Universities & Further Education

Few will forget the scale of the backlash towards the Liberal Democrats when they agreed to raising tuition fees up to a £9000 maximum.  This outcry was fronted by students, angry parents and other disillusioned voters who had made their Party selection based upon a belief that the Lib Dems would honour their election pledge to scrap tuition fees altogether.  The Coalition Agreement laid bare arguably the largest compromise that Nick Clegg’s Party made, and rebuke over the termed ‘betrayal of a generation’ ignited in the media, culminating in angry and violent Westminster demonstrations. 

According to the Centre for the Economic of Education at the London School of Economics, more than 40,000 students will be put off going to university by the rise in tuition fees.  At this stage, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting that applicants from low income backgrounds are disproportionately affected.  The Government will need to monitor this closely over time.  To promote widening of access, universities charging maximum fees will be expected to use a percentage of their fee income from each student on initiatives to open up these institutions to a more diverse student population.  A further 5,000 places are being given to institutions that set tuition fees lower than the maximum £9,000, to encourage institutions to price their courses thoughtfully.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has announced that it will give universities and colleges in England £4.47bn for teaching and research in 2013-14. Of this, £2.3bn is for teaching, compared with £3.2bn last year.  The shortfall will be made up by tuition fee income.   There is a very real question about the value current students are obtaining from their heavily taught courses, as oppose to those who opt for a more research driven discipline.  The decision about whether to go to university is perhaps more pronounced under the funding reforms, which is arguably an implicit driver of the policy, as distinct from a sustainable funding driver.

From autumn of this year college courses at Level 3 and above for those aged over 24 will no longer be government subsidised.  Research carried out by the National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Union (UCU) suggests women are likely to be hardest hit by these changes. Their analysis of government data on more than 200 further education colleges shows that over 60% of those currently doing level-3 and -4 courses are women.  This has long been the case, particularly in highly skilled but relatively poorly paid sectors such as health and social care.  This can be viewed as an example of where the impact assessment of Coalition policy is not in keeping with the rhetoric of fairness.

David Cameron has pledged to make it the “new norm” for school leavers to take an apprenticeship or go to university, but perceptions of apprenticeships by school leavers have not evolved beyond associations with manual work; much must still be done to target this.  A proactive response by the Government in implementing the recommendations of the Richards Review on standards will be vital, as will keeping the recruitment of new apprentices high.

The ‘aspiration nation’ that the Chancellor talked about in his March 2013 Budget needs to be underpinned by a confidence in the fundamental fairness of the system.  This is questioned by many, as the policy stands.


Progress against the Coalition Agreement

Pledge: We will seek ways to support the creation of apprenticeships, internships, work pairings, and college and workplace training places as part of our wider programme to get Britain working.

Status: In progress – An independent review of apprenticeships in England, the Richard Review, was commissioned and responded to by the Government in March 2013.  The implementation is still to be tracked.

Pledge: The Government has introduced incentive payments of £1,500 for small employers who take on their first apprentice who is aged 16–24 and invested £25 million to support the extension of opportunities for training at higher skill levels, which it hopes will provide more than 25,000 higher apprenticeships over the next three years.

Status: In progress – The early 2013 fall in the number of apprenticeships for under 19s is concerning for the Government, as is evidence showing that one in five apprentices say they are not receiving training and that many are not being paid. The Code of Practice on Internships is not currently embedding good practice.  Labour is historically stronger in terms of promoting the value apprenticeships and will be powerful in opposition on this pledge.

A year on from its launch, the Youth Contract looks inadequate in comparison to the problem it is trying to solve; more must be done by Government to provide opportunities for young people.

Pledge: We will set colleges free from direct state control and abolish many of the further education quangos. Public funding should be fair and follow the choices of students.

Status:  Done - The Government asserts that it has streamlined the number of government organisations in the further education landscape (abolition of Becta and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency) and simplified funding for further education.  In reality, the introduction of the Adult Skills Budget and the 24+ Advanced Learning Loans from academic year 2013/14 has seen the end to subsidised further education courses for over 24s at Level 3 and above, creating an equity problem where research reveals women will be disproportionately affected.

Pledge: We will await Lord Browne’s final report into higher education funding, and will judge its proposals against the need to: increase social mobility; take into account the impact on student debt; ensure a properly funded university sector; improve the quality of teaching; advance scholarship; and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Status:  In progress – The Government asserts that it has created a financially sustainable system by shifting funding from teaching grants towards tuition fee income backed by student loans, alongside a more progressive repayment mechanism.  Sustainable funding has been approached through raising the £9,000 maximum annual tuition fee and the introduction of repayment after hitting the £21,000 income threshold, which is higher than the £15,000 threshold in existence under the previous government.

To promote widening of access, universities charging maximum fees will be expected to use between £450 and £900 of fee income from each student on initiatives to open up these institutions to a more diverse student population.  While this is a positive pledge, it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem of the top tier universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, persisting in recruiting a disproportionately high number of pupils from private institutions.  More must be done to correct this imbalance and empower social mobility.

The Government committed to reducing the numbers criterion for university title from 4,000 higher education students to 1,000, widening the access to the ‘university’ title for smaller, high‑quality providers.  This has happened, but has not been legislated for, until the effects of the new funding framework are better understood.

Key information sets have been introduced, as pledged, to aid better understanding of courses and institutions to allow for informed decision making.  It remains to be seen, however, if the National Scholarship Programme, due to commence in 2014, will help improve access to higher education among the least well off young people and adults.

Pledge: If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.

Status:  Done – This was a free vote and more than half of the Lib Dem backbenchers voted against the Government, who won by only 21 votes.  In reality this was a highly damaging moment that divided the Coalition.

Pledge: We will review support for part-time students in terms of loans and fees.

Status:  Done – The Government has introduced loans for eligible part-time and distance-learning students to cover the full tuition costs for the first time.

Pledge: We will publish more information about the costs, graduate earnings and student satisfaction of different university courses.

Status:  Done – The Government has developed the Key Information Set, which will give prospective students access to high-quality information about different courses and institutions, including on employability, earnings premia and student satisfaction.  This is a positive step to inform decision making.

Pledge: We will ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity.

Status:  In progress – The Government has protected the science and research budget at £4.6 billion a year for the entire Spending Review period, which it claims provides researchers, institutions and other funders with certainty.  There is, however, the legitimate challenge that concentrating research funding on top universities threatens smaller institutions.  Experts have warned that this is something the Government needs to address specifically to ensure more than the elite few universities have the critical mass needed to lead high quality research.

In its response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report Setting priorities for publicly funded research in 2010, the Government affirmed its support for the Haldane Principle, which ensures that detailed decisions on distribution of research funding are made at arm’s length from government, on the basis of peer review.

The Research Excellence Framework will be completed in 2014, and will become the new system for assessing the quality of research in the UK.