“You’re pissing in the wind.” A saying my old man would tell me.
Translated: They’re not interested. They’re not listening. Don’t waste your energy.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I used the phrases: ‘the Iceberg is coming’ and ‘if you want to know what lies ahead for Higher Education (HE), look at Further Education (FE).’
It’s why I’ve walked away from Higher Education. But as passions go, you can’t just cut away. Especially when the iceberg is getting ever closer.
And so it begins
The wheels are in motion following the publication of the Augar report, a document that is well over 100 years old by now. It recommends a radical overhaul for post-18 education.
Key themes throughout the document. With so many metrics, rankings and subjectiveness, it’s become the inevitable hot potato.
The government have now announced plans that funding will not be available for those who do not get a level 4 (grade C) equivalent in Maths and English. This is rightly so, seen as a major barrier for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A kick in the teeth for the ‘levelling up’ agenda.
So why do it? Because quite simply, we, the taxpayer, can’t afford the number of students going to university.
The demographic upturn means that it’s forecasted nearly 50% of all 18-year olds will apply in 2030. That’s incredible. It’s also scary on the public finances when you consider that it’s currently £9,250 per year, per student.
That’s just the course, not including the maintenance finances, bursaries, etc.
With the global pandemic, lack of funding for schools, the crisis in social and health care, cost of living, pending World War III, there’s only so much money to go around.
That’s why as part of the announcement, the income level at which graduates start repaying their student loan is reduced from £27,295 to £25,000. As only 25% end up paying back the loan before it’s written off.
‘Education. Education. Education.,’
shouldn’t be confined to the university route.
Every student has the right to go to university.
University isn’t right for every student.
Six of one…
It’s not ‘one thing’ that’s led to this scenario. Decades of policy failure from successive governments have compounded these issues. Not to mention the funding cuts to services like Connexions.
However, this isn’t just due to government incompetence – the sector response has arguably exacerbated the situation over the years. The pandemic exposed the ‘value’ question with online courses and accommodation.
This is the fallout from a failed marketisation initiative. Ideological intentions:
- Removal of Student Number Cap (SNC) – enabling more students to go to university.
- To cover the costs, students would pay the full associated fees rather than a proportion of them.
- Competition would result in better ‘quality’ courses. More choice. Designed for the student and the future workforce needs.
- Courses are now a ‘product.’ Students are now consumers. Protected by applicable consumer law – enter Competition Markets Authority (CMA).
- Create new rankings such as the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) (now not published due to ongoing consultation/evolution). Yet another metric to add to the mix. Focussed on teaching (debatable) based on the Olympic medals (not kidding), bronze, silver and gold. The prize? A badge and financial incentive to up the fees (now paused).
- Fees would be set centrally – ‘up to‘. Currently, £9,250.
- Removing the SNCs created financial uncertainty, resulting in short-term recruitment tactics, including:
- Unconditional offers (now seen as anti-competitive)
- Dramatically dropping entry tariffs in Clearing (pre-pandemic) – bums on seats
- Offering financial and material incentives
- Huge investment in ads
- Schools and college outreach programmes, to encourage students to think about university at primary school level
- Charge ‘up to’ £9,250? Don’t mind if we do. You know, because everyone’s doing it.
- Launching new courses based on what their ‘competitors’ are offering instead of evaluating the basics (the stuff that they teach in Business Schools):
- What’s the business case?
- What skills does the sector/industry needs?
- Do we have the expertise?
- What collaboration opportunities are there?
- Cost of delivery?
- What investment/infrastructure do we need to make?
- Lowered entry tariffs creating wellbeing issues for individuals. Struggling with the course and adjusting to university life.
- Increase in student support costs for tutors, wellbeing experts, equipment, software, etc.
- Fallout from wellbeing issues, including students leaving, or getting a lower grade, not only makes it difficult for the individual, but directly impacts the rankings a university’s performance is measured on.
- Commercial opportunity for costly student accommodation from immoral property owners that you wouldn’t even let your dog set foot in, let alone a human.
- Graduate employment schemes so competitive because of the volume of graduates, they resort back to the GCSE grades – totally ignoring the degree. Meaning we need to go higher to stand out – Masters’ and PhD’s will be a necessity at this rate for entry-level roles.
- A total disconnect between what works as a research area (postgraduate), and what works as a course for undergraduate. Because of the pressure from Senior Management Teams to Faculties to create ‘more courses’ to fund that new building project…
Stop. Look at the big picture
This only scratches the surface. There’s more. It’s complex. There’s even more complexity when you look at Higher Education in isolation. That’s the real issue.
We’re not looking at Primary, Secondary and Tertiary education as one entity. A coherent alignment.
Apprenticeships, vocational pathways, professional certifications, are all viable options for students. Each student learns differently. The current system doesn’t cater to that. They should have the same level of respect and aspiration as ‘traditional’ academia.
These can be done at colleges, academies, private institutions, and employers (work-based learning).
This should be about promoting choice for students. Empowerment. Aspirations. One size fits none. We have created academic snobbery.
We conflate issues around the core problem – funding. We trivialise it. Hence the STEM vs Arts distraction.
One isn’t ‘better’ than the other. We can’t compare apples and pears. But, it does cost more to run a STEM course than an Arts course.
The debate should be around if university is the right place to learn the chosen craft.
Education is a necessity. It’s an investment. It’s key to fighting ignorance and intolerance.
Education shouldn’t be a commodity. But we must be realistic about how to fund it. ‘Free,’ means the taxpayer still must pay. It also means SNCs will have to reappear – limiting the number of students who can go.
Start on the right path
If we’re ever going to have a sensible conversation or solution around funding education, then we need to think bigger:
- Stop copying. Act different. Apply what you teach. Collaborate with industry, practitioners, and experts in every subject/field you offer. Vertical integration. Give students the skills they need, not just theoretical understanding. Double down at what you’re good at. Invest in the entire student journey – outreach to Alumni. Build from the ground up. Your competition isn’t just another university. Diversify your portfolio. Know your costs. Charge based on that (it’s ‘up to’ remember).
- Manage Expectations. Be honest about what students need to have. What they will experience. Whether it’s right for them. Think longer term. Manage students’ expectations better, earlier in the cycle. Stop dropping grade entry tariffs. For their wellbeing, and your reputation. That doesn’t mean they can’t/don’t come back later (postgraduate).
- Define the pathways and roles for ALL education providers. FE and HE. Differentiate. Stop blurring the lines. Create clear choices for students. Keep it simple. Ensure students at primary and secondary schools know ALL options available to them. It must be right for them.
- Fucking fund it! At all levels. Bring back impartial services like Connexions. Invest in the future. If you play around with the fees, want universities to be STEM orientated, make sure there’s appropriate funding. Including for the Arts and humanities. In FE colleges or other settings. Keep that incentive. Make the pathways viable. We cannot afford to lose a £10.8 billion contribution to our economy. They’re essential. Ignorance is futile.
Of course, all of this is irrelevant, if the end goal is simply, consolidation. The purpose of the ‘iceberg.’ It happened in FE.
Maybe that’s the point. Make way for the Polytechnic comeback…I’ll go back to aiming downwind…
Share your thoughts
What do you think about the latest government announcement regarding education funding? Do you think we need to encourage students to take an alternative route to learning?
And if you liked this blog, don’t forget to share it on your socials and bask in its ranty goodness.
See you next time.
Arts Council England (2019) Contribution of the arts and culture industry to the UK economy. Available at: https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/contribution-arts-and-culture-industry-uk-economy-0 (Accessed 24 February 2022)
BBC (2022) No English and maths GCSE, no University student loan, plans say. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-60491719 (Accessed 24 February 2022)
BBC (2022) Students to pay off loans into their 60s, plans say. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-60498245 (Accessed 24 February 2022)
GOV.UK (2016) Policy Paper: TEF Factsheet. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/550232/Teaching-excellence-framework-factsheet.pdf [Accessed 24 February 2022]
GOV.UK (2019) Independent panel report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding. Available at:https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/805127/Review_of_post_18_education_and_funding.pdf (Accessed 24 February 2022)
HEPI (2020) Ten Years On: The politics behind the 2010 tuition fee reforms. Available at: https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/12/09/ten-years-on-the-politics-behind-the-2010-tuition-fee-reforms/#:~:text=Today%20marks%20the%2010%2Dyear,to%20%C2%A39%2C000%20per%20year. (Accessed 24 February 2022)
UCAS (2021) A Guide to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Available at: https://www.ucas.com/advisers/guides-resources-and-training/tools-and-resources-help-you/guide-teaching-excellence-framework-tef [Accessed 24 February 2022)
WonkHE (2019) The great recruitment crises: Planning for rapid student number growth. Available at: https://wonkhe.com/blogs/the-great-recruitment-crisis-planning-for-rapid-student-number-growth/ (Accessed 24 February 2022)