Donelan is ensuring universities deliver value for money and better life chances. What could be more Conservative?

10 Jun

One does not like to assume too much about the cultural habits of ConservativeHome’s diverse and knowledgeable readership. But I don’t think I’m going out on too much of a limb if I suggest that the majority of those reading this haven’t been keeping too close an eye on the latest series of Love Island. For those unaware, the 8th series of the popular reality game show began this week, with 10 hot and hunky twentysomethings beginning their two-month long quest for love, fame, and £50,000.

As a twentysomething myself with far too much time on his hands, I must admit to being quite a fan of this televisual phenomenon, although Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation it is not. Nevertheless, one of the contestants came to mind when I saw The Telegraph‘s story this morning about universities minister Michelle Donelan’s plan to cap places on degrees with high dropout rates and poor graduate employability. One of the contestants, named Liam, is 22, and has just completed a Masters in Strength and Conditioning.

According to the website of Northumbria University, as Masters in Strength and Conditioning is designed to give students “the knowledge and practical competencies to train elite athletes or pursue your own research studies at PhD level”. All very worthy. But I’m also 22, a year out of university, and a snob. I didn’t spend three years hunched over the works of Maurice Cowling and Hugh Trevor-Roper in Christ Church’s library for people to go around considering Strength and Conditioning a degree.

Yet Liam will have the last laugh. Obviously, he gets to spend up to two months of his life snogging in the Spanish sun with a bunch of beautiful babes in bikinis. But, as this article highlights, the process of getting onto Love Island is both much more competitive than getting into Oxbridge, and far more financially remunerative. The average Oxbridge graduate earns about £32,000 after leaving university. The average Love Island contestant makes £300,000 – or even up to a million.

Even the most patient reader may be wondering what all this has to do with university policy. My point is that the vast majority of university students will not have an experience like Liam’s or mine. They will go to one of the 160-odd universities that are not Oxbridge, and they will not finish their studies and immediately go on one of the country’s most popular television programmes. From their three years, they will hope to enjoy themselves, do a subject of interest, and leave into a well-paid graduate job.

For far too many students, this is not currently the case. New Labour’s target of 50 percent of school-leavers at university was so bone-headed that Blair’s son is now making millions out of encouraging eighteen-year-olds to do apprenticeships instead. Currently, 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. So much for a degree being a pathway to success.

The reasons why are obvious. As universities rapidly expand, degree quality suffers in the interests of getting as many students to attend as possible. Ever-increasing numbers of students, even at the worst-performing universities, means the pressure is off at many institutions when it comes to providing the best quality student experience. For example, whilst many universities have a drop-out rate of less than 15 percent for computing courses, there are eight with drop-out rates of over 40 percent.

All this should worry Conservatives. It is a huge waste of human potential if, when employers are crying out for more school-leavers who aren’t graduates, we are having young people waste years of their life wracking up debt for degrees that aren’t leaving them better off. That’s if they are not dropping out halfway through due to the poor quality of the course. It breaks the fundamental expectation that a degree is a channel of social mobility.

Fortunately, Donelan is on the case. As Minister of State for Universities since February 2020, she has made it her mission to once more put quality once more ahead of quality in our universities. To this end, the Government launched the Augar Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. Andrew Gimson recently touched upon plans to fine universities, and then strip them of their student finance – essentially, closing them down – if they do not improve.

But the Government also looks likely to introduce a cap on places on those courses which have high dropout rates and poor graduate employment prospects. It is a cliché to complain about “Mickey Mouse” degrees in surfing, sociology, or sexuality, but there is truth to the complaint. For most, going to university is not an opportunity to arse around in a punt and do Ancient Greek for four years. It is a vital stepping to get on in life – and that means delivering value for the £9,250 it costs students a year.

That at 25 universities less than half of students finish their degrees is appalling. Donelan is therefore right to introduce some rigour into a system that has grown flabby on an ever-growing number of attendees, the higher fees brought in by foreign students, and Ponzi-style financial planning prioritising continual expansion. Her backing for minimum A-level entry requirements for courses is long overdue. If your course requires 3 As, and you have 3Cs, even the magic of clearing shouldn’t get you a place.

So at a time when the headlines are dominated by Boris Johnson’s woes, and where the wandering eyes of certain Conservative commentators are distracted by Love Island, leadership plots, and the Test match I’m certainly not typing whilst listening to, it is right to step back and remember some of the good this government is doing. It might not be building houses or curbing spending as fast as I might like. But it is doing meaningful good for many students out there, and that is something to celebrate.

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Jeremy Black: This crisis will require a Prime Minister able to devote sustained attention

1 Mar

Jeremy Black is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University.

Real people fear, suffer and die. That is the nature of war. Conflict is also intensely political, not just because war is waged in order to enforce policies and determine decisions, but also because observers recalibrate their world, its hopes, fears, opportunities and nightmares. What yesterday appeared of great consequence is rendered redundant and new contexts provide the basis for judgment.

The Ukraine conflict will not end las the Falklands invasion did with the fall of the aggressive government and a situation that can be readily policed. Instead, whatever the short-term outcome and resulting position, this situation will fester, which will pose major challenges for statecraft, and for the stability both of Ukraine and of surrounding areas.

Russia has taken on a huge task, one that ultimately depends on installing a pliant government. Ukraine (233,031 square miles) compares to such previous areas of intervention as the Korean Peninsula’s 85,232, Vietnam’s 128,066 and Czechoslovakia’s 78,871.

Moreover, whereas the Soviets invaded Manchuria (390,625) in 1945 with two million troops, Vladimir Putin, who cannot draw on the same land forces as Stalin, has deployed fewer than 200,000.

Moreover, Russia cannot draw on the support of the Warsaw Pact allies as the Soviet Union did when invading Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, modern missiles offer little for the control of over 40 million people, and you cannot have a secret policeman at everyone’s elbow.

So, due to arrogance and stupidity, Putin, with his unprovoked, illegal, and totally unnecessary aggression, has put Russia in a very difficult position. Yet, however badly it goes, it is hard to see any Russian government letting Ukraine become a member of NATO because, although neither is a threat to Russia, that is not how they are considered by the paranoid Russian leadership.

On the mega-strategic level, this Russian attitude to Ukraine is made more difficult because of the range of other crises in which Russia could play a more or less hostile role, from East to South-West Asia and the Balkans to the Caribbean. A hostile Russia could make such issues as Iranian aggression, Chinese expansionism, and North Korean volatility far more difficult, and could further empower dictatorial allies or would-be allies, a list by no means limited to Belarus, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela, none of which offer a pleasant prospect for Ukraine.

Western policymakers are going to have to consider the knock-on impact of the specific crisis, and the need to recalibrate tripwires elsewhere, both diplomatic and military.

The ability of the West to act with unity in this crisis will require continual care which means the need for real skill on the part of the Foreign Office and its ministers, and a Prime Minister able to devote sustained attention.

There is also the political wake within Britain. Covid costs and attention hit hard at this government, forcing the jettisoning of projects, such as the Yorkshire spur of HS2, and, more seriously, weakening its attention and energy. Differently, the same is the case with the Ukraine crisis, which, with Putin’s talk about nuclear alert, makes the relative inconsequence of the Covid pandemic more apparent.

Domestic governance will be harder as projects are cancelled and hopes brought low, and, aside from resulting problems, it would be unrealistic not to assume that Russia will meddle in domestic politics, not least by continuing to support separatist movements.

This situation ensures a need for maturity and judgment in the short term, but also consideration of the degree to which our democratic system is undermined from within by anti-democratic forces. The Soviet Union did so with some success during the Cold War, not least through providing assistance via allies to the Provisional IRA and the National Union of Miners, and it is naïve to expect that the same will not recur. This provides a particular need for government to consider how best to monitor, assess and, if necessary, counter dangerous, if not treasonable, domestic opposition.

As with the Cold War, this is a task that ranges widely, to include intellectual division. Indeed, there is a clear context in terms of culture wars, which the Left repeatedly appears to be winning, not least in the universities. Many who denounce a long past of the British empire and of the Atlantic slave trade appear all-too-oblivious about Russian imperialism and about the enslavement of the Ukrainians. What might appear a troubling absence of values is in fact a commitment against our country.

David Willetts: Sunak’s Mais lecture, Ministers’ Augar response – and a better approach to universities

1 Mar

David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He was Minister for Universities and Science 2010-2014. His book A University Education is published by OUP.

The invasion of the Ukraine and its heroic resistance is of course dominating our thinking. As David Gauke pointed out yesterday on ConservativeHome, this has diverted attention from the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture, which set out his economic strategy more clearly than any Budget which inevitably has to focus on specific measures.

On the same day Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan set out a higher education and skills package which complemented the Chancellor’s approach. Together, they add up to a coherent strategy for the public finances and also boosting productivity.

The case for the education package is simply that graduates earn more than non-graduates and it makes sense for graduates to pay back for their higher education provided they can afford it. This is the moment to quote Karl Marx – as I used to do at meetings with the National Union of Students. He objected to a plan from the German Social Democrats for taxpayers to fund higher education because: “[if] higher education institutions are also ‘free’, that only means in fact defraying the cost of education of the bourgeoisie from the general tax receipts”.

Theresa May ignored his wise words, and increased the repayment threshold above which graduates start paying back, so that half of graduate debt was going to be written off by taxpayers. That is far too much.

Phil Augar was commissioned by May to look at reforms to the system. Ironically, his main proposed reform is to reverse her own increase in the threshold, and extend the repayment period so that now only about 20 per cent of graduate loans will be written off. I always envisaged that the typical graduate should expect to pay back in full and that taxpayers should only help those who for whatever reason had unusually low earnings. The package very persuasively explained by Michelle Donelan in her piece on this site last Thursday gets that balance right.

It will not just get the public finances back on track. I hope it also provides an opportunity to get the whole Tory approach to higher education back on track. Many young people and their parents aspire to go to university – all of us out canvassing have seen the photograph of the child or grandchild in graduation robes on the mantlepiece. But Conservatives seemed to be getting into a mind-set that universities are the enemy.

I suspect many readers of ConservativeHome believe that over 50 per cent of young people going is too large a proportion. Indeed, I am surprised how often I am told it must have happened because we in the Coalition slavishly followed Blair’s target.

But I never believed in any such target. It has happened because of millions of personal choices – and carried on increasing, despite our making it clear that, as graduates, they would usually have to pay back for the cost of their university education in full. Participation is also over 50 per cent in countries like USA and Australia with relatively flexible labour markets and fewer protections for big industrial employers. It is not some eccentric English experiment.

Opinion surveys show very few young people regret going to university, though more do come to regret their choice of subject – and there the problem is early specialisation.

If too many people are going to university then this social problem is most acute in prosperous Tory constituencies where participation is over 60 per cent – such places as Wimbledon, Hitchen and Harpenden, Rushcliffe and Tatton. By contrast, my former constituency of Havant had low rates of young people going to university. I could see that if the only way for more young people from the tough council estate in my constituency to get a place was for fewer to go from Chelsea or Beaconsfield, then they were in for a long wait.

That is why I am against number controls. The Government is now consulting on some specific ones, but I think it would be very hard to make them work effectively and fairly.

Do all these graduates then become Labour voters? Just occasionally Tories, get close to Trump’s notorious remark that ‘I love the poorly-educated’. Three years of higher education does change people. Graduates are more liberal and individualistic. The more education they receive, the more likely they are to create their own businesses – doctorates are increasingly a route to a tech start-up not to academia.

Graduates have better health and longer life expectancy – not because they are somehow better people, but because of the effects of access to higher education. They are more tolerant of alternative views and more likely to vote. They are more more sceptical of the state. Whenever I met students, they were not focused on destroying capitalism: instead, they were unhappy that it took so long to get their essays back and that wifi coverage on campus wasn’t very good. Even the Woke agenda did not preoccupy them – though it is a serious issue which I hope to turn to in a future column.

The real political problem for Conservatives is not graduates, but young people in general, whether they go to university or not. A graduate earning £28,000 shouldn’t be turned into a socialist because she has to pay back £17 a month. What does turn them away from us is the retreat from the property-owning democracy. It is the difficulty of getting started on the housing ladder and the lack of any kind of company pension matching the one their parents got for themselves.

Ministers rightly want more adult learning and more vocational education – it was a key theme of the Mais Lecture. That must be right. But universities as well as FE College are key agents for this. More than half of university courses are vocational. There is the exciting new initiative of higher apprenticeships, but there are many other ways in which university courses link with employers – from being accredited by employer groups through to including a sandwich year in industry. Many doctoral students are now co-funded by employers and tackle a research problem directly relevant to an innovative company.

The Chancellor identified skills, investment and R&D as his three main routes to boosting the real economy. Universities are key to all three. I include investment because a lot of overseas investment comes from companies attracted by the quality of our universities for their recruitment and business innovation.

There have been times over the past few years when our party was in danger of becoming hostile to universities and the young people and their families who aspired to go. But last week’s two important statements boost my hopes that we are getting out of that dead-end. The real battles as we can see this week are so very different.

David Gauke: Sunak’s big speech. Intended to move on from crisis management. Made just as there is a new crisis to manage.

28 Feb

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.

Imagine, for a moment, being Rishi Sunak. One day you went to work as Chief Secretary to the Treasury expecting a routine working day. By lunchtime, you had become Chancellor of the Exchequer and had to deliver a Budget in six weeks’ time. At this point, you were aware of concerns about a new virus, but had little idea what an extraordinary impact this was going to have on society and the economy, and how it was going to dominate your first two years in office.

The challenges you faced were immense but, by and large, the consensus is that you handled this period of crisis management with some aplomb. Even when you got things wrong (opposing restrictions in autumn 2020) this has not done you much damage, and the polling suggests that you are the most popular politician in the country. There is even a very good chance that you could become Prime Minister within a few months.

The worst effects of Covid-19 appear to be behind us, and you can now focus on the simple matters of being Chancellor and becoming Prime Minister. There is even a big speech to deliver which will give you an opportunity to set out your thinking on the economy.

And then Putin orders Russian troops to invade Ukraine.

One relatively small consequence of this action was that the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture on Thursday attracted little attention. It also meant that the lecture had little to say about the economic issue of the day – what are the consequences for the economy of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and our response to it.

The invasion of Ukraine is an era-defining moment not just geopolitically but also economically.

At a time of already high energy costs, we are seeing an oil price shock that is drawing comparisons with 1973. This means that inflation will peak at an even higher level and the squeeze on living standards will be all the greater.

There is rightly a consensus that economic sanctions must be powerful enough to hobble Russia’s ability to wage war on its neighbours. We should not kid ourselves, however, that sanctions will be immediately effective or painless for us. Our objective with Russia must be the removal from office of Vladimir Putin, but sanctions – if they are to have any effect at all – are only likely to do so over time. (The most important factor in removing Putin is the effectiveness of the Ukrainians in resisting the Russians and, specifically and bluntly, inflicting casualties on the invading forces.)

Reducing trade and interaction between Russia and the West has negative consequences for both sides. It will be worse for Russia than the West as a whole because the West has a much bigger economy (size matters when it comes to trade disputes as we should all know from another context), but there will be damage to the UK economy from, for example, Russia’s exclusion from SWIFT.

The cost of living squeeze and the cost of sanctions will all add to economic uncertainty which may damage economic confidence. This will likely feed through to economic growth over the next few months.

Lower economic growth will mean lower tax receipts, whilst pressures on public spending on measures to mitigate cost of living pressures or increase defence spending will be immense. We may also have to accelerate investment on energy generation. The chances were that the Office for Budget Responsibility was going to have good news on the state of the public finances when it sets out its next forecasts on 23 March, but that is now less certain, even before we see higher spending plans announced.

It is a gloomy prognosis, and there must be some concern within Government that the public has not yet understood that the appalling events in Ukraine will have real consequences for the British people, and that this is not a short term issue. The likely outcome is still that Russia will conquer Ukraine but that, over a period of years, the Ukrainian people will make it impossible for the Russians to continue to occupy it. That, combined with the long term impacts of sanctions, will force Putin out. It may take years, as Liz Truss rightly warned yesterday.

There is a lot to digest and, unsurprisingly, Sunak’s lecture – delivered hours after the invasion – does not attempt to do so. It was a speech that was designed to move on from crisis management and address the long term challenges of the UK economy. The irony is that he delivered it on the day that it became clear that crisis management was, once again, going to be the order of the day.

This is a pity on many levels. It was a serious and thoughtful speech and had much to commend it. The politics of it are also interesting.

To the extent there has been much pick up, it was on Sunak’s remarks about tax. This was an unashamedly fiscally conservative speech arguing that tax cuts can only be delivered when there is fiscal space for it. He corrects the mythology of the Thatcher years in pointing out that taxes were only cut in the 1980s when it was affordable and that, in 1981, taxes went up. The lazy thinking that cutting taxes automatically pays for itself was rightly dismissed.

If there is a leadership campaign in the next few months, this argument will be important. It is more than likely that other candidates will make lower taxes part of their platform and there is already talk of an “axe Rishi’s tax” campaign from Liz Truss. The Chancellor is doubling down on his position. He is right but there are risks for him in defending a tax increase whilst running for the Tory leadership.

He also sets out a moderate and pragmatic argument about the role of the state. He praises the market and the sets out the limits of what the state can do but also recognises the areas where state intervention is necessary. He makes the case for a contraction in the size of the state but also acknowledges the demographic challenges that stand in the way.

He raises the question of how we increase productivity and makes the case that the key considerations are capital, people and ideas. This is the right question and these are the right factors, even if there are criticisms that can be made of the Government’s approach.

On business investment, Sunak rather brushes away the impact of Brexit (he says that ‘the cloud is lifting’ of Brexit uncertainty but that is not entirely true and some of the damage done to business investment due to Brexit will be permanent) and I still hold the unfashionable view that increasing corporation tax rates is a retrograde move.

On innovation, we should exploit the fact that we have two of the world’s greatest research universities with booming technology sectors located near them and have ambitious plans for the Oxford-Cambridge arc. Sunak refers to his experience of living in Silicon Valley and we could have our own version. Instead, we are dropping these plans to focus on levelling up other regions. Politics is trumping economics.

These criticisms should not obscure the overall assessment of a speech which reveals a little more about what kind of Chancellor of the Exchequer he would be in normal times. Unfortunately for us all, including Rishi Sunak, we are not going to be in normal times for some little while.

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.

David Willetts: Yes, let’s have more white male working class students. And new universities, too – some in the Red Wall.

3 Dec

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and His book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.

The forthcoming White Paper is the crucial opportunity to shape a coherent agenda for levelling up – if Michael Gove, Neil O’Brien and Andy Haldane can’t crack it, then nobody can.

But even before it is published some specific policies are being launched which help to flesh out the idea. The Education Department has just made a really important shift in policy to boosting access to higher education. Its significance for levelling up may not have been fully appreciated. It is a brave challenge to the conventional wisdom that too many people go to university.

Many Conservatives do not approve of Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent of people under 30 going to higher education. I myself don’t like targets, and it did not apply during my time as Universities Minister. But even without any such target, more and more young people are going to university. For young women, the participation rate has now reached 61 per cent – compared with 47 per cent for young men.

The guilty secret for Conservatives is that in many prosperous Tory constituencies the participation rate is now well over 60 per cent. If there is a social and economic problem of too many people going to university it is most acute in places like Kensington, Guildford, Winchester, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and the affluent suburbs of Sheffield and Manchester – even though these areas don’t seem to be suffering too much as a result.

But meanwhile, there is one group above all who have remained stubbornly resistant to the blandishments of higher education – white working class boys.

The Government has just appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan have followed up with a robust statement about what his priority should be:

‘White British young males who received free school meals are amongst the least likely to enter higher education, with just 12.6 per cent progressing to higher education by age 19 by 2019/20. …We would like to see the OfS rewrite the national targets to better align with this new focus, and renegotiate A&P (Access and Participation) plans with providers to meet these new priorities…”

It is a welcome recognition that higher education can and should boost social mobility. Perhaps the mood in Government is beginning to shift away from just complaining that too many people go.

This initiative opens up the crucial question of how this improved access is to be achieved. If we don’t want to see more people in total going to higher education, then universities will have to cut back on places for other groups. That would means that those traditional Tory areas with high rates of participation are going to have to cut back so as to make more room for students from Red Wall seats with much lower participation.

But somehow I suspect that the Government is not going to embark on such a civil war within the new Conservative electoral Coalition. Instead, the aim will be for this group of white young British males to catch up with higher participation groups. That means more places at university. This has always been the logic of higher education expansion ever since Robbins.

There may be an attempt to say that these young men should do different subjects. We certainly do need to ensure there are good opportunities for technical higher education. But it would be a pity if we restrict the arts and humanities to the middle classes at prestigious universitiesm and assume that young working class men should all be doing technical qualifications.

Nadine Dorries criticises the BBC for being too middle class – she would not find it acceptable if it replied that working class people should train to be engineers and plumbers, rather than journalists and broadcasters: it is hard to see how such an approach could be a basis for our higher education policy either.

Moreover, the British economy is so inter-connected that we need people with a wide range of skills. So, for example, one of the biggest barriers holding up on the Government’s ambitious investment in infrastructure is the need to conduct archaeological surveys of historic sites which are briefly revealed before they are built over. But there is a shortage of archaeologists. It would be wrong to miss out on this rare opportunity to learn more about our history so we need urgently to train a new group of development archaeologists.

The Government’s pressure to boost the shockingly low rates of university participation by young working class men is going to push up total demand for university places. Furthermore, there was a surge in the birth rate during the first decade of the Millennium which is now pushing up demand for higher education. And then there is the surging demand from overseas students – higher education is one of our best export industries, worth £30 billion a year.

Add all this together, and UCAS are expecting a million applications a year for places in British universities by 2025. Instead of pretending there is going to be a fall in student numbers, we need instead to be planning for a substantial increase.

That then opens up another issue: where are all these extra students to go? One possibility is that our current universities grow even bigger. But I’m not sure students want massive universities, and anyway there are physical constraints on their growth in some of our cities.

Instead this era of expansion is an opportunity to create new universities in the places that don’t have them – the cold spots. It is also a fantastic opportunity for innovation with new providers coming in offering a different prospectus.

That is what is happening with the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering at Hereford, which is on its way to becoming a university. Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge is developing a new campus at Peterborough which is planned to become a university. A Further Education College, such as the excellent one in Hartlepool, might expand and aim for university status.

Blackpool resisted having a university so it went to Lancaster instead: now there is an opportunity for them to correct that mistake. Wigan, Wakefield, Grimsby, Yeovil, Doncaster, and Thanet are all places which might aspire to have their own university. The Government could launch a competition to enable places to bid for a new higher education institution perhaps partly funded by local business partners needing to recruit more graduates.

The surge in demand for higher education is a fantastic opportunity to deliver levelling up. The Government should seize it.

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.

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.

Local elections in depth: In Coventry, denying housing association tenants the right to buy hits the Conservatives

20 Oct

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: Coventry

Control: Labour.

Numbers: Labour 39, Conservatives 15.

Change since last local elections:  Conservatives +1, Labour -1.

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background: Coventry City Council has existed in its current form since 1974. During most of that time, it has been run Labour – including from 1979 to 2003 and all the years since 2010. The Conservatives had brief periods in power with victories in 1978 and 2006. There were also a few years before 2010 of no overall control.

For many years, it has proved an important centre of trade and prosperity. Over a thousand years ago, Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets in a Thatcherite protest against high taxation. In the 14th century, with the cloth trade, then in the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century, enterprising people of this West Midlands city produced clocks and bicycles, in the 20th century motor cars. It was also a beautiful city –  until it was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on November 14th 1940. Then it was rebuilt as an ugly city – under the direction of the planning officer Donald Gibson – who was duly knighted and made President of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Coventry has three Parliamentary Constituencies: Coventry North East, Coventry North West, and Coventry South. At the last General Election Labour won all three. But while Coventry North East had a large Labour majority, the Party just squeaked home in the other two. Coventry North East was held for many years by Geoffrey Robinson quite easily – his Labour successor has a majority of just 208. Proposed boundary changes may make it harder for Labour in the Coventry South constituency next time.

John Butcher was Conservative MP for Coventry South West during the Thatcher/Major era. The seat was abolished in 1997. Dave Nellist was a Labour MP for Coventry South East and was expelled by the Labour Party in 1991 for being a supporter of the Militant Tendency. In 1983 he shared a House of Commons office with his fellow Labour MP Tony Blair – which showed the Party’s Whips retained a sense of humour at a difficult time for them.

Results: The overall gain of a single seat for the Conservatives was clearly modest in the context of some dramatic gains elsewhere at the same time. There is plenty to criticise the Labour administration for – and Cllr Gary Ridley, the Conservative opposition leader – has done so very powerfully – including for this site. The Conservatives have also put forward a positive alternative with a strong local Manifesto.

There has been a pattern for many years of the Conservatives doing better in Parliamentary elections in this City than in local ones, for some reason. But the underlying challenges are probably due to demography.

The expansion of the university sector has proved problematic for the Conservatives. More of the electorate consists of left wing academics and students from Warwick University and Coventry University. Whoberley Ward and Earlsdon Ward have been particularly hard hit.

Coventry North East has a large ethnic minority population – of Muslims and Sikhs. More generally across the City, the Labour Party has also benefited electorally from Celtic immigration. Working class voters whose families came from Ireland, Wales and Scotland have often retained their past political allegiances.

Manufacturing is still significant. London taxis and Jaguar cars are still made there. Technological advances mean that fewer people are employed. But then there are new light industry opportunities. There is the prospect of a ‘Gigafactory’ manufacturing car batteries with 4,000 jobs locally. So that gives some hope that the innovation and wealth creating private sector that is such a tradition of the City has not been lost.

The people of Coventry backed Brexit by a clear margin The Conservatives have made some electoral progress associated with that. Yet it is hard to see a dramatic breakthrough for the Conservatives in this City without some bold reforms to boost home ownership. Council housing was transferred to Whitefriars housing association, over 20 years ago. (It’s now changed its name to Citizen Housing). That change has just meant less transparency and accountability – without the chance of the right to buy.  We need a right to buy, with beefed up discounts, for housing association and council tenants. Also forced sales of empty homes and surplus property (such as empty garages) that could be redeveloped as housing. Also a right to shared ownership for housing association and council tenants including a free ten per cent equity stake for those who agree to take on responsibility for their won minor repairs.

A few feeble voluntary pilot schemes are no use. The Conservatives should give housing association tenants a proper chance of home ownership. That is needed in Coventry more than anywhere else.

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.