There is a lot going on in the HE policy world, from the Augar Review of post-18 education and funding, to the publication of the UKRI (and its constituent parts) Delivery Plans. Yet all this is set in the context of the worst uncertainty in UK politics I can ever recall. Brexit remains a huge, black cloud of economic and societal uncertainty. We cannot predict who will be Prime Minister in a few weeks’ time; the next Spending Review will just be a patch-up and no one talks in terms of a Comprehensive Spending Review any time soon. Not knowing who will be in power in a year’s time or what their flavour will be means that major policies affecting science and higher education – such as the Industrial Strategy or the commitment to research and development being funded to the tune of 2.4% of GDP by 2027 – look much less definitively likely to translate into practice as originally envisaged. In the grand scheme of things it is unsurprising if politicians have other matters on their minds. Nevertheless cynics say reaching that magic 2.4% figure will be easy just on flat cash because nobody is guaranteeing GDP won’t plummet post whatever colour of Brexit we get.
As we live through this turmoil, I don’t believe it is adequate for leaders to try to pretend everything is just marvellous. When alumni of my college ask me how Brexit will impact on our finances or student numbers I am not afraid to say I don’t know – which I most certainly don’t – but I can at least indicate where we might expect things to be better or worse. I think it is part of leadership to admit to not knowing all the answers, but also to demonstrate that suitable scenario-planning is in hand, however hand-waving it may currently have to be. For me, the leader who glosses over difficulties does not inspire confidence so much as give off an air of complacency.
As Master of a Cambridge college, I am of course concerned about what the Augar Review might mean for us as part of the wider university. It is far from clear that a future government will have the appetite to take the review forward in whole or part, given all the uncertainty. Nevertheless it is heartening to hear the current Minister, Chris Skidmore, say that if fee income is reduced for universities (as the Review recommends) ‘absolutely that we would need to see a top-up’ to make up the shortfall in income. Collectively universities will be feeling very nervous about possible reductions in the money they receive to carry out the myriad tasks expected of them, and this equally applies to individual colleges in Cambridge. We subsidise our teaching and other student support to a very significant extent.
The reality is, however, that there are around half the population who do not go to university and their education and training – through apprenticeships, further education or whatever – must be considered seriously too, in a way that recently has not been happening sufficiently, with the further education sector in particular being left to languish. Not all apprenticeships have turned into particularly useful training and the instability of qualifications other than the much-touted ‘gold standard’ A-levels (in England and Wales) has hardly helped either educators or young people. But should the gold rating for A-levels be maintained? The Royal Society has long been in favour of broadening the curriculum to provide a more balanced education for everyone post-16. I was involved with the production of their 2014 Vision report on the future of education which spelled this need out very clearly. More recently the idea of a ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum has been clearly articulated by their President Venki Ramakrishnan.
As we move towards the intended goal of 2.4% of GDP spent on R+D, we are going to need a lot more technically and scientifically qualified individuals. John Kingman (Chairman of UKRI) made this very clear when he spoke at the Royal Society last autumn in a wide- ranging and hard-hitting speech, stating that we are going to need approximately 50 % more such people if we are to succeed (and I recommend you read the speech in full, it is well worth it). And, as he further goes on to say
‘Women make up less than 15% of the STEM workforce in the UK. To put the point starkly: if we could find a way to close this gender gap, that might in fact be the single biggest thing that anyone could do to transform UK R&D.’
So, even if we ignore (as on this blog I do not!) the moral imperative of sorting out the gender gap, we have essentially an economic imperative to do so too. But, whatever the gender composition of the workforce, we need more qualified teachers. As Kingman puts it succinctly:
‘we would be talking about needing a little under 20,000 extra active A-Level STEM teachers.’
David Willetts (a UKRI Board member) in his 2017 book A University Education seems to believe – if I read him right – that early years’ education is of less importance than admitting everyone to university. That expanding university education to all is the ‘progressive’ thing to do. I find this hard to swallow (although much in his book is admirable) because children who fall behind at the outset, never quite getting on top of reading for instance, are unlikely to be able to benefit later on except from courses specially designed for them. To imply that universities can somehow compensate for insufficient investment early on to enable children from families that lack basics such as books (or indeed adequate nutrition) in the home is a pipedream. We need sufficient investment at every stage, but that does not mean sending every child to an academic post-18 establishment willy-nilly. Further education should indeed, as the Augar Review proposes, get more investment but so should Sure Start, or some equivalent (outside the scope of the Review of course), whereas the current trend is very much in the opposite direction.
If we are to have the workforce we need to resolve the productivity paradox, thereby contributing to our economic growth, and to achieve the magic figure of 2.4% GDP by 2027 to which both (what were the) main parties have committed, then we need to think about education in the round. Furthermore, that includes thinking about post-degree level qualifications. I have written before about my concerns about CDTs (Centres for Doctoral Training), beloved by some of our research councils, because it isn’t obvious to me that the coherence of the strategy – by topic or geography – is addressed in the ways the Research Councils allocate funding.
In the UKRI Delivery Plan all I can see (have I missed something?) is a promise of 1000 new students in AI over the next five years. I am baffled as to whether that topic, important though it may be, is the only one that is seen as needing immediate growth or indeed if it is believed there is no requirement for a more overarching consideration of the postdoctoral workforce we will need in a few years’ time. This is the sort of issue that I would have thought warranted a wider strategic discussion. But then the UKRI Delivery Plan rather explicitly isn’t strategic: it is about the what, not the how and why. That worries me. Above all in these challenging times we need organisations to think about strategy as well as daily operational matters, even if that actually means having multiple possible strategies up their sleeve according to how the political turmoil unfolds. Such strategies need to be shared with and tested by the community. We should not be frightened of looking at the big questions even as we have to face up to the day-to-day harsh realities of uncertainty and financial stress in our universities and institutions.