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Disowning disadvantage

Donelan says that looking at which groups don’t get to university ‘doesn’t matter’

The day after the publication of the National Student Survey results, Playbook would usually take a look at what they say—particularly given the potential for disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. If that is what you were hoping for, you will be happy to learn that our correspondent Fiona McIntyre has the lowdown on our site, and her report is but a click away.

We begin today elsewhere, though, because it’s not every day that the universities minister announces an about-turn in a decades-old approach to widening participation in higher education—but then these, as we are repeatedly told, are not normal times.

Yesterday, Michelle Donelan told the House of Commons education committee that despite years of policy and targets designed to boost the number of people from underrepresented groups in higher education, “it doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university”.

Donelan was answering a question from Conservative committee member Caroline Johnson, who wanted to know which groups of young people were least likely to go to university, why that might be and what was being done to encourage them.

“First of all I want to say that we don’t necessarily want everyone to go to university—that was very much the essence of the secretary of state’s speech last week,” she said, referring to education secretary Gavin Williamson’s attack on the “absurd mantra” that the increased higher education participation championed by Blair was and remained an unerringly good thing.

“Whether you are advantaged or disadvantaged, higher education is not necessarily the best route to get to where you want to go in life,” Donelan said.

“I really think we need to move away from this focus of how many students get to university because it is such a blunt instrument that isn’t actually very accurate in terms of social mobility,” she added. “If a student gets to university and drops out after year one and has a year’s debt, what does that achieve for their social mobility? Nothing. In fact, it sets them back in life.

“It is about them completing high-quality, academically rigorous courses that then lead to graduate jobs—and that is the important measure we should be looking at.”

Johnson did not miss the fact that the universities minister had not really addressed her question, so she went back in for a second go.

“The question was: Which groups are currently least likely to go to university and is there much talk about helping those groups…to consider it as a career [choice]?” she said.

Donelan trotted out the well-worn line about “record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university” (missing out the word “young”, which is crucial here given the decimation of the mature student body) but acknowledged that there were “still challenges within different sections of society, including white working-class students”.

“But I actually don’t think it is a good measure to look at,” the minister continued. “It is the wrong question, if you don’t mind me saying, because it doesn’t matter about looking at which groups don’t get to university. It is about making sure that those groups that do go complete, that [their course will] lead to graduate jobs, but also looking at what is in that student’s best interests.”

This will come as a shock to many in higher education who are quite capable of understanding that while social mobility is not simply about boosting university enrolment in certain demographics, there is absolutely a reason to pay close attention to those groups that have worryingly and persistently low rates of progression to higher education.

Donelan’s declaration that this “doesn’t matter” will be confusing for the great many people who work in widening participation. Johnson seemed taken aback, too. “Does that mean no university will be required to have a target of any particular demographic of student?” she asked.

Donelan’s response that universities were “individually accountable” for their access and participation plans, and that there were “different issues in terms of demographics” for different universities, will not do much to address that confusion. Nor will her repeated message that “access and participation is not just about getting the student in; it is about making sure they can complete their course” and then go on to get a graduate job.

“We need the sector to actually look at their offer…and their messages to prospective students, because they do tend to promote courses too much that don’t offer those graduate outcomes,” the minister concluded.

Wash your hands

If there was one other message that Donelan seemed particularly keen to get across during the 75-minute grilling, it was that the government really wasn’t responsible for any of the current issues in higher education.

In one example, early on in proceedings, committee chair Robert Halfon pointed out that the number of adults enrolling in part-time courses had fallen by 70 per cent since 2010, when the Conservative-led coalition came to power. The decline has been acknowledged, by those who designed the new fee system, as an unfortunate side effect of the Tory decision to increase tuition fees. Halfon, meanwhile, asked if there were plans to reinstate financial support for disadvantaged part-time learners.

Donelan said she believed “passionately” that “we need to be expanding our part-time offer in this country”. However, “I don’t think it is just about the support available. I actually think it is about the sector themselves offering part-time courses that will help individuals to progress, to upskill, to reskill,” she added. So not the government’s fault at all, then.

“I call on the sector to really invest more in part-time education and promoting part-time education because it really is a powerful tool for promoting social mobility,” she said—adding that further information on how the government intended to support part-time higher education would form “part of our response to Augar”.

It is hard to believe that universities ministers are still able to dodge questions by saying the detail will come in the government’s response to the Augar review. It’s two and a half years since that review was ordered by former prime minister Theresa May and 14 months since the resulting report was published.

Donelan is now the third universities minister able to hide behind the unpublished response, which will finally make its appearance alongside the chancellor’s next spending review. Whenever that is.

Elsewhere in the committee session, Donelan dismissed the possibility of reimbursing tuition fees for nursing students who have worked in the NHS to help fight Covid-19. You can read more on our website.

The minister also said that more details of the “restructuring regime” that will be imposed on universities that require further assistance to remain solvent would be published “imminently”. The process, designed as a “last resort scenario” for struggling institutions, is expected to be fleshed out later today. Donelan was coy on specifics, but confirmed that there will be “conditions attached to that funding”. 

And finally…

Much of the discussion about how universities will reform their teaching for the next academic year has focused on the changes required to deliver effective online learning. Most institutions, however, intend to offer a blended approach with some in-person tuition—and that threatens to play havoc with their timetables.

With the need for smaller gatherings to accommodate social distancing, universities will be looking at ways of holding a higher number of smaller sessions without running out of time.

During the committee session, Conservative MP Christian Wakeford told the universities minister that he had seen a letter from the University of Nottingham that suggested lectures and seminars at the institution could be moved to the weekend. Playbook asked Nottingham—which will be far from the only institution grappling with such issues—what was on the cards.

“Many schools plan to deliver their curriculum in the usual term, but others may need more time for teaching while we all follow social distancing measures,” a spokeswoman told us. “Senate has approved temporary extensions to our term dates, and we are exploring more flexible teaching hours for the new academic year, should they be required.”

She added that any changes “should not affect the number of study or working hours for students or staff” and that they “would be subject to an equality impact assessment”. Confirmed timetables are due to be published “towards the autumn”, she added. “As we do now, we would make reasonable adjustments for specific needs such as religious observance.”

Playbook understands that Saturday lectures are unlikely at Nottingham, but the fact that they are under discussion (and surely will be at other universities too) will strike fear into the hearts of staff and students alike.

And finally finally…

Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford is to become the youngest person ever to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Manchester. It follows his successful campaign to get the government to reverse its decision not to fund free meals for disadvantaged children during the school holidays.

We are not aware that Dr Rashford is a regular Playbook reader, but if he is, we would like to ask him formally to back Our Debt, Not Theirs, a campaign from Research Professional News for nursing students’ tuition fees to be reimbursed for the time they spent working in hospitals to fight Covid-19. But we digress.

The doctorate award has received widespread coverage in the domestic and international press—leading Playbook to wonder if Nancy Rothwell is the first UK vice-chancellor to feature on the pages of the Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s premier football newspaper.

“La professoressa Nancy Rothwell, presidente e vicecancelliere dell’università, ha dichiarato: ‘Marcus è un giovane talentuoso e una guida straordinaria anche fuori da un campo di calcio. La sua campagna non solo aiuterà innumerevoli giovani in tutta la nostra città, ma anche in tutto il Paese. Siamo orgogliosi di condividere tutto questo con lui.’”

We had no idea Dame Nancy’s Italian was so on point.

On Research Professional News today

Chris Parr reports that the universities minister has confirmed there are “no plans” to reimburse student nurses’ tuition fee loans “in any way”.

Fiona McIntyre tells us that the Office for Students has said Covid-19 did not have a significant impact on this year’s National Student Survey results, and Anglia Ruskin University has been named the “higher education partner” for a £30 million university in Peterborough.

Delayed legislation that would see a new overarching body replace the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has finally opened for consultation, says Sophie Inge.

She adds that the Economic and Social Research Council has asked researchers to weigh in on reforms to doctoral training in the UK, including how diversity and wellbeing can be improved and how graduates can be better prepared for life outside academia.

The European Commission has signed agreements for €253m (£230m) in funding for 42 projects on security research from Horizon 2020, and research and innovation bodies have opposed a plan to slash the proposed budget of Horizon Europe by €5 billion.

A lottery approach has increased the diversity and reach of a Nesta scheme, say Laurie Smith and Bernardo Maza.

Robin Bisson tells us that revamped reporting guidelines for research using animals have been published due to concerns that most journal publications of such work still omit important methodological information.

The funders behind Plan S, who will require all researchers they support to publish resulting articles with immediate open access from 2021, have presented a rights retention strategy they will adopt to oblige researchers to comply with the requirement, writes Pola Lem.

In the news

The BBC reports that Covid-19 fears are putting Chinese students off the UK, and a Cardiff University student has created Welsh scientific words.

In The Guardian, universities minister Michelle Donelan says that social mobility does not depend on attending university, there’s a feature on school leavers facing an uncertain future, and footballer Marcus Rashford is to receive an honorary doctorate.

ITV News reports on Rashford’s doctorate, as does The Independent.

i News reports on a call from Donelan for universities to cut excessive pay for vice-chancellors, and UK student satisfaction with university has dropped.

The Telegraph says that universities could be required to fund security for controversial speakers, and the University of St Andrews has assigned staff to root out sexual violence on campus.

In The Times, a £30m university is to be set up in Peterborough.

Times Higher reports on a call to support junior academics and on the cost of internationalisation.

The day ahead

The Higher Education Policy Institute is holding a webinar and publishing a policy note on PhD students’ careers. We will report on the findings later this morning.

Advance HE publishes Three Months to Make a Difference, a report on behalf of the Office for Students-funded Disabled Students’ Commission, highlighting areas that present challenges for disabled students and recommendations as to how institutions and the government can address them.

The Scottish Charity Regulator publishes the results of an investigation into payments to the retiring principal of the University of Aberdeen.

From 9am, there is a Westminster Forum event on the future for UK regulation of medicines, medical devices and clinical trials.

From 9.30am, Advance HE has a mental health and wellbeing teaching practice workshop.

Jisc has three online events: managing online and print collections during the pandemic; learning and teaching best practice; and cloud connectivity.

Advance HE also has an event from 2pm on homeworking in the Covid-19 pandemic and equality considerations for homeworkers.

From 2pm in Portcullis House, the House of Commons science and technology committee is looking at UK science, research and technology capability and influence in global disease outbreaks.

Universities UK has a webinar on supporting the mental wellbeing of healthcare students from 4pm.

The eighth European Conference on Education is taking place online until Sunday.

The Playbook would not be possible without Martyn Jones, Harriet Swain and Fiona McIntyre.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

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