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School’s out

Nick Hillman looks back on a year of goodbyes and hellos

In the posher parts of our education system, there is an ancient tradition at the end of each academic year that involves listing departing colleagues under the heading Valete (farewell), alongside those newly in post under Salvete (welcome).

There have been so many comings and goings this year that I am tempted just to write up two such lists for the higher education sector and be done with it.

Under Valete would appear people such as Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan, Amanda Solloway, George Freeman, Nicola Dandridge, Chris Millward, David Sweeney, Larissa Kennedy and numerous vice-chancellors, with Boris Johnson waiting to join the list. Under Salvete would come James Cleverly, Andrea Jenkyns, Susan Lapworth, John Blake and lots of vice-chancellors.

Let’s go round again

It all goes to prove the old adage that you do not have to stick around for long to be in post longer than the minister responsible for the area in which you work. In the past eight years, we have had eight secretaries of state for education, seven science ministers and six ministers for higher education (and that is excluding ‘retreads’ who have held a role more than once).

That means ministers are now typically around for only half as long as Premier League managers, and the turnover has sped up recently: two of the education secretaries arrived and departed in the academic year now coming to a close.

A university that changed leadership so often would be regarded as failing and in need of external investigation—but in reality, vice-chancellors tend to stay in post eight times longer than secretaries of state for education. No education secretary (or equivalent) has ever stayed in post as long as even the average retiring vice-chancellor

Never mind the ballots

It is amazing—and amazingly positive—that under this choppy surface, universities have this year continued to get on so well with what they do best.

The Research Excellence Framework results showed the strength in breadth of UK research, just as the Oxford vaccine had previously reminded people of its strength in specific areas.

As Clare Marchant confirmed in last week’s Sunday Reading, the latest Ucas figures show that demand for UK higher education remains stronger than ever, from home and abroad. Those who predicted that the Covid crisis would lead people to question the value of a traditional higher education could not have been more wrong.

Our own survey data, published last month with Advance HE, shows that the student experience largely bounced back in 2021-22 after last year’s Covid-induced turmoil.

As the recent National Student Survey results confirm, not everything is rosy. But those who have sought to impede progress, such as the University and College Union, have had a terrible year, with low ballot turnouts and little to show for all their hard talk. University staff who gave up salaries by going on strike were left wondering why industrial action designed to leave them better off actually left them worse off. The growing exasperation with the UCU’s tactics has been nowhere clearer than in the 8am Playbook’s coverage, which has been an invaluable guide to the mess.

The UCU’s cheerleaders in the National Union of Students have also had a sorry time, with the organisation ending this academic year with a QC-led review into accusations of antisemitism. The English higher education reforms of the past decade aimed to put ‘students at the heart of the system’, so they offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the NUS to find a new role. But it flunked the test. Its challenge now must be to try to put students firmly at the heart of the current cost-of-living crisis, which there are signs it is beginning to do.

Never-ending (s)tory

Given how the academic year has gone, with so much churn and change, perhaps it’s not surprising that we end it with more known unknowns than anything else. What will a new prime minister mean for the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that is currently before parliament? Will the Lifelong Loan Entitlement be a mouse of a policy or an elephant? Will we ever get anywhere near spending 2.4 per cent of GDP on R&D? Who will become the permanent head of the Office for Students? Exactly what form will any new backdoor limits on student numbers take? Who will be the other ministers in charge come the autumn?

While all the current ruction is frustrating, it nonetheless reminds us of something important about how the higher education sector should act in good times as well as bad. This is the importance of institutions being true to their underlying values rather than bending to the latest winds.

Imagine an institution that had set a seven-year strategy back in 2015 that sought to take the political priorities of that time into account. That strategy, which would now be coming to an end, would not have been worth the paper it was written on. In fact, the political winds have changed so much that following any such change would probably have been counterproductive. So when planning ahead, we need to play to our strengths, not to what we think a here-today-gone-tomorrow minister wants us to focus on.

For universities, that means relying on their foundational roots both to hold them up and to support any new branches. And if necessary, however painful it might prove, recognising the need—carefully and sensitively—to prune back what is no longer a priority, something particularly necessary in the current financial environment.

Institutions are fiercely attacked for every course closure, let alone wider departmental change. While it is right that any such changes come under scrutiny, our universities are best when they evolve, not when they are pickled in aspic.

As we watch the final stage of the race to be the Conservative leader and prime minister, we should remember that there are two silver linings to periods of change. One is that priorities alter, often for the better. To take one specific example, now could be the moment for ministers to stop the unjustified attacks on the Race Equality Charter.

Second, as I recalled many years ago in a paper I wrote for the Institute for Government that looked at the high turnover of civil servants, “apparent barriers in the way of certain policies can suddenly and unexpectedly vaporise”—and change can make way for wins in old battles.

Nick Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.