The TEF and Technical Education

When I submitted the final version of a recently published article on the Teaching Excellence Framework for English higher education (as part of a forthcoming special issue on ‘Education, In Spite of it All’), I was aware that much of the policy and regulatory detail was likely to change in the time between submission and print publication. The article therefore focused, as much as possible, on providing a broader historical context for the TEF, relegating specific details of policy and regulation to footnotes.

Since then the Higher Education and Research Act, which was hastily passed into law by May’s government at the end of April 2017 before parliament was dissolved on 3rd May, has deferred the introduction of differential tuition fees linked to TEF results (see footnote 4 of the article), meaning all universities participating in the TEF and meeting eligibility requirements will be able to increase their fees in line with inflation until after a review in 2020. Without this rise, the real value of fees will continue to decrease, as they have been (marginally) for the last 5 years.

Under the Education (Fees and Awards) Regulations 2007 for English higher education, brought before parliament in the last months of Blair’s government, only students who have been resident in the UK or EU for at least three years prior to beginning their course qualify for these fee caps. Fees for international and postgraduate students are not capped and so already tend to rise annually, based in part on increases in inflation (UCL, for example, warns international and postgraduate students to expect annual fee increases of between 3% and 5%). The Higher Education and Research Act 2017, however, makes reference solely to the Education (Fees and Awards) Act 1983, which was brought before parliament in the last months of Thatcher’s second government and only exempts international students from fee regulations, making it easier to revoke the 2007 regulations following Brexit. Until the 2007 regulations are revoked, qualifying universities will not be able to legally discriminate between UK and EU students and the government has also guaranteed access to student loans to cover these capped fees for this and next year.

The Higher Education and Research Act confirms that international students will continue to be included in the net migration target. In March, the Office of Budgetary Responsibility revised down its forecast of student numbers in England, based on lower than expected UCAS entrant data, in part relating to lower numbers of 18 year olds and in part on a drop in applications from EU students. They acknowledge significant uncertainty around their forecasts as the UK exits from the EU, when EU students are likely to fall into international status in relation to visa restrictions, tuition fees and access to student loans.

When the cap for tuition fees rises in September 2017, for the first time since their trebling in 2012, this will be based on the unfreezing of the current cap and reversion to existing legislation. In May 2016, Jo Johnson, the Minister of State for Universities and Science, announced that this would be 2.8%, based on the Office for Budgetary Responsibility’s forecasted RPI-X figures (the retail price index, excluding mortgage payments), although the Office of Budgetary Responsibility has noted that its definition of RPI inflation does not meet accepted international statistical standards but is required as an input into its fiscal forecasts.

The new Higher Education and Research Act stipulates that the Office for Students must publish the fee limits for each higher education provider’s courses for the following calendar year. The Act allows for the exact timing of this publication, and consequently the date at which fees for the following year to be set based on forecasted inflation, to be prescribed by further regulations. The fees for 2017-8, for example, were set at 2.8% based on forecasts from 16 months earlier. Since then inflation has risen sharply, with RPI-X currently standing at 3.8% and Q1 forecasts for 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021 at 4%, 3.3% and 3.1%. As Mark Leach has written, ‘In 2017-18, fees would be £72 higher per head if they were based on last week’s [November 2016] forecast [of 3.6%] than that from March [2016 of 2.8%]. Multiply by 15,000 undergraduates and that’s £1 million lost in a university’s income.’ This also means that universities may be tempted – where they are able, without breaching consumer protection law – to increase fees annually for existing UK (and currently EU) students, as they currently do with international students, to avoid further erosion of value and financial shortfall for each of a three year degree.

The Higher Education and Research Act imposes certain additional conditions on universities being able to charge the maximum fee, above and beyond a more general eligibility requirement related to minimum standards, including ‘a public interest governance condition’ which protects the academic freedom to question and test received wisdom and put forward controversial or unpopular opinions without jeopardy. It also makes provision for the possibility of requiring ‘an access and participation plan condition’ relating to equality of opportunity to promote under-represented applicants. The Act also makes provisions for the Office for Students to fund institutes of higher education to provide educational provision to connected schools and colleges.

The publication of the Conservative Party Manifesto this week provides insight into how these changes enacted in the Higher Education and Research Act will proceed following the forthcoming general election. It confirms that the Conservatives intend to reduce annual net migration to the tens of thousands by bearing down on immigration from outside the EU and that this figure will include overseas students. Wonkhe have suggested that current migrations statistics might be corrected on the basis of new data on the lower number of international students who “overstay”. But it might also involve aiming to reduce the overall number of international students through a toughening of visa requirements, although wonkhe have also questioned how this might be done without meddling in academic quality and standards. Any reduction in immigration would need to be offset by an improvement in skills and training, a central focus of the pledges.

Other aspects of the manifesto reaffirm what, in the recent article, I characterized more generally as the ‘Americanization’ of UK educational policy. One aspect of this is Conservative’s aim to focus investment on university-based R&D, on the model of the US. More generally, ‘Americanization’ involves linking national economic productivity with educational reform via theories of human capital:

Fulfilling Our Potential (BIS 2015, 10), in which the TEF was introduced, begins not with a discussion of teaching excellence but of how ‘increasing productivity will be the main driver of economic growth in years to come, and improving skills are an essential component of this.’ The 2016 White Paper (BIS 2016, 5) which formalizes the introduction of the TEF identifies universities as ‘among our most valuable national assets, underpinning both a strong economy and a flourishing society’ and ‘Powerhouses of intellectual and social capital’ that produce success as a knowledge economy. Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation (HM Treasury 2015) proposes in its section on ‘Skills and Human Capital’ that long term investment in education is required through the radical reform of schools, Further Education and Higher Education, including the introduction of the TEF.

The UK’s employment rate is now 74.6%, the highest since records began in 1971, but inflation has outstripped real wage growth (the Resolution Foundation has said this decade is set to be the worst for pay growth for 210 years), while productivity has fallen in the first quarter of 2017. Clearly, then, the attempt to link national productivity and investment in human capital through educational reform is only set to grow and strengthen. The point in my recent article was to challenge some of the recent critical discourse regarding the neoliberal commodification of higher education and the promotion of the student as consumer, which tends to therefore overlook:

how the focus on quality of education and on teaching excellence are connected to the need for state-directed interventions within the education industry in order to increase national productivity in the interests of capital, in a way that conceives of learning as a form of productive investment and therefore situates and obligates the student primarily as producer: of their own—and collectively, the nation’s—future income and, significantly, of their own learning.

Thus the Conservative Manifesto promotes a National Productivity Investment Fund to address the UK’s slow productivity growth and promises to:

establish new institutes of technology, backed by leading employers and linked to leading universities, in every major city in England… [that] will provide courses at degree level and above, specialising in technical disciplines, such as STEM, whilst also providing higher-level apprenticeships and bespoke courses for employers… [and] will enjoy the freedoms that make our universities great, including eligibility for public funding for productivity and skills research, and access to loans and grants for their students …[including] a UCAS-style portal for technical education …[to provide] ‘real choice between technical and academic routes at sixteen’.

To do so, the Manifesto also promises to ‘launch a major review of funding across tertiary education as a whole,’ with ’employers [placed] at the centre of these reforms.’

Andrew McGettigan has pointed out how this departs from January’s Green Paper on Industrial Strategy, which had announced a ‘relatively limited startup capital budget’ for such Institutes of Technology to ‘concentrate on sub-degree provision (only up to level 5),’ without any references to links with leading universities (level 5 qualifications include diplomas and foundation degrees, whereas level 6 qualifications are degree apprenticeships and Bachelor degrees). That Green Paper focused on ‘high quality two-year programmes for 16 to 19-year olds and extend to the highest skills levels, leading to full professional competence in a number of defined occupations’. It claims to expect ‘most Institutes of Technology to grow out of high-quality provision’ already offered at levels 3, 4 and 5.’

As I wrote in 2012, it is important to contextualize the ongoing transformation of tertiary education in relation to comparable changes in primary and secondary education, because it is through control of the point of intersection between these that the government’s political intent is most effectively realized. It is therefore important to note that the Conservative’s previous reforms of technical education involved the use of funding agreements put in place for academies and free schools to introduce University Technical Colleges for 14 to 19-year olds:

Labour’s academies were introduced in 2000 as a way of injecting private sponsorship and governance into underachieving schools by removing them from local authority control (themselves a modification of the Conservatives’ ill-fated City Technology Colleges). They differ from the plethora of ‘maintained’ schools in being independent of direct control by local authorities, and from fee-charging and independent private schools in having a model funding agreement direct with central government. Like universities and private schools, academies are typically private charities with a corporate structure limited by guarantee rather than shares (hence not-for-profit). Initially the remaining capital and governance were to be supplied through sponsorship by a not-for-profit educational company, although this investment is no longer a condition of such companies running academies (thus erasing one important distinction between academies and free schools).

The first UTC, the JBC Academy in Staffordshire, was opened in 2010 and there are currently 48 colleges open, although in the last two years 5 have closed (Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Daventry, Hackney and Black Country) and one converted to a free school (Royal Greenwich), with others reportedly on financial warnings citing low numbers. However, a Spectator article from last autumn pointed out that the ‘government is handing new financial packages to UTCs and encouraging them to join ‘multi–academy trusts’ — the charities which oversee most mainstream secondary schools in England,’ as being part of ‘a trust gives more financial stability and also enables direct marketing to pupils in the trust’s other schools.’ The previous Conservative Party Manifesto promised to continue the expansion of UTCs to ‘ensure there is a University Technical College within reach of every city’ and a few months ago it was reported that Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Education, has decided to change ‘the law to require all local authorities to write to parents of 13-year-old children about UTCs that might be attractive to their children’ and ‘to allow principals of UTCs to visit local schools and tell students about some of the opportunities available at their colleges’.

The Spectator article also points out that UTCs will be exempt from new regulations coming in this September that requires ‘pupils failing to achieve a national average score in their primary tests must re-sit the papers at secondary school,’ providing an incentive for schools to offload academically “failing” students towards more vocational routes. Combined with the re-introduction of selective secondary schools, then, it is possible that we are witnessing an attempt to socially engineer the tripartite system of secondary education anticipated in the 1944 Butler Act, although its promise to introduce Secondary Technical Schools alongside grammars and secondary moderns, never fully materialized.

Although there has been much recent criticism of UTCs for low students numbers, especially of young women, poor attainment figures and diverting resources from existing schools and colleges, advocates have suggested that these problems stem from the admission age of 14 being too young. Although the Green Paper and the Manifesto extend the principle of university-sponsored technical colleges from diploma to degree level, it is unclear to me whether their focus on post-16 education suggests an extension of or backtracking on UTCs and it will be interesting to see whether the government has abandoned them, diverted by its new focus on selection, or not.

Wonkhe suggests that the ‘extensive section of the manifesto covering technical education can be read as a direct challenge to universities.’ McGettigan also reads the new higher institutes of technology promised in the Manifesto as an intervention designed to challenge post-92 universities to shift provision from ‘mainly ‘classroom’ subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences’ to STEM subjects. It is significant that the only discussion of the arts and humanities in the Manifesto makes no reference to education, only to the regeneration of towns and cities through investment in arts and culture outside of London, including relocating publicly funded arts and cultural organisations, such as Channel 4, out of London.

What is clear from the Manifesto is that the free school program will continue, that, under the supposed threat of a change in charitable tax status, ‘at least 100 leading independent schools will become involved in academy sponsorship or the founding of free schools in the state system,’ and that the ban ‘on the establishment of selective schools’ will be lifted. As well as sponsorship by independent schools, this continued expansion of academies, free schools and grammar will be partially funded by ‘mak[ing] it a condition for universities hoping to charge maximum tuition fees to become involved in academic sponsorship of the founding of free schools.’ The Higher Education and Research Act eases through this program further with its provisions for requiring ‘access and participation plan conditions’ and for the Office for Students to fund institutes of higher education to provide educational provision to connected schools and colleges.

In 2012, I argued that:

The rapid expansion of academies and free schools legislated by the Academies Act of 2010 therefore ‘blur[s] the divide between the independent and state sectors’. As with higher education, one notable aspect of this process is a counter-movement of existing private independents to take on closer government and financial regulation by either converting to academy status themselves or becoming sponsors for new academies. Last year the Guardian claimed that private schools were ‘lining up’ to become free schools, and although the defeat of a backbench revision to the Academies Act that would have permitted them to select intake has perhaps dampened enthusiasm, for fee-paying schools floundering financially during the recession the temptation to take on state funding whilst keeping their independent status remains strong. The government has also been pushing for closer collaboration between private schools and academies/
free schools, encouraging the former to provide educational leadership and financial sponsorship for the state sector. Many may dismiss such moves as mere posturing by the private sector, a cynical concession for self-preservation (particularly with regard to their VAT exemption). But, as McGettigan reports, the Coalition is currently set on extending VAT exemption to all providers of education, including commercial enterprises, and there has been little or no political will to meddle with the private sector by either the current government or the last Labour one. For the most academically successful ‘maintained’ schools and for the poorer private schools, conversion to academy status will ensure a clear allocation of central funding during times of severe cuts in both public and private spending on education.

The focus on expanding technical education in terms of quantity and quality is therefore set to involve a reallocation of investment in the tertiary sector, especially in London, away from the arts and humanities and towards STEM subjects, in the hope of increasing national productivity. This will be done through an increased pressure towards credentialism, in accordance with the recent extension of compulsory education or training to the age of 18, predicated on further nation-state intervention, regulation and control. Significantly, it will be access to cash increases in tuition fees that partly cover this expansion, meaning that state-educated arts and humanities students may find themselves funding such investment not only through subsequent taxation of earnings that subsidize tax-breaks for independent schools but also through the university sponsorship of secondary education, all the while being told that the cost of their education must be burdened by them as an investment in their human capital.






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