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Gods and devils in the detail

Nick Hillman and Diana Beech provide an expert long read on the ‘super Thursday’ announcements

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

Thursday was like Christmas Day for education wonks. Some of the presents—especially the further education white paper—were very welcome; others went down more like the photograph of six postboxes that I gave my daughter on the real Christmas Day.

Most people who care will have found the time to pore their way through much of the documentation by now, despite everything else going on. But the coverage to date has, understandably, focused on the big picture. We also need to drill down into the details. In policymaking, it is always the case that the devil is in the detail, although I tend to prefer an older phrase—God is in the detail—for that can be true as well.


This government has a reputation for last-minute U-turns—it has been forced repeatedly by the endless march of Covid-19 to reverse its own decisions from just a few weeks, days or hours before. But its slower about-turns, reversing the decisions of other recent Conservative and Conservative-led governments, are more intriguing. And this week’s documents from the Department for Education included quite a few.

Whereas Michael Gove’s Department for Education during the coalition years was notoriously sceptical of careers advice, this area is now to have a much more positive focus, as the further education white paper declares: “We want careers education and guidance to be embedded in the life of every school and college.”

And whereas the Cameron majority government in office from 2015 shut down the forward-thinking UK Commission for Employment and Skills, we are now to have “a new Skills and Productivity Board, [which] will undertake expert analysis of national skills needs to inform government policy”.

These two announcements have rightly gone down better than a third change of direction: the “slashing” (as education secretary Gavin Williamson described it) of funding for media studies, which goes against the arguments of a former Conservative spokesperson for higher education, one B Johnson, who criticised the tendency of “newspaper polemicists to attack media studies”

Other important policies have been floated that make good sense, just so long as someone can work out how to implement them more successfully than in the past. These include: “easier and more frequent credit transfer between institutions”; “whether equivalent and lower qualifications restrictions should be amended to facilitate retraining and stimulate provision”; and “greater transparency around actual entry requirements”.

Creative tension

Looking at the details also highlights another important point: the need to balance competing priorities. Politicians paint in primary colours when campaigning but there are too many overlapping and contrary forces to govern in such a simplistic way. So the further education white paper speaks both of giving politicians more power over colleges and of giving colleges more freedom: on a single page, there is a promise of “giving providers more autonomy” and also providing “new powers for the secretary of state for education, so the government can intervene quickly and decisively”.

I am not criticising this careful balance; it makes sense to trust people on the ground to get on with it when they are doing a good job and to intervene when they aren’t. But every government walks a tightrope between autonomy and central direction, and it is tricky to get the balance right. After all, the Office for National Statistics watches the relationship between colleges and government closely and can, at the stroke of a pen, define them as part of the public sector (as occurred in 2010, though subsequent legal changes in England and Wales returned them to the private sector afterwards).

Similarly, while autonomy for universities continues to be enshrined in primary legislation, policymakers clearly want more direction over spending on higher education. Hence the directive letter to the Office for Students telling it to spend less in London and more elsewhere, less on archaeology and more on ‘hard STEM’, less on Uni Connect and more on supporting students’ mental health.

Politicians are well within their powers to make such decisions about taxpayers’ money. It is what they are elected to do. But having been on the receiving end of intense lobbying about some of the separate funding pots when I worked for the coalition, I know officials’ phones will be red hot. Reducing spending in London might go down well in the north and align with the levelling-up agenda, but it may not be as popular with London voters at the forthcoming mayoral election.

Some will think it an odd decision for a prime minister who regularly praised London universities when he was himself the mayor. Maybe his next visit to Brunel, which is in his own constituency and led by the president of Universities UK, might be a little uncomfortable.

Parity of esteem

The admissions review could be a third area of tension, given the confusion over whether the main player in charge of higher education admissions is the individual university, Universities UK, Ucas or the Office for Students—or maybe Whitehall, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

In the education secretary’s foreword to the consultation on post-qualification admissions, he writes: “If we were starting from scratch today, we would not design the higher education admissions system we have now.” That is often what people say when they want to change something, but I am not totally convinced it is true. Post-qualification admissions systems tend to put excessive focus on exams, which are far from fail-safe, rather than on an applicant’s full background. Indeed, one sentence in the consultation document hints at the difficulties to come: “We are aware that despite the potential benefits of post-qualification admissions, the challenges we may face in implementation may result in the policy being unviable.”

Finally, I want to dwell on timing. Some of the bigger changes announced are far in the future. The lifelong loan entitlement is due in 2025, after the next general election. This is the government’s main mechanism for introducing parity of esteem between different routes, and we need to know more about the future financial arrangements before we can understand what is really meant by ‘parity’. And if there is one thing the past few years have shown us, it is that official decision-making has a tendency to be extended beyond the original stated timetable.

So perhaps it is because our homeschooling this week has included wartime Britain that I cannot help but feel Churchill put it best. When it comes to the Johnson government’s approach to education reform, this week “is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”


Diana Beech, chief executive of London Higher and previously policy adviser to the past three universities ministers

The flurry of announcements on Thursday from the Department for Education on further and higher education contained some bleak news for London.

In his guidance letter to the Office for Students, dated 19 January, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced significant changes to the teaching grant allocations for the academic year 2021-22.

Most alarmingly for higher education institutions in London, Williamson’s letter instructs the OfS to “remove weightings for London providers from across the [teaching grant], including the students attending courses in London supplement, and weightings within the student premiums”.

The rationale given for this move is that, while the government acknowledges that “London providers face some higher costs”, the London weighting is thought to be “inconsistent” with the government’s commitment to the levelling-up agenda.

Worst fears

This confirms our worst fears at London Higher, as the body representing over 40 London-based universities and higher education colleges: it is now clear that levelling up for the rest of the country means levelling down for London. As a city, London has one of the largest concentrations of universities and higher education colleges in the world. Many of its higher education institutions are known around the world for their excellence and prestige. This includes large, globally recognised research-intensive universities and many small, specialist arts and music colleges.

The capital is also home to many newer technical and vocational universities, which are proudly serving their local communities and are doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to opening up opportunities for residents of some of the UK’s most deprived areas and lifting them up into valuable careers. All of these institutions and the communities they serve will be hit hard by the government’s decision.

Anyone who has looked at house prices in the capital of late will understand that London is not a cheap place in which to live and work. For London’s universities and colleges, this means paying a higher price for the upkeep of estates, it means paying staff at a higher salary level to cover their increased costs of living and it means providing increased practical and wellbeing support to students dealing with the realities of city life.

Even with the additional weighting that has been given to the city’s higher education institutions up until now, London’s universities and colleges have found themselves increasingly having to do more with less, as the capital’s student population has grown and the cost of London life has risen.

The proposal to axe the London weighting altogether will now put a bigger strain on institutional purse strings.

Financial consequences

For some of the city’s large, research-intensive universities, the loss of the London weighting will mean waving goodbye to over £6 million of precious resources. For ‘post-1992’ institutions, which are vital for widening participation in higher education across the capital, this loss averages around £2m—enough to push institutions already stretched by the cost implications of Covid-19 to potentially breach vital banking covenants.

The projected loss of £64m across London’s higher education puts up to 1,000 academic jobs at risk at a time when London’s universities and colleges should be bolstering their workforces to accommodate rising demand for higher education and strengthening the city’s research base. It also puts in jeopardy any activities the government might have reasonably been expecting universities to deliver as part of wider civic responsibilities to their communities.

No warning

What’s worse is that London’s universities and colleges had no warning that this was about to happen. Neither individual higher education institutions nor London Higher were consulted about the government’s proposals prior to the secretary of state’s announcement.

At a time when the government should be supporting higher education in the capital to help it to continue to attract international talent after Brexit—not to mention upskill local communities after Covid-19—it is disappointing to see it take away the very resource the city needs to maintain its high-quality teaching and research.

As the UK’s capital city, London is a magnet for international students and researchers, often acting as a gateway to future jobs and careers throughout the UK. London’s higher education institutions form a vital talent pipeline for the nation’s businesses and industries. And the city’s wide range of universities and colleges is reflective of its large and diverse population, every member of which deserves the chance to access opportunities and succeed.

Taking funds away from higher education in the capital won’t just level down London but will level down the entire country’s credentials internationally as a global higher education hotspot, and domestically it will take away life chances from those who need them the most. If you take resources away from London, you take them away from us all.