“Technologies like artificial intelligence, biotech and new advances in data science have the potential to drive up living standards and open new possibilities for human achievement and personal fulfilment. But if we are to seize those opportunities, if we are to make Britain a great engine room of this technological revolution in the twenty-first century we need to make the most of all of our talents.” – Prime Minister Theresa May MP, 18th February 2018
Higher education reform in England provided the Prime Minister with a temporary break from Brexit woes, but with only difficult questions and a lack of resource for the reform post-18 education reform an independent review panel was announced as the way forward.
The panel’s report will be published at an interim stage and the review will conclude in early 2019. Philip Argur, leading author and former non-executive director of the Department for Education. He’ll be joined by five other panel members, including Jacqueline De Rojas – President of techUK and the chair of the digital leaders board.
Whilst the question of the future level of tuition fees dominated news headlines the future funding of education was only one of four areas of the review. With equal prominence to the funding question, the review panel will also look at ensuring choice and competition for students, enabling access for all in society and ensuring that higher education can deliver the skills required by UK plc.
What can be done to improve public perception about technical and vocation pathways?
Integral to the success of the review will be a correction in common perceptions of the value of “learning practical and vocational skills” as opposed to academic pathways. The Prime Minister made specific reference to a middle-class child, with the dream of being a software developer and beginning her career in industry, but facing extreme social pressure to follow her peers and attend university.
Academic pathways are well-lit and straightforward to navigate with 350,000 undergraduate degrees awarded last year, whereas the road less travelled – technical education – saw fewer than 16,000 qualifications completed. To be successful, the review must find a way to make technical and vocational training pathways easier for students (and teachers and parents) to understand and navigate.
A tuition fee premium for sciences?
On the eve of the review, the Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds MP suggested that the tuition fees for different courses should reflect the value “to our society as a whole”.
Aside from the challenging and unenviable task of defining the relative value of different degrees the idea presents another problem for the independent review panel. If we assume that science degrees, which cost more to deliver and are likely to increase a graduate’s earnings, would see a tuition fee premium than the result could be another disincentive for well-qualified students from poorer backgrounds.
Apart from fees, what can be done to improve value for money?
The Prime Minister set the goal of achieving a funding system which provides value for money for both graduates and taxpayer as contributors. Facilitating competition and encouraging alternative, cheaper options for students to choose from will be investigated. With “all but a handful” of universities charging the maximum possible undergraduate course fees, the review may decide to encourage other models of course provision, including a greater offer of two-year degrees.
“A waste of time” – Labour still committed to abolition of tuition fees.
Criticising the “long-winded” review as a “waste of time” the Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner re-committed the party’s “abolish tuition fees and bring back maintenance grants”. At the last General Election tuition fees were successfully weaponised through the Labour Party’s popular manifesto pledge to abolish tuition fees. Depending on the timing of the next election those with an interest in the future reform of higher education would do well to engage with Shadow Ministers as much as the independent review.
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