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Hurdles for universities on the track ahead

18 June 2021

John Gay runs through challenges facing the higher-education sector


Students group round a statue of the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, installed on the West Downs Campus of the University of Winchester in March

Students group round a statue of the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, installed on the West Downs Campus of the University of Winchester in Ma...

UNIVERSITIES are facing challenges from all directions. They have been making Herculean efforts to provide for their students the best level of education possible within the constraints of Covid lockdowns. This has involved a significant shift away from face-to-face teaching towards an online experience and the provision of support systems to help students to cope with the changes — all having to be managed by staff who are mostly working remotely.

For students, studying all day at home through their laptops is a far cry from what they were expecting when they first applied to university. Nevertheless, most students are resilient.

For example, all new students arriving at the University of Winchester are asked to rate their expectations of their forthcoming university experience. The results show that they expect an interesting and challenging course; a friendly and supportive atmosphere, where students are known and treated as individuals and staff are approachable; and plenty of opportunities for making new friends.

Despite all the disruptions caused by the first Covid lockdown, more than four-fifths of the students returning in September felt that their initial expectations had been well realised. Not bad!

Interestingly, despite the talk of students’ being customers and more demanding about value for money, fewer than seven per cent rated this as one of their highest concerns. There is no reason to think that these conclusions would not be reproduced at the other Cathedrals Group universities.


TO THE universities, some of the Government’s recent reactions must feel like adding insult to injury. When encouragement and support was needed, what the universities received was criticism.

There are good political reasons for this. Post-Covid, the Government rightly plans to build up the long-neglected area of further education (FE). This will cost, and money will be short. The principle of making savings in HE to pay for expanding and improving FE — robbing Peter to pay Paul — is very attractive.

Public support for FE has been growing rapidly. A recent survey undertaken by the Social Market Foundation found that 48 per cent said that they would prefer their children to gain a vocational qualification over university or work. This support extended to university graduates and to middle-class respondents.

Among 18- to 24-year-olds, however, this preference was reversed: half favoured university over vocational education, and fewer than one third the reverse — this despite a barrage of press headlines such as “Apprentices can earn £7k more than graduates” (The Times, 5 June).


FOR some while now, ministers have been making generalised threats against so-called “low-value” courses. It appears that value is to be equated with the salary levels attained by past graduates in that discipline: a very utilitarian view of education. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, was quoted in The Sunday Times in mid-May as saying: “Many students are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt.”

Last month, the Office for Students published a report, Projected Completion and Employment from Entrance Data (Proceed). This controversial new measure attempts to score universities and their courses on drop-out rates and graduate outcomes in one metric.

The report is careful to emphasise that it is still a work in progress, and that there are no plans to use the current data for regulatory purposes. But the genie has been let out of the bottle, and it is likely that a later revision of the metric will be used by politicians to reduce funding for courses that they don’t like.

The report ranks 34 subjects according to their perceived value. Not surprisingly, medicine and dentistry top the list and sociology is bottom. Other low-ranking subjects include business, psychology, media, sports science, health and social care, performing arts, and art and design.

The data is also available at an individual university level, enabling an analysis of the situation in each of the English Cathedrals Group universities. Nearly half of all their students are studying what are being deemed to be the ten lowest-value subjects.


THE church universities are strong in the subject ranked 16th, however: education. It accounts for 21 per cent of their total student population, 11 per cent training as teachers. At five of the universities, one fifth of all their students are on teacher-training courses, and, at a sixth, it is two-fifths.

But even this long-established base in teacher education is under threat. The traditional arms-length relationship between universities and central Government is breaking down. University autonomy is seen as a hindrance to centralising plans, especially in teacher education.

Already, the Government has established a national Institute for teaching, which is likely to franchise a few big providers of teacher education at the expense of the rest. Also, the recommendations of a government review group are awaited with trepidation, especially at those universities with a large stake in teacher education.

istockStudents have had to get used to remote learning

A further difficulty is that tuition fees could well be cut from the current £9250 to a maximum of £7500. This would knock a big hole in the budgets of many of the Cathedrals Group. The more costly science courses would be topped up by extra government funding, but some arts and humanities subjects could well disappear.


ON THE principle that when one door closes, another one opens, there could be an opportunity for one or more of the Cathedrals Group universities to add a significant further-education file to its portfolio. The recent Skills and Post-16 Education Bill encourages a collaboration between employers and education providers to meet local needs.

A local focus both in student recruitment and in linking to local issues has been a central plank in the modus vivendi of the church universities, and could well open a new door for them. Perhaps the biggest obstacle would be a presentational one; for adding FE could be seen as status downgrading. Equally, though, it could be an operational winner.

The origins of the church universities lay in the church training colleges established in the mid-19th century to provide teachers for the burgeoning church-school system. Their remit was extended subsequently to service other types of school, and so they continued until the 1970s, when two decisions were taken that radically altered the pattern. The number of colleges was reduced from 25 to 12, and the surviving ones were obliged to diversify and expand. One of the consequences was the gradual decoupling of the colleges from the Church.

In 2001, the Government’s go-to Chief Fixit for education, Lord Dearing, chaired a review of church schools, published as The Way Ahead: Church of England schools in the new millennium. The Dearing report outlined a central place for the church colleges. While, however, the rest of the report was implemented, the attempt to recouple the colleges fell on deaf ears. There was little enthusiasm either within the colleges, which were about to become autonomous universities, or among the Church’s educational Establishment, which remained focused on church schools.

The Church of England’s decision in 2013 to centralise the validation of all its ministerial training through the University of Durham, and thus discontinue local schemes involving the church universities, drove a further wedge. It has also had negative consequences for some of their theology and religious-studies departments, such as at Chester (News, 23 April).

The Church of England’s national Education Office, along with the Catholic Education Service, has been appointed one of the nine national providers for the roll-out of the revised suite of professional qualifications for teachers planning for leadership positions.

The Office has also teamed up with Teach First and the Chartered College of Teaching to run a rural-teaching partnership to tackle teacher-recruitment problems in countryside schools. On top of this, the Office is well placed to play a part in the Government’s proposed national Institute of Teaching.

If the church universities could form a partnership with the Office in these national initiatives, therefore, it would also help promote a recoupling process. The Revd Professor Peter Neil, Vice-Chancellor of Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln, who chairs the Cathedrals Group, is clear that the church universities have a wealth of educational expertise and deep-rooted contacts with teachers and schools which they could bring to the national table.

The Revd Dr John Gay is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of Education.

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