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EDUCATION: Universities under pressure

19 September 2014

Church universities need to deal with current challenges, and position themselves for the next election, warns John Howson



Primary focus: B.Ed. students at the University of Chichester discuss their lesson plans

Primary focus: B.Ed. students at the University of Chichester discuss their lesson plans

AS THE academic year begins, only eight months before the next General Election, vice-chancellors are contemplating life with a new Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, and a new Higher Education Minister, Greg Clark. The latter's predecessor, David Willetts, replaced in the recent reshuffle, had not only shadowed the brief in the later years of the Labour government, but spent four years in office - much longer than the average ministerial appointment. Mr Willetts understood and cared for universities, and achieved much under difficult circumstances.

He successfully removed the issue of university funding from the forefront of the agenda during a period of extreme restraint in government spending. He did this by accepting that tuition fees should increase to up to £9000, in return for a more generous repayment policy.

The fact that this caused extreme discomfort to the Liberal Democrats, who, as a party, seemed unable to deal with the attacks from Labour about their volte-face on fees, is neither here nor there. A more long-term issue is how the Government will recover student loans; these now look like a thinly disguised form of a graduate tax, because repayments may not keep up with the interest that the Government has to pay on the money it has advanced to universities on the students' behalf.

MR WILLETTS's other achievement was to remove the cap on undergraduate numbers, allowing universities to recruit more applicants with top grades. For the church universities, this may be something of a mixed blessing over the next few years, as the number of 18-year-olds drops to its lowest level for a couple of decades, and competition for students increases. Already last month we saw young people with higher A-level grades than predicted binning offers that they had already accepted and trading up to more prestigious institutions.

How the sought-after Russell Group and other larger universities respond in the longer term to the possibility of fewer home students depends on the strength of the pound, and thus the continued attraction of England as a destination for overseas students.

If income from overseas students drops, then the larger metropolitan universities, which rely upon teaching income generated by students' fees, may become more aggressive in their marketing.

The church universities will, no doubt, emphasise their unique selling-points to undergraduates: the closer staff/student relationships owing to their smaller size; the pleasant, cathedral city location of many, and a wide range of courses.

A RESPONSE that some church universities may have already adopted is to recruit more undergraduate trainee teachers. Most have more places to offer, since the Government was forced to reallocate to universities some of those intended for the school-based primary training schemes that the Government is keen to expand. There were just too few schools with the capacity to meet the demand.

Increasing numbers for undergraduate primary courses are still important to many church universities, as they secure a source of income for three years. Those offering secondary teacher training will be more concerned about the downturn in applications, which could mean empty places on many PGCE courses this month.

If Labour should go into the General Election campaign with a promise to cut fees to no more than £6000, as has been hinted, vice-chancellors and their staff will be keen to know how to bridge the funding gap between that figure and the income they have been used to receiving. Should the Government not offer alternative funding, large-scale redundancies could be on the cards. Also possible is another round of mergers and amalgamations between institutions - a development that could put church universities at risk once again of losing their identity, at a time when they are rediscovering their heritage.

Moreover, reduced funding could put under pressure uneconomic, minority subjects, including theology and religious studies, unless, possibly, students were prepared to accept fewer hours of direct teaching. Some might resort to the use of new technology, and seek to offer degrees entirely online as a means of cutting costs. How 18-year-olds would respond to the loss of the "undergraduate experience" is an interesting question.

AS IF the funding threats were not enough to deal with, the Schools of Education in church universities face another upheaval in OFSTED's inspection of teacher training. In future, the transfer between teacher-preparation courses and first employment in schools will be more closely monitored than in the past, presumably to ensure that trainees receive appropriate preparation for the type of schools in which they take up their first job.

Should this reappraisal by OFSTED reveal that weaker students end up in more challenging schools, then there will be an important debate about the working of the teacher employment market that has existed for the past half-century, when, in response to the Robbins and Taylor reports, training was removed from employers and placed in higher-education institutions.

Because the Government is directing Teach First to expand into those coastal areas where schools have found recruitment challenging, the whole notion of how new teachers find their first teaching post may come under scrutiny. The church universities will need to work closely with the church authorities if links with employers are revived. This is something vice-chancellors and teacher trainers may wish to explore with the political parties well before the election.

Whoever wins next May, the church universities must be alert to unforeseen legislation. As we saw in 2010, the "Parliament-ready" Academies Bill was passed into law in just eight weeks between May and July, and has fundamentally changed the schools landscape. It's a warning that the church universities need to heed. They should be as wary of a future coalition as of any majority government.

Professor John Howson is the director of an education research company, and a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University.

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