Theresa May’s speech on university tuition fee reform omitted one salient fact: it was the Coalition government which raised fees to up to £9k from 2012. The then universities minister David Willetts said the move was ‘progressive’.
The Million+ group of new universities warned the proposed rise was ‘very unlikely’ to provide a ‘long-term and sustainable basis’ for university funding.
And so it has proved. May admits the cost of higher education (HE) in England is among the most expensive in the world. This is perhaps something she should have thought of when she voted in favour of raising the university fee cap to £9k back in 2010.
But May is going to do something about this lamentable state of affairs. She’s announced a review – it will take up to a year.
May said, rightly, there is prejudice against technical education. It was ever thus. For decades in England, technical education has been viewed as less worthy than the academic. Technical education, as I was told when I failed to achieve a high enough score to enter the local grammar school, was for those who ‘were good with their hands’. The message was clear: brain work was superior to anything which could be applied.
Since 2010, prejudice against technical education has worsened. EBacc and pressure to offer ‘facilitating’ A levels (those allegedly more valued by universities) together with constant praise for schools which aspire to send all pupils to university have further downgraded technical subjects. Many schools now use ‘unashamedly academic’ as a Unique Selling Point. An internet search throws up dozens of examples including a tweet from schools minister Nick Gibb in December 2017.
A major speech about education wouldn’t be complete without self-congratulatory padding about the wonderfulness of education reform since 2010. May spouted the inevitable phrase about there being 1.8 million pupils in good or better schools since 2010. She praised the academies programme seemingly oblivious to the fact that it’s in the primary sector where academies are in the minority which has seen the largest increase in good or better Ofsted judgements. And a large number of outstanding judgements predate academy conversion – they apply to schools when they were the much-maligned ‘council schools’.
Free schools, another post-2010 initiative, have some of the best GCSE results, May chirruped. But so did converter academies, sponsored academies, local authority maintained schools, faith schools and non-faith schools. And if it’s true to say, as the New Schools Network constantly does, that free schools are among the best schools as judged by Progress 8 (P8) then it’s also true to say that free schools as a group have more schools with below average P8 scores than any other type of school except UTCs and Studio Schools.
The high cost of higher education which falls on English students is entirely due to policies passed since 2010. No amount of self-satisfied puff nor a creakingly slow review can detract from that.