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What did Augar, Pearce and the Government ever do for us?

This will be the question posed in undergraduate history examinations in fifty years. The hope is it can be answered positively by all students studying history as a major subject, or possibly science students taking history as a minor subject. The answer will probably involve acknowledging the role of both Augar and Pearce in trying to make sensible suggestions within the constraints of restricted remits. The villain will be the government in pursuing the separate  strategy of providing a labour force for business and profit with little concession to the idea of fairness or equality for individuals, who are relegated to pawns. Whilst planning for the economy is essential, this must be accompanied by fairness for all individuals. The conclusion will be that the pandemic exposed a wide gap in educational equality for individuals in our society. Yet the government missed a clear opportunity to tackle it with bold reforms that put the idea of equality and fairness for individuals at the core of its policy. 

The highlight of the week was the publication of a white paper by the Department for Education ‘Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth’ (.pdf) on Thursday. It was presented in parliament by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson as “a dynamic programme of measures to reshape this country’s further and technical education landscape” and to “level up those areas that have been overlooked and under-resourced for too long”. In reality, it was a bit of a confused offering that lacked cohesion and ‘joined up thinking’. A bit like making scrambled 'curates eggs'. The idea of expanding many more loans to students in technical education was not backed up by numbers or costs. This implied that the Treasury was not involved and might explain why it will take until 2025 to implement. 

The confusion was further compounded by observers in the media not being furnished with copies of the reports in advance and they were reduced to scurrying around in a race to put out informed analysis yesterday and today. 

Skills for jobs or skills for business. 

Williamson’s emphasis on skills for business was apparent in Parliament on Thursday. He especially stressed this with increased support for “strategic subjects such as engineering and medicine while slashing the taxpayer subsidy for such subjects as media studies”. This is alarming on two levels. Firstly, the omission of science and mathematics implies that these are not a priority for technical education at university level. Secondly, those advocating better support for the arts and humanities are still reeling from what is implied. There is a strong smell surrounding the government planning that implies it is intended for the production of ‘intelligent plumbers’ (see TEFS 31st July 2020 ‘Higher Education and the ‘intelligent plumbers’ theory’). This theory proposes that some subjects are for the advantaged ‘elite’ while ‘lesser’ technical subjects are for those serving the elite or the profit takers. 

The implications for students struggling with disadvantages are further exacerbated by indicating that a further review will include the “introduction of minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions”. The idea of contextual admissions would be killed off by this stricture. This review will follow closely on the heels of a review of ‘Post-qualification admissions in higher education: proposed changes’, also announced on Thursday. This is a ‘red herring’ that will do little to resolve the widening inequalities in our education system. TEFS take on what should happen in a wider reform of examinations is set out last week in ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’ (January 15, 2021). 

Instead, the emphasis is clearly to “unlock a wealth of new talent for employers” not to ensure equality of access for disadvantaged students. This means that business will direct much of what is provided for mostly students from the least advantaged backgrounds. However, by increasing the role of business in expanding technical education, there is acknowledgement of a potential problem. If the only aim is profit, then we must follow the money. The white paper includes a nod to the likely outcome predicted in a posting by the satirical Timeline 2070 with ‘From incubator to composter: Compulsory education for life' February sixteen, 2070. It seems the government expects to find “instances of poor practice and insufficient oversight which can lead to misuse of funding, subcontracting to generate income for the lead provider, and fraud”. It is perhaps na├»ve to expect businesses to take their eyes off the bottom line and effectively concentrate on strategic planning for skills into the future. 

Williamson’s presentation and response by the labour Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green are here as a video and published in Hansard

What did Augar do for us? 

The answer will be ‘very little’. This is simply because the government selectively extracted what it wanted to support business and its workforce needs. Much of what Augar said looks set to be discarded. After a very long wait, the ‘Interim Conclusion of the Review of Post18 Education and Funding’ released this week was disappointing. The emphasis is squarely on “high quality provision in subjects aligned to the needs of the economy and contribute to the levelling up of disadvantaged areas of the UK”. This means a supply of skilled workforce is put ahead of equality and fairness that are not mentioned. 

The stress is on supporting business and not the students. The already restricted teaching grants will be offered only to “ensure that more of taxpayers’ money is spent on supporting provision which aligns with the priorities of the nation, such as healthcare, STEM and specific labour market needs.” On technical training, more students will be able to access the “Lifelong Loan Entitlement” that will mirror the loans system for students going to university. The aim being to “provide fairness of opportunity by making the same funding system available regardless of the route you choose and when you choose to study”. 

It is worth looking back at what Augar said in his ‘Review of Post-18 Education and Funding‘ ( See TEFS 30th May 2019 ‘Augar stirs up the system: The ripples will go far beyond his remit’). The House of Commons Library provides an excellent overview of Augar from its inception in February 2018 to its recommendations in May 2019 in ‘Review of Post-18 Education and Funding’, published on Tuesday. 

Augar clearly recommended that “Our core message is that the disparity between the 50 per cent of young people attending higher education and the other 50 per cent who do not has to be addressed. Doing so is a matter of fairness and equity and is likely to bring considerable social and economic benefits to individuals and the country at large”. The government has finally realised that it must reverse the catastrophic decline in funding in technical education for what Augar called the “other 50 per cent that do not attend university”. This necessarily equates to students coming from less advantaged backgrounds. However, the emphasis by the government is selective. They ignore a clear steer from Augar that “Universities should continue to use both fee and grant income to support their disadvantaged students. We are also making substantial recommendations on maintenance support, including the reintroduction of maintenance grants”. This seems to be no accidental omission. Universities will remain the choice of those that can afford it.

What did Pearce do for us? 

Like Augar, it will be very little and too late. The Department of Education finally released the Pearce report on Thursday (‘Independent Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student’Outcomes Framework (TEF)’. The first thing everyone noticed was the date, August 2019. The government had this report for eighteen months before responding. While Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic intervened, yet another opportunity was missed. 

The pandemic has cruelly exposed the widening inequalities in our education system. Along with Augar, this makes the Pearce report hopelessly out of date in this respect. Instead of addressing how universities might support students better, standards and assessing quality of education dominates thinking. To be fair to Shirley Pearce, she has considered the idea of disadvantage in the report. One would expect the assessment of teaching in our universities, and ‘student outcomes’, to address this simple point along with the role of equality in ensuring fairness. However, there is emphasis throughout on providers who may be “disadvantaged by the LEO salary metric”. To balance this, there is thankfully acknowledgement of the “limitations of the metrics for particular student groups”. This includes the idea of “benchmarking by POLAR, which is a measure of educational disadvantage” that “does not fully account for wider aspects of socioeconomic disadvantage”. This is likely to disadvantage universities that take in more students from disadvantaged backgrounds measured as those from low participations areas. 

One would therefore expect this anomaly to be addressed in the government response if ‘levelling up’ and tackling disadvantage was a real priority. 

However, the response ‘Government response to Dame Shirley Pearce’s Independent Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF)’ is lacking on this point. Although it is stressed at the outset that the government wants to guarantee “fairness and accessibility for all students”, the emphasis is on how “students benefit from high quality provision”. The quality of teaching gathered through metrics and data will be the aim with the idea of subject level assessments dismissed by “we do not want the OfS to proceed with any form of subject-level assessments as part of TEF at this time”. This is a missed opportunity to set baseline standards in key subjects and TEFS would expect equality of access to resources for students to form part of this strategy. 

What did the government do for us? 

The government in the last ten years will be viewed as rich in rhetoric on supporting students with fewer means but lacking in action for them. There seems to be a considerable bluster and endless consultations that act as a smoke screen for the real aims. TEFS has covered the shortfall between intent and action in many posts. The hope this week was that we had reached low tide marked by the cuts made to student hardship funds at the height of the pandemic this summer (see TEFS 11th September 2020 ‘Government response to digital poverty, job losses, and student hardship: A £21 million cut to its support’). Instead of offering proper support, a central argument in the government’s plan now seems to be resorting to post qualification admission (PQA). This is on the pretext that it would give disadvantaged students a better chance. There is some evidence that students from poorer families are predicted by their teachers to do less well in examinations, then end up doing better. By then they are less likely to have applied for the elite universities or less likely to receive offers from them. 

But there is so much more that needs to be considered in offering some semblance of equality in education. In fifty years, those looking at the consequences of the current policies will not be kind to our government.

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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