ‘market’ in student places. Abolition of student number controls in England and Wales in 2013 was part of this masterplan. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has a good overview from that time ‘A guide to the removal of student number controls’. It’s author Nick Hillman asserted that “This is another step in the liberalisation of English higher education, though it also marks a change in direction as over recruitment penalties have been tightened in recent years”. The result was a massive increase in student numbers encouraged by a conservative government. Hillman was right in his warning “But the policy was put together rapidly, with little attention to precedents at home or abroad that might have served as a useful guide. It remains fuzzy”. How to pay for the increased numbers and maintain quality were dual problems then as they are now. However, abolishing maintenance grants in 2016 hardly did much for ‘Social Mobility’. 

Donelan’s final flurry displayed little concession to taking responsibility. Instead, she said, “So, today I’m calling for change, to start a new era on access and participation. One that’s based on raising standards, not on dumbing down; on putting prospective students and their ambitions and their needs first; on results and impact, not on box-ticking and marketing; and on delivering graduates into jobs that really will transform their lives.” 

This does nothing to inspire confidence for our universities and students alike. Students are already committed to courses this year and will need all the help they can get to make it through a very tough time ahead. If the Government is serious about keeping hopes for social mobility alive, they should instigate a ‘taskforce on student support’ as soon as possible (see TEFS 19th June 2020 ‘Open Letter to UK Government Ministers - taskforce on student support urgently needed’). Attacking universities at this time of crisis and blaming them for the results of failed Government policies is inexcusable. 

*NOTE Michelle Donelan was elected as an MP in May 2015 and has been universities minister since February 2020. She has a history and politics degree from York University.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Qfqual builds a concrete wall: UPDATED

UPDATE 8th August 2020
Things are moving fast today with severe criticism mounting about Ofqual and SQA, and urgent action is needed. TEFS has laid out ten points that should be considered to reverse out of the crumbling mess. Fairness should replace 'maintaining standards' as the primary objective. The government must cease trying to defend a system that acts as a barrier to the less advantaged.
Since posting yesterday, things have been moving fast. Today the Guardian put the examinations issue in large print on its front page with ‘Nearly 40% of A-level result predictions to be downgraded in England’. This conclusion came about after some great detective work by former medical statistician, Huy Duong, who analysed the data available and reconciled this with the Ofqual announcement that there could have been a 12% inflation in higher grades. It seems that Ofqual have been caught red handed and "Duong’s findings were privately confirmed to the Guardian by exam officials”…

Impact of Coronavirus measures on the working student: The nudge that breaks the camel’s back

The measures taken today by the UK government mean that many small businesses will be forced to close and lay off their workers. With people voluntarily staying away from bars, restaurants and clubs, the impact will be profound. The government will be judged by how it supports people most affected and this will be their legacy. Since the majority employ students as part-time workers, it seems they will be hit especially hard. Add to this the loss of part-time work within universities rapidly shutting down many operations, and the effect will be catastrophic for those in most need. Even PhD students robbed of their pay from casual teaching that they rely upon will be affected. TEFS now calls upon universities and government to step in to help those affected. Emergency hardship funds should be urgently deployed. Having to drop out or fail courses because of lack of support is not an option. Loss of funding and rent arrears will be the ‘straws that break the camel’s back’. The measure of…

Bring back Augar and put students first to offer hope: UPDATE Augar speaks out

UPDATE: Augar Speaks out
Today, Friday 8th May 2020, Philip Augar broke cover and commented on the financial crisis in our universities in the Financial Times. With 'The time is ripe to reform UK university finance' he acknowledged that "Covid-19-related disruption may now mean that such a fee cut would be too destabilising".  He is looking to a new post-COVID-19 world and he must be listened to. The likelihood of the government's response to his report last year diverging far from its recommendations looms.
Augar has offered alternative options for funding Universities in his article for the Financial Times today (8th May 2020). His input is welcome at this time and the government should be bringing him into the fold again. TEFS has argued for a comprehensive review of university finances that goes well beyond simply looking at students and fees with:
"Therefore, a working group involving students (such as NUS), staff (such as UCU) university managements (such…