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The King talks down universities at the state opening of parliament

Perhaps it is unfair to say that yesterday’s King’s speech, setting out the government’s plans for the next session of parliament, was a letdown.

It was the first King’s speech in more than 70 years, the first of Rishi Sunak’s government and the first since Liz Truss’s car crash premiership. And when the person delivering it is dressed in ermine, wearing a 1.3-kilo crown and sitting on a golden throne, there’s a lot to live up to.

Even so, the lack of substance was surprising, given that this will also be the last King’s speech before a general election and—if the polls are correct—could be the last chance for a while for a Conservative government to put into legislation all those projects it has been burning to implement during its past 13 years in power, not to mention those laid out in its 2019 manifesto.

The speech set out just 21 bills, the lowest number since 2014, and seven of those are already making their way through parliament. These include the Renters (Reform) Bill, which could have implications for student accommodation, with a recent report from the Higher Education Policy Institute suggesting it could push landlords to exit the student market.

They also include the Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, discussed in the House of Commons last month, which would prevent public bodies, including universities, from boycotting businesses and organisations—specifically those in Israel.

Negative talk

Higher education was not expected to feature highly in the speech but it did get a mention—and not a positive one.

The King said: “Proposals will be implemented to reduce the number of young people studying poor-quality university degrees and increase the number undertaking high-quality apprenticeships.”

This elicited a furious reaction from Diana Beech, chief executive of the London Higher group of institutions and a former adviser to three Conservative universities ministers.

“On an occasion when the UK pulls out all the stops to impress the world with tradition and pageantry, it is beyond belief that the UK government would even contemplate asking the King to speak negatively of the national asset that is our world-leading higher education and research sector,” she said. She suggested that it meant higher education institutions were still at risk of the reimposition of number controls.

Quite what the suggested proposals would be and how they would work remains unclear. In the last Queen’s speech in May 2022, the government’s accompanying briefing document stated that, subject to a consultation, a new higher education bill would look to set “minimum qualification requirements for access to student finance”. The consultation suggested preventing students without good GCSE grades in English and maths from accessing student loans, with alternative proposals requiring university applicants to have at least two grade Es at A-level in order to get a loan.

In July this year, the government published the outcome of its higher education reform consultation and decided that instead of introducing sector-wide controls on student numbers, it would issue statutory guidance to the Office for Students to consider “recruitment limits” for courses not delivering positive outcomes for students—something the OfS can do already, through B3 conditions of registration.

As for the apprenticeships side of the statement, the government has been promising to increase the number of high-quality apprenticeships for more than a decade but it is still the case that nearly half of all apprentices fail to complete their programme—mainly due to poor retention.

Scrapping A-levels

At the pre-university level of education, the speech announced that “steps will be taken to ensure young people have the knowledge and skills to succeed, through the introduction of the Advanced British Standard”, which will involve scrapping A-levels and T-levels in favour of a single qualification bringing together technical and academic routes.

Sunak talked about this in his speech to his party conference in October but no legislation was announced yesterday to help get it moving, and whether it actually comes to pass will depend entirely on who wins the next election and how much enthusiasm they have for a full-scale rejig of post-16 education, given other likely demands on their time.

Responding to yesterday’s mention of the idea, the Sutton Trust commented that while it welcomed the proposals since young people are forced to specialise far too early, which impacts disadvantaged young people the most, “we look forward to seeing the detail”.

Positive talk

In a written introduction to the speech, Sunak was more positive about higher education.

He described “the incredible talent and potential that we have” as “our most powerful resource” and boasted of the UK creating 134 tech unicorns over the past decade and hosting leading artificial intelligence (AI) firms because of “sound foundations”. These included the government increasing investment in R&D to £20 billion a year by 2025 (although it hasn’t yet confirmed a future target for spending on R&D) and the UK having four of the top 10 universities globally, “with our leading science institutions attracting the world’s brightest talents”.

He said the government was backing the NHS’s first long-term workforce plan, which would mean training more doctors, nurses, dentists and GPs (failing to mention that the number of students accepted on nursing courses fell this year, or that Universities UK has warned that a number of challenges still need to be overcome for the plan to work).

He also mentioned that the government was investing at least £2.3bn of extra funding a year by March next year in mental health support, including rolling out mental health teams in schools and colleges.

But there was nothing in the speech about legislation to modernise the Mental Health Act, despite previous promises on this.

Artificial intelligence

Last year’s speech was notably light on mentions of R&D and science compared with previous speeches, and the same is true of this year’s.

Sunak’s recent AI security conference was a clear demonstration of the prime minister’s personal enthusiasm for the technology.

But while yesterday’s speech did include a mention of AI, with the King saying the UK will “continue to lead international discussions to ensure AI is developed safely”, there was no AI-specific bill—something that Greg Clark, chair of the House of Commons science, innovation and technology committee, said was “disappointing”.

Clark’s committee published an interim report in August calling for a “tightly focused AI bill in the next session of parliament” and warning that without one, the UK could be surpassed in AI governance by the EU and the US.

The absence of legislation in this area was particularly surprising since an AI white paper in March anticipated introducing a statutory duty requiring regulators to have due regard to principles including safety, security, transparency, fairness and accountability.

There was some mention of science in the background briefing on the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill—one of those already making its way through parliament—which “seizes our post-Brexit opportunity to create a new UK data rights regime” and will “remove unnecessary barriers placed on scientific researchers”, “clarifying and improving rules around using personal data for scientific research [and] fostering a home for world-class research and development”.

Climate controversies

But that was pretty much it, although scientists will have much to say on the elements of the speech connected to climate change.

These were controversial—not least (although he didn’t let on) with the person reading it out. King Charles has long advocated decarbonisation but had to announce a bill to support the licensing of new oil and gas fields.

Academics were freer to voice their concerns. Esin Serin, policy fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “Ahead of [the UN climate change conference] Cop28, the government should be playing a leadership role on net zero. Instead, they have doubled down on their commitments to drill for more oil and gas.”

She said it shattered the UK’s ability to encourage stronger collective action to protect the safety of the planet, while making minimal difference to its own energy bills or security.

Dividing lines

Sunak seemed to be using the speech to throw ‘red meat’ to Conservative supporters to encourage them to turn out to vote. Hence announcements on crime and the comments on low-quality degrees.

It could also be that he was drawing clear dividing lines with Labour before the election over issues that Keir Starmer will find tricky to handle, such as balancing action on climate change with potential job losses.

It may well be that he is keeping any exciting policy twists for the autumn statement to be delivered on 22 November, with less of the distracting pomp and in an environment in which Sunak, as a former chancellor, is likely to feel more at home.

Or perhaps the reason why the King’s speech lacked substance is that the election will take place sooner than the expected date of next autumn, so there won’t be much time to enact new laws anyway.

Whatever the reason, it didn’t suggest that Sunak has an agenda he is itching to put into action before his time runs out—even an AI agenda.

It must be tempting for him to pursue this interest in a way that doesn’t entail listening to luddite MPs worried about how to activate auto-delete on their WhatsApps.

Rubbing shoulders with the kind of tech titans that attended his conference will be more appealing, and such titans can’t keep job vacancies open to former prime ministers for ever.

And finally…

Is it that time of year already? Skills, apprenticeships and higher education minister Robert Halfon is inviting young people in his constituency of Harlow to design him a Christmas card.

Designs must feature a Christmas tree, with ornaments inspired by places in Harlow.

It is the fourth time Halfon has run the competition, which began a year after local publication EssexLive ran a story on “the seven reasons why Harlow is just the ‘worst’ place in Essex”, beginning: “Harlow has gained a reputation of being a bit of a dive.”

Sadly, drawing seasonal inspiration from the Essex new town will not be the only challenge. Another could be ensuring that cards featuring the winning design actually get delivered. Earlier this month, on his own website, Halfon slammed the Royal Mail for “appalling service” in Harlow.

Surely a case for a degree apprenticeship?

On Research Professional News today

Rachel Magee reports that the University and College Union has slammed the UK’s trade union laws for being “anti-democratic”, and the chair of the House of Commons science, innovation and technology committee has said it is “disappointing” that the King’s speech did not include a bill on artificial intelligence.

Emily Twinch tells us that more academics are resigning from voluntary posts at UK Research and Innovation after the agency acceded to a minister’s demand that it shutter an advisory panel on equality issues.

Chris Parr writes that it is “beyond belief” that the King’s speech at the state opening of parliament included a criticism of the quality of some courses at UK universities, a former adviser to three universities ministers has said.

Nina Bo Wagner reveals that European ministers have agreed to set the course of space exploration towards a greener planet and promised support for new rockets, as part of a serious effort to send Europeans to space.

She adds that the European Parliament’s science advice panel has reiterated its reasoning for recalling a report on pharmaceutical legislation shortly after it was released last month, and insisted nothing underhand had occurred.

In the news

The BBC reports on concerns that Jewish students at UK universities are deeply anxious, the first images have been revealed from a ‘dark universe’ mission, and an Oscar winner is being awarded an honorary degree.

The Financial Times says that a lack of appetite to boost university funding is leaving the sector wooing more overseas students.

In The Times, a renowned journal has been forced to retract a ‘floating trains’ study.

The Belfast Telegraph says that writer Margaret Atwood is to receive an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews.

The day ahead

The Higher Education Policy Institute publishes an article on funding undergraduate higher education.

The House of Commons science, innovation and technology committee is hearing evidence from 9.15am on the governance of artificial intelligence.

Advance HE is holding the Athena Swan Ireland awards ceremony in Cork as well as two seminars: one on inclusive and equitable assessment and feedback at 9.30am; the other on its strategic leadership programme from 5.30pm.

UK Research and Innovation is running a webinar at 10.30am on its open-access policy for longform publications.

The Medical Research Council is running an event from 10.30am on its Centres of Research Excellence funding opportunity.

The Quality Assurance Agency has an event at 1pm on how it can support providers with regulatory compliance, key challenges and the student experience.

From 2.20pm, the Commons communications and digital committee will hear evidence on large language models.

The Playbook would not be possible without Martyn Jones, Chris Parr, Orlen Crawford and Fiona McIntyre.

Thanks for reading. Have a great day.

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