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Pulling up the ladder: Go further but not higher

A speech by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson yesterday further reinforced the views expressed by the Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan last week (see TEFS 1st July 2020 ‘Government minister points the finger of blame’). Both speeches were an admission that their own government of the past ten years had failed – and failed very badly. After deliberately expanding universities in what was a free market, both now admit that it was wrong. Unlike Donelan, Williamson fell short of an all-out criticism of our universities. However, the hint of cutbacks to come is still there. Donelan had no reservations and attacked universities for failing in a regime concocted by her own government. The blame for the neglect of Further Education is put onto Tony Blair for some obscure reason that eludes even those with good memories. Both characters seem to have forgotten their own origins and, mesmerised by the ‘elite’ they have joined, pulled up the ladder after themselves. Apparently, others like them are encouraged to go further but will be restricted from going higher as they have. 


The views of Gavin Williamson were aired at a meeting of the Social Market Foundation yesterday. The text of his speech is here ‘Education Secretary FE speech with Social Market Foundation’ and there is a video at ‘The forgotten 50%. Why further education is vital to economic recovery’. The title alone raises serious questions about the attitude of the government to Further and Higher Education in the last ten years. We are 20 years into the new millennium and a government minister is talking about ‘the forgotten 50%’. What are we to make of that admission? 

The philosophical premise underneath Williamson’s approach is encompassed by this statement in defining education and its purpose. 

“We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job”. 

The rest follows from this simplistic idea. He fails to address how higher education works in creating a new future and future technologies where understanding and awareness might serve is better than simply ‘skills’ that can become outdated fast. He is right that Further Education should be given more support and prominence. But he is wrong in thinking they are forgotten. His unconvincing position seems to emanate from the myopia of a ruling elite that he has joined since leaving university. 

The origins of the problem – assuming there is one. 

Why has it come this and ‘the forgotten 50%’? If there is blame, whose door should it be laid at?  Williamson observes that,

“There has been a systemic decline in higher technical qualifications. Well over 100,000 people were doing Higher National Certificates and Diplomas in the year 2000; that has reduced to fewer than 35,000 now.” 

He is right. But when did this happen other than in the last ten years? 

He also notes that “As it stands, productivity is only 4% higher than the level it was in 2008. At the same time, our businesses are crying out for skilled technicians”. We all agree. But who caused this? Of course, Williamson has a ready answer with, 

“When Tony Blair uttered that 50% target for university attendance, he cast aside the other 50%. It was a target for the sake of a target, not with a purpose”. 

But is this correct? Williamson conveniently fails to accurately cite the speech Blair gave at the Labour Party Conference in 1999 and its context. It takes a special scoundrel to do this with such arrogance now. Blair said something like this in the context of wider educational opportunities for all young people. It was a bold move (reported in the Guardian ‘Tony Blair's full speech’). But he actually said he was thinking of Universities and Further Education with,

“Why is it only now, we have lifted the cap on student numbers and 100,000 more will go to university in the next 2 years, 700,000 more to further education. So today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century.” 

Instead, Williamson might have concentrated on the savage underfunding of Further Education since 2010. He should cite a major report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies back in 2018. In its headline announcement, ‘Severe squeeze on further education and sixth-form funding in England’ it states “School sixth forms have faced budget cuts of 21% per student since their peak in 2010–11, while further education and sixth-form college funding per student has fallen by about 8% over the same period, though from a lower base.” The full report is available at ‘2018 annual report on education spending in England’ and it makes for sobering reading that is no cause for celebration. It is good that the government has seen fit to reverse their disastrous ongoing policy on Further Education. But is it really necessary for anyone to attack universities in the process? 

It is also hard to believe Williamson when he says he was “shocked to discover that while the number of people going to university has increased, the total number of adults in education has actually fallen”. Where has he been hiding all of this time? Everyone knew this! 

The historical context. 

The conservative government instigated the Robbins ‘Higher Education Report’ that emerged in 1963. However, it was the Labour Government from 1964 that had to organise the expansion. This continued through the 1970s under both Labour and Conservative regimes. 

In the aftermath of Robbins, Advanced Colleges of Technology morphed into Polytechnics after the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) was formed in 1965 to validate their degrees. Many already ran rigorous degrees under the London External Degree system that started over one hundred years earlier in 1858. The CNAA and Polytechnics were a major advance in Higher Education provision. The aim was to ensure a rigorous standard, and this was largely achieved. Indeed, some observers began to see that teaching and courses were better organised and more rigorous in Polytechnics. Course contents had to be designed to a standard approved by the CNAA and effectively delivered to satisfy external assessors. This was a constriction not ‘endured’ by universities at the time (see Open University About the CNAA) The CNAA persisted until the Polytechnic status was abolished in 1992 when they became what we now call Post-92 universities. This move occurred under a Conservative government that we might call a Major change in retrospect.  It opened the door for courses that might not be as well thought out in terms of delivery and standards compared to those checked through CNAA oversight.

However, it was the Thatcher government from 1979 that imposed major cuts in higher education and caused a decline in provision whilst student numbers continued to rise. This could be seen as the start of a quality decline. But the real cause of the current government’s dissatisfaction with what universities offer has different roots. 

After the cuts under Thatcher, something had to give. Removing quality restraints on many institutions might itself have caused problems. However, this was not apparent at the time. Instead, the recognition that students should somehow contribute toward the costs as customers started a trend the slowly took control. The idea arose from the Dearing Report instigated by the Conservative Government at the time. This led to a Labour Government imposing a relatively low student contribution to fees from 1998. These rose slowly until a conservative government expected all costs to come from fees after the findings of the Browne review in 2010 ‘Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance’. The move to remove a cap on fees was expected as the system expanded and maintenance grants for less advantaged students were a core recommendation. But a complete move to fees as the only way to pay for courses was never the intention and number controls were part of this balancing act.

A monumental mistake. 

The real problems arose when the fees became very high and the sole income for universities for teaching alongside the removal of a student number cap. Naturally, university managements moved fast to fit as many in at the lowest cost possible while reaping high salaries for themselves. This decision lies at the core of what both Donelan and Williamson are now complaining about. This arose from the Conservative decision in 2013 that led to student number controls being lifted from 2015. While Universities UK welcomed the news, the Russell group queried that it would lead to lower standards. Clear warnings were there at the time. (see BBC News 3rd December 2013 ‘Autumn Statement: Cap on student numbers to be lifted’). Up to that point, all jurisdictions in the UK capped student numbers. Scotland and Northern Ireland were wise to keep caps on student numbers and, in Scotland, there is a cap on numbers and still no fee imposed on students. In Northern Ireland, there was considerable criticism of the cap being too low as it restricted access for many who did not attend university if they were unable to pay to go elsewhere (see TEFS 22nd February 2019 ‘Northern Ireland and the scandal of the ‘Third University’). 

The myth that a free for all in university provision would somehow mean that more disadvantaged students could go was widely promoted but turned out to be a mirage. Yes, their numbers rose, but not as much as those from better-off families. It became a system open to anyone that could, or was, willing to pay. The gap in access did not narrow significantly as a result ( see TEFS 19th October 2018 ‘OfS progress on widening participation: Reserve your seat now for 2204AD’). This then evolved from poor judgement to become a monumental mistake when student maintenance grants were abolished in England in 2016. (see a good general overview in a House of Commons Report from 2018 ‘Higher education tuition fees in England’) .

The competition between universities for student numbers, unconstrained by government, became a 'free for all' in a false marketplace. It was fast becoming chaotic and the idea that the Office for Students could regulate this was running away from them. Suddenly the instability of the system became exposed because of the COVID-19 crisis. There was no choice but to reintroduce number controls this year to prevent more chaos in the system because of COVID-19. (Department of Education 1st June 2020 ‘Student number controls’). 

Reversing out of the chaos. 

It is unlikely that we have heard all the plans of the government. They are drip-feeding us slowly to gauge our reactions. One statement from Williamson perhaps reveals the real intent. 

“And although this speech is about further education, universities can be an important part of the solution, if they are willing to significantly step up their provision of higher technical qualifications.” 

This would mean some universities reversing to their Polytechnic roots in all but name. It would also mean keeping number controls in place to rebalance the provision across different institutions. This would be a sensible approach and it is equally valid to set a high cap on numbers for universities. There is no excuse for attacking universities for following the ‘free market’ lead of the government in the past. Also, no excuse for blaming others for any of the shortcomings. 

Pulling up the ladder. 

It is worth noting that Williamson graduated with a degree in Social Sciences from the University of Bradford just as the labour Government under Blair was starting out. After studying A-levels in Government, Politics and Economics, it is unlikely he did not understand the Blair plan. He accepts that many of his friends at his comprehensive school did not go to university, but he should be more careful not close off the route for others. Likewise, Michelle Donelan left a school that was a former grammar school and became comprehensive in 1978. She progressed to graduate in history and politics from the University of York when Labour was still in power. 

However, it seems they have become mesmerised by joining an ‘elite class’ that holds onto the power in our country. They should not ‘pull up the ladder’ of opportunity that they were lucky enough to climb. Neither character is stressing enough the need for equality of access for all students. Capping and planning of numbers is something that must happen, but it must also be in the context of fairness and equal access. Certainly, there is little concession to helping disadvantaged students in the current policies or plans. Setting a high number for universities is still possible whilst also offering better-funded Further Education to those who want to take this route. But it must be stressed that both should be equally available for all.

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.

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