Williamson announces HE and FE shake-up

After months of speculation, the Department for Education has announced major new policies to “rebalance” post-18 education and training

The Department for Education (DfE) has today published a further education (FE) white paper and its long-awaited response to the Augar report – announcements that could mean a significant change in policies for further and higher education in England.

Today marks the publication of the government ‘Skills for Jobs White Paper‘. To coincide with the FE white paper, the DfE has published an interim response to the 2018 review of post-18 education and funding.

Also joining the flurry of DfE announcements today is Dame Shirley Pearce’s Independent Review of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework, published alongside the government’s response, and a government consultation on post-qualification admissions (PQA).

Commenting on the Skills for Jobs White Paper, education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “As we recover from the pandemic, our Lifetime Skills Guarantee will ensure everyone has the confidence and opportunity to gain the skills they need to progress at any stage of their lives.

“These reforms are at the heart of our plans to build back better, ensuring all technical education and training is based on what employers want and need, whilst providing individuals with the training they need to get a well-paid and secure job, no matter where they live, and in the sectors that are critical to our future economic success.”

The key changes for HE from the interim response to the Augar report:

The government’s response to the review of post-18 education and funding covers much of the same ground as the Skills for Jobs White Paper. The government said its Augar-inspired policies can rebalance “academic and technical education”. A year and a half after the report landed in the DfE, ministers have shied away from enacting its more radical proposals, namely reducing the tuition fees cap to £7,500.

This interim response makes clear the government will enact further reforms in due course, explaining that: “The government’s focus on the response to the coronavirus pandemic means that now is not the right time to conclude the review in full.”

  • A new “truly flexible” funding system will support “upskilling throughout people’s careers” – to achieve this, higher education will “move towards modularisation”. The DfE will consult with universities about how to modularise provision.
  • The Lifelong Loan Entitlement will provide “access to the equivalent of four years of post-18 education” across higher and further education. 
  • Higher education teaching grants will focus on the provision that “aligns with the priorities of the nation” – this means funding boosts for STEM and healthcare and cuts to other types of provision. 
  • The Teaching Capital fund will no longer be distributed via formula allocation, but require recipients to submit successful bids – the government will gain more responsive control over where to spend this money.
  • Higher Technical Qualifications – as mentioned in the Skills for Jobs White Paper – will be “on par” with undergraduate degrees, the government says. Universities may be involved in the delivery of these new HTQs. 
  • The maximum tuition fee cap will be frozen for a year – and is likely to become permanent in 2022. “It is important that the student finance funding systems remain sustainable and that those who benefit from their higher education should make a fair contribution,” the government said. Other, more extensive changes, will be considered ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review.
  • Further reforms are needed to tackle low-quality provision, the government said –  but the sector will have to wait for “a full response on this issue in due course”.
  • The government said it is considering “minimum entry requirements” for students, meaning they must pass a minimum A-level or BTEC threshold, and changes to “student finance terms and conditions.”

Williamson told MPs today (Thursday 21 January) that he would consult “on the introduction of minimum entry requirements to higher education institutions” and consider changes to student loan repayment. He said taxpayer-funded subsidies for “such subjects as media studies” would reduce.

The key measures in the Skills for Jobs White Paper:

  • Business groups, including Chambers of Commerce, can work alongside colleges “to develop tailored skills plans to meet local training needs”. Government will launch a £65 million Strategic Development Fund and establish new “College Business Centres” to support FE-employer collaboration.
  • Employers will gain “a central role in designing almost all technical courses by 2030”.
  • In a bid to tackle low standards and uptake of Higher Technical Qualifications, the government will introduce new qualifications from September 2022 “supported by a government-backed brand and quality mark”.
  • From 2025, further education students can access “flexible student finance” to “train and retrain”.
  • Launch a campaign to recruit more further education teachers and a new professional development FE teacher schemes. 
  • Funding is to be targeted at “high-quality education and training that meets the needs of employers” and the government will gain new powers to “intervene” in failing colleges. 

The conclusions of the TEF review:

The independent TEF review, like the Augar report, reached Westminster in summer 2019 – the report, and the government’s response, has just been released.

  • Plans for subject-level TEFs are binned.
  • A campaign should seek to support greater understanding of the TEF among domestic students, schools, employers and international students.
  • Institutions should receive five TEF awards: teaching and learning, student satisfaction, education gains,  graduate outcomes and an overall provider award. There should be four, as opposed to three, award grades.
  • The education gains category is a chance for providers to explain how students have benefitted from teaching in a way that may not always be possible to measure financially.
  • Controls to variables outside of university control, such as regional differences in graduate jobs and pay.
  • Half of the assessment to be based on nationally collected figures and the other half on data and evidence chosen by the provider.
  • New principals for data collection and analysis, as set out in an independent assessment by the Office for National Statistics.
  • Students should have greater input into provider TEF results.
  • Greater use of data from the Graduate Outcomes survey.
  • The TEF should be renamed the Educational Excellence Framework.
  • Future development of the TEF should involve close communication with the devolved administrations. Although there is a UK Quality Code for all providers, ministers in London should work with counterparts in Cardiff, Holyrood and Stormont to “ensure there is a coherent message, both domestically and internationally, about how all aspects of UK HE are regulated and assessed”.

The government response to the TEF review:

The government says it “mostly agrees” with Dame Shirley Pearce’s high-level recommendations – but it is clear many of her proposals will be shelved.

  • TEF will be a periodic exercise, taking place every 4 or 5 years.
  • ‘Student Satisfaction’ is not an appropriate measure of excellence, the government said, “as satisfaction can, potentially, be too easily obtained via a reduction in quality or academic rigour”. This proposal will be dropped.
  • The government will task the OfS with developing a ‘Student Academic Experience’ score, alongside its review of the National Student Survey. “We recognise that there is a place for students’ feedback on the quality of their teaching and learning experience,” the government concedes – but it is not sure “how this aspect of quality could be included”.
  • ‘Educational gain’ will be considered by the OfS – the government appears unsure if it “can be reliably measured”.
  • Gold, Silver and Bronze will be ditched in favour of four TEF ratings.
  • The TEF name – and brand – will remain.
  • Student outcomes should limit what TEF score a provider can achieve. The government neglects to mention how graduate success will be measured, but it is likely to include Graduate Outcomes survey results, Longitudinal Education Outcomes and non-continuation data.
  • The OfS should ensure TEF ratings rely on nationally gathered metrics and data and “contextual qualitative” information.
  • Data relating to earnings should take account of regional variations.
  • OfS to work with Office for National Statistics to reform data collection and analysis practices, in line with national standards.

Consultation on post-qualification admissions

The DfE has today also launched a consultation on a switch to post-qualification admissions (PQA) from the current system which, it says, “complex, lacks transparency, works against the interests of some students, and encourages undesirable admissions practices”.

The consultation document highlights weaknesses to the current system, including the decreasing accuracy of predicted grades and the fact that it can lead to students making “poor decisions which could lead to poor outcomes”. There is particular concern that disadvantaged students end up studying courses, or at institutions, with lower entry requirements than ones they could have met the entrance requirements for, and it is believed a PQA system might encourage disadvantaged students “to be more aspirational”.

“Undesirable admissions practices” such as conditional unconditional offers and material inducements are also singled out as being damaging to student aspiration and negatively affecting academic performance and drop-out rates – these would be addressed by a PQA system.

The consultation points out that PQA is supported by The Sutton Trust and that many across the education sector have signalled that this is the right time to review the system.

Ucas and Universities UK (UUK) have both recently acknowledged that the admissions system needs reform, with Ucas announcing plans for two different types of PQA and UUK’s Fair Admissions Review of November 2020 recommending a switch to PQA.

This consultation closes at 9.30am on 13 May 2021.

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