Michelle Donelan: How to crack down on low-quality higher education

21 Jan

Michelle Donelan MP is Minister of State for Higher and Further Education.

When I was first appointed Universities Minister in 2019 I saw it as a tremendous opportunity. Not only because we have some of the best universities in the world, which we rightly celebrate, but because it would allow me to properly tackle the pockets of low-quality teaching that are less good.

We have all read the headlines about “Mickey Mouse” courses, sky-high drop out rates and courses that offer only a couple of hours of contact time a week. And when students are paying £9,250 a year, that is simply not acceptable.

So, this week, with the Office for Students (OfS), I have taken serious steps to stamp out these low-quality courses. For the first time, we will be setting tough minimum requirements for drop-out rates and progression to graduate jobs – enforced by fines and, ultimately, withdrawal of student finance. We will also be clearly labelling universities that are not up to scratch as “Requires Improvement” – while ensuring that our institutions with the best teaching are properly celebrated.

If we want people to be able to seize the advantage of the opportunities this country has to offer then we must give them the skills they need to succeed. Report after report has been written about the UK’s historic underinvestment in technical and vocational skills, the declining graduate premium and the need to rebalance the emphasis we place on higher and further education. Since being appointed to my new role last year, as Minister for both Higher and Further Education, addressing these challenges has been at the heart of my mission since I was appointed.

Like many people who were the first in their family to go to university, for me, university was about more than learning. Breaking through the barriers of background and geography, it was an experience that gave me the confidence to go out into the world knowing I had a world-class, high-quality education under my belt.

This is not just my experience; it is the experience of millions of others, including hundreds of thousands this year. After all, Britain is home to four of the top 10 universities in the world.

But as I have said many times, we need to stop the obsession about whether more or fewer people are going to university, and instead focus on getting people on to high quality, worthwhile programmes that will genuinely give them the skills they need to succeed in life – whether that is at a university, a college or on an apprenticeship. Universities my be great, thumping engines of social mobility – but they are far from the only route.

This Government is offering a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain – at any stage in their lives. Last year, we published our Skills for Jobs White Paper, putting employers at the heart of our education system. Whether it is a record investment in our Further Education Colleges, establishing 21 Institutes of Technology to deliver advanced technical STEM courses, doubling the spending on apprenticeships since 2010 or setting up bootcamps to train another 10,000 new HGV drivers, we are delivering on that promise.

Looking forward, our Lifelong Loan Entitlement will, from 2025, make it as easy to get a student loan to do a year of electrical engineering at an FE college as it is to get a loan to do a three year degree in politics, opening up retraining opportunities to millions.

I am also determined to tackle the weak spots in our universities. As we all know, there are pockets of poor quality – the so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees – that if they continue to proliferate, risk undermining the huge progress in social mobility that we have already made. Right now, at 25 universities and other providers, less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to graduate and find professional employment or further study within 15 months.

This is not about any particular subject. Whether it is music or mathematics, film studies or philosophy, engineering or economics, courses can be taught well or badly. For example, many students and parents do not know that while many universities offer computing courses with a drop-out rate of less than 15 per cent, there are still eight universities offering computing courses with drop-out rates above 40 per cent. In fact, it is not just the general public who are unaware of this, even students enrolled on these courses often have no idea that they have signed up to a poor quality programme.

What message does that send to those students who, like me all those years ago, do not have a long line of family members who went to university to advise them? I know for certain that I would not want my children on that kind of course, and I have no doubt that most people would feel the same as me.

Last November, I rebooted our Access and Participation regime, to refocus it on real social mobility. Access shouldn’t be about just getting someone in the door, but on to a course that they complete and that is rigorous enough to give them the skills they need in succeed in life. Under their new access and participation plans, universities will be required to reduce drop-out rates, revolutionise their work with local schools and set new targets to increase the proportion of students on degree apprenticeships and higher technical provision.

This week, working with the universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), I have gone further. When consumers buy a product in a shop, they expect two things when it comes to quality: first, that the product has satisfied minimum standards and second, that the product has proper labelling to inform them of the quality of what goes into it. The quality assurance plan published this week follows exactly the same principles.

The OfS will now be setting stringent minimum requirements for completion rates and graduate outcomes for every course. For full-time students studying a first degree, these will be that at least 75 per cent of students complete their studies, and that 60 per cent go on to a highly skilled job or further study. No longer will it be possible for a provider to rip off students with courses that do not improve their lives after graduation. Students will be able to select their course knowing that, like the food in their fridge or the car on their driveway, their course has reached a minimum acceptable standard for quality and outcome.

Alongside this, we are re-vamping a clear labelling system called the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This system will signal high quality to students and parents through a simple Gold, Silver or Bronze rating – celebrating all of the successes of our finest institutions.

For the first time ever, those universities with low-quality courses will receive a “Requires Improvement” rating, which clearly marks out those courses are being inadequate and allows students to make properly informed decisions about whether or not to take them. This brings our higher education sector in line with established best practice for schools, hospitals and elsewhere in the public sector.

As Conservatives, we believe that everybody regardless of background, deserves a genuine chance to improve their lives. In our universities, in our colleges and in our great apprenticeship providers we have much to be proud of. By taking the robust measures we have to improve quality and transparency, we can be confident that we will be ensuring that every student gets the higher education they deserve.

Michelle Donelan: This government will ensure universities deliver real social mobility

24 Nov

Michelle Donelan MP is Minister of State for Higher and Further Education.

During my time as a Minister in the Department for Education I have spoken a great deal about what I call ‘real social mobility’ – the idea that a blind drive to get bums on seats in university helps no one.

What does help students is ensuring they have the information to make informed decisions, in order to get on to courses with good outcomes and actually complete their course.

That is why I am ensuring universities change their focus to getting on rather than just getting in.

Because getting in, is in reality, just the first rung on the ladder. What moves people up that ladder is a system that supports them the whole way up, rung-by-rung if necessary, until they get to where their talent and ambition can take them.

The ladder also has to be leading somewhere – it is unacceptable that at 25 higher education providers, and on many more individual courses, fewer than 50 per cent of those who start end up in graduate employment or further study. We must also not forget that those who suffer the most are from disadvantaged backgrounds – data from the Office for Students (OfS) shows clearly that disadvantaged entrants are less likely to continue after year one; less likely to achieve a first or upper second-degree classification; and less likely to progress into highly skilled employment or study.

So today, I am announcing that we are refocusing the entire Access and Participation Regime to shift its measure of success in social mobility from intakes to outcomes – real social mobility. As Conservatives we all believe in a meritocracy – my own conservatism is based on a strong belief in the individual: that if you give them the tools they need then they will flourish. Sadly, some courses don’t give students the tools they need to get skilled work or the support they need to help them complete – and that’s not real social mobility. I will always defend university autonomy but I will not stand by and let some of our young fail to reach their full potential. After all, real social mobility is at the heart of levelling up.

As of today, we have appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, John Blake – an experienced educationalist from one of our top Multi-Academy Trusts. His task will be to embed the culture of good outcomes and high standards that have transformed opportunity within our school system since 2010 into our university sector. The first thing that I have asked John to do is to rewrite the national targets on Access and Participation, to ensure they properly reflect our levelling up ambitions, including a greater focus on addressing regional disparities and promoting degree apprenticeships. The OfS will then be asking every university to in turn revise and resubmit their Access and Participation Plans to refocus them on equality of opportunity, raising aspirations and standards in education.

This change will mean universities spend more time delivering for students – whether that is raising standards in local schools, delivering high quality teaching or supporting disadvantaged students into real, worthwhile careers. We are ending the need for novel-like plans – which require massive university resources to develop. Plans should be accessible for a student, parent or teacher who wants to pick them up and see. They should not take large teams endless hours to produce.

All access and participation work will need to be demonstrably aimed at helping students achieve the highest possible grades, and provide a path for them to walk after. We do not just need universities to accept students from local schools, we need them to actively work with and support their local schools to raise aspiration and attainment so that local students who arrive every year have the abilities, the skills and the confidence they need to excel in their courses.

There should be a shift away from marketing activities that benefit universities but let down students – and toward tangible results for students. That means every university working with schools and Further Education colleges in their area to improve attainment – and better transparency, too, so that students can make really informed choices. I am also making sure there is a real focus on the expansion of degree apprenticeships which offer students the chance to learn and earn debt-free, whilst gaining tangible work experience. We do already have some world-class degree apprenticeships on offer but the choice is limited and it is time we changed this.

Gone will be the days where universities recruit students onto courses that lead to dropping out, frustration and unemployment. A student’s outcome after university needs to be as important as a student’s grades before university.

So, just as the Russell Group has become used to having to set ambitious targets for recruiting state school pupils in order for its plans to be accepted, from now on universities with poor outcomes will have to set ambitious targets for reducing drop-out rates or improving progression to graduate employment. If the targets are not ambitious enough, then the plan will not be accepted by the Office for Students, meaning the university will not be permitted to charge full tuition fees – and if a university makes a plan but does not keep to it, the Office for Students will be able to impose sanctions, including fines.

We often hear how university is the springboard to social mobility and it can be – but right now, for too many people, it isn’t. Further education and apprenticeships can be an equally good choice.

However, we need to focus on the fact that it matters what you study and where. When young people go to university they make a substantial commitment of both time and money – they deserve to have the information to make informed choices, to have the confidence that they will be supported to complete their course, and a good chance of getting a skilled job at the end of it. This Conservative Government is a government that is focused on actions, rather than words. That is why I have set out these reforms today, to deliver real social mobility and to level up opportunity across our whole nation.

Sarah Ingham: Social inequality cannot be fixed by erasing Britain’s history

15 Oct

Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.

Along with Jon Bon Govey, thanks to the Prime Minister another hero burst into our collective consciousness last week: Hereward the Woke.

The PM’s Conference speech might have skirted around the many challenges facing the United Kingdom, but he was clear whose side he was on in the country’s culture wars, highlighting a key battleground: history.

Hereward the Wake (or Watchful) led a five-year insurgency against William I’s all-conquering Normans around 1070. They were fighting in what by then was recognisably England, even if it seemed more like Game of Thrones’ Westeros. The frequent descriptions of the legendary Hereward as one of the ‘greatest Englishmen’ might, however, be pushing it: the resistance leader could well have been as much Danish as Anglo-Saxon.

If only there were more 11th century texts to view through the post-modernist lens of critical theory, Hereward might be the subject of numerous academic papers on identity and colonisation. Wake or Woke; structure or agency.

Voted the greatest Briton in a 2002 BBC poll in which more than one million took part, it is Winston Churchill rather than Hereward who has come to embody the current cultural conflict within history – and indeed within wider society.

As the author of History of the English-Speaking Peoples, our most illustrious Prime Minister also joins the fight as participant, as well as prize, in today’s history wars. His style is less the drums and trumpets school and more Land of Hope and Glory: ‘… on that little Anglo-Saxon island there was kindled the flame of freedom and equality for the individual … This idea grew and was spread over the earth by the English-speaking peoples, and has now brought democracy to the whole free world …’

If Prime Ministers Johnson and Churchill are battling for history in the metaphorical blue corner, in the red is the seemingly self-hating Churchill College, Cambridge. In July, it announced it was disbanding its Churchill, Race and Empire Working Group.

This follows a panel discussion ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’ – still available on YouTube – in which various publicity-hungry academics denounce the British Empire, which is given moral equivalence with Nazi Germany, while among other howlers, apparently mixing up Nye Bevan and Ernest Bevin. Historical accuracy; so yesterday, right?

Last week’s report from the Office for Students stated that universities were ignoring poor spelling, punctuation and grammar. ‘To achieve or promote inclusivity’ some institutions are turning a blind eye to the rules of basic written English. Not only is this jaw-droppingly patronising, but harming students’ career prospects. But who cares about the future of £9,250 a year fee fodder, when there is decolonising the curriculum to get stuck into?

‘They Kant be Serious’ was The Daily Mail’s Johnson-esque response to reports that students at School of Oriental and African Studies wanted to side-line various philosophers, including Plato, as part of its Decolonising Our Minds campaign. Across Britain, universities are following suit, treating the canon by dead white men as if it were radioactive.

Exeter University’s History Department declares that it is ‘working to decolonise the way we teach, research and work with one another’. Its counterpart in Durham is not only committed to decolonisation but to creating an ‘all-inclusive culture and environment’.

With about one-third of their students privately educated, Exeter and Durham aren’t too far off the top of the posh list. Are we quite sure that this current fad for new narratives, which was given fresh momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement, is nothing more than Britain’s academic leaders appeasing their noisier students? After all, they are happy to pander to student-led, mind-closing gestures like no-platforming.

It is ironic that so many of the country’s higher education institutions are making a virtue of decolonisation while structural inequality is obvious in many lecture theatres. It must be questioned how far the cause of social justice is served by ensuring Josh and Jemima, whose schooling cost £40,000 + a year, have more non-white radicals on their reading list than Frantz Fanon.

Last week the Prime Minister warned that our national story is being rewritten. Just as Trotsky came to be air-brushed out of the Stalin-era Soviet picture, whole periods of our collective past are being re-interpreted to fit in with today’s orthodoxies. Statues must fall, links – however tenuous – with the slave trade denounced, street names changed. Supposed guardians of Britain’s history, including the Church of England, art galleries, museums and the National Trust, pander to present mood of iconoclasm.

In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the giant statues of Buddha in Bamiyam province, smashing 2,000 years of history. A decade later, not content with burning alive or beheading opponents, ISIS obliterated artifacts and ruins of the Greek and Roman empires across an arc from Libya to Iraq. In trying to wipe out any trace of a pre-Islamic past, these cultural nihilists decimated a common global heritage for future generations. They could not, however, change the immutable past.

In the context of today, Britain’s history is a litany of uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Most of it is problematic, some of it heart-stirringly glorious. The current canyons in social equality in this country are not going be bridged by obsessing over what happened hundreds of years ago.

In the current rush to re-write and re-interpret it, what is overlooked is how little history many know. This mass ignorance was reflected last year, when Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, called for a disclaimer on the Netflix series The Crown. Viewers needed reminding that the events depicted were fiction, not historical fact.

As Black History Month continues, it is apt to reflect on the words of Marcus Garvey: ‘A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’ Last week, the Prime Minister declared that ‘we Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance’.

To the barricades.

Doug Stokes: We need urgent action to help pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds get into university

16 Oct

Doug Stokes is a Professor in International Relations at the University of Exeter.

Relative to our nation’s size, UK universities punch well above their global weight. They can also transform lives. As the first person in my family to go to one, and coming through London’s East End inner city schools, I can attest to that.

However, there are also worrying long-term trends that show that in today’s university sector. The odds are increasingly stacked against my younger self.

Our universities attract talent from across the world and are incredibly diverse. Latest figures show that between from 2003 onwards, the proportion of all staff who were UK White steadily decreased to 72.2 per cent in 2019. From Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, the proportion of all staff that are UK citizens stands at 7.9 per cent, and of non-UK BAME staff 5.9 per cent.

This is similar with the UK’s student population, with a remarkable 504,292 ethnic minority students studying in British universities in 2018-2019. Even at Oxford, traditionally seen as a bastion of privilege, more than 22 per cent of its undergraduate students starting in 2019 were Britons from BAME backgrounds, up from 18 per cent on the previous year’s admissions.

Despite this incredible diversity, there are long-term trends that need to be addressed with some urgency. At our most selective universities, only five percent of disadvantaged young people enroll, compared with the national average of 12 per cent. Even if they do get in, young working-class people struggle to stay with an 8.8 per cent dropout rate, compared with 6.3 percent of their peers from better-off families.

Part-time students from lower-income backgrounds have dropped by a massive 42 per cent over the past six years. ONS figures show that the historically low entry rate into higher education of white pupils from state schools has been this way every single year since 2006, whilst the biggest increase in entry rates between 2006 and 2018 was among black pupils, at 19.6 percentage points (from 21.6 per cent to 41.2%); the smallest increase was among White pupils, at 7.7 percentage points (from 21.8 per cent to 29.5 per cent).

There is a gender dimension to this too. The Higher Education Policy Institute’s latest survey of gender participation rates across degrees of all ranges, shows a long term trend of declining male participation. Mary Curnock Cook, Chief Executive of UCAS, states that “young women are now 35 per cent more likely to go to university than men. If this differential growth carries on unchecked, then girls born this year will be 75 per cent more likely to go to university than their male peers”.

The latest data on widening participation reinforces this depressing picture. A child on free school meals is the leading indicator of deprivation. In terms of progression amongst young men, 67 per cent of Chinese, 54 per cent Indian, 53 per cent Bangladeshi, 52 per cent of Black African, and 24 per cent Black Caribbean on free school meals progress to higher education.

White British men? Just 13 per cent, and are the least likely of any group to study at university after those from Traveler backgrounds.

These educational disadvantages can have significant real-world effects. ONS pay data shows that Chinese, Indian and mixed or multiple-ethnicity employees all had higher median hourly pay than White British employees, with employees from the Chinese ethnic group earning 30.9 per cent more than White British employees.

A report by NEON, an organisation trying to address these issues, concluded that less than 20 per cent of UK universities have set targets in their Access and Participation Plans for white students from low income neighbourhoods. This is despite often being situated in areas of significant deprivation. Recognising the dysfunctional nature of incentives and governance of our Higher Education system, NEON state that in “the context of the outcome driven approach to access and participation being promoted by the regulator for HE, the Office for Students, if something is not seen as an outcome or target then it will not be prioritised”.

Looking ahead, what can the Conservative Party do to address some of these problems and advance its levelling up agenda?

It is clear this is climbing up the governmental agenda. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, underlined this resolve at the 2020 Conservative Party Conference. “White working class young boys are the most underrepresented group of individuals who go on to university”, he argued. For our country, this is a “shocking disgrace’ that underlines the fact that whilst ‘talent is incredibly evenly distributed right across the country… Opportunity is not.”

Robert Halfon, Chair of the cross-party Education Committee, is now looking at this issue in depth and has committed to standing up “for the most disadvantaged in society” to “give them a voice”. Blue Wall champions, such as Ben Bradley MP, have also championed this issue in the Commons.

It is thus clear that universities may well need to change the way they do things.

First, there are already a number of ideas on the table including more flexibility in degree modularity, whereby a learner can hop in and hop out depending on their often busy lives. There will also likely be a greater emphasis on working with businesses, with apprenticeship schemes and more flexible technical education integrated across tertiary education that would also encourage greater participation. If you come from a background of disadvantage, flexibility and an eye on the bottom line in terms of career uplift are only natural.

Second, at most institutions, teams trying to widen participation amongst left-behind communities often play a poor second fiddle to better resourced Equality, Diversity and Inclusion teams. Whilst avoiding a zero-sum ‘oppression Olympics’, proactive and evidence led approaches are obviously needed in addressing inequality and inclusivity and in guiding funds and attention where they are needed most.

More focus is also needed on the signals that university values and leadership send to our most disadvantaged communities. Following the tragic killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, a number of universities have adopted the language of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as the official ideology. For CRT theorists, white people are structurally privileged (‘white privilege’), and to deny these charges is to display what is called ‘white fragility’ – a further sign of one’s guilt, and proof of systemic racism.

Advance HE, one of the UK’s leading higher educational charities, has been in receipt of over 23 million pounds of government grants since 2015. Their UK-wide workshops draw on the teachings of Critical Race Theory (CRT) to show how it ‘can help advance change in our universities’ and now run workshops promoting CRT.

Aside from being totally divorced from the reality of UK higher education, the key question the Education Committee needs to ask is: what kind of signal does the endorsement of these kinds of ideas send to these left behind communities? How has it come to be that white working class kids have faced decades of disadvantage, and yet now also face a seeming blanket endorsement of ideas of their ‘white privilege’? Something is deeply broken here, and it needs to be fixed very soon.

This is compounded at our most selective ‘high tariff’ institutions. We need much clearer benchmarking around access, where these problems are especially acute. In our world-leading Russell Group universities, the participation gap remains huge. Young people from the most represented backgrounds were 3.91 times more likely to participate at high-tariff providers than the least represented.

In attempting to address this, the Office for Students has set longer term targets to close this gap by 2039, but surely more can be done to bring this longer term goal much closer given the social costs of not doing so? Universities respond very well to structural incentives, and perhaps identifying regional champions to help push the levelling up agenda would be the way forward.

Whatever is chosen, whilst talent is spread throughout the UK, opportunity is not. In what is a strategic necessity in post-Brexit Britain’s changing political economy, let us spread opportunity to capitalise on that talent and build the future anew.