Edward Peck: The Government is right to set its sights on technical education. But it needs serious investment too.

1 Sep

Professor Edward Peck is Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trend University and a member of the Augar Review.

The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education have made bold statements about their commitment to revolutionising post-18 education. They want to open new opportunities for all those who do not attend university and, indeed, for some of those that do. There has been talk of a German-style system, boosting both the number undertaking technical education and the status of further education qualifications.

These speeches have been widely welcomed. Many employers are desperate for applicants to have the skills to drive up their productivity. Many adults are keen to gain those skills to boost their employment prospects, income and security. Many experienced providers of technical and vocational education, both universities and further education colleges, stand ready to offer more flexible routes to skills-based qualifications. There is the potential for an alignment of demand and supply that could deliver the revolution the Government seeks, driving economic growth, in particular in those seats in the Midlands and North where it has promised to “level-up”.

What could possibly go wrong? A repeat of the piecemeal and half-hearted approach to funding skills-based education and training that has undermined serious progress in this area for decades. Past generations of politicians have identified the importance of the issue but have baulked at the level of investment necessary to back good intentions with significant interventions.

What would work? The adoption of the proposal to introduce Lifelong Learning Loan Accounts, which was the cornerstone of the Augar Review into the future funding of post-18 education. These accounts would enable adults from the time they leave school up to pre-retirement age to access loans for fees and maintenance for approved skills programmes on the same terms as those available to undergraduate students.

Flexibility would be central, based on the needs of learners and employers. The loans would enable study for sub-degree qualifications, encompassing short accredited courses as well as longer apprenticeship-style programmes taken over several years. They would enable adults to study part time, to complete their studies over a period of time that fitted around their other commitments, to take the credits they had achieved already to another provider.

There is strong evidence to suggest that this approach would encourage adults to borrow to invest in their own future. The sharp increase in enrolments following the introduction of loans for postgraduate study in England has shown that the financial support package available to learners is crucial to unleashing demand.

Furthermore, research on the recipients of these loans shows that they were taken in roughly equal proportions across all social groups. This demonstrates an appetite across society for individuals to invest in their own future and that of their families.

Large numbers of universities and further education colleges provide the one day per week educational component of apprenticeship programmes funded under the Apprenticeship Levy. Much of this provision is moving online as apprentices return to work, more evidence of the responsiveness to the market that characterises much of our post-18 system.

Increased future flexibility in the ways in this levy could be utilised, in particular being deployed alongside employees’ own loans, could produce a new model of co-investment in skills developments that benefits both parties. This would also result in a better balance between state, employee and employer responsibility in the developing the key skills that the economy needs.

The Government has acknowledged the requirement for it to meet its part of the bargain, announcing a £2.5bn national skills fund. The opportunity is to commit this money to both meeting immediate skills needs through training grants and modelling how a new long-term approach based on Lifelong Learning Loan Accounts could be phased in over the lifetime of this parliament.

The Government is working on a White Paper that it is anticipated will set out a far-reaching and joined-up package of measures to transform technical and vocational education in this country over the long term.

However, without a similarly ambitious approach from the Treasury, history is in danger of repeating itself. This has held back growth and productivity in our economy in the past. Regrettable then, in the times of Brexit and Covid-19 recovery, it may well turn out to be disastrous for businesses, voters and politicians alike.

Ministers and Ofqual have hospital-passed the exam fiasco to universities and colleges

17 Aug

When we wrote this morning that the least bad course, for this year’s GCSEs and the pupils who took them, was to let teacher-predicted results stand, we were confident that the Government would do precisely that.

It has been evident from the moment that Ofqal published A-level appeal advice on Sunday morning, and then withdrew it that very evening, that Conservative backbench opinion would change.

Tory MPs were divided on what to do about the algorithm-issued A-level results in principle, but began to unite about what the Government should do in practice.

If Ofqal was in chaos, they reasoned, Ministers weren’t in control – and had lost any grip on an emerging triple problem that they might once have had.

This treble hurdle was, first, A-level appeal chaos.  Second, the GCSE results coming down the track later this week.  And third, the urgent need for schools to open up in only a few weeks’ time.

It is true that by now empowering schools and pupils to pick the better of the algorithm or predicted results, Ministers and Ofqal may have set the scene for some sixth forms and colleges to wax and others to wane.

This is because there will be winners and losers from a settlement in which there are more pupils going on to do A-level than were expected, as will be the case now.

The weaker institutions stand to lose – unless the Treasury bales them out, as will doubtless be the case to some extent, especially if many of them are further education colleges, given Ministers’ focus on FE.

But this is one of the side-effects of taking that “least bad course”.  In essence, what Ministers now done is to transfer an educational problem driven by the scrapping of exams from the Education Department to schools and colleges.

Like Russell Crowe’s Jack Audrey in Master and Commander, they have cut their ship loose from the wreckage that was threatening to sink it.

We thought that they wouldn’t do so with A-levels, because results have already been issued.  We were wrong.  The same political logic has been applied, despite the difficulties that this will now cause.

“Now I have students/parents in my DMs asking if they can give back the place at their 2nd choice uni and claim their place at their 1st choice,” Sam Freedman tweeted in the wake of today’s announcement.

Expect more of that, and then some.  Obviously, Gavin Williamson, Boris Johnson and Nick Gibb will take flak in the coming days for it.

Nonetheless, our snap take is that, in crude terms, Ministers and Ofqal have picked up their problem and hospital-passed it to the universities and colleges.

There will now be hero institutions, such as Worcester College Oxford, that will accept all students with offers, regardless of their A-level results. Hooray.

And there will be villain ones, presumably to be denounced as “snobs”, who will show less compassion, or cunning, or both – and will stick to the script.  Boo, hiss.

But the general effect of the move will be like that we may see in sixth forms and colleges, but more so.  The cap on student numbers will go.  Russell Group universities will hoover up better-qualified students.

Much will depend on overseas student numbers.  But don’t be surprised if we see the outcome that the cap was put in place to avoid – namely, pressure on the weaker higher education institutions.

Again, Rishi Sunak will haul out the taxpayer cheque book.  However, we can’t help wondering whether our old friend the law of unexpected consequences may apply.

Our columnist Neil O’Brien has made the case for a rebalancing of higher and further education.  The Government sees this as part of its desire to “level up”.  Could the exam results crisis turn out to trigger such a process?

Tomorrow, we will probe the question that the media, many voters, and MPs are inevitably asking: who’s to blame for this shambles?  Ministers?  Ofqal?  Both?

In Master and Commander, it’s not just wreckage that is cut loose.  One of the seamen, Wharley, drowns.  Which politicians or quangocrats should now be dragged five fathoms deep?

Lack of viewpoint diversity at universities threatens us all

4 Aug

Yesterday, research Policy Exchange confirmed what many people have worried about for years: a growing intolerance towards different political opinions at universities. Its report, titled Academic Freedom in the UK, showed the extent to which viewpoint diversity is under threat at these institutions.

Researchers examined one of the largest representative samples of UK-based academics in recent years and found that only 54 per cent of them would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch, with a third seeking to avoid hiring Leavers in the first place.

Researchers also estimated that between “a third and half of those reviewing a grant bid would mark it lower if it took a right-wing perspective”. In general, grants were found to attract the strongest levels of discrimination.

In summarising their report, the authors wrote that: “Hostile or just uncomfortable attitudes signal to those subject to such discrimination that they should conceal their views and narrow their research questions to conform to prevailing norms”.

In other words, academics are starting to self-censor in order to get by.

Much of this reinforces a recent article for ConservativeHome by Alexander Woolf, who wrote about the difficulties of trying to succeed in academia should one not subscribe to socialist politics. He regretted that people like him were “unwelcome in the vast majority of political science departments in this country.”

The research also reinforces my own feature for The Telegraph last year, in which I spoke to undergraduates about their experiences at universities. “I have lost a couple of really good friendships as soon as they found out I’m Tory”, one 19-year-old told me. Another Conservative said he was “abused and threatened” after protesting university strikes on campus.

The UK – and indeed the US – has reached a deeply troubling state of affairs in regards to ideological insularity on campus. And something has to change.

Fundamentally, it’s a contradiction of universities’ whole raison d’être for them to suppress and demonise diverse viewpoints. How is anyone meant to write or think anything interesting when only one worldview counts? The woke one, as it is called.

It’s not good commercially, either, given the British reliance on international students. Why would anyone want to study here when this problem exists?

The research will be particularly dispiriting to the general public as a measure of how much the culture wars have escalated – and how much worse it could get.

Some have always claimed that this battle is exaggerated, but the fact that an academic would shun a sarnie with another – simply because they want to leave an economic union – is a terrible indictment on society.

And it’s not only that: it’s campuses banning speakers, and even clapping (because it’s not “inclusive”) to replace it with jazz hands, and so forth.

Some of this is in part due to the growth of arts degrees and others which teach youngsters to see the world through the sociological lens – as a series of systems stacked against them, that they must then dismantle.

Yes, the Conservatives got a fantastic majority last year, and many took this as a pushback woke ideology, which was a dominant feature of Corbyn’s Labour (and Starmer’s hasn’t been particularly better, mind you).

But these victories can seem immaterial when its proponents have made great strides in our academic institutions – and elsewhere.

Over lockdown one of the most obvious ways in which woke ideology exerted itself was through the statue-toppling campaign. What began as just protests in response to the horrific murder of George Floyd descended into anarchy.

We’ve also seen JK Rowling shunned in celebrity circles for having conventional views on biological sex.

More and more people will be chastised, as she’s been, if universities continue teaching in the way they do, while shunning anyone who offers alternative perspectives.

Policy Exchange’s report makes some important suggestions. It wants higher education institutions and the Government to do much more to ensure that all lawful speech is protected.

Gavin Williamson, too, has taken some incredibly important steps towards moderating the issue. Knowing how much many of these institutions need a Government bailout thanks to Covid-19, he has told them they must first prove their commitment to free speech. It’s a great incentive.

The more the Government can set out policies to counter the issue, the better; universities are, after all, providing society with the next lawyers, journalists, doctors and generation of professionals. We simply cannot have them siding with one ideology; it’s not healthy for democracy, at the very least.

But combatting the groupthink will take more than legislation. It will also need the Government to be much bolder in putting forward its values.

Yesterday it was noticeable that Johnson’s ratings on the ConHome survey had gone down – which I hypothesised was due to his new-found interventionist tendencies on obesity, and face masks, and the rest.

But some of this may also reflect the silent majority’s wish for the Government to get a bit louder on the culture wars. Ministers should, at least, speak up while they can.

Alexander Woolf: My economic views are mainstream – but have been almost impossible to air at Britain’s universities

2 Aug

Alexander Woolf is a PhD researcher in political economy and a former parliamentary assistant. 

During my years as an undergraduate politics student, I gradually learnt how writing assignments from a free market perspective was like asking to be failed. By my final year, I acquiesced to writing through a socialist lens and I received high Firsts every time.

The fact that I had to pretend to be somebody else in order to succeed frustrated me and violated every belief I had about individuality and meritocracy. At that moment, I decided that my career goal would be to enter academia and teach political science objectively, helping students to understand not just the few flaws of capitalism but also the many benefits. Like today’s political philosophers and political economists, I would continue to teach Marx, but I would also teach Hayek, Mises, Smith and Rothbard. After all, what is education when it is only half-taught?

After finishing my degree and my Masters, and gaining a few years’ experience of working in Parliament, I was accepted on to a PhD course, the final step towards entering the academic world. Finding a British university as a Conservative, libertarian, or classical liberal is no easy feat. I was told by every like-minded scholar I encountered to apply for King’s College in London or cross the Atlantic to attend George Mason University in Virginia. Anywhere else was a waste of my time.

This seemed strange to me. My views about the economy are mainstream among economists and businesses, who champion a system of limited government involvement. My views about wider issues are also shared by the majority of British voters, who have elected Conservative governments for the last decade – and even delivered an unexpected Brexit result. However, I was told that people like me are unwelcome in the vast majority of political science departments in this country.

Despite being driven for so many years to help correct the ideological bias in our universities, I still hadn’t fully grasped the gravity of this problem. As soon as I started my PhD, I grabbed the first opportunity to teach by becoming a seminar tutor. I was given classes in a module called “The Politics of Global Capitalism”. Despite the objective title of this class, however, I soon learnt that the lecturer in charge of the module is a proud Marxist. In our introductory meeting, the lecturer joked how he hoped the students would “throw their iPhones out the window and raise the red flag” by the end of the semester.

In hindsight, I should have recognised the red flag that was raised by his ideological comments and dropped the class, but this just made me more determined. And since Tory students are highly unlikely to secure funding from the ESRC funding council, I frankly needed the money.

I was pleasantly surprised during my months of teaching subjects how mature, rational and open-minded the students can be. However, my Marxist class had two self-confessed communist students who were problematic, to say the least. Other students would confide in me that they felt uncomfortable getting involved in discussions because these students would shout people down, scoff and laugh at them, or call them stupid.

During one particular rant about how “we” should raid businesses and seize their profits, before kicking Jeff Bezos out of the country (for what reason, I’m still unsure), I decided to probe with some intellectual questions. What signals would it send to other businesses? What would happen to our economy when we’re seen as a volatile place to invest? I received no response.

Within one week, I was informed that two students had complained about me for being biased, and since the lecturer had let me teach on the assumption that I was also a socialist, I was advised to drop the class. As with the 2011 riots and the militant tactics of Momentum, the theme is clear: when socialists inevitably lose an intellectual or political debate, they turn nasty.

However, two 18-year olds aren’t the problem here; the responsibility lays with our educational institutions. Students learn what they are taught, and if they are only taught by socialists, then we can’t be surprised when they refuse to tolerate a conservative teacher.

Universities were founded as institutions for creating new ideas and spreading knowledge, but our social science faculties peddle propaganda and incite young people with their own prejudices. My university department, for example, has a research centre dedicated to furthering “public understanding of politics”, an important and admirable task. The fact that this centre is named after a socialist, however, raises serious questions about whose understanding is being publicised.

Approaching the final year of my PhD, my desire to teach has evaporated and I have turned down offers to tutor again. I came to realise that the lack of “people like me” in academia stems from the fact those people don’t want to work in the modern-day university; ones that pride themselves as being “safe spaces”, but safe spaces for whom, when evil, climate-destroying Tories are not welcome? Why would anybody subject themselves to this kind of work environment?

There is cause for conservatives to be concerned about the future of voting in this country. Yes, it’s a blessing that a centre-left Keir Starmer is Britain’s current worst-case scenario, considering his predecessor. However, we cannot forget the perplexing irony that tech-savvy millennials were captured so easily by Corbyn’s 1970s solutions to modern world problems.

The next generation of voters won’t know how socialism worked out in Russia, China, North Korea, Venezuela, or Cuba. They won’t understand that government bureaucrats can’t design a smartphone to rival the iPhone. They won’t realise that arbitrarily punishing businesses might mean an end to the next-day deliveries of their favourite products, forty-minute deliveries of their favourite restaurant food, or instant streaming of their favourite TV shows.

Economic knowledge is important in an advanced economy, and this knowledge needs to be based on facts rather than myths or ideological hyperbole. If we want to ensure that the next Jeremy Corbyn suffers the same fate as the last, it is vital that we ask questions of our schools, colleges, and universities about the accuracy and objectivity of their lessons and lectures on issues of citizenship. Opponents will say that this threatens independent science, but what I have seen both as a politics student and teacher is far from science.

Julian Brazier: The time is now for university reform. Here’s how we fix Britain’s broken institutions.

28 Jul

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

The public debate about the future of universities has moved a long way in the last year or two. Michelle Donovan’s excellent recent speech was an important step: the first time a spokesman for any British government has acknowledged that university is poorly serving a substantial proportion of students.

It has since been underlined by a strong statement from Gavin Williamson. The concerns expressed by think tanks, individual writers and the House of Commons Education Committee, which concluded that only half of recent graduates were in graduate level jobs, have been brushed aside unanswered by the university lobby.

Instead, apologists for the universities repeatedly cite statistics about the value of degrees, based on averages which mix the highest performers with those struggling at the margin. Worse, they focus on high participation rates around the world, simply ignoring the two major ways in which the UK is out of line. First, in almost every other country, most students study from home, roughly halving the cost of a campus-based course, and, second, and more importantly, most students in those countries with high HE rates study vocational subjects.

These two factors make comparison with HE participation rates abroad misleading. It is interesting, however, to look at Switzerland and Germany because both are, in one important respect, like us and unlike the majority; they deliver the bulk of their vocational education outside universities, making their statistics more comparable to ours than say France, Italy, Spain or indeed America. Germany and Switzerland have much lower HE participation rates than the UK and both have low unemployment – and exceptionally high productivity.

The Government understands this. As it moves towards reform, a model is emerging based on a shift towards vocational courses at universities, combined with more FE and apprenticeships. More vocational courses are being floated by government as the gateway (along with cuts in vice chancellors’ salaries where appropriate) to assistance from a new bailout fund.

But that limited lever can only apply for the duration of the Covid crisis and only to those institutions seeking financial help. Yet, the crisis is driving record numbers of school leavers into applying for HE this year, despite the Government’s laudable efforts to sustain the sagging jobs market and build up positive alternatives like apprenticeships.

The tanker is drifting further off course. So, the urgent question is, how can the Government enforce its laudable aims without fatally compromising the independence of universities?

My suggestion is that they formally split courses into three categories: two academic, STEM and Arts/other, together with a third, vocational category. Then a set of minimum admission standards should be applied within each of the three categories for eligibility for student loans and other government support. This would leave universities free to control their admissions, but effectively block them offering places to those below the relevant national standard. There could be a limited system of exemptions based on foundation courses for mature students.

The setting of standards would be controversial, but the following broad approach would be a significant improvement on the existing “money for old rope” approach. STEM courses should require a good A level grade in mathematics – it is unrealistic to expect anyone to benefit from a degree in engineering or computer science without a sound mathematical base. In a few cases, like the biological sciences, a minimum overall A level combination might substitute for a maths result.

At a time when the economy desperately needs more STEM graduates, it is in nobody’s interests to allow youngsters to study subjects which they lack the mental capacity to master. We need better maths and science teaching in schools – and more more pupils, including more girls, studying STEM subjects – not to offer false hopes afterwards, as many universities are doing. Too many good universities are already spending the first year of physics and engineering degrees on remedial maths.

The hardest to set nationally would be the arts sector. The Government might wish to avoid the temptation of comparing classics with PPE or geography, to choose three subjects entirely at random, and just set a minimum standard across the board, say three Cs at A Level.

Finally, standards for vocational courses could be set in consultation with industry. Such consultation might suggest that FE or apprenticeships are more appropriate, except for those with the strongest academic base. Certainly, most students should study in their local city or town (other than those living in the most remote areas), to keep costs and debt down.

In her speech, Michelle raised concerns about universities recruiting school leavers for courses that do nothing to improve their life chances. These split into two categories – those on the wrong course and those who should not be at university. Introducing national standards would rescue the most vulnerable group, the latter category, and, incidentally, make permanent the laudable recent ban on unconditional offers. It would have a second important effect too – many of the non-vocational courses would wither because of the paucity of applicants likely to achieve the new standard.

None of this would interfere with universities’ independence, but the package would stop a minority of universities cynically exploiting those most unable to benefit, by shackling them with a lifetime of debt and lost aspirations. It would also save the taxpayer a great deal of money as most student loans are unlikely to ever be fully repaid.

The standards could also be applied to overseas students, so that our doors remain wide open to the brightest and the best – but not to low achievers who currently automatically qualify for a two-year additional stay.

The Government also has an opportunity to drive good leadership by vice chancellors in a quite different way. The honours system sends powerful messages, and two filters could be applied to applications for senior university staff, apart from the obvious main category of awards for academic and research achievement.

First there is an opportunity to highlight those VCs like Karen Cox at the University of Kent, who have acted unilaterally before the government guidelines were published. She announced a large personal pay cut – and imposed the same on her senior colleagues – while protecting low-paid staff. That is real leadership.

The second filter is highlighted by the contrast between Oxford University, on the one hand, where Louise Richardson has consistently resisted Chinese investment with compromising strings. She has also defended dons like Nigel Biggar against woke lynch mobs.

At Cambridge, on the other hand, Stephen Toope, the Vice Chancellor, has presided over the creeping takeover of critical parts of his empire by cheque-waving Chinese organisations and turned a blind eye to the impact on academic independence.

At the same time, he has taken a strong stand in favour of a BAME academic who published profoundly racist material, citing the importance of free speech, and yet allowed a don to be ejected for disagreeing with the woke mob and Jordan Peterson to be denied a visiting professorship, because he was once photographed with a student who was wearing an offensive tee-shirt.

Making Louise Richardson a Dame – and blocking any efforts by the HE Blob to get an honour for her Cambridge counterpart – would send a clear message that Conservatives believe in academic freedom.

We have a great deal to be proud of in our university sector, with the highest-ranking institutions in the world, alongside America, but – in the interests of the rising generation – elements of the system badly need reform. At last, we have a government willing to take action. Here are some ideas for a plan.