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
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
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
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