Will England go it alone and reverse academic expansion?

Will the Westminster government really start to reverse the expansion of higher education in England?

The ministers will keep – limit or even reduce the number of students.

Since former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron led governments that freed up student numbers and made student demand drive the system, the climate has changed dramatically.

The availability of data on graduate earnings by course and by institution has stimulated government concerns about the economic value of expanded higher education; the Tories reoriented the election towards non-graduates in favor of the leave following the Brexit vote; and some members of the government may have been swayed by right-wing commentators who mistakenly claim that college graduates “tend not to vote conservative” – ​​although as recently as the 2015 general election, the conservatives were the leading party among graduates, which led to the party’s decline with this group of socially liberal voters seems a product of its strategic choices around Brexit rather than an immutable political fact.


THE Campus views: UK must act now to uphold its international reputation


Conservative pre-existing skepticism or hostility towards the expansion of higher education is now dominant rather than marginal, with potentially major implications for universities and society at large.

“The mood in Westminster and Whitehall has definitely changed,” said Lord Willetts, a former universities minister who chaired the expansion under Mr Cameron. “My fear would be [about] opportunities, especially for young people from the most difficult areas, where participation is still low; if those opportunities were reduced, it would be a big blow. “

Perhaps policymakers, politicians and academia should consider how any move to limit or reduce participation in higher education would compare to trends seen in other advanced economies, including those ruled by cousins. Right-wing conservatives; while politicians could also reflect on how such a seismic shift might play out with voters.

Regarding international comparisons, Lord Willetts said: “It is true that the more advanced Western countries, most of the time, see increased participation in higher education. Trying to reverse this is an unusual position to take.

In his recent book Generations: Does birth determine who you are?, Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy at King’s College London and director of its Policy Institute, notes that the trend of increasing participation in higher education for each successive age cohort is “the same in all countries ”across the nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In terms of the proportion of university graduates, an older generation of baby boomers in the United States is “on par with” the younger British “generation X”, “he also writes. The former had much wider access to university earlier, in part thanks to the legacy of the GI Bill of 1944, which made the degree “part of the American dream”, while the UK has experienced a “much later boom” from the end of the 1990s.

Thus, the rapid and relatively recent expansion of higher education in England that alarmed many conservatives was arguably a late catch-up to its peers among other advanced economies.

And even in Germany, revered around the world for its dual vocational training system combining workplace learning and education, “the clear trend… Frank Ziegele, executive director of the Center for Higher Education, a German think tank.

A key tipping point was reached in 2018, when the number of new students entering universities exceeded the number of students entering the professional system; since then university enrollments have increased further, said Prof Ziegele (the center-right Christian Democratic Union has led the German federal government since 2005, although it is set to lose power following the recent elections. ).

The main driver is ‘change in labor markets’, the fact that there are now university degrees offered and increasingly required in areas such as nursing, midwifery and preschool education, which had traditionally been entered through the professional system, he continued.

Meanwhile, in Australia, which shares characteristics with the English higher education system, “the ‘too many people go to college’ argument is heard here,” said Andrew Norton, professor of political practice. of higher education at Australian National University. “But there is no policy to reduce the number of university students.”

The federal government, led by center-right liberals, passed a controversial reform of ready-to-work graduates last year, which reduced tuition fees in subjects considered national priorities, but more than doubled fees for most subjects in the humanities and social sciences.

However, said Professor Norton, “ready-to-work graduates are also expected to increase the number of student places in the longer term,” although this comes “primarily by reducing the levels of average public funding per student so that universities must offer more places to obtain much the same level of public funding as before ”.

In addition, the government “is explicitly trying to increase participation rates in regional areas,” he said. “In other parts of the country, the goal is to increase the capacity for a population surge in the mid-2020s.”

Besides England, the United States is “the only other country where a ruling party – in this case Republicans in some states, as well as previously at the national level – cares about universities as liberal strongholds and views growth. participation in universities as a source of growing political opposition to themselves, ”said Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford.

But while some Republican-ruled states are cutting funding for higher education, it “doesn’t hold up overall, as some conservative states are investing more in higher education to produce an economic return,” said Adrianna Kezar , Wilbur-Kieffer professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and director of its Pullias Center for Higher Education.

Notably, in Tennessee, a heavily red state, the state’s Tennessee Promise program has offered two years of community college or technical school tuition-free to all high school graduates since 2014, regardless of income, with the goal of stimulating economic and workforce development by increasing the proportion of state residents with post-secondary credentials.

As well as having to go up against rival economies, the Westminster government will be judged by voters’ opinion – where access to higher education could have an emotional pull, connecting as it does with people’s hopes for their own lives and that of their children.

“There is no evidence that higher education aspirations have diminished in England, and it would contradict everything we know about modern societies if they did,” Professor Marginson said.

Researching his book on generational differences, Professor Duffy analyzed responses over time, across different generations, to questions from the long-running British Social Attitudes Survey which asked respondents whether they thought that “The opportunities for young people in Britain to pursue higher education” must be “increased” or “reduced”.

Looking at the results between 1983 and 2017, Professor Duffy said that “there has been a growing generational divide in favor of expanding higher education opportunities.” He added: “In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was very little difference in views between the older and younger generations at the time, and there was broad support for expansion – but now we have about half or more of the younger generations like Gen Z. saying higher education opportunities should be increased, compared to just three in 10 of the older generations.

But, he continued, “that doesn’t mean that these [older] groups want to see a reduction – in fact, only about 15 percent of older generations say it should. The majority view, even among the older generations… is to increase opportunities or at least keep them the same. “

A Westminster government that genuinely tries to restrict or reduce participation in higher education might risk being out of step not only with other advanced economies and public opinion, but with its own ambitions to create an economy. highly skilled and well paid ”.

Perhaps we should think critically about whether the strong voices of some in the Department of Education (DfE) who oppose the expansion are seen as consistent elsewhere in government.

No.10 (rather than the DfE) announced a plan to create lifetime loans that allow adults to study on short courses while they work, earning full degrees if they choose – Which does not fit the “too many people going to college” story.

In Germany, which has more of a high-skill, high-wage economy than the UK, Professor Ziegele said there was growing attention to the argument that there should be “more permeability »Between professional and university courses. This, he said, is reflected in the emerging examples of universities offering courses mixing the two tracks and in the Green Party election manifesto (the party appears poised to be included in the government’s new coalition. federal). “People want an individual set of skills and competences that they will need in life,” he explained, and the debates about “more here or more there” in vocational or university education were “ yesterday’s discussions ”.

Although some conservatives often seek to portray the expansion of higher education as a labor policy, in reality the economic shifts from industry to services and a knowledge economy set in motion by Margaret Thatcher have also been key drivers. The demand for higher education is shaped by broader government choices about labor markets and the structure of economies.

If Boris Johnson truly believes in ‘skills, competencies, skills’ as the path to a high-wage economy, as he said in his recent Tory conference speech, and whether there is to be an English system of lifelong loans? allowing the kind of “permeability” between the different types of education that are talked about in Germany, it could mean switching to another type of higher education. But that would also seem to mean more, not less, of it.

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