It turned out that Donelan had simply waited to release the planned ‘regime’ for universities the next day to avoid awkward questions ‘Establishment of a Higher Education Restructuring Regime in Response to COVID-19’. Those who influence the new controlling regime will hold most of the power as all universities bend to the pressure to conform. This was a very dangerous development (July 16, 2020).The implications were analysed further by TEFS in ‘’At the crossroads: A week is a long time in politics July 17, 2020.
Despite the snow and the cold weather, the sun is still shining in optimism as this post is finalised today.
Throughout the year, TEFS has set out to address the wider issues that affect students and young people with fewer advantages. The COVID-19 crisis has been a major force that exposed the widespread inequalities in our society. The attitude of the government to examinations, teaching online, and a lack of support for students with the most need, served to emphasise the extent of the problem. The gap between those with and those without widened even further, fuelled by the long-term austerity measures. With unemployment rising fast, we enter the new year with many more families joining the ranks of the disadvantaged for the first time.
Please think of those finding things tough through no fault of their own as we enter a difficult new year. If you are able, please give to your local food bank or donate to: The Trussell Trust - Stop UK Hunger, the Marcus Rashford campaign End Child Food Poverty or Fare Share campaign No one should go hungry this Christmas.
Here is a link to a free TEFS calendar to download. It has pictures of TEFS postings throughout 2020.
The year brought incredible tragedy and stress to millions across the world. As the old year passes, we should first pause with a thought for the families and friends of those who have died of COVID-19 and ‘excess’ deaths. Thankfully, the new ‘Oxford’ vaccine will be rolled out as the New Year starts but sadly comes too late for those we have lost. Today the reports are of a record 55,892 coronavirus cases in 24 hours with 964 deaths. We should never come to accept this.
Many new terms have entered the lexicon that were not in the minds of most people as 2020 started, yet they are now part of our lives. ‘Social distancing’, ‘support bubble’, ‘spike protein’, ‘coronavirus’, ‘mutation, ‘R number’ were all eclipsed by the horror of hearing the term ‘herd immunity’. The choices were stark.
The year unfolded with menace in the air even before the Coronavirus pandemic was realised. Yet it was already established and spreading by stealth. We left the EU at the end of January 2020 and took a leap into the unknown with no trade agreement in sight. As this post is being finalised the UK parliament passed a bill to enact the final last-ditch agreement with the EU. Published as a series of papers by the European Commission and the UK Government ‘Agreements reached between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the European Union’, it now awaits ratification by the EU parliament where we no longer have representatives.
It is a major change in how we develop into the future, but is flawed in many ways despite the relief that tariffs on goods will be avoided. Theresa May rightly pointed out in parliament that the deal is worse than the one she offered to parliament. It offers little solace to the service and finance industry as they grapple with the variations in the different 27 EU states. The fishing industry, Northern Ireland and many other sectors have been betrayed as customs declarations and restrictions abound.
As the year progressed, the idea of ‘levelling up’ was revealed as an economic investment strategy and nothing to do with social equality. This attitude spread into the response to the COVID-19 crisis as the primary emphasis was placed on business and not security for individuals. The rush to using private business and enterprise to supply resources turned out to be a feeding frenzy of loophole exploitation. Hopefully, the profligate waste that this enabled will translate into criminal investigations in the new year.
Protections for workers and others are now open to looser interpretation that will fuel conflict soon. The idea of the UK getting back its ‘sovereignty’ is pure bluster. We will have to bow to EU rules to continue trading. We will have no representation in the EU and instead we have surrendered our sovereignty to a five-person independent and unelected ‘arbitration panel’. If we depart from EU expectations, we will have to do what they decide.
Students and Universities.
Our links with the EU are also now tied down by EU decisions in terms of research direction. The UK will continue into the new Horizon Europe programme and contribute. But it puts into question the extent of additional research funding in the UK balanced with the commitment to the EU programmes. Either way, the research-intensive Russell Group Universities are expecting a windfall.
Many have been saddened by the UK leaving the Erasmus student exchange programme. It was a keystone in integrating with higher education in the other states. Replacement with ‘Turing’ scholarships offers some hope, but this is mostly to facilitate outward movement of students. There is no detail yet and it might be expected that students leaving the UK will be balanced through bilateral agreements for other students to be financed coming to the UK. The use of the name ‘Turing’ is strange since he was prosecuted and vilified in his time and died in suspicious circumstances. But his contribution to science and to ending the conflict of WW2 early was profound. More apt might have been the ‘More’ scholarships. Thomas More was an English philosopher and contemporary of Desiderius Erasmus, a friend and fellow humanist. He introduced the idea of an isolated island state called ‘Utopia’. But as chancellor for Henry VIII, he also suffered the fate of arrest and then execution.
Winners and losers.
The media has been full of commentary on ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. This is nonsense. We are all losers as the cost of imports and exports rises, service industries flee oversees and inflation creeps up. The economic hit of COVID-19 means it is the wrong time to be dealing with this.
The main winner may turn out to be Ireland and Northern Ireland as they come to terms with the new reality. While GB turns toward an insular future, Ireland can benefit from a more open expansive outlook. Éamon de Valera may be spinning in his grave as his vision of “The Ireland That We Dreamed Of” is totally lost in the mist. The insular strategy of de Valera caused enormous damage to Ireland that was only put right upon entering the EU along with the UK. The irony is that de Valera was born in New York and possessed a rose-tinted middle-class view of what rural Ireland should be. Boris Johnson is also from a privileged background and born in New York. He may possess similar glasses.
Just as the TEFS Review of 2019 was released on 31st December 2019, the Chinese authorities were informing the World health Organisation of a new virus circulating in Wuhan. It was the start of one of the most momentous episodes in human history. The World health Organisation (WHO) reacted quickly. By the 30th of January 2020, they declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), WHO's highest level of alarm, and the UK banned travel to Wuhan (Timeline: WHO's COVID-19 response). But it was already too late. The coronavirus (Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) had spread by stealth, masquerading as similar respiratory disease, and had taken hold across the globe.
We are grateful for scientists in Oxford and elsewhere for their foresight when the first coronavirus sequence was released by Chinese researchers on 10th January. the task of constructing a vaccine began at the point. The virus was already circulating in other countries before November 2019 but this was only to be discovered much later in 2020.
For most observer scientists, particularly microbiologists, the virus triggered considerable concern. But since the SARS outbreak in 2002 (caused by a related severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-1) there was an assumption that the UK government was surely ready to manage the crisis. After all a pandemic was expected eventually. This turned out to be a naïve assumption as the delays and chaotic response emerged.
For those interested in educational matters, there were the usual concerns about the approach being taken by the government. Dominic Cummings shocked the establishment with how we wanted to manage his big data plans by hiring ‘super talented weirdos’ (January 03, 2020). This was ominous and TEFS explored some of the underlying beliefs that underpin the ‘levelling up’ agenda. A belief that genetic determinism was the most important factor was a grossly misplaced assumption that was taking hold. (January 10, 2020).
On universities, Chris Skidmore was Universities Minister and Augar was still a going concern, he announced that the Augar recommendations would be considered in the next spending review. The promised report on the review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) from 2018 had yet to emerge and by the end of 2020 it was still lost (January 20, 2020). Heading this off, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, decided to send the Office for Students (OfS) a very simple letter earlier in January setting out cuts and his priorities. The headline figure was a saving of £58 million in the financial year 2020‑21. But underneath this was worse news that the cut was to be £26 million over the rest of the academic year and £70 million over the coming 2020/21 academic year. These cuts in provision persisted for the rest of 2020 despite added pressure on university hardship funds. No additional provision for a possible pandemic was ever considered even as it raged into the next academic year. It encapsulated the focus and attitude of government. This was despite warnings about the impact on social mobility as the Social Mobility Commission released another report ‘Social mobility barometer poll results for 2019’ showing the situation in the UK was deteriorating (January 22, 2020).
TEFS started by looking closely at access to computer and internet technology and the widening gaps in access. This was partly in anticipation of a possible closure of schools and universities if the pandemic spread. Online provision would be the only fall-back available but this would affect disadvantaged students of all ages (February 07, 2020). It became clear that there was a distinct trend toward more students dropping and the causes provided an ominous backdrop if the crisis deepened (February 21, 2020).
Meanwhile Chris Skidmore was no longer universities minister and had been replaced by Michelle Donelan under Gavin Williamson as Education Secretary. His science remit was split off to the lower ranked parliamentary undersecretary Amanda Solloway in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (February 14, 2020). This move further emphasised the dearth of scientists in government positions that seemed prophetic as the COVID-19 crisis emerged. It became clear later that most of the government had little grasp of the numbers or the scientific imperative and readily jumped to the wrong conclusions (Science vs Government: The ultimate game of chess February 17, 2020).
March started with the realisation that there was a crisis impending across the university sector. TEFS looked in detail at the numerous government moves that would assault the sector in ‘Consuming the towering Eton mess in Higher Education (March 06, 2020). The budget on 11th March was a stop gap and had £30 billion set aside for dealing with the Pandemic. What seemed a large sum at the time, it was unlikely to be enough (The budget first-aid box and a research feeding frenzy March 11, 2020 ).
On the same day, The WHO declared a ‘Pandemic’ and its Director-General pulled few punches with “We cannot say this loudly enough, or clearly enough, or often enough: all countries can still change the course of this pandemic” yet “Some countries are struggling with a lack of resolve”. By the 13th of March, the WHO announced that Europe was now the epicentre of the outbreak after widespread disruption in Italy. There was no doubt that the UK would see similar in a short time.
Meanwhile disturbing news emerged about the UK response being directed by those in favour of a ‘herd immunity’ approach. Prime minister Johnson referred to the plan as ‘squashing the sombrero’. Behind this flippancy lay a sinister realisation of the consequences (March 13, 2020). Chief Scientific Advisor, Patrick Valance was quoted as saying "About 60% is the sort of figure you need to get herd immunity."
The hit to the economy would be lessened by spreading out the rise in numbers of people off sick. However, many would not recover, and at least 390,000 people would die. Even in the deadliest conflict in world history, World War II, the UK didn’t suffer such high attrition with 383,700 military personnel killed alongside 67,200 civilians.
At this point, universities and Schools were to remain open despite the obvious risks. The terrible truth emerged later that care homes were left unprotected at a horrendous cost in lives cut short.
Meanwhile, TEFS observed that loss of part-time jobs for students would be a major factor in their ability to continue as most would not be covered by statutory sick pay. In general, the years of austerity had left too many people in a vulnerable position. The measures taken by the 16th March 2020 were closing many small businesses and affecting livelihoods (March 16, 2020).
The government had to act further and the main restrictions in England actually began at 1pm on 26 March, when the stricter ‘Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020’ came into force saving thousands of lives.
By the end of March all examinations were cancelled for the summer and a totally chaotic situation started to unfold (March 27, 2020).
Started with the general realisation that the government was not prepared in any way to deal with the situation unfolding. The capping of student numbers was first discussed but no action was taken (April 03, 2020). It seems universities were ill prepared for a rapid deployment of online teaching and dealing with examinations (April 10, 2020). Universities UK (UUK) produced a ‘Package of measures proposed to enable universities to play a critical role in rebuilding the nation’ and warned of the consequences arising from a loss of income from student fees, especially international students. The extent to which student fees cross subsidised research was now out in the open and a cause for concern. Analysis by TEFS revealed the extent to which universities were exposed financially through looking at the likely effects on net liquidity. It was going to be a bumpy ride (April 17, 2020).
For universities, it seems competition was the outcome of a zero-sum game. Those with substantial QR finding from REF wanted it to double to save their research first. Students were left out in the cold (April 24, 2020).
Ofqual released some details about how A-levels would be assessed early in April but failed to mention the BTEC qualification that many students took to enter our universities. Under pressure there were some details released a week later April 05, 2020. But there was still confusion by the end of the month (April 28, 2020). This looked very bad to those wanting fair access for all students.
TEFS response to the universities was to call for moves to 'Bring back Augar and put students first to offer hope' (May 01, 2020). The government paid scant attention to this and went along with very limited bail out loans akin to ‘payday loans’ in ‘Government support package for universities and students’. This did not address direct support for students and focussed on fees being released to universities in advance (Universities to get 'payday loan' sticking plaster. May 04, 2020).
As predicted, student numbers were capped to avert a frenzy of poaching that would sink some institutions. Fees funding was promised upfront. However, support for research was the priority with QR funding also advanced. There was no provision for additional support for student hardship. The National Union of Students reacted fast with, ‘NUS sets out safety net needs for students’. This was good advice that needed to be coordinated across the UK and not left to individual universities to sort out. There was no reaction from the government.
It seemed no coincidence that the Social Mobility Commissioner, Martina Milburn resigned soon afterwards (May 08, 2020). With unemployment rising and projected to rise sharply over the summer TEFS looked at the numbers and the consequences. A boost to postgraduate student numbers seemed very likely. However, this would favour those from more advantaged backgrounds who had family support. The impact of the COVID-19 crisis would be further deepened without careful management for those of lesser advantage (May 15, 2020). The precarious nature of university finances began to come into sharp focus (May 22, 2020) and the spectre of mergers started to be discussed as a possible solution to viability (May 29, 2020). The government was hell bent on leaving universities to their own fate and probably blaming them if things went wrong. It would not end well.
The month opened with TEFS exposing the lack of knowledge universities had about the extent of part-time working by their students. A freedom of Information (FOI) request was made to every Higher Education institution in the UK at the end of April (June 05, 2020). With most universities replying, the true extent of the ignorance was revealed (University student part-time working is a dangerous blind spot June 16, 2020). This was reported by TEFS in an article in the Guardian ‘University students who work part-time need support – or they will drop out’.
This came on top of a report by the Social Mobility Commission that showed clearly the rising impact of the COVID-19 crisis in ‘Monitoring social mobility 2013–2020: Is the government delivering on our recommendations?. It came as little surprise to many that the 'advances' were largely disappointing (June 12, 2020).
As sure as night follows day, the government concentrated on a Bailout for research universities: Student support on hold (June 27, 2020). The emphasis was on research funding as the clear priority with “Support is also capped at the level of an institution’s non-publicly funded research to ensure that funds are being directed towards universities conducting research”.
TEFS issued an open letter to all ministers covering higher education in the UK administrations highlighting the extent of the problem and asking for more support (Open Letter to UK Government Ministers - taskforce on student support urgently needed June 19, 2020). This became urgent as early UCAS figures (‘University applications rise during lockdown’) revealed university applications were rising to higher levels than expected. It was likely that more would go to university as the job market dried up, despite the lack of support they might expect from their hard pressed families. This was described as ‘Students accept offers they cannot refuse’ (26th June 2020).
This was the busiest month for TEFS. Things were heating up fast and the next crisis to impact students with fewer advantages was around the corner. It was not a problem confined to the UK. TEFS had made links with researchers at UCLA who reported the plight of students relying on part-time jobs affected by COVID restrictions. Despite Los Angeles being one of the richest metropolitan areas in the world the parallels with London and the UK were striking. Their report, ‘Unseen Costs’, highlighted the pressure on many students in Los Angeles County (Working through college: A tale of two cities July 03, 2020).
The consequences of leaving universities to their fate began to emerge with further reports of catastrophe. The Institute for Fiscal Studies(IFS) produced a report ‘Will universities need a bailout to survive the COVID-19 crisis?’ that took a closer look at the finances of our universities through the lens of HESA statistics and projected them onto 2024. It looked worrying (July 06, 2020).
Meanwhile the government’s approach was to back business first and people second. The government’s ‘Plan for Jobs’ statement heralded a major injection of borrowed money into the economy. Some of this involved half priced lunches for the better off (Plan for Jobs: There is no such thing as a free lunch July 08, 2020).
The education secretary, Gavin Williamson spoke to reassure but in doing so admitted there had been a decade of failure by the government he was part of. The philosophical premise underneath his approach was encompassed by this statement, “We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job”. He then pointed the finger of blame at universities 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” (July 01, 2020).
This attitude to the idea of ‘social mobility’ was compounded by Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan in her response to questioning by the Education Committee of parliament (‘Education Committee Wednesday 15 July 2020’). The headline quote was “It doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university”. She stressed that “we need to move away from targets”. (July 15, 2020). Then dark clouds gather with the proviso that “The funding of student unions should be proportionate and focused on serving the needs of the wider student population rather than subsidising niche activism and campaigns”.
The plot thickened with a bad smell coming from the ‘skunkworks' at No 10. Hiding in parliamentary papers was a simple short announcement by Boris Johnson that he is taking “Responsibility for government use of data” (July 24, 2020). But while the agenda was one of control, the government's advisory group SAGE released a raft of documents all at once days later that outlined what universities should do to reopen in late September. It was lacking in any advice on testing or what universities might do when it all goes wrong (July 26, 2020).
In order to cover its tracks, the government aimed to divert attention away from universities to more vocational education. The student access data released by the DfE, ‘Widening participation in higher education: 2020’, revealed there was only a snail's paced improvement in the gaps between the most and least advantaged over time. This was to be addressed by more students directed toward technical and vocational education in what TEFS called the ‘Intelligent plumbers’ theory (July 31, 2020).
This was another busy month, now dominated by the examinations results. It started to become clear early on that the process overseen by Ofqual in England was hopelessly flawed (SQA cements the inequality ‘goal posts’ into the ground: August 04, 2020). Scotland used similar methodology in calculating the results of Highers and was the first to bear the brunt of criticism when Higher results emerged earlier than A-level results elsewhere. They caved in very quickly and reverted to teacher predicted grades. Paying little attention to this, Ofqual pressed on. TEFS made ten suggestions about how to get out of the impending storm and some of these were heeded (August 07, 2020, August 11, 2020 and TEN suggestions to reverse out of the exams mess August 12, 2020).
Sure enough the same storm endured by Scotland reached Ofqual in England by results day (August 13, 2020). Within four days the whole system had collapsed for Ofqual. Apologies were inadequate as the adverse impact on students and their futures was evident. There will be no return to a feeling of trust in the system from now on. The president of the NUS said, "inequality was baked in". With Northern Ireland (first GCSEs and later A-levels) then Wales making their moves to teacher assessed grades, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, was left with no choice but to complete the demolition later the same day (August 15, 2020). Not having learned anything from earlier mistakes, the BTEC results were still pending and adversely affecting a large number of students left hanging.
Despite assertions that he knew nothing about the algorithms used to calculate exam grades, considerable doubts were raised about what the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson knew about the arrangements. Also, that Ofqual had received multiple warnings about problems with their methodology.
The truth surely lay in the Ofqual Board minutes not released since September 2019. A FOI request by TEFS for these meant that they should have replied by the 16th of September 2020 (August 18, 2020). Meanwhile the Chair of the Ofqual Board, Roger Taylor was sent out to apologise and there was no sign of the Chief regulator Sally Collier. It smacked of no political responsibility visible and blame being laid at the door Ofqual.
The upgrading of large numbers of students grades from the calculated grades, based on past results of schools, to the teacher assessed grades was to have a big impact on the numbers of students entering university in 2020. TEFS looked closely at ‘The perfect storm for Universities. The demographic reality (August 21, 2020) and then the impending problems for students with ‘The perfect storm for Universities .The COVID-19 ‘time bomb blind-spot’ (August 26, 2020).
By the end of August, the so called ‘levelling up’ agenda was a hollow promise.
A report from the Education Policy Institute, ‘Closing the Gap’, concluded that “the gap between disadvantaged 16 year old pupils and their peers has only narrowed by three months of learning between 2007 and 2016”. Another from the London School of Economics (LSE), ‘GCSE results: the hidden but enduring effects of parental social class’, painted a similar depressing picture. Their conclusion “the magnitude of the gap between pupils from the most advantaged social classes and those from the less advantaged social classes is deeply concerning” illustrates how access to resources defines the route to success. It seems ‘levelling up’ was nothing to do with social equality (August 28, 2020).
The most important news pf the month was that the government finally admitted to cutting the support for hardship funds. An astounding 'boast' from the Higher Education Minister, Michelle Donelan in a rely to a letter from TEFS. Her counterparts in the other UK administrations were more understanding and supportive (Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support September 11, 2020). This was unforgivable in the light of the likely pressure on many more students.
The month also started with calls for the government to come clean on how the examination debacle was handled. The Education Committee was in the vanguard as it rightly sought answers from Ofqual Officials. By then the Chief Regulator, Sally Collier, had resigned to avoid the inquisition and Glenys Stacey had to step in. The proceedings are here. With ministers waiting their turn to face the Education Committee, Ofqual got their retaliation in first. A long letter (Supplementary letter from Ofqual following their appearance before the Committee on 2 September 2020) from the new Ofqual Acting Chief Regulator, Glenys Stacey set out a timeline and the advice Ofqual gave to the minsters and the Department of Education (DfE). This was accompanied by the release of an ‘Official Sensitive’ report dated 16th March 2020 ‘Summer 2020 GCSE and A/AS level exam series Contingency planning for Covid-19 – options and risks’.
Although Ofqual had promised to release all of their board minutes, none had emerged. Unfortunately, Education Committee Chair, Robert Halfon and colleagues did not see Ofqual’s Board minutes in advance despite an Ofqual letter to Halfon stating that “I also wanted to confirm our plans to publish minutes of Ofqual Board meetings. We will publish minutes up to March 2020 shortly. We intend to agree all minutes up to the end of August 2020 at our Board meeting on 16 September 2020 and will publish shortly after that meeting” (September 11, 2020).
Truth was the only casualty in these circumstances. True to form Williamson simply made a completely inaccurate defence with,
“If you go back to my correspondence and direction letter on the 31st March it did rightly highlight the importance of – ah, you know – sort of children from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds. It also highlighted the importance of standards as well.”
This was not correct. The letter DIRECTION UNDER S 129(6) OF THE APPRENTICESHIPS, SKILLS,CHILDREN AND LEARNING ACT 2009, did not mention disadvantaged or BAME students, or indeed make any concession to the point he had made about them. Its only advice was on standards (‘Three Wise Monkeys’ of the exams mess September 18, 2020).
Williamson’s evidence was also in the context of two reports on the disadvantage disparities across the UK. One from the Social Mobility Commission, ‘The long shadow of deprivation Differences in opportunities across England’, the other today from Institute of Fiscal studies, ‘2020 annual report on education spending in England: schools’ exposed stark realities.
Despite warnings, the drive to get students back into the universities backfired almost from the start as reports of lockdowns emerged. Inconsistent and mixed messages from the government merely added to the confusion. (September 25, 2020).
Meanwhile, in the background the first samples were taken from people who had the new more virulent version of the coronavirus. This was not confirmed by sequence analysis until later in October and the significance was only to be recognised in December. But the damage was done. This was inevitable as the reduced lockdown rules over the summer offered the virus a chance to reproduce in large numbers in its host. The government then offered it an ideal chance to continue spreading.
The chaos in universities escalated into October with extensive student lockdowns and a promise of face-to-face teaching dissolving in a storm of protests. Students reacted badly with claims that they were now prisoners.
The Education secretary continued to crow about imaginary funds for digital access for and hardship funds despite these being diverted from other funding and then cut. If there was any doubt, everyone now knew that the gap in resources between the well off and the rest was widening fast (October 02, 2020).
Then the horrible truth emerged with the release of a report of the SAGE meeting on COVID-19, from the 21st September 2020. The government had ignored clear advice that universities posed a great risk and should go into online mode instead of face to face teaching. By now the campuses were full of highly enraged students and staff. The most chilling passage in the ignored SAGE advice on the 21st September 2020 was the “HE workforce more than the student body” were at greater risk of “Direct impact on COVID deaths and severe disease” ( October 09, 2020).
Within days the media were blaming the presence of students in cities for the sharp rise in COVID cases. Generally this was correct and rises in student areas were happening, but they may not have been spreading it from their locked down accommodation. Then reports of reckless behaviour by some students began to turn the public against them. This was all avoidable.
While the situation was unravelling for universities and the governments across the UK, Ofqual quietly responded very late to the FOI request from TEFS (Ofqual holding back information October 16, 2020). They had held a staggering twenty-nine board meetings since March but still declined to release the minutes and cited exemption under the “Public Interest Test”.
The government and Ofqual were under pressure. A report from Ofqual (‘Summer 2020 GCSE and A/AS level exam series Contingency planning for Covid-19 – options and risks’) was in his hands on 16th March that showed clearly the potential problems. Ofqual had little choice and within a week they published their minutes (Ofqual board minutes for 2020 and Ofqual board minutes for 2019). They make for sobering and very depressing reading as the extent of confusion and conflict between Ofqual and the government is revealed. The extent of government interference was now in full view. Despite this there were no resignations (Ofqual lets the cat out of the bag October 23, 2020).
Meanwhile, in Scotland a report highlighted the terrible impact the downgrading of exam results had on disadvantaged students. There was no doubt that a U-turn was needed fast (October 30, 2020).
TEFS turned its attention to the situation many students found themselves in. Things were getting serious when Manchester university erected security fences around their halls of residences. The students immediately tore them down. Few students had deferred their studies and were now in a bad situation. The Office for Students reassured TEFS that they were working with the Student Loan Company to get a “real time understanding” of those dropping out from their studies. Yet they would not commit to publishing this. The danger of large numbers forgoing 25% of their fees and opting to suspend or temporarily withdraw from their studies was the concern for TEFS as predicted (November 06, 2020).
By mid-November, the government had caved in to calls form TEFS and others to ‘test and disperse' students as soon as practical. Plans to do this by Christmas were coming together (November 13, 2020).
Friday the 13th was perhaps not the best time for the Secretary of State for Education to announce his own review ‘Government plans for post-qualification university admissions’. The idea of post qualification admission to universities was on the cards again. He clearly had little grasp of the impact of the flawed examination process on students with little support at home. This would only make things worse (November 13, 2020).
The government was now on a roll and relentless in its pursuit of inequality. By the end of November, a further blow to ‘levelling up’ occurred with the announcement of no automatic funding to allow for extensions of their projects coming from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Their ‘UKRI COVID-19 phase 2 doctoral extension funding policy’ came as a major blow to students struggling to keep their research going. TEFS concluded that post-graduate research had become truly a ‘middle class sport’ (November 20, 2020).
This was followed by the long-awaited spending review that had zero on universities and students, ‘Spending Review 2020’. Reports that university finances were to be being reviewed behind closed doors by the former independent-schooled, unelected Lord Agnew with no university degree was concerning. Meanwhile, a crew of four, led by an unelected former minister Simon Burns, was set to look at the tricky problem of what to do, or not do, to universities that fall into financial difficulty. Called the ‘ Higher education restructuring regime (HERR) advisory board’, it will strike fear into the heart of many institutions in 2021 (November 27, 2020).
It seems we staggered into December with little clue about what was likely to happen. Scientists however, particularly microbiologists, expected the worst as the virus continued its relentless spread because its human hosts had offered multiple opportunities for proliferation.
Finally, the Student Loan Company (SLC) responded to TEFS that it had data on students withdrawing from their studies and then released early data on the numbers of students who had ‘withdrawn’ from their degree courses up to the end of November. The headline news was there are fewer than in the same period in the previous two years.
However, the SLC declined to release any data on the numbers of students who had suspended their studies or temporarily withdrawn. This number was likely to be much greater and of more interest. The Office for students responded to an FOI from TEFS to say they did not hold such data. The SCL has yet to respond to the same FOI request (December 04, 2020).
TEFS offered a deeper analysis of the Examinations system in a five part posting on 11th December, Examinations and ‘the ghost in the machine’. The COVID crisis had revealed serious shortcomings in how we might assess the ability and potential of students in an unequal education system that favours attainment achieved by those with better resources. Measuring the 'ghost in the machine’ that is someone’s real ability taken in context was not being considered and this disadvantaged those with fewer learning resources or support at home.
Not unexpected was an announcement by the government that all actions on equality and levelling up were to be taken under the wing of the cabinet office. Despite the well overdue resignation of Dominic Cummings, it seems his ghost was still lucking in dark corners in No 10.
All data was to be coordinated by a new ‘Equality Hub’ sponsored by the Cabinet Office. This included consuming the Social Mobility Commission that would no longer answer to the Education Committee.
But it is important to note ‘levelling up’ is an economic strategy and was never based on the idea of social equality. The new initiative starts with this idea in mind. It seems the cabinet office itself will coordinate joint actions and oversight. No independent oversight was mentioned.
This latest move brings us full circle to the start of 2021. TEFS observed that, despite many mistakes by government and a clear deficit in understanding by our leaders, many thousands of lives have been saved so far. With the emergence of a new more virulent strain of virus back in September, we are now responding to the challenge. A very last-minute decision has been made that most teaching in schools and universities are now going online with little notice and another vaccine was being rolled out fast.
As TEFS observed, we are the first humans in history to have begun to defeat a global pandemic through knowledge, technology, and informed avoidance actions. Indeed, we are the only species in the history of the earth that has achieved this feat (A Christmas reflection and the many lives saved December 23, 2020).
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.