Chris Skidmore: With the right support, microcredentials will transform higher education

13 Jun

Chris Skidmore MP is a former Universities Minister, and Chair of the Lifelong Education Commission hosted by ResPublica.

‘To win big, we have to think small’ – this is the idea at the heart of one of the most significant developments in further and higher education in recent years: the advent of ‘microcredentials’.

The rise of short, vocational, and cost-effective courses represents a marked cultural shift in British education. Gone are the days where highly-structured, highly costly multi-year degree programmes were the only game in town for millions of learners looking to gain the knowledge and skills they need to get ahead.

Increasingly, they are being given the option of taking agile, flexible qualifications tailored to their individual needs.

The passing of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act in April has contributed greatly to this shift, establishing the new logic of modular and adaptable learning as a top policy priority.

This is no doubt a promising direction of travel – and one that many universities and FE colleges now embrace as a viable pathway.

However, the rise of microcredentials also poses several key challenges for policymakers which must be addressed if the current micro-learning revolution is to truly take root.

A new report by the Lifelong Education Commission this week, which I Chair, attempts to tackle some of these issues.

One problem identified in the report is the fact that micro-learning is still a new and fast-evolving concept, meaning there is currently no settled definition of what counts under this term.

At present there is also limited guidance available on what micro-learning courses are available in the UK – making it difficult for learners to stay informed on all the choices open to them. 

Microcredentials may be a new frontier in higher learning, but we simply cannot afford to leave them in a ‘Wild West’ zone – where conceptual ambiguity on the one hand and poor oversight on the other undermines learner confidence.

To remain viable, microcredentials must be brought into the mainstream as soon as possible, which will mean devising a clear definitional framework which all HE institutions must adopt.

This definition must, however, strike a careful balance; remaining broad enough to capture different ways of structuring such courses – including part-time, in-work, evening or weekend, hybrid or online – whilst being specific enough to distinguish micro-learning from unrelated products like massive online open courses (MOOCs) and skills bootcamps.

Those tasked with defining microcredentials must also not forget the chief aim of higher learning: to give workers the advanced knowledge and skills they need to take up high-wage jobs at the cutting edge of their chosen industries.

Including voices from business, trade unions, and learners’ groups in the process of shaping and promoting micro-learning may therefore prove invaluable in giving the model some real teeth.

Ultimately, microcredentials are a way to bridge the needs of employers and employees at both the local and national levels. Designing modularised courses with local economies and workforces in mind could help to prepare learners for work in growth sectors, whilst reversing decline in strategic industries.

Another big challenge facing the Government is how the micro-learning model might be put into motion practically, once the more academic issues surrounding definition and structure are squared away.

One solution might be to create a series of regional pilots that could act as flagships for new microcredential courses. Seeing how such qualifications work in practice could help iron-out any wrinkles they may have, whilst assuaging the early concerns of learners and provider institutions.

Further, the Government has its own part to play in making sure learners get the most out of this new form of modularised learning. Many learners still face considerable barriers to accessing small-credit courses, due to the burdensome bureaucracy surrounding which students are eligible for lifelong loan entitlement (LLE) funding.

Removing arbitrary restrictions like the Equivalent or Lower Qualification (ELQ) rule, which prevents graduates from receiving funding support if they hold a qualification on or below their course of choice, would be a good start.

Reforming or scrapping such barriers should be priority number one in helping the micro-learning revolution get off the ground. In tandem, priority number two for policymakers should be to offer incentives for employers to invest in this unique form of workforce training.

This could include tax credits for businesses willing to invest in the training and skills development of their employees – especially in more economically deprived parts of the country.

Microcredentials have the potential to unleash a real skills revolution in the UK. By having access to bite-sized, adaptable, and customizable forms of higher learning, learners across the country will be better able to meet the reskilling and upskilling demands of the modern economy.

The onus is now on Government, HE institutions, and businesses to work together to give modularised micro-learning the best possible chance of success.

The post Chris Skidmore: With the right support, microcredentials will transform higher education first appeared on Conservative Home.

Profile: Michelle Donelan – and her efforts to force British universities to stop short-changing their students

26 May

Michelle Donelan, born in 1984, decided at the age of six, during Margaret Thatcher’s last year in power, that she wished to be a politician.

When she was 15, Donelan addressed the Conservative Party Conference; aged 26 she fought a then safe Labour seat, Wentworth & Dearne; and five years later, in 2015, she entered the Commons by taking Chippenham off the Liberal Democrats.

She is now, as Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, pushing through reforms of university education which are of tremendous significance, but as yet unnoticed by the wider public, whose attention is more likely to have been caught by Partygate or the invasion of Ukraine.

According to another major Conservative figure in the university world, Donelan’s role is

“a bit Hermione Graingerish from Harry Potter. She’d be the one with the attention to detail telling the men to get their act together; the one who knows all the spells.”

The Government wishes to stop universities offering useless courses which load those who take them with debt, without leading to worthwhile careers.

This is not an attack on the arts. The three worst subjects at this country’s universities are business studies, computer science and law, which as one authority points out have “a very long tail of appalling results”.

Six computer science courses have drop-out rates of over 40 per cent, compared to a national average of about ten per cent: “You’re selling students a dream and not delivering.”

British universities have in recent decades seen scandalous grade inflation: the pretence that students are doing much better than they really are, with at the top of the scale, ludicrous numbers of first-class degrees awarded, and at the bottom, courses on which students are completely neglected, and either drop out or else receive such worthless qualifications that they have little or no prospect of obtaining graduate-level jobs, and also virtually no chance of repaying the student loans they have taken out.

Donelan is at the heart of the effort to put this right. On 31 March she and Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, wrote to Lord Wharton, chair of the Office for Students, telling him that

“we welcome the OfS’s recent consultation on quality and the proposals to set stringent minimum numerical thresholds for student outcomes on continuation and completion rates and progression to professional employment or further study as part of your principles-based quality requirements”

It will at once be apparent that this is a field in which worthy aims are expressed in the most dreary terms. Not the least of Donelan’s qualities is her ability to put up with such language. The letter went on:

“In cases where low and unacceptable quality is confirmed, action should include, where appropriate, financial penalties and ultimately the suspension or removal of the provider from the register (and with it, access to student finance).”

The OfS today start putting “boots on the ground” – inspectors – in order to determine drop-out rates, and whether those students who stick it out to the end of the course manage then to get graduate-level jobs.

Universities which fail to achieve this for their students will be fined either half a million pounds or two per cent of their turnover, whichever is the greater. And if after two years they have failed to improve, they will lose student finance.

In other words, they will be forced to close. Donelan says she wants “real social mobility”, i.e. courses which set people on an an upward path, to replace the many courses which at present lead nowhere.

Here, it may be objected, is a big change from “learning for learning’s sake”. But universities have always been a mixture of pure and vocational learning, and it would be ludicrous to portray this as an assault on the former.

Donelan understands that students who sign up for vocational subjects do so in the hope of getting good jobs afterwards, and are being short-changed if they are so neglected at university that they learn next to nothing.

Universities will in future be expected to state, on their advertisements, the drop-out rate for each course, and the rate of progression to graduate employment.

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, says of Donelan:

“She’s very good on detail. She’s passionate about vocational education. She’s been very good on anti-semitism and freedom of speech in universities. She’s acted quickly in order to stop a camp fire becoming a bush fire.”

Halfon strongly supports her campaign to crack down on universities which fail to look after their students:

“I think she should be tougher. Students should get compensation if they don’t get proper face-to-face teaching.”

Donelan’s officials say she gets to grips with the detail: “She understands about system change.” Here is a minister who goes through her boxes, knows what she is talking about, is entitled to attend Cabinet, and can be expected to go higher.

What she has not yet demonstrated is an ability to communicate with the wider public. Her manner of talking is sincere but rather dry.

One of her fellow MPs in Wiltshire said of her:

“She’s very nice. Quietly capable and ambitious in an unflashy way. Paranoid she’ll lose her seat so very hard-working locally. Not clear what her overall philosophy is.”

Another colleague described her as “a normal person, very hard-working, her officials would definitely say that”.

Her first promotion, after winning Chippenham, was to the Whips’ Office. In February 2020 Johnson made her Universities minister, and in September 2021 she was promoted within the same department to Minister of State.

She attends Cabinet and can be expected soon to rise on merit into it. Meanwhile she is one of the workhorses on whom the levelling-up agenda of the Government depends.

It is not difficult to get universities to admit ever larger numbers of students. To get them to teach those students properly, and thereby equip them for fulfilling careers, is altogether harder, and that is the task to which she has devoted herself.

The number of degree apprenticeships has almost doubled since 2018-19, and she is determined to maintain that rate of growth.

Donelan was born at Whitley, in Cheshire, educated at the local comprehensive school, and read history and politics at York. She worked as a marketing assistant on magazines, and from 2010-14 as marketing manager for World Wrestling Entertainment, which as she drily remarks on her website “proves a bit too popular in the school democracy workshops I run”.

For over a century, British vocational education has been recognised to be deficient. In her maiden speech in 2015, Donelan said “vocational training need to be pushed and promoted, with the stigma challenged”, and this cardinal reform is what she now bending every sinew as a minister to achieve.

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.

Can it ever be right to take ‘Mosley money’?

10 Nov

There is doubtless a moment’s schadenfreude to be had at the news that an Oxford college accused of going “off the scale on wokery” has accepted a multi-million donation from a charitable trust set up by the Mosley family.

Its most famous scion, after all, was none other than Sir Oswald Mosley, a one-time rising political star who turned his back on both the Conservatives and Labour to eventually found the British Union of Fascists. The second-most, his son Max, was photographed at his father’s rallies in his youth and later gained notoriety for other reasons.

But hypocrisy is not an especially interesting charge once that moment passes. That a person or institution is hypocritical doesn’t really bear on whether what they’re doing is right or wrong. So the more interesting question is: should anyone be taking Mosley cash?

Happily, this isn’t one of those instances where we need detain ourselves overlong with the historical details. The nuances of Sir Oswald’s political journey are of undoubted historical interest – especially his rather heterodox foray into far-right pan-Europeanism after the war – but for our purposes he was a literal capital-F Fascist.

Not a great start for St Peter’s and Lady Margaret Hall. But in the spirit of Sir Geoffrey Cox, let us do what justice demands and examine a case for the defence.

For starters, if the problem is unsavoury organisations making donations to British institutions then it seems that donations by contemporary villains, be that the Chinese or the Saudis, pose a far more immediate and pressing danger of subverting our institutions or laundering justly-stained reputations.

By contrast the Mosleys, both senior and junior, are dead. There is no indication that the funds are going to be employed in any manner that will rehabilitate the works of either. A sponsored chair in Fascist Studies is not in the offing; the Friends of Oswald Mosley (yes, really) will not be sponsoring any dinners at high table.

As for the idea that it might soften his image, surely the only impact on anyone curious enough to google the name behind the bequest will find ‘fascist’ at the top of their results. The danger of rehabilitation seems fairly spectral.

Again, possible hypocrisy doesn’t affect the weight of the original charge. If taking Mosley money is wrong, it’s still wrong even if we’re less stringent with Xi money or Saud money.

But we ought to at least be wary that we don’t end up making burnt offerings of relatively trivial sums bearing the name of vanquished foes to provide a sort of moral smokescreen for a more relaxed attitude towards much larger piles of money proffered by those still with us.

We might then consider the nature of the Mosley fortune. Sir Oswald did not make it. It is ‘old money’, inherited by him upon assuming his baronetcy and then bequeathed to his son. This is not cash raised on the back of healthy sales of The Blackshirt, and it therefore isn’t obvious that it should carry the same curse we haphazardly attach to fortunes directly built on an evil such as slavery.

Furthermore, control of it presumably now rests with individuals who might bear the name of Mosley but are neither their father nor grandfather.

Even if this specific donation were to be barred on the grounds that Max signed off on it, is every successive generation of the family to be prevented from putting a share of their fortune to what is, in and of itself, inoffensive (and perhaps even good) use? If there is indeed some sort of inherited debt to be paid off (itself a dubious proposition), surely this is how it is most likely to be done?

A middle course is often the least exciting proposition on which to end a column. But perhaps the best way forwards is to permit such donations, subject to suitably intense scrutiny (which they are already receiving) and with all appropriate measures in place to ensure that no light cast by those in receipt of the funds is allowed to reflect on the dark memory of Sir Oswald Mosley.

Alex Morton: Reform student loans and stop subsidising poor-quality education

9 Nov

Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and is a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

The CPS yesterday published its report The Value of University, available here, by Conor Walsh. We believe it is a useful contribution to a critical debate about where to go in education post-18. There is increasing concern about our current structure and calls for reform.

Much of the data we used was from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which has produced essential work in this area. But we made a core argument that the expansion of the university sector has in places been deeply flawed – for the government, for our society, and most of all for students themselves, and that we need urgent change. We want to ensure that universities are actually adding value to both students and wider society by ending the scandal of poor-quality courses.

Young people are still being told that going to university will lead to better jobs. But for many, it simply means a millstone of debt that will hang over them for decades.

Meanwhile, for our society, it is an increasing burden on taxpayers – under the current system then less than half of the money that is lent out will ever be recovered. The subsidy to undergraduate courses alone from loans that will never be paid back now totals a pretty huge £8 billion each and every year to universities (and that is before you look at other grants, postgraduate subsidies and the fact universities are, rightly, charities, giving favourable tax treatment).

The system overall benefits the Treasury due to higher earnings overall from graduates, but this is substantially skewed by those graduates who do pay back their loans and earn the most over their lifetime.

The system is clearly not working for many people. The problem is that universities have been encouraged to simply expand courses even if this does not add much to the earning potential of the student. So, for example, the creative arts are estimated to have a lifetime net negative impact for male students of close to £100,000.

Around 20 per cent of students fall into this category – not only will they never repay their debt, but they will be worse off than if they never went to university, while usually having a burden of debt worth tens of thousands hanging over their entire working life. Female creative arts students are literally no better off than if they never went, and most will not repay their debts. Interestingly, even at some top universities, some courses and students will never repay their debt.

The sums involved are staggering. We spend £1.2 billion on subsidising creative arts courses alone each year. Indeed, the graduate debt that has been required to fund the expansion of universities is so large that the average graduate’s debt it is now greater than in the USA, standing at a staggering £45,000. Given this, graduates and students cannot be asked to take a greater burden than they already do in fixing the system.

Our core proposal in the Value of University is therefore that we should change how fees are made and repaid. We propose that Government loans directly to universities, and that universities, not students, are then responsible for collecting and repaying the loans made. This would make the system more self-financing, and incentivise students and universities toward high-productivity courses that make them and the country better off in the long run.

We propose requiring greater information is made available about repayment rates and post-graduation earnings to help with this. This would help stem the high and growing losses being made on subsidising undergraduate courses without increasing the amount of debt students have to repay.

We would also put a cap on the amount a university can charge from any specific student in order to stop unreasonable levels of cross-subsidy where some graduates are milked to pay for poor-value courses. This would encourage courses that improve the economy and the earning potential of students themselves.

Poor-quality universities and poor-quality courses would lose from this – and hence the howls of outrage from parts of the sector, as well as a wider argument that it is somehow morally wrong to question any spending on the university sector. There have been arguments made that we do not understand the social value of university, and that we are callous to the fact that shifting the payments like this might discourage less affluent or some ethnic minority students from attending.

But is it really moral to encourage poorer students of all ethnicities to attend university only to be saddled with high and unpayable debts? And is this the best way for the Government to help young people from less affluent backgrounds compared to, for example, greater spending on vocational training?

Further, this ignores that some poor-quality courses will be taken up by the children of the rich, who will be getting essentially a hand out for spending three years on what they find interesting, paid for by taxpayers as a whole.

On the social value of university, if we are going to subsidise ‘socially valuable courses’ we should do this upfront, and we propose that £1 billion should go into greater grants for areas – e.g. engineering and medicine – where we do want more graduates.

More widely, shifting the repayment structure like this, and saving substantial sums of money could, over time, save £7 billion a year to put toward technical education, as well as research and development to boost the UK’s position as a global leader in high value innovation. We know that the technical sector is where many bright young people from less affluent or some ethnic minority households tend to go – and it is supporting this sector that has the greatest potential to drive the levelling up agenda.

Our proposed shift could also lead to greater innovation – perhaps courses compressed over two years, or ones that cost less than £9,000 a year, moving away from a model made for a time when just 1-2 per cent of people went to university.

Overall, we believe that the value of university can be great. But the expansion of poor-quality courses degrades the whole concept of universities, and has often been code for taking young people and the government for a ride. We think our proposed solution to link student loans to universities not students, so driving out the worst quality courses, should enhance the value of universities for our society, economy, and most of all, for young people themselves.

David Willetts: If we’re to have less migration into Britain – and more productivity – we must move around more within it

5 Nov

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

Behind last week’s Budget and the Prime Minister’s conference speech there are deep questions about how Britain is going to pay its way – and hence pay ourselves well too.

In the 16 years leading up to 2008, average earnings grew by 36 per cent. In the next 16 years up to the end of the period covered by the Budget, it is forecast they will have risen by just 2.4 per cent. One reason for the anger and frustration in our public discourse is quite simply that we have stopped delivering the great promise of capitalism – of increasing prosperity for us and our children.

The only viable way to get us back on the path to higher living standards is by boosting our productivity. GDP per hour worked is now about a quarter higher in France and Germany than ours. We ought to be able to catch them up: that is the challenge we should set ourselves.

There is a clear agenda for it in the Budget. Invest in human capital at all stages of our lives. Invest in physical capital with public spend on infrastructure at record levels. And invest in science and innovation where increased public spending should crowd in more private spending too. And, crucially, get business investment growing again.

That is an excellent agenda. But it may not on its own get to the deeper reason for the decline in performance of the British economy: we are not dynamic enough.

The rate of economic change has been declining. Our research at Resolution Foundation shows that over the decade before Covid struck, the rate at which labour moved from one broad economic sector to another was at a post-War low. Similarly, the rate of voluntary job moves in 2019 was a third lower than in 2001. Labour mobility, geographical mobility and social mobility are all linked. We are quite simply not moving enough.

We are anyway going to have change forced upon us, thanks to the need to decarbonise and advances in technology. We ought to be able to use these drivers of change to boost our performance rather than trying to hide from it. That is why we at Resolution Foundation have set up an inquiry in partnership with the LSE into the future of Britain’s economic model.

The health advice during Covid – “stay home” – in a way summarises what has been happening to our economy for two decades. It is a striking contrast with the 1980s when Norman Tebbit famously told us to “get on your bike”. We had record rates of creation of new jobs (and the painful loss of old ones) and record shifts between different industrial sectors.

One clear signal about which jobs to move to was larger pay gaps between jobs. Nowadays, the places with higher pay also have higher rents and as fewer people are owner-occupiers this directly reduces their incentive to move. The 1980s did see rising inequality but, at the same time, there were record increases in absolute incomes – including for the less affluent half of the population.

This poses acute dilemmas for any Conservative. We are the party of freedom, mobility, and enterprise. But we are also the party of community, belonging, and tradition. What is it to be – roots or wings? These are tensions we all feel within ourselves. And we may reach different views at different stages of our lives. Young people need their chance to fly the nest but this is getting harder – with the move to independent adulthood slower and harder.

The mood in the Party and perhaps in the country seems to favour the ties of place. If you were still living in the county of your birth you were 10 per cent more likely to vote Brexit. In this sense, rather paradoxically, it is the remainers who were the Brexiteers. The balance is tilting in the endless debate on whether people should move to the jobs or jobs to the people.

This is why universities – a crucial means of detaching us from the family home and giving us the chance to move on and move up – appear to have fallen out of favour. But the higher education route has long been used by the more affluent for whom the residential university served as a natural successor to boarding school. It is still the case that the more affluent a student’s family, the further their university is likely to be from their hometown.

The Conservative Party owes its long political success to its skill in balancing these conflicting instincts – leave or stay – and needs to find a way to do it now. One way of reconciling them over the past 20 years – migration – is now diminishing. If we didn’t want to move but there were new requirements for new jobs, some of them unappealing ones, then the new migrant came in to plug the gap. We brought them in to the places and occupations which were short of people, so we didn’t have to retrain or move around ourselves. Reduced reliance on them means we have to be more flexible and mobile.

There are other smart ways of resolving these conflicts without forcing people to face anything like the disruption of the 1980s. Birmingham and Lyons are cities of roughly similar size. But many more people can get to the centre of Lyons in half an hour because local transport is so much better. It creates a bigger labour market. There are towns stranded on the edge of major cities outside London which would really benefit from such investment. So this sort of transport spend really makes sense and we got some of it in the Budget.

Next, social housing is a real barrier to mobility. I remember from my time as an MP the appalling bureaucratic hassle if you are a tenant of one association and trying to move to another social tenancy in a different area. Easier and standardised rules for easier transfers would make a big difference. Meanwhile, stamp duty acts as a disincentive for home owners to move as well.

Then if we are to boost the prestige and values of vocational qualifications, we could also provide some maintenance loans for residential training courses. The original idea of the apprenticeship was that the apprentice left home to live with his or her new master. Conscription and apprenticeships have both declined as ways of semi-supervised living away from home. Instead, the university has become the dominant model. Rather than trying to suppress demand for university places we should try to enable other forms of vocational training to offer that residential experience as well.

The 2020s can a decade of renewed dynamism and mobility. Our Economic Inquiry is already identifying some reasons for optimism too. In the week of COP26, the happy accident that our renewable energy in wind and tide are distributed across the country will attract economic growth to those areas. Carbon capture and storage means ingenious repurposing of ageing industrial plant.

There is also a surge of young people into the labour market – the baby boom of the first decade of the new millennium will drive economic change just as Thatcherism rode an earlier tide of incoming young people born in the 1960s. Lots of new workers is a fantastic opportunity to move into new jobs in new sectors with higher productivity and higher earnings. The Conservative Party needs an agenda for dynamism and change. It is what the economy needs too.

Graham Baldwin: Levelling up? Modern universities are leading the way

20 Oct

Dr Graham Baldwin is a MillionPlus Treasurer and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN). This is a sponsored post by MillionPlus.

Each year conference season gives us the chance to come together to discuss interesting ideas, debate controversial topics, and pick up trends considered throughout the fringe events taking place.

MillionPlus has been holding events at Conservative Party Conference for many years, and it was particularly pleasing to be back in person this time around, with the ability to meet colleagues from the sector, as well as interested observers from across the country.

It won’t have escaped the attention of anyone present at fringes or speeches that ‘levelling up’, and with it the importance of place and our local communities, was the dominant theme of the entire conference.

Many groups, ourselves included, framed our discussions with this notion squarely in the forefront of our minds, and even those that did not couldn’t escape addressing it.

Although you could be forgiven for thinking events might get repetitive due to this, what I witnessed was questions becoming more interesting as time went on, and answers that had greater depth, beginning to really hone in on what we, as a country, hope to gain from levelling up, and how we can begin to start working towards such an ambition.

What can we do to really meet regional need, and to allow local actors to develop the solutions that work for them? How do we ensure there is opportunity and access to the right education pathways for everyone, no matter where they live? How can we restore pride and a sense of community in places that have been too often overlooked?

Questions like these are incredibly important, but incredibly challenging too, and over conference I heard many answers that pointed directly at us within the university sector and challenged us to think about what we can do in this wider endeavour.

It is a challenge I take seriously, and to many who asked it I gave the same response – much of this work is already being done, you just have to know where to look. I invite commentators, journalists, MPs and Ministers alike to come and see what modern universities are already doing, and then perhaps start to realise the enormous engines already at work, as well as the immense potential that exists to do even more.

In addition to the main campus in Preston, my university, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN) has two others in the UK, one in Burnley, the other between Workington and Whitehaven in West Cumbria. It would be fair to say these areas were slipping towards ‘left behind’ territory.

As a university, we developed these sites in order to fine-tune provision to meet the economic and skills demands for those areas. We worked closely with local authorities, NHS health trusts, and further education providers to create an offer of relevance and practical importance for the towns and wider regions they serve.

Students recruited in these areas could be just out of school or college, or mature learners looking to up-skill or re-skill. The presence of these institutions has made a seismic difference in preventing the loss of talented local people and their skills, or, worse still, the loss of hope and belief in education as a way to improve your life and the lives of those around you.

My institution is by no means alone in this, and at modern universities across the country we see local students and local industry benefitting massively from the partnerships that have developed in their areas. The University of Cumbria has developed a collaborative commercial relationship with Sellafield to provide specialist education, training and the qualifications necessary to deliver the projects for the vital nuclear industry there, transforming opportunity and working to meet the exact needs of that region.

At the University of Sunderland there is a knowledge exchange programme to support product development and technological advancement for SMEs in the North East, amounting to over 6,000 hours of support given to manufacturers all over that region.

In London, a city and region containing vast inequality, the University of East London is part of a ground-breaking collaboration with Amazon Web Services to integrate its work in artificial intelligence and cloud skills into the student curriculum to give students the ability to go into jobs in cloud computing at the very cutting edge of the industry. Projects like these are happening everywhere, with universities integrating teaching, research, and industry need to get on with the job of what we are now calling levelling up.

A key reflection I have from conference, and one that I believe does need to be repeated, is that too many people want precisely these things to be happening but don’t realise that, in fact, they already are. They may not be at the scale necessary to make change on a national level just yet, but these organic partnerships are delivering, and with greater recognition, support and investment there is every chance they could transform even more lives, and their local communities with them.

Modern universities are part of a diverse sector, and in truth no two institutions are truly alike. However, many moderns specialise in the technical and vocational work that, when allied to teaching and research excellence, delivers upon both widening access to a greater talent pool and offering real-world industry-facing courses that boost regional skills and meet business need.

In an era where we need to level up across the board, but with public finances hit hard by the pandemic, it is sensible, even critical, that as country we utilise institutions and networks that already exist and are already delivering. We do not need to reinvent the wheel when we have hundreds of them spinning out across the country already, getting on with the job and making the difference that the Government, and many at conference, are asking for.

What is stopping us then? If universities are so good at this, why haven’t we addressed the questions already and effectively levelled up? It is a fair question, and one that we need to answer honestly.

First, to some extent, I would point to the very many successes across the country where, in point of fact, we have done just that. As industry pulled out of some places, and areas started to fall behind, it has been modern universities that have revived towns and cities, spreading opportunity, reskilling the workforce, and restoring civic pride and economic success.

However, too often these achievements are overlooked while the focus remains on a select few institutions very often those attended by the majority of those involved in policy making. We tend to pay lip service to the importance of technical and vocational education but real value remains concentrated on the most academic subjects at the most “prestigious” institutions.

As a country, we cannot hope to level up, unless we also open up our minds and think differently. As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but policy in skills and higher education has been guilty of this for too long.

Be it hyper-concentrating research funding at a handful of institutions or placing greater value on league table positions and salaries instead of what we add to students’ lives. Continuing with this mindset will do nothing to change how we think and operate, and it will lead us to keep asking the same questions I heard in Manchester at conferences way into the future.

Education remains the best gateway to success for a nation as much as it is for an individual. We need to make sure it stays accessible, we need to work collaboratively with a strong and secure school and further education sector, and we need to give all of our incredible and diverse universities the recognition, support and stability they need so that they can invest time and resource into their local communities that are the very essence of the levelling up agenda.

Chris Newton: The Government’s Free Speech Bill won’t fix universities if viewpoint diversity isn’t addressed too

21 Sep

Dr Chris Newton is a military historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.

As universities start a new academic year, the Government’s Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is going through Parliament. The bill strengthens and protects university freedom of speech and is desperately needed.

University cancel culture” is not just an American phenomenon (and Peter Boghossian’s recent resignation letter to Portland State University indicates it’s still a major problem there). One needn’t go back far to find examples of academics and students in the UK having their freedom of speech threatened as well.

Just this month, the media reported that the University of Bristol dropped Professor Steven Greer’s module on Islam and the Far East. This is despite Greer being cleared by a five-month investigation into complaints about his alleged views on Islam.

In Scotland, where the bill will not unfortunately apply, Neil Thin, a senior lecturer Edinburgh University who criticised the renaming of David Hume Tower, faced an investigation after students made unsubstantiated accusations against him. While the university dismissed the complaints, Thin has spoken about the “severe psychological and social damage that can be caused by…unnecessary punitive investigations”.

These are just a couple out of a whole litany of cases where academics have been subjected to event cancellations, petitions calling for their dismissal, or witch trial style disciplinary procedures.

Their views aren’t, on the whole, regarded as particularly controversial in the real world. Academics have been denounced for defending Brexit, arguing that British history contains good as well as bad aspects, and for saying that biological sex is scientific fact. These views have been met with cries of “xenophobe”, “racist“, or “transphobe, among other slurs.

Recent research indicates that there is a deeper cultural problem. A 2020 report from Policy Exchange found that 44 per cent of academics surveyed who identified as “fairly right” and 63 per cent of those who were “very right” stated that they worked in a hostile working climate. These concerns seem to be justified as only 54 per cent of academics indicated that they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch.

The Free Speech Bill should at the very least prevent further noplatformings. Some have argued that universities will also have to create bureaucratic structures that will ensure legal compliance. The Free Speech Union will also keep defending its members and reminding universities of their legal obligations.

These are important developments, but Nadhim Zahawi, the new Education Secretary, should consider whether the bill as it stands is still a sticking plaster that only deals with the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem.

As has been pointed out by Policy Exchange and others, universities have been able to enforce an ideological orthodoxy because they are dominated by one side of the political spectrum. The Policy Exchange report found that under 20 per cent of academics voted for right-leaning parties in 2017 and 2019, while 75 per cent voted for either Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens. For all the preaching about “diversity and inclusion” that goes on in universities, political diversity is very much forgotten.

Fuelling the intolerance is also the growing influence of radicals. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of “critical theories” or “critical social justice”, once a fringe element, as a powerful force on campus, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Critical theories” include postcolonialism, critical race theory, and critical gender studies, and are descendants of Marxism and Postmodernism. They believe that Western societies are structurally unequal, and ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and transgender people are systemically oppressed.

There is no room for individual agency; power dynamics are structural and pre-determined by group identity. An ideology that believes that those who question their claims regarding systemic oppression are “complicit” in the discrimination is not exactly going to be open to alternative views.

There has been an increasing expectation from university diversity officers that the whole institution should reflect this new orthodoxy. This is reflected in initiatives such as “decolonising the curriculum”, which seems to be more interested in deleting fundamental content than genuinely making courses more diverse.

Leicester University proposed to ditch Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf from the English curriculum in favour of more modules about race and sexuality. Exeter University’s library requested that lecturers decolonise their reading lists, “look beyond traditional textbooks”, and embrace “grey literature” such as tweets. Musicologist Professor Paul Harper-Scott has just resigned from Royal Holloway in London due to the “dogmatic” nature of the decolonising agenda.

The new government guidance does prohibit the imposition of political agendas like “decolonising the curriculum” on staff, but there are potential ways around it. One way is to simply hire believers. Many lecturing job adverts now ask for specialists in critical theories, or for a commitment to the “decolonisingagenda.

The Policy Exchange report also indicates that there is potentially some political discrimination in hiring. 37 per cent of academics who voted Remain said they are likely to discriminate against a Brexiteer in job applications. Leavers face an 80 per cent chance of being discriminated against on a four-person panel.

Moreover, half would rank a grant application lower if it came from a right-wing perspective. There is little use of a Free Speech Bill if almost everyone already believes in the same set of ideas. What is needed are measures that will restore viewpoint diversity.

What can be done? Potential options include, first, the Office for Students monitoring recruitment and grant approval practices, as well as providing incentives to ensure fair play and a degree of balance. However, some may be uncomfortable with such a degree of state intervention.

A second approach is to create new higher education institutions explicitly committed to philosophical pluralism. A key problem, however, is that the barriers to entry are exorbitant. The Government could remove some of these barriers, for example allowing small start-up organisations to offer masters courses initially to get themselves established, before offering other degrees later on. It could also, as the Cieo think tank suggested, help set up new “free universities”.

The Free Speech Bill is a positive step in moving universities back in the right direction, but it is only a first step. What we really need is not just a Free Speech Bill, but a Free Speech and Viewpoint Diversity Bill.

Jesse Norman: Introducing NMITE – a revolution in education and the key to levelling up

6 Sep

Jesse Norman is Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire.

It is the great original ‘what-if?’ of British higher education. In the year 1209, more than 800 years ago, there was severe rioting in Oxford against the academics, and a group of scholars decided to leave to found a new university.

They headed west, riding 75 miles to Hereford, a cathedral city which had become a European centre of learning in mathematics and cosmology.

Over time, the new university grew, different colleges were established, students flocked there, businesses were created, industries formed. The University of Hereford became both a global academic powerhouse, and a global commercial centre, in software, electronics, life sciences and a host of other areas, driving growth across the West Midlands and the rest of the UK.

Except of course, it didn’t. All this is true, but those scholars didn’t go east; they rode 75 miles west, to found Cambridge University. Herefordshire remained a virtual higher education not-spot for eight centuries, and the rest is history.

Today, however, thanks to amazing local entrepreneurship and inspired government support, all that is changing. For the first cohort of paying students arrives today at NMITE, the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering.

This is UK tertiary education, Jim, but not as we know it. It embodies a radical new approach based on the best global practice and leading institutions; an approach which has the potential both to transform how students become engineers, and to write a new operating system for how to level up across the UK.

So what’s different about NMITE?

First, it gives students an accelerated, focused education, to a Masters degree in Integrated Engineering in three years, not the standard four. Students’ learning time is 9am to 5pm, Monday-Friday, for 46 weeks of the year. So when they graduate they’re already fully prepared for the workplace, but they also have clear and unambiguous downtime in which to play, do sport, and socialise.

Second, NMITE students work by hands-on learning-by-doing in small teams, in an engineering studio like their future work environments. There are no lecture halls. They work on a constant flow of real-world challenges, set by real employers, so they learn both academic content and professional practice from the start.

Third, NMITE students don’t learn by going to Prof Jones’s lectures every Tuesday at 2pm. Instead, Prof Jones gets the student group for 3.5 week learning modules called Sprints. each one dedicated to solving a practical engineering problem, plus going on visits to see how others do it, hosting outside experts etc.

Fourth, you can graduate from prestigious engineering UK universities only having worked on one or two actual engineering projects. At NMITE, students do 17-20 smaller practical projects, plus a long project, plus specific modules so that they have the formal training especially in maths and physics that they need as well.

Fifth, NMITE has been designed to be as open and inclusive as possible. Because the focus is on concentrated learning and practice, it does not have formal academic entry requirements such as a mandatory Maths A-Level. Even so, it has been fully validated by the Open University – itself the great educational disruptor of its day.

Instead of specific A-Levels, NMITE looks for five qualities in a student: grit, curiosity, passion, creativity and collaboration. They want students who can deal with adversity, who can learn and think independently, who have deep interests or hobbies, who can work imaginatively through problems, and who are team players. It doesn’t matter what school you went to, what your background is, or who your parents are.

Finally, this “whole student” approach means learning shaped not just by engineers, but by others from economics, geopolitics, culture, technology, ethics, design, the arts, humanities, finance, marketing and business. There is an emphasis on self-reliance, community spirit and volunteering which reflects the values of Hereford as a garrison city in a rural setting.

This revolutionary approach has been carefully worked out and trialled over time, as well as being academically validated by the Open University. Much of it is based on the experience of universities such as Olin College near Boston, which was only founded in 1997 but is already recognised as among the very best in the world.

Olin has found, among other things, that their emphasis on practice and creativity appears to be very good for students’ mental health. One of their courses has a simple requirement: find some people and help them. That’s a million miles away from the anomie and lack of purpose that so many students encounter today.

But here are two other things. First, none of this would be possible without the flexibility of student fees, the opening up of higher education and the steadfast support of the Department of Education and successive Conservative governments since 2010. This is quiet, enabling leadership at its very best.

And finally, from the start NMITE has been carefully documenting its progress, its mistakes and successes. It is, in effect, writing the operating system for how to set up a radically new kind of small “liberal sciences” engineering and technology institution from scratch.

Take a look around: everywhere you will see that education and skills are at the centre of levelling up. In a few years, NMITE will have a formula that we can apply to level up in dozens of other places across the UK. And in Herefordshire it will have started to fill that original gap, left 800 years ago.