Education and training reform: same old, same old

The government’s new proposals on post-18 education and training are underwhelming. Bits and pieces are cherrypicked from Sir Philip Augar’s 2019 report, but many issues are ducked and yet more consultations will ensure that nothing much will happen within the lifetime of this Parliament.

The tweaks to the student loan system will attract most attention. They are designed to ensure that a higher proportion of loans will eventually be repaid, by lowering the payment threshold and extending the repayment period from 30 years to 40 years (it was originally 25, remember) but this will not have a noticeable effect on public finances for many years.

However new entrants to the system in 2023 will start paying back loans at lower levels of salary, which will be perceived as a further hit to young people who have disproportionately suffered during Covid and are already facing higher taxation, rents and house prices. This change may be justified, but the situation of young graduates is not at all transparent. Holding down student fees, and charging interest at RPI rather than RPI plus 3% adds to the confusion. This is not a simplification of the system and ignores some sensible suggestions in the Augar Report.

Incidentally, holding down fees for a prolonged period will of course increase pressure on universities, probably a good thing. But keeping standard fees across the board ignores an important point made by Augar, that there is considerable cross-subsidisation in universities as it costs far more to deliver, for example, laboratory-based courses than social studies programmes. The latter also get far less face-to-face teaching, a value-for-money issue which these proposals do nothing to tackle.

One of the tricky matters on which consultation is solicited is our old friend the Mickey Mouse degree. For such a popular target for resentment, such degrees are in reality difficult to track down. The DfE is touting the idea that we can spot these programmes from their statistical profile; one suggestion is that courses with less than 75% completion rates, and/or with less than 60% ending in graduate jobs, should have their numbers capped.

The trouble with such indicators is that, like all central planning targets, they can and will be gamed. Completion rates will be boosted by dropping exams in favour of coursework. Ambiguity over defining graduate job titles and incomplete reporting will fudge the employment criterion.

Another suggestion is that there should be higher minimum entry standards to university. Good luck with that one, which will have to be hedged around with all sorts of exceptions if higher education is not to suffer a major loss of the disadvantaged students the Office for Students is demanding they take on.

It is disappointing that there is no sign of fundamentally rethinking the student loan system to try to realign higher education incentives. If we want universities to pursue employability, only accept students who have commitment and a reasonable chance of success, and raise academic standards, they need to be rewarded when they do so, and punished when they don’t. This is most obviously done by linking their income to the success of their graduates. One way to do this is by a risk-sharing arrangement such as that being pioneered by StepEx for London Business School and Insead – where universities receive a share of graduates’ future earnings rather than a guaranteed payment from the Student Loans company. But no such radical thinking is on the cards.

More top-down initiatives in the new proposals include other old favourites such as increased STEM funding. Politicians always love this; they see industry as crying out for people with these ‘real’ degrees, which will boost our future economic growth. Maybe this is true of some, but it’s interesting to see that many STEM subjects, including Physics, Engineering, Veterinary sciences, Biosciences and Subjects Allied to Medicine have high proportions of graduates who will not repay the cost of their education, with many of them deserting their specialist subject for general management or other jobs.

We are promised some more money for a ‘national scholarship’ scheme, worth £75 million over three years, which would fund perhaps 8,000 awards of £3000 per year. As always, these scholarships are targeted at disadvantaged groups, in this case those from households with annual incomes of less than £35,000. This back-of-the-envelope scheme will encourage all sorts of shenanigans as people try to make their ‘households’ (often a slippery concept) eligible: it will be too expensive to adjudicate properly a separate arrangement outside existing criteria used for universal credit or free school meals.

As with many recent government announcements, such as the Levelling-up White Paper, the post-18 proposals involve a lot of re-announcing proposals which have already had an outing – T levels, a ‘skills mission’, more apprenticeships. These things are themselves often reread policies from ten or fifteen years ago.

One possibly beneficial scheme is the ‘Lifelong Learning Entitlement’ which may do something for older people who need retraining, and may give the opportunity for younger people to finance non-degree technical training. But again we have seen similar schemes in the past such as New Labour’s Individual Learning Accounts, which had to be scrapped when Estelle Morris discovered the scale of fraud involved.

I didn’t agree with much of the Augar Report, but it was at least a serious attempt to grapple with the perennial issue of how we prepare people for work. Today’s proposals offer little of substance.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

1 thought on “Education and training reform: same old, same old”

  1. Posted 25/02/2022 at 06:37 | Permalink

    In an attempt to address the chronic shortage of skills in engineering related professions, the government is promoting the uptake of STEM subjects in schools and colleges, by inspiring young people and nudging them into technical disciplines. But, how is British science, innovation and technology going to attract technically-literate people like graduates, technicians and apprentices into its fold when the real world of work they go into will require them to act in an unprofessional manner?

    In a report published during the 2010-2015 Parliament, the Defence Select Committee of the House of Commons accused the government of using “creative accounting” practices to meet its NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. What is less well-known about MoD’s use of such underhand tactics is that, it was the first to pioneer application of the wet-finger-in-the-air technique in the designing of military kit – more specifically, the most important aspect of defence equipment – its inherent reliability – which is an indicator of how frequently it will break-down when in service with the User, and therefore its cost of upkeep subsequently, through-life.

    The main reason why MoD’s defence procurement arm in Bristol has failed to build-in desired levels of reliability into diligently engineered products is because defence contractors have been using the thoroughly unprofessional, wet-finger-in-the-air technique of “divvying up” the given MTBF (mean time between failures) figure among lower-level maintenance significant items – instead of employing the best practice method of determining overall system reliability “bottom up” using measured failure rate figures (not predicted or estimated) derived from an up-to-date, Microsoft Access based 4th Line data repository.

    And from whom did Contractors’ people learn this method of quantifying equipment reliability? Why, none other than from the Ministry of Defence!

    To be precise, the famous here-today-gone-tomorrow procurement officials who have been freely applying this wet-finger-in-the-air technique during their short stay at MoD Abbey Wood, Bristol before migrating to the defence industry in overwhelming numbers via the “revolving door” and infecting it, by continuing to spread this lazy practice – which has, over the years, become regularised and embedded in commercial & engineering processes to such an extent that objective, evidence-based scientific analysis and thinking which has exercised technically-literate people since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, has been suppressed. This disastrous situation has come about because 99% of people who end-up working in the defence industry were previously in the pay of the State – with no sense of what it takes to uphold the values of a true engineering professional.

    To add insult to injury, the Secretary of State for Defence is actively encouraging other private sector employers to hire people who have just come off the public payroll – only for them to spread this unprofessional practice to the rest of the UK’s dwindling world-class engineering businesses.

    It should come as no surprise to MoD that all competing bids appear to be fully compliant with the reliability requirement claiming the same level of achievement, a figure slightly higher than that stated in the technical specification – thereby denying Abbey Wood Team Leader the opportunity to discriminate between technical solutions on the basis of inherent reliability.

    So, instead of acting as a responsible great Department of State and instilling professional values in its loyal employees, the Ministry of Defence has ended up doing the exact opposite! It has made a mockery and laughing stock of the engineering profession – as practiced in the UK – especially in the eyes of European competitor nations, the United States and potential export governments in the Arabian Gulf region, the wider Middle East, North Africa, Latin America and emerging nations in the Indo-Pacific region – where the engineering profession is still regarded in high esteem, and remains an automatic career choice for many young people.

Comments are closed.