Institutes of Technology: what the hell are they then?

Since the Referendum outcome a series of leading political commentators have offered ideas of how to rebuild an obviously – and nearly equally divided – country. Central to suggestions from both left and right has been the rebuilding of vocational educational pathways to good quality, skilled jobs – especially in those towns, cities and regions that have suffered most amidst waves of deindustrialisation, globalisation and economic restructuring. Vernon Bogdanor, Miranda Green and David Goodhart are just three commentators that have all recommended concerted investment in technical training to fuel both a new industrial strategy as well as the businesses and jobs that might underpin a series of new global trading deals.

But it is only Brexit that is the new part of this diagnosis. We have suffered from a gap in our education and training system for decades – perhaps even hundreds of years. We’ve always been rather better at ‘education’ than ‘training’. Today’s extensive trailing of a new Industrial Strategy Green Paper puts an attempt to remedy this at centre stage.

As Vince Cable remarked in a speech too close to the end of his tenure as Secretary of State at BIS (neither he, his party nor his department are around to shape this version of industrial strategy), this is an issue that is part of the future for both Further and Higher Education sectors. He describes an ‘upper technical’ vacuum as a problem that lies across both sectors as well as in teaching and research.

‘Our post-secondary education has become distorted. The OECD concluded that our post-secondary vocational sub-degree sector is small by international standards – probably well under 10% of the youth cohort, compared to a third of young people elsewhere. In the US, more than 20% of the workforce have a post-secondary certificate or an associate degree as their highest qualification. In Austria and Germany, sub-degree provision accounts for around 50% of the cohort. In South Korea, one-third of the youth cohort enters junior college on 2-year programmes of higher vocational training. Elsewhere, countries with low volumes have sought to address the problem. Sweden, for example, trebled its numbers in higher VET programmes between 2001 and 2011.’

As today’s Sunday Times says, the reform of technical education has not been without previous attempts or good intentions from government. From Samuelson and Forster in the 19th Century, Butler, Robbins and Crosland in the 20th and Leitch and Sainsbury in the 21st, we haven’t been short of recommendations or new institutional solutions. Crosland’s answer was the Polytechnic. Before that it had been Colleges of Advanced Technology. In the later years of New Labour it was Centres of Vocational Excellence and then National Skills Academies. Vince Cable offered both National Colleges and Catapult Centres for applying technical research. The Coalition ended and Cameron’s brief honeymoon saw the taking up of Labour’s ideas of Institutes of Technical Excellence and Technical Degrees into Institutes of Technology.

So this is a long standing issue with a long history of policy failures in both the distant as well as the more recent past. In many ways, more recent reforms – especially to funding – have seen the homogenising of HE and FE around younger full time learners. In both sectors, the numbers of part time and older learners have fallen dramatically over the last decade alongside those of any age learning or training in the workplace. What then could an Institute of Technology look like if it’s not to go the way of previous initiatives? To my mind there are six key issues that stand out and will help to define what they are, why they matter and where they fit in the existing landscape of institutions, sectors and systems.

1) Identify the primary purpose and stick to it. If the objective is to help drive an active industrial strategy, then the overriding purpose will be to drive economic growth in key sectors. It follows therefore that they are likely to be specialist in focus and in places where there are concentrations of the types of firms that have the potential to grow and to boost both productivity and jobs. This focus will be diluted if other functions are built in. There are lots of things that governments might like new institutions to achieve – reconnecting places, providing competition in HE, rebranding the best of FE, but even if all of these are desirable, they will make the primary purpose harder to achieve. Mission creep should be avoided.

2) Make clear that Institutes of Technology don’t ‘belong’ exclusively to either FE or HE sectors. This is important to answer not least because there are currently Bills before Parliament intending to dramatically reform both. There is an explicit aim for new providers in both sectors to increase competition and spur innovation. If that is what ministers want then they should think about introducing some new clauses to one or both Bills pretty quickly.

But the potential for ambiguity is a problem. When Labour and the Conservatives first considered the idea, it was seen as way of incentivising and recognising (and rebranding) the best in the FE sector. That’s been tried before with CoVEs, NSAs and National Colleges. More recently Dyson has received government backing to open an Institute of Technology primarily as a new challenger institution amidst the increasingly competitive landscape of HE. Neither is it sensible to describe these institutions as for those that don’t go to university. To be most effective in their support for industries, Institutes of Technology will have to offer a range of skills to a range of people. So these are all soundbites that are best avoided. The better answer is to establish the function and then to let the institutional form follow. As we have seen in 1) that function is economic growth supported through higher level technical learning. Given our history it doesn’t seem that institutions in either sector would be able to drive this on their own.

3) Be clear and consistent about the role of employers. Institutes of Technology – like colleges or universities – can’t deliver growth by themselves. They should not be a supply side only model and employers should be more than just passive beneficiaries of their outputs. Employer investment and involvement will be critical. This cannot be abstract or expressed only in the eventual recruitment of graduates or products and services. Incentives for partnership and investment need to be at the heart of new Institutes and their governance and/or ownership should reflect this too.

Essentially they should aim to bring together the supply and demand sides; public and private; HE and FE and employers – into an organisational form that can bring the best and most appropriate actors together into institutions that work and add value. Collaboration and progression between FE and HE must then be central – real vocational specialisation starts somewhere around L3 and carries on through L4 and L5 and ultimately into postgraduate qualifications and applied research.

4) Learn from models that work (and understand why). I can think of two or three models that might be useful. One is the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) near Sheffield. This in reality is a lesson in itself because policy didn’t create the whole thing, rather it offered a series of initiatives including National Colleges, Catapult Centres, Research Partnership Investment Funding and Enterprise Zones – and revenue funding for apprenticeships and research. Led by Sheffield University it includes major employers such as Boeing and Rolls Royce.

A second model is less specific about form and offers competitive challenge funding for partnerships to come together. This might look like Innovate UK funding platforms (or RPIF) – for innovative funding proposals to develop new institutes. Or it might look like the competition that the Mayor of New York ran in order to develop a new technical campus on Roosevelt Island. The best international technical models seem to do more than provide training. Applied research capabilities are also a major feature, through which individuals and firms can also learn, test and refine new ideas. Catapult centres have been England’s response to the Hauser and Dyson reviews and applied research was also an essential part of the vision for CATs and Polytechnics in the past.

But the AMRC is just one model in one sector. Other sectors have different needs and are likely to look quite different. It is difficult for example, to think of what an Institute of Technology for the digital or creative industries might look like. But putting sufficient funding and flexibility on the table to enable employers, colleges and universities to apply their expertise would seem a good idea. After all no one organisation – not even Government – has all the best answers. So whatever models are preferred there needs to be sufficient flexibility across sectors and places for partnerships to come together and to create the appropriate mix of capabilities. Officials in BEIS and DFE must not therefore be too prescriptive.

5) Decide what qualifications matter and give Institutes of Technology autonomy to create their own. Foundation and honours degrees may be sufficient. Or they may not be. Apprenticeships may be the best vehicle. But they may not be either. These institutions with employers at their heart must be empowered to decide. Vince Cable was right when he set out his plan for National Colleges, that they should have both the autonomy and expertise to develop their own qualifications rather then depending on either exam boards or universities for accreditation.

6) Locate Institutes of Technology in places that will give them the best chance of working. If the economy is to grow and the economic gaps between regions within England addressed, then geography must be a factor. But again we must be wary of trying to cure too many ills with one type of institution. IoTs should prioritise growth within an active industrial strategy and by doing so they will have a better chance of succeeding if they are close to clusters, firms, transport etc as well as to collaborating institutions such as universities and catapult centres. Some towns and cities simply won’t have the combination of such assets. We can’t afford to be too sentimental or to expect new institutions to achieve too much. Others haven’t.

The problems of low skills and poor jobs and wages still need solutions of course and FE and HE must play their part, but that doesn’t mean they should open in either the most deprived or most disconnected areas. As with other issues, the key lesson is to set clear objectives and to ruthlessly stick to them. If the industrial strategy is to have any chance of working then firms in key growth sectors and clusters will need the right skills and knowledge. They will also need the latest technology and the right support to apply research, refine products and services and to grow. If Institutes of Technology can deliver on these issues, they will be doing something that our FE me HE systems have struggled to do for many years. That is why they matter.

So that is the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ to make Institutes of Technology work. It probably means that there won’t be very many – at least not in the first instance. But being precise – or ruthless – about sector, place, make up and mission will give them the best chance of succeeding.

Some Further Reading:

‘Enlightened education policy will lift up the left behind’ Vernon Bogdanor:

‘The March of the Makers must start in class’ Emma Duncan

‘Here’s how to reform immigration to ensure better paid, better trained Britons David Goodhart

Where next for further and higher education? Vince Cable

‘Industrial Policy, Hands on economics’ David Willetts, Prospect

‘To build a shared society, focus on technical skills education’, Miranda Green, FT

More Information… (and more Understanding)?

So the IFS have finally published their research that links HMRC tax data to students, courses and institutions. As Nick Hillman has already written this was originally hoped for in 2012 when new tuition fees were being introduced. Nick also describes their findings as ‘underwhelming’ establishing as it does that some graduates earn more than other graduates, that some men earn more than some women, that the rich earn more than the poor and that some types of courses and institutions ‘outperform’ others by these measures eg lawyers and doctors earn more than nurses or artists.

Is anyone really surprised by this?


Oh come on…

Even though there will inevitably be many more instalments in this type of research and even though it is difficult to argue against there being more detailed information about courses, institutions and earnings in the public domain, it is much more important to consider how we – and perhaps more significantly, policymakers – understand and use this information.

Some commentators have expressed shock and others have asked which institutions are those unidentified but clearly offering poor value for money. Students have a right to know don’t they? Well yes they do. But they must also understand much more about some of the reasons that explain such differential outcomes. To put it another way, there is a duty to explain as well as to inform.

We know that this is a government that wishes to use and accelerate the role of markets in higher education. More competition, more consumer choice and more information to underpin these as well as significant changes to regulatory structures and processes. We also know that this is a government that wants to create more social mobility and that higher education represents one of their key levers with which to achieve it. We await a white paper and legislation that will further address and entrench these objectives into our higher education system.

This is surely where we begin to encounter problems. Not because of the information itself but because of what policy decisions are taken as a result of the information. This is potentially true at both the institutional level as well as for politicians and policymakers. So to improve ‘outcomes’ and therefore standing or prestige in the market, universities might choose to recruit more rich people – especially men. Or they may choose to offer more law and medicine degrees and move or open a campus in London and the South East where earnings are higher. Perhaps even more of a university’s graduates might be encouraged to seek such careers in London and the South East as an alternative? All rational conclusions and even if partly fanciful, many elements of these ideas can already be found in individual university strategies.

There may be no fixed number of firms or jobs to employ such people or to accommodate such provision, but there are risks of oversupply, labour market bottlenecks and overheating, congestion and inadequate skills or labour supply in other less well paying occupations and sectors. Never mind that such occupations can be much more expensive to resource and to teach. Never mind that these  – science, engineering, health – may be more economically or socially significant in the longer term.

And what of the rest of the country? Or the other parts of the higher education market? Where wages are lower, higher paying sectors and occupations in shorter supply but where most of our universities tend to be (just about). The rest of the UK aka ‘Not London’… Or the rest of the economy aka ‘not law or medicine’?

Recent LSE research from Anna Valero and John Van Reenan has found that opening up a new university can add 4% to a region’s income as well as 0.7% to national income. Now that really is quite surprising. More surprising than the IFS research anyway? The impact may be greater in areas where incomes and productivity are lower as ‘the university effect seems to be related to increasing the supply of skilled graduates who raise productivity in the firms they work in.’ Productivity is also improved as ‘universities boost innovation (as measured by an increase in patenting)’.

That is why it’s good to have universities – from both the Russell Group and others – all over the UK including Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland as well as the North East, the North West, the East and West Midlands and the South West. It’s also good news for each of those regions when graduates and academics stay in those places and help grow the economy – even if the wages are lower and the sectors and occupations different.

But while we are at it let’s say exactly the same thing about those universities in the same place where many more (most?) of their students come from these areas and stay afterwards. Step forward the Universities of Teeside, Wolverhampton, Bolton, Plymouth, Huddersfield and many more. Spare a thought too for those institutions who do a similar job in less fashionable and less economically successful parts of London. UEL, South Bank, Greenwich and others. Or the arts institutions based in parts of the country where there is less arts funding and fewer jobs? Or, if you prefer, think of any of those universities in the IFS research that you might have thought are the ones offering lower returns or poor ‘value for money’.

Economic growth, improving productivity and closing the gaps between the economic performance of London and the South East and other regions are all government policy too. Even if they doesn’t quite square with the vision of a single higher education market based on applicants making unconstrained choices on perfect information. It is what the ‘powerhouses’ and the ‘engines’ are all about.

So let’s think about market(s), about returns and about social mobility for just a little bit longer? We might, as the Prime Minister and others hope, succeed in getting more poorer students into the very best universities and then into the highest earning professions based largely in London. But unless your conclusion is that we should also move all universities and their graduates to the highest earning places and sectors, we are going to need a much more nuanced view and much broader ambitions. We will also need to think rather more deeply and carefully about how we measure or rank our universities.

So what else do we need to understand better? Besides geography, economic conditions, sectors and occupations? Maybe a little about confirmation bias? Perhaps we can just start here. Check prejudices, but think, understand and explain what this evidence is really telling us?


The IFS report can be downloaded here:

A blog about the LSE research can be seen here:


A Budget for Europe, a Budget for George.

There’s a Budget just around the corner. And like many in the last decade, it looks a tricky one. But for the best part of the week, it’s the moment when the Chancellor of the Exchequer steps onto centre stage. Is George Osborne backed into a corner financially? Is it made more difficult by the EURef? Is he taking political knocks in the Tory leadership race? What has he got to say just three months after a major spending review? Does all this add up to a low key Budget? Not a chance.

Budgets are always an opportunity for Chancellors to make an impact and to hog the political limelight. That has always been the case with George Osborne. Even when he’s had difficult financial cards to play he’s relished the opportunity to score political points. Gordon Brown was the same. Budgets are always a chance to get on the political front foot and to take potshots at those standing in your way.
And this year there are plenty of targets at which Osborne may take aim. Politically (even if not economically), it could be like shooting fish in a barrel. Because as many have observed, Osborne is the most political of chancellors.

There’ll be the opportunity to have a go at ‘Corbynomics’ of course – another outing of the long term economic plan and trust in the public finances that the Conservatives always seem to hold. Never mind that he’s missed several targets and adopted so many even longer term economic plans that it’s hard to keep count. This could be the early material, the warm up, political throat clearing. It will be a strong reminder of Conservative credentials but not the core of the speech or of his political attacks.

That will be reserved for the ‘outers’, the ‘Brexit brigade’ – that now seems to occupy about a third of the cabinet and at least half of the Conservative benches. It would almost certainly be more if loyalty and ambition hadn’t got in the way. For all of the talk of Boris Johnson there are plenty more amongst ministerial ranks that have let personal ambition help to make their ‘agonising’ decision to stay. They are easy enough to spot.

So he’s in a corner and there will be as much opposition behind as in front of him – as well as to the left and right – he still has a post IndyRef score to settle with the SNP even if they agree with him on Europe. But it’s the folk sitting beside and behind him that he will be most interested in. It’s their support he needs if he wishes to renew his ascent to the leadership. His chances will disappear – possibly as early as the summer – if we vote to leave. Osborne needs to renew the confidence of those that have taken his and Cameron’s side in the leadership and in the EU Referendum. In other words he needs to play a blinder.

Boris Johnson has been Osborne’s target before. Remember the planes flying over West London? He’ll need a new line, because a different half of the cabinet are still trying to forget the promise to make a decision on a new runway. But Johnson will take some new schtick. Osborne may claim that it’s him and Cameron that have protected and supported the City of London and the capital’s economy. Not Boris or Zac. Perhaps some more of his growing love – and gratitude – for Theresa May and a reminder of Boris’s mothballed water cannons?

But he will have to take on the long term economic plan of the ‘outers’. That’s a sovereign but ‘small state’, free market, more right wing view of the UK in the world. A view that Osborne used to hold but has changed significantly since being in office. Despite the continuing austerity headlines and Labour attacks, the last spending review cemented his move to the political middle ground – slower cuts over the longer term – and a willingness to use the state to do more things. He admitted that he’s become a hybrid of Lawson and Heseltine and it’s the latter part that sets out dividing lines with Johnson, Gove and company.

When businesses, universities and council leaders offer their vocal support for the ‘in campaign’ and their tacit support for Osborne, it’s because they know that a middle sized, smart, interventionist state is what they actually want to see within the EU. Northern Powerhouse, science, health investment, devolution, infrastructure. Part of the ‘outers’ argument has always been about a ‘small state’ over ‘big state’ vision for government. It’s easy to see the big, bad EU in this ideology and that’s something that no renegotiation could ever solve.

So when Osborne offers a promises for more infrastructure, more science, more human capital – whether graduates or apprentices – be sure that this is a dividing line with the small state ‘outers’.* Theirs might be painted as a 19th century romantic vision of small government: unencumbered (and unfunded) inventors and industrialists building new trade empires and new industrial revolutions. I imagine that Osborne and Treasury economists might describe it as steampunk. If they knew what that was. Or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

So the political, economic and the personal stakes are extremely high. For the UK, for the Conservatives and for Osborne and Cameron. Expect the Chancellor to come out fighting. This has the feel of a Budget before an election, not one shortly afterwards. This is a moment for Osborne to show his vision for Government – as well as his vision for his own leadership. He must play to his strengths and be the best of Lawson and Heseltine. He will have to bestow a few favours here and there. He will have to be at his political best. He will have to look like a Prime Minister in waiting. He cannot afford a low key outing and he cannot afford to make mistakes. He may not have another chance.

* let’s forget that there’s an official opposition – and plenty of less formal opposition to these policies for the moment. Their time may come but it’s unlikely to be the main political issue of this Budget.

TEF and the importance of teachers

In all of his thinking and discussions about how to improve the quality of teaching in universities, I wonder if Jo Johnson has found time to speak to Andrew Adonis or Michael Gove? I ask because both have tried to answer that question for the quality teaching in schools. Both introduced or accelerated a barrage of metrics and rankings – from GCSE performance and Ofsted gradings alongside various institutional incentives and flexibilities too. Both also wanted to increase the attractiveness of teaching as a career and encourage the best university graduates to become teachers. Intriguingly, both also saw the importance of thinking about getting different people into the classroom and letting them evangelise about how much they liked it.

So given the focus on improving teaching and increasing institutional incentives for good teaching in higher education, it is worth considering what they did (and didn’t) try to do? In policy terms there were a raft of green and white papers from Gove’s ‘the Importance of Teaching’ to any number of initiatives (including Teach First and the Academy programme) launched from Blair’s No 10 or ‘Tony Zoffis’ as the Times Education Supplement used to characterise such policies from Blair and his then education adviser, Andrew Adonis.

Teach First has been at the heart of both their thinking but alongside broader system reform from higher entry qualifications for teacher training and much to universities’ annoyance, real scrutiny (including from Ofsted) and competition amongst teacher training routes. Teach First has mushroomed in size and influence. It’s expensive and relatively small scale – it will never solve teacher supply problems on its own. But it is totemic in its wider influence on ‘policy’ and classroom practice. I have written before about its impact and the spreading of influence as its ‘graduates’ move on to new roles in think tanks, senior civil service positions and into various areas of school leadership too:

But just as influential are grassroots organisations like Research Ed – a movement aiming to build research literacy and awareness at the front line of teaching. Its founder Tom Bennett now runs events through the UK as well as in the US and Australia and is Nicky Morgan’s behaviour ‘Tsar’ advising on teacher training at DFE.
Others are in and out of DFE – though rarely off twitter, social media or various teaching blogs including Daisy Christodolou (@daisychristo) John Blake (@johndavidblake), Laura McInerney (@miss_mcinerney), Tom Bennett (@tombennett71), Jonathan Simons (@PXEducation), Sam Freedman (@samfr), Andrew Old (@oldandrew) and many more besides. Head teachers too are engaging with daily debates on teaching issues such as Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) and @HeadsRoundtable. Follow them all and you’ll see what I mean. From across the political spectrum, they all used to get regular name-checks in Michael Gove’s speeches.

In schools this is fuelling a revolution in thinking and pedagogy. And it’s difficult to know where it will end up. New teachers blog, write and tweet about their experiences. They are excited about what they are doing and what they are learning. They are reflecting, researching and thinking and they are having an enormous impact on education policy. So this isn’t just policy created by ministers or by committees or academics, but by social media and a dynamic exchange of thinking and practice. If we want to improve teaching in universities we might want to take more notice.

What might this mean for universities and how might it contribute to Jo Johnson’s emerging thinking and the consultation about the TEF? As with so much policy thinking, the response of ‘you wouldn’t start from here’ rings out. Flawed datasets, contested links between chosen metrics and what happens inside the classroom and several articles – or leaps – of faith along the way.

So what might translate to HE? Firstly it shows that if teaching is to improve or high standards become more commonplace, then it is going to need wider cultural change as well as top down policy. Even if the TEF develops smoothly and we end up with the right mix of metrics and qualitative data and it finds an effective way of connecting good teaching to fee increases, it may not make any difference at all to the quality of teaching in universities – in the lecture theatre, laboratory, studio or classroom. Worse, it may breed resentment and disaffection rather than dynamism or change amongst those that it intends to promote.

Teach First, Research Ed and social media in a broader technological sense, are all disruptive innovations. Challenging established thinking and practice in staffrooms and classrooms. We might not need to improve the supply of the best graduates into academia (many are already there) but we might want to give them more support and more voice over what happens in the classroom. We might want to understand their career ambitions and what they need to make them better teachers as well as just academics? We might want them to disrupt some of our traditional academic and workplace pedagogy as well as the hierarchies that exist within and across higher education?

Of course there are already teachers, lecturers, researchers – and vice chancellors – engaging in social media debates. There are practitioners and bloggers and sometimes they are also a part of the debates about schools. But it doesn’t feel to me that this has become as influential in classroom practice as in schools yet. Or that either ministers or sector leaders are listening or using them quite as much as they might. If we are going improve teaching in universities or the attractiveness of teaching as a career we will need more than top down institutional incentives, selected metrics and regulatory interventions. We need the enthusiasm and dynamism as well as the disruptive innovation that we see today in schools. We need great teaching and we need great teachers talking about the conditions in which that will happen.

This blog first appeared on Wonkhe in December 2015

Hello (Green Paper), I Must Be Going.

It finally arrived on Friday. Remastered versions of familiar themes, obscure demos, reworked masters. But enough of the reissued 1980s Phil Collins albums and how about the green paper: ‘Fulfilling Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility’ and I’ve already forgotten the last bit… Oh yes, ‘Student Choice’? It does read a little like a collector’s edition of the 2011 classic ‘Students at the Heart of the System’, but lovingly revisited and remastered – and just in time for Christmas.

There are some familiar themes. More information, more metrics, more of a market built on all of these and on students at the centre and (probably) paying more. Taken at face value a more literal title might have been ‘Student Fees (and loans) at the Heart of a Higher Education Market’? Very nearly as snappy.

The producers and technicians have really been allowed to let rip. There’s a part A on the TEF, a part C on architecture and a part D on research. All versions that might have been seen in the original white paper release back in 2011. But it is clear that they have spent significantly more time on some issues rather than others. As expected, the TEF dominates and there’s plenty of detail about how it might or will work. The scope of possibility is admirable – as is the openness to consultation and getting the detail right. Jo Johnson has wisely resisted the temptation to rush in half cocked. But the direction is firmer. There will be a TEF and there will be no escaping it.

Similarly there is some significant prescription about the ‘architecture’ and particularly the replacement of HEFCE and OFFA (and possibly others) with a new ‘Office for Students’. But as many have already spotted, there isn’t much about research, nothing on postgraduates or part time and precious little on technical and professional education. Nothing on place or regions either. This is still a vision of a single system, based on similar, largely young, students looking for a similar and familiar full time experience. That feels like a significant set of mistakes and oversights that any eventual white paper will have to rectify.

There are even some older throwbacks to the days and language of New Labour. The title of the green paper looks like it’s come from a Gordon Brown random phrase generator housed somewhere in his early 2000s Treasury. The promised future of a market facing regulatory bureaucracy more like a technocratic, top down missive from Blair’s No 10. Anyone remember Tony Zoffis?

Purists – and Vice Chancellors – may prefer the imprecision as well as the more familiar structures (and firewalls) of these originals. Obscurists used to debate the correct pronunciation of HEFCE. Policy wonks were divided between supporters of either the hard or soft ‘c’: ‘hefsea’ vs ‘hefkey’. That schism, along with the council itself, is all but over. It’s now all about the Office for Students. Ministers will be hoping for a respectable, perhaps even deferential acronym – the OfS. However there’s already a dispute developing between those liking ‘Off stud’ and others preferring ‘Off stewed’.

There is though an important theme developing here in Conservative policymaking. Offices are smaller than Councils aren’t they? They sound altogether more workmanlike and rather less grand. Sleeves rolled up and no jacket required. A little more ‘Wernham Hogg’ and bit less ‘Spectre’. Readers can decide which metaphor they wish to apply to New Labour, the Coalition or to today’s Conservative party. But ‘the Office’ does conjure up images of running Government from a single building. Steve Hilton reputedly explored this in 2010 when thinking about how big government might sensibly or usefully be. He liked the idea of doing it from Somerset House, the former home of the British Empire. He never mentioned Slough.

Importantly, this is ‘small state’ thinking. What can or should others pay for? What desired services and outcomes can be delivered without state involvement or subsidy? What should Government stop doing? In the longer term – perhaps at least over the next decade – this is more significant than deficit reduction and cuts this year and over this Parliament. Reading the philosophies behind the Spending Review will ultimately be more important than the spending or savings that it allocates. The tide will roll away leaving relationships (or markets) between students, graduates and their chosen universities. Perhaps with business and communities or places too? But Government in a different role, standing back and lending money and enhancing and regulating a stronger market-consumer relationship. A relationship that both universities and students fundamentally still find rather uncomfortable.

Just like the music companies searching for every last pound of profit from a back catalogue there are other reissues due out before Christmas. We must await at least two more. First will be Sir Paul Nurse’s reworking of the Research Councils. We look forward to new versions of old favourites such as ‘Dual Support’, ‘Research Councils Together’ and the 1918 classic, ‘the Haldane Principle’. Then the biggest remake of all, the ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’. This has been reissued regularly over the past few years including in 2007 and 2010 and new versions of ‘Flat Cash’, ‘the Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Living within our Means’ are all eagerly anticipated.

But seriously, who knows what will come after them? What is left in the back catalogue? Quite a lot from the 1980s and early 1990s it seems. Legislation probably. Perhaps a remake of the 1992 classic – the Further and Higher Education Act?

This blog was first published by HE/Research Fortnight in November 2015

The First Cuts are the Deepest?

The new Conservative Government didn’t waste much time did they? Yesterday, George Osborne announced some £4.5 billion of largely ‘in year’ savings across almost every Whitehall Department. Even protected departments such as Health and Education have been expected to offer up savings for the greater good of deficit reduction. For Education – the ‘non schools’ bit – the figure is £450 million. That’s the same as the amount at BIS – and these are two of the biggest contributions from any Department.

First, let’s be clear what ‘in year’ means. It means now. It means that the spending expected this year in departmental plans and agreements and set out in grant letters from the likes of HEFCE or the SFA will be reopened and funding reduced. We don’t yet know by how much or where these funds will come from. Funding councils and agencies will have some choices to make and will be thinking about the trade offs between ‘across the board’ reductions and the ending of particular schemes or funds. We already know about the demise of the urban seagull study for example. Some will come from ‘underspends’ – programmes that aren’t fully committed or fully spent (actually quite common though only the Treasury will know how much this will be worth).

Is this the sign of things to come – the beginning of savage reductions set out before the election and validated by the OBR? Perhaps. Their forecasts look pretty severe. Challenging enough for the OECD to take fright. That’s the same OECD that had broadly endorsed the economic approach up to this point. The same OECD that BIS ministers still quote when they say they support the HE finance system (I’ve written elsewhere that this isn’t quite true:


Fraser Nelson, the editor of the Spectator Has pointed out that the first few years of deep cuts, clearly much deeper than under the Coalition (and don’t forget that these are cumulative) look odd when the ‘spending splurge’ at the end of the Parliament is also factored in. It all looks much more political than economic in that by doing so, the Government keeps its promises to balance the books within three years and also to avoid the charge that public spending is back at 1930s levels. Obviously it also stores up a sizeable political war chest just in time for the next election in 2020. Just wait for that Budget.

But this isn’t and shouldn’t all be taken as bad news. Yesterday’s cuts shouldn’t just be seen as the start of things to come. Why? Two reasons. First, let’s look back at that chart. Look closely and you can trace the impact of the disastrous 2012 Budget. That was the ‘omnishambles’ Budget and easily George Osborne’s worst moment as Chancellor. Afterwards it is clear that spending plans changed. They were smoothed out in the way that the OECD want today and the Government effectively decided to take longer to bring down the deficit. It was basically a shift from Plan A to Plan B and spotted as such by many economists.

Many economists also expect the Government to do the same this time around and to smooth the deficit reduction programme over a longer period. Basically they argue that the economy can afford for it to be done in such a way. There are no alarm bells ringing, confidence is high, borrowing is cheap. But don’t expect the political narrative to say any of this. It will just be more of the ‘Long Term Economic Plan’, ‘Plan A’ and ‘tough decisions’. But we will wait and see.

More immediately let’s return to yesterday’s cuts and the forthcoming Budget scheduled for 8th July. This isn’t going to be a Budget that is just about savings and efficiencies. It’s headlines will also be about growth and productivity – about keeping the economy moving and developing. George Osborne has already promised a ‘Productivity Plan’ alongside it. He will want to announce new policies and new investment at that time. Initiatives and projects that speed up the kinds of growth that he and the Conservatives want to see in the next five years. Ideas like the Northern Powerhouse, the Research Partnership Investment and Catalyst funds as well as promised expansions of apprenticeships, Catapult Centres and National Colleges. The same Departments announcing cuts will also be bidding for new funds and projects in this process.

But in order to pay for these announcements, the Treasury has to find some money from somewhere. For years and years – and certainly back to Labour’s time and Gordon Brown’s as Chancellor, it has taken ‘underspends’, ‘savings’ and ‘efficiencies’ and recycled them from ‘lower priority’ to ‘higher priority’ spending. This means that yesterday’s cuts – though dressed up in the political language of tough choices and hard decisions – are only half of the story.

Yes it is true that there are ‘in year’ reductions for colleges and universities coming quickly down the line. But it is also true that there are going to be new opportunities – probably via competitive funds rather than allocated grants – that will open up. This is a Government giving itself more levers over spending and pulling on them to get the kinds of results that it wants. The Budget will offer the first round of these ideas and there are likely to be more to come. It means that there will be chances to make up for the inevitable losses. The scale of both are still up for grabs. So let’s hope the Government takes a rather more sensible approach about the speed and depth of savings. But let’s also make sure that we are providing enough ideas to make up for whatever comes.

The Promise of Apprenticeships?

This morning, the Conservatives have pledged to spend Deutsche Bank’s LIBOR fines on creating apprenticeships for unemployed 22-24 year olds. David Cameron has also pledged to introduce legislation in his first 100 days, if re-elected, to ‘create’ 3 million apprenticeships. Like their Conservative partners, the Liberal Democrats are listing this Parliament’s 2 million apprenticeships as one of their key social and economic achievements.

Labour meanwhile claim that they too will prioritise more apprenticeships but only at higher levels, abolishing Level 2, and ensuring that more of the rest meet stricter standards. All parties are also promising a big expansion of higher level apprenticeships, from the Conservatives’ degree apprenticeships to Labour’s technical degrees. (I’ve written before about higher level apprenticeships – see and

Apprenticeships have become a proxy for pretty much all vocational education and at the same time, cat nip for politicians. To trace the beginnings we could go back as far as 1563 and the Statute of Artificiers, but let’s jump to the early 1990s and John Major’s relaunching of Modern Apprenticeships in a range of ‘exciting new careers’. They had to be new because many had disappeared in waves of economic shocks hitting the UK’s economy in the 1970s and 1980s. Apprenticeships disappeared in manufacturing, engineering, construction, mining, shipbuilding as rapidly as jobs and firms did. So too did apprenticeships in the public sector – the works departments of councils that were replaced by contracted services. Largely all of these were formal routes or transitions into work for school leavers, combined with released study at a technical college or a polytechnic.

Today, politicians still describe apprenticeships as primarily for the young and as a way of learning trades and getting skilled, well paying jobs. So too do the media. Neither have ever known that much about vocational education if we’re honest and even fewer have experienced it. But both often get it wrong. Not because apprenticeships lead to poor jobs or often no jobs at all (although for some, this is the case) but because the majority of apprenticeships are taken up by people well beyond ‘school’ leaving age and most are already working for the employers that offer them an apprenticeship.

At their heart, apprenticeships are jobs with training, not training with some work experience along the way. So politicians don’t really create them at all. The nature of the training depends entirely on the job and the skills that it requires – and these can be developed through a wide range of different qualifications from traditional City and Guilds crafts, including at Level 2, through to degrees and to postgraduate and/or professional qualifications too.

Apprenticeships reflect the labour market and economy that exists and largely that is a polarised one with diverging skill levels. This means that our labour market is quite likely to create apprenticeships at low as well as higher levels. But the jobs at the lower end are less likely to be skilled, secure or well paid. A secondary factor is that the young are finding it increasingly difficult to get into work and then as hard to break out of low skilled, low paid jobs into better jobs. There are also issues of skill shortages and productivity to consider. All of which may explain why apprenticeships are a significant election issue. But these are only vaguely connected or discussed when politicians think and talk about them. Their interest is driven by other less complex things.

Firstly, most politicians love a big number and a big target: two million jobs, three million apprenticeships. It fits into a straightforward script and a simple narrative. They offer a set of promises that you can get away with. People like the idea but they don’t care so much for the detail. Apprenticeships are easy, sometimes lazy, politics.

Secondly, it’s the yin to the yang of university expansion. Tony Blair created a backlash when he introduced a 50% target for HE participation. Many thought that was too high. Many still think so. Some wanted to know what would happen to the other 50%. That plays to a benevolent hypocrisy ie my kids will go to university but there should be something for ‘other people’s children’.

Thirdly, there’s the throwback factor. This is the rose-tinted, somewhat sentimental history of the ‘traditional’ jobs and industries of the past – a time when our vocational training system worked, when more employers offered training, when more of the world’s manufacturing and engineering was ‘Made in Britain’. Of course this may be more stylised than real history.

Finally, politicians and voters like apprenticeships because they embody the popular values of our time. They offer the promise of a good job, but only if you work hard to get one. This makes an apprenticeship an entry level version of the ‘someone who works hard and wants to get on’ story, or a step towards becoming part of a ‘hard working family’.

That’s the political appeal. But how do apprenticeships really stack up against these drivers? Who gets them and at what levels are they studying? In 20013-14 (the last full year of data), 27% were under 19, 36% 19-24 and 37% 25 and over. The numbers in each age group represent 3%, 40% and 229% increases from 2009-10 respectively. Some 65% of all apprenticeships are at Level 2, 33% at Level 3 and only 2% at higher degree levels. More often than not, an apprentice today is likely to be in their mid 20s and studying at Level 2. They are also most likely to be in a job before they get an apprenticeship and not leaving school or benefits. So when the headlines promise 2 or 3 million apprenticeships either as an alternative to university, to a dead end job or to unemployment, interested people will reasonably ask why there don’t seem to be very many available to them.

When the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats came to power they had a number of policy promises. One was to grow apprenticeships, another was to abolish Train to Gain – a by then discredited mass work based training programme introduced by Labour. Along the way the two became conflated. Many training bodies and employers simply shifted from one to the other. They followed the money and the numbers shot up. As the figures show, most of the growth and the current numbers of apprenticeships tended to focus on adults already in work. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but it just isn’t what most people consider to be an apprenticeship.

That’s quite enough policy detail – probably too much. So whether 50,000 or 3 million, it really is better not to promise a number at all but that’s probably not politically realistic. But although politicians can extrapolate and forecast or cross their fingers and hope, they would be better off focusing on the present – the details and issues of delivery and demand, rather than the big numbers of the future or the misremembered past.

Manifesto time: Tetris and the Manic Miners

Allegra Stratton of BBC Newsnight described manifesto week as like ‘a game of Tetris with six blocks’. It’s an analogy I like because I always preferred Tetris to Manic Miner but actually it’s been two weeks worth of manifesto launches. Technically we are still waiting for a couple to come, but I suspect that Arthur Scargill’s and the Socialist Labour Party may only be of marginal interest (but if you are, you can follow him on Twitter at @ScargillArthur).

But does anything significant come of them? Does anyone really read them? Do they make any real difference?

One important audience, though not obviously the main one (because that’s meant to be us) is the civil service. Officials in the Cabinet Office, No 10 and in each of the individual departments will be reading every word and every line as well as the spaces between them. Civil servants combing through manifestos is part of their ‘purdah’ routine. They’ll want to present a detailed programme of what and how to deliver promises in the early days of the next government. Each department will also be cooking up a batch of policy ideas and other pressing issues that they will present to incoming ministers when they arrive in May. These are the ‘we’ve had some ideas too’ files.

In 2001 I had the job in DFEE of going through the Conservative manifesto and also coming up with a few new ideas for education policy. This tells you all you need to know about how likely they thought of such a possibility. But I can rather proudly say I offered up an idea for good schools to partner up with weaker schools in their areas and share resources. This was entirely down to enlightened self interest, as our first child was approaching school age and it was clear that there was a ‘sharp elbowed’ choice, an ‘ok’ or ‘bog standard’ choice and a couple of right s(t)inkers. It may not have made the final file.

But more senior civil servants will all want to pitch ideas for the first Queen’s speech as well as their shopping lists of things that just need doing. All will come with a plan for legislation, deploying statutory instruments or making do with the current statute book with the last of these taking on more significance by the hour. They’ll also be looking for strong arguments and themes that they can take into the first Budget and Spending Review – even more so after the figures announced in the last Autumn Statement. The election campaign’s bidding war to offer up a slew of new spending commitments intensifies pressure especially after the Conservative commitment to find £8bn for the NHS can only come from other departmental budgets. Watch Andrew Marr’s recent interview with George Osborne – easily his most difficult media moment since the 2012 ‘omnishambles’ Budget.

Every number, word and detail from the major manifestos will make it into the departmental plans in some form. Possibly even the pictures. From the Conservatives’ commitment to £2.9 billion on scientific ‘grand challenges’ to Labour’s photograph of Lesley the Physicist. They all mean something.

The ‘possible cuts’ files will have a few multiple choice options – with some as easy to pick the preferred option as it is to enter a GMTV cash prize competition. There will be more difficult ones and each department will have been preparing a planned and possible cuts file. They will be hoping that incoming ministers don’t have to end up going too far down those lists and to see signs and preferences for some activities over others. So even a line on the importance of science or defence spending without a spending commitment will be seen as more valuable than finding nothing.

Bleeding stump arguments will be made ready. Some are already deploying them. There will also be other deals on the table – quid pro quos from officials – you’ve said you want to do ‘x’ in your manifesto. We can do that but we will also have to do ‘y’ and ‘z’ to make it happen. In the case of Labour’s £6k proposal, ‘y’ might be a plan for price and the regulation of private providers. In the plan to expand technical degrees ‘y’ might include a return to some form of mainstream number controls. In both cases ‘z’ is probably a decision about HEFCE, its levels of teaching funding and its regulatory role and reach.

Across government they’ll also be compiling a massive grid of possible coalitions and where the red lines are being set up. Trident, tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats pitching for Education Secretary as one of their deal options. Some lucky civil servants will also get to play each of the party leaders as they game the possible deals and outcomes. I’m going to guess at Jeremy Heywood, Chris Martin and Olly Robbins taking some of the major roles. If they can persuade him, it will be Peter Housden playing Nicola Sturgeon but I doubt they’ll bother with Farage or Bennett. Leanne Wood and Peter Robinson will need walk on parts.

Officials will also be looking in a bit more detail at each of the politicians currently holding their departmental briefs as well as some of the party specialists (select committee chairs, campaigners etc) and hoping that they are good negotiators, have lots of political capital and profile in and after the election. If they have to google them to find out who they are, it’s not a good sign…

But above all, civil servants will be lapping up the politics. Few will have time to kick back and enjoy the sunshine. They will be mining every polling and betting site well as all of the manifestos and key speeches. Purdah may provide a sort of calm before the storm, but it’s really a time of manic preparation, scenario planning and role play. And that’s before the real fun and games begins after the 7th May. Will anyone still have time for Fruit Ninja?

Osborne’s Blues?

It’s the Budget on Wednesday. George Osborne’s sixth outing at the Despatch Box (not including Spending Reviews or Autumn Statements) could be his last, if the Conservatives don’t win or lead the Government that emerges after the 7th May. And the political stakes are huge with no guarantee of either.

In many ways, most of Osborne’s dreams have been realised as the parliament draws to a close, formally ending on the 30th May. The economic recovery is well underway, wages are rising and individuals and businesses are both feeling more confident about the future than at any point in the last five years. If Bill Clinton was right when he said that the biggest election issues was ‘the economy, stupid’, then it should be plain sailing for Osborne and the Conservatives.

The fact that it isn’t, suggests that his party will be looking to Osborne to make the difference when he delivers the Budget on Wednesday. The Long Term Economic Plan or #LTEP on Twitter will be the political script. ‘Plan A’ has worked (sort of). ‘Let us finish the job’. ‘Competence or Chaos’ TM etc etc. But as the BBC’s David Cowling put it at a recent UCL seminar the two most important questions in the election are 1) is the economy improving? and 2) is it improving for me?

Osborne’s job this week is to martial the economic evidence to answer the first question and offer a bevy of announcements to persuade more people to believe the second. Ideally they need to be persuaded in Ashcroft’s marginals rather than in the traditional Conservative heartlands. Expect name checks for towns and cities in the Midlands and the North and populist as well as longer term measures for their benefit.

This is where Labour are hoping that he fails to finish the job. In their favour, Osborne’s Budgets haven’t always been a roaring success – there was the pasty tax ‘omnishambles’ of 2012 for a start. But he’s become steadier on his feet and less shrill in tone ever since. The Treasury is also happier as he’s stuck to his austerity script and to tough choices. The Budgets have become progressively more Brown like (and Treasury like) with a renewed interest in the longer term and in structural issues like productivity, investment, human capital (the ‘Five Drivers of Productivity’ anyone?)

The Treasury Permanent Secretary, Sir Nick Macpherson warned on Friday that he might call in the police if any budget announcements were leaked. And yet there was George on the Marr Show on Sunday, promising not to reveal his Budget, while sneaking out stories on annuities and on business rate reforms over the next 24 hours. But I doubt that Macpherson has called Scotland Yard, given that the Budget now takes place over the entire week; Saturday and Sunday for key soundbites and narrative, a few trails on growth forecasts and some key policy announcements on Monday and Tuesday (see Annuities, Business Rates Review, Apprenticeship pay and Minimum Wage rises), the speech set piece on Wednesday and then the Departmental announcements and visits in a hard hat for Thursday and Friday, accompanied by press reaction and detailed briefings (including reaction from IFS and other leading economic commentators).

So what might Osborne announce? He’ll want the OBR to give him some decent numbers in their forecasts and increased tax receipts to give him some spending flexibility. It looks like both will happen and these fit his and Lynton Crosby’s #LTEP script. Both may allow him to reveal a big ticket commitment on income tax thresholds or tax cuts elsewhere. A commitment on Inheritance Tax would replay his 2007 Party Conference speech that transformed Conservatives polling and led to Gordon Brown’s postponing of his planned snap election that Autumn. However the Tories may want to save that promise for a manifesto free of Lib Dem influence. Further raises in income tax thresholds for the low paid will be more coalition friendly and could provide the big headline or the final ‘rabbit’ of this Parliament.

But despite his promise of no giveaways and gimmicks, there almost certainly will be. He’ll find it hard to avoid either when thinking about how he might please pensioners and the low paid. The Treasury has always liked beer and wine (especially British) and we might see a cut in duty on both. A commitment to more house building? Perhaps even something for the motorist? Dare Osborne try a Top Gear line or will he prefer a kitchen gag?

Of more interest to universities and cities and regions beyond London, may be the already rehearsed lines on a ‘truly national recovery’ and supporting science:

‘…this Budget is all about securing a truly national recovery – from building a Northern power house, connecting up other regions of our country, committing to long-term plans that support science and high speed transport, making sure that all parts of our country feel the benefits of the economic recovery, and that’s what this Budget will be. So no giveaways, no gimmicks, a Budget for the long-term.’
Osborne on Andrew Marr Show, BBC1 Sunday 15th March 2015

So we can expect more science and more on the North – HS3? New deals for science and devolution in Leeds and Liverpool? Confirmation of deals in Manchester? New announcements for Birmingham and Nottingham? A Midlands ‘powerhouse’ perhaps? Although economically, Birmingham in particular is more connected to London and the Greater South East than to the Northern Cities. But good as this all undoubtedly is, Osborne has to appeal as much to the kitchens of Coronation St as to the universities and scientists of the North.

At the recent HE hustings organised by THE, HEPI, Universities UK and the Open University, Greg Clark promised additional support for part time students with a ‘watch this space’ answer. With Labour’s recent pledge to increase grants and student support, we might see something there too as Osborne won’t want to see Miliband’s announcement go unchallenged. He has after all championed higher education and the increase in full time numbers. More science and health announcements (or re announcements) are likely, given that there is a bit of slack left in the science capital coffers.

But his main message will be that his ongoing stewardship of the economy (with perhaps a little nod to Danny Alexander) allows him to ‘share the proceeds of growth’ just a little more. So while he’ll still look to grab some headlines with further swingeing cuts to Welfare and to non protected government spending, Osborne will also claim that generous economic forecasts allow him to increase earnings thresholds for the lowest paid, increase apprenticeship pay and the minimum wage and offer a few quid here and there for drinkers, drivers, builders, scientists and pensioners. That’s a bit more Hammond and May than Clarkson and definitely more Weatherfield than Chipping Norton.

Some say… it’s George Osborne’s appeal to this mix of interests that will carry the Conservatives through the General Election and back into power.

New Job(s)

I’m now a few weeks and months into my new academic life. I’ve been teaching at Winchester since last September and in February I left GuildHE after 4.5 years and started work at Manchester University. I studied there in the 1980s (English and History since you ask) and graduated 25 years ago.

It’s an interesting combination. I’m enjoying both jobs and being part of two great institutions. I’ll be updating this blog with my experiences in the classroom and the boardroom and how I’m getting on in both. And I’ll still be writing about education policy and politics too. I hope it’s occasionally useful or interesting…