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Out on manoeuvres – the papers, Lord Adonis, and a certain minister of state

by Charlotte Hogg, Consultant

It’s A-Level results day, one of the biggest days of the year for students, colleges and universities. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s also a big day for the Minister of State for Universities, Jo Johnson MP.

As soon as this week came into long view, commissioning editors have done a merry dance around the sector with a number of articles in the broadsheets that put higher education under the glare of the media spotlight.

First came a controversial article from the Sunday Times’ Andrew Gilligan, highlighting the so-called ‘betrayal’ of British A-Level students as universities chase after the more lucrative fees of students coming in from overseas. The article was chewed up and spat out by many in the sector, deriding the line of thinking as sensationalist and the analysis as poor. Battle lines were clearly being drawn, and the sector’s resolve and willingness to defend itself was being tested.

Then, the Telegraph reported on the government’s intention to monitor potential discrimination of British students against their international counterparts. The Department for Education, cited in the article, says new data is needed to help “gain an insight into whether domestic students were being treated unfairly.” An inherent lack of fairness in the current system can easily be inferred.

The Independent then chimed into the debate with a news piece reporting on its own poll on the perceptions of tuition fees, which have left students “worrying about the bills” while university vice-chancellors “pay themselves fat-cat salaries”. This was soon followed by a piece from the Guardian depicting universities as nervous wrecks, looking anxiously to Clearing to combat the problem of falling application numbers.

Circling all of this debate in the nationals is the figure of Lord Adonis, speaking and tweeting with a passion, frequency and fervour of the most ardent of campaigners. But as if in counterpoint, a certain Jo Johnson MP has been quietly stacking up the column inches too, calming the tone and gilding the lily that he has carefully been tending, in somewhat stormy waters of both policy and public perception of the higher education system.

A recent by-lined article in Prospect magazine – and subsequently briefed into the news desks – sets out the defence of the minister’s realm. The three objectives of the student finance system are set plain for all to see: the removal of financial barriers, the efficiency and accountability of funding, and the fairness of the cost burden for both students and tax-payers. And the conclusion is blunt – the “system of tuition fees and government-supported loans meets all three objectives…the English system works.”

So we can all give up and go home again, right? I’m afraid not. The minister’s defence merely shifts the question over from the matter of fees to one of fairness – something loosely defined as a ‘value for money’ argument, the question of how to get better bang for your buck.

In his article Johnson positions this as having been his primary “focus” since taking up the role of universities minister in 2015. And indeed, in two years of this focus we have seen plenty of structural changes intended to deliver improvements – new legislation (through the Higher Education and Research Act); the creation of a new regulator (the Office for Students) and of course the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework.

But evidence is not forthcoming that these structural interventions will provide for a system that works. Johnson points to a quote from a VC calling the TEF a “godsend”; one wonders if this is all that he has to offer as proof that the systemic change is working. I imagine the TEF has been described in somewhat less savoury words by others in the sector. A select quote is not particularly convincing.

How long we are willing to wait for proof to be in the pudding is an open question. But while we wait for the answer, the media and external voices will continue to chip, chip and chip away at the veneer of the sector. Analysis of today’s results will be seen as a telling for the minister; results day serves as a yardstick for measuring appetite in continuing to higher education, and with initial reporting showing a fall in entry numbers and touting a rise in recruitment direct from A-Levels, we can expect the defence to ramp up.