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Westlake Legal Group > Posts tagged "David Willetts"

Neil O’Brien: Rebalancing higher and technical eduation. The universities should reform themselves. Or have reform forced on them.

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Before coronavirus, universities were tottering on the edge of change. Evidence had emerged that a large proportion of degrees aren’t a good investment for taxpayers or students. The Augar Review had officially recognised the problem of low value Higher Education (HE), and called attention to the huge imbalance in funding between universities and technical education.

A ruling by the Office for National Statistics means the subsidy element of student loans has to be properly accounted for from this year on, scoring against the government’s deficit. No more PFI-style funny money.

Coronavirus has accelerated things. With lucrative foreign students gone, many universities are in financial trouble. So controls on student numbers have, rightly, been reintroduced, at universities’ own request, to allow the system to be stabilised.

Many universities have finally started to provide online learning, an approach which made pitifully little progress before now. But universities still want to charge the full fees, leading to resistance from students.

Youth unemployment is rising. Jobs, apprenticeships and work placements are disrupted. The Government needs to move fast with schemes to help. But it’s also massively in debt, with a big structural deficit to fix.

The stars are aligning for a landmark reform: on one hand, boosting funding for youth job schemes, and putting rocket boosters under plans to build a prestigious, German-style technical education system. And on the other, paying for it by cutting back poor-value degree courses which waste taxpayers’ money, but don’t actually increase opportunities for students.

Before we continue, let me wind back a bit. Back to 1963. Between the end of the Chatterley ban, and the Beatles first LP.

That was the year of the Robbins Report, which said university places “should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment,” and triggered rapid university expansion.

Participation in HE rose exponentially: from 3.4 per cent in 1950, to 8.4 per cent in 1970, 19.3 per cent in 1990 and 33 per cent in 2000. In September 1999, Tony Blair set a target to get to 50% per cent, which we reached in 2018.

But somewhere along the way we lost sight of the Robbins principle – which wasn’t “more students”, but places for those who can benefit.

Robbins spent a long time pondering economic and academic evidence about how many could benefit. He considered a wide range of different types of education and training.

But under the 50 per cent target, the only rule has been more, more, more. You can go to university now without a GCSE in English and Maths, but the proportion of Firsts awarded has risen four-fold since the mid-1990s: universities are competing for students by debasing standards.

The creation of the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes dataset – initiated by David Willetts – has challenged this. It gives us data on how much graduates of particular courses at different universities earn.  It lets us look at value-added too: how graduates’ earnings compare to people with similar backgrounds and A level results.

It shows us that while university is on average good for those attending – there are many for whom it’s not worth it. Either their earnings are lower than comparable people, or improve so little that it’s not worth the big upfront cost.

The most recent Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis found that, viewed from the point of view of the student, their degree isn’t worth it for around 10 per cent of women, and a quarter of men. This is extraordinary, given they are receiving big taxpayer subsidies.

Viewed from the point of view of the taxpayer, the taxpayer makes “a loss on the degrees of around 40 per cent of men and half of women.” Summing together the effect for society as a whole (the gains to students and taxpayers) “total returns will be negative for around 30 per cent of both men and women.”  In other words, nearly a third of students degrees are not worth it economically.

The variation by degree and institution is even more dramatic. The taxpayer makes huge losses subsidising creative arts courses – only four and a half percent represent a positive investment.

Only 30 per cent of English students earn enough to justify taxpayers’ investment. The taxpayer makes a loss on the majority of students in sociology, psychology, communications, and languages. Many would be better off doing something else.

Median graduate annual earnings five years after graduation were £25,900, compared to £27,240 for Level 4 apprentices five years after completion. If we looked at, say, the bottom quarter of graduates, the case for them doing something else is even stronger.

Yes, for many students, going to university will have a value in itself. To study a beautiful poem has a value. We don’t expect the theology graduate who becomes a priest or a nun to earn a packet. Yes, we should explicitly make losses on some courses for the same reasons we subsidise public art and the like.

But let’s not be so snobby that we think there’s no satisfaction or intrinsic value from technical study. No sense of accomplishment for an apprentice building a jet engine, or a house.

For a country like Britain, deep in debt, lofty thoughts are not enough to justify such huge numbers of students doing things that don’t help them economically, given that’s what many themselves want. Half of young people go down the technical route – more in blue wall seats. They are less well funded.

While no neat comparison is possible, the Augar Review noted that in 2017-18, over £8 billion was committed to support 1.2 million UK undergraduates in England, and only £2.3 billion to support 2.2 million full and part time (FE) students.

That’s roughly £6,600 vs £1,050 each. Further education participation has fallen from 4.8 million to 3.6 million since 2010.  Key higher technical qualifications (HNDs/HNCs) are down by over two-thirds since 2010/11. Universities have become less diverse too. Part-time higher education has fallen by 53% since 2010/11.

We have to rebalance the system from higher to technical education, and put those middle options back in. Gavin Williamson has talked about “stronger alignment of the courses delivered with the economic and societal needs of the nation.”

That’s right, but to get there we need to recognise the limits of market forces. Students choose their course aged 17. What it will do to their earnings at age 50 isn’t front of mind. With lots of public subsidy sloshing around, universities’ incentives are to put on lots of cheap arts courses, charge full fees, and use the money to cross-subsidise other things.

They get the benefit, and the taxpayer the cost. Ministers need to step in to protect taxpayers. A report last year for Onward (I was one author) looked at ways to reshape funding. Ministers could impose a floor on prior attainment like a minimum A level score.  They could directly cut back numbers on poor value courses.

Personally, I’m drawn to the idea of a deals-based approach. Highly subsidised universities would propose to government how they will reduce their cost to the taxpayer. That could mean reducing numbers on some courses, or making them cheaper with shorter degrees, or and doing more online. Or a mix.

If they don’t produce a plan, the sanction would be direct number controls. We’d use the savings to fight youth unemployment, and fund technical education properly.  How does that sound?

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Dean Godson: How the Conservatives divide on policy towards China

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

On occasion, there really is something new under the political sun: so who would ever have predicted that China policy would become a key Conservative fault line post Brexit?

Historically, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) never occupied a prominent place in the British Conservative cosmos, after the fashion of the American Right. There was no “who lost China?” debate in Westminster – such as convulsed Washington following the Maoist takeover in 1949.

All that is changing: nearly everyone now has an opinion on China because of Covid19. One measurement of the salience of an issue is the proliferation of party caucuses – such as the Huawei WhatsApp Group and the China Research Group. There is also talk of an alternative to the China APPG, seen by some as insufficiently challenging to the PRC.

Critics claim there is a flavour here of the People’s Liberation Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Liberation Front. But as with Brexiteer factionalism, emerging fractions also reflect a certain dynamism. As Mao said: “let a hundred flowers bloom”.

Those Europe rebellions differed from the Huawei mutiny of 2020 in one key respect: they occurred when the Conservatives’ margins were slender. By contrast, this rebellion took place under the biggest Conservative majority since 1987. But for the prestige of Boris Johnson with the 2019 intake, it would have been much bigger; Anthony Mangnall (Totnes), was the sole dissenter amongst the newcomers. Soundings suggest he will not be alone next time.

The Conservative PRC-sceptic coalition is disparate, but broad. Not all of them were Huawei rebels, or are even MPs. The emerging balance of forces is, however, clear: out and proud PRC sceptics tend to be appreciably more vocal than advocates of the Government line. The sceptics can roughly be divided into eight strands of thought, some of which overlap:

  • Pro-Brexit Atlanticists such as Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson — who don’t want Huawei to jeopardise an FTA with America and who identify with the current bipartisan Washingtonian view of the PRC.
  • Senior former Ministers who are also Atlanticists – but who are not purists on PRC policy. They feel that if the PRC is admitted into international institutions, it must then abide by their rules. This viewpoint was most prominently articulated by William Hague at the recent Policy Exchange webinar on China; it is shared by Liam Fox and Damian Green. Hague and Green were Remainers, whilst Fox was a Leaver.
  • Younger liberal internationalists who voted Remain – most prominently, Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee (this panel has proven notably cohesive across the party divides).
  • Civil libertarians worried by the Chinese surveillance practice, most obviously David Davis (who overlaps with the first camp).
  • Religious freedom andhuman rights advocates – such as Fiona Bruce (Congleton) and Benedict Rogers (co-founder of Hong Kong Watch).
  • Opponents of the dumping practices of the PRC – many of whom come from “Red Wall” seats with steel and ceramics industries.
  • Tory critics of globalisation – such as Nick Timothy.
  • Those who claim to be sympathetic to most or all of those strands – such as Bob Seely (Isle of Wight).

One noteworthy “neutral” is the influential Conservative Environment Network. Its members worry about animal welfare and a Chinese reversion to coal; but they also note the PRC’s part in reducing carbon emissions and in the manufacture of electric vehicles. Zac Goldsmith, the International Environment Minister is also seeking a global new deal on nature – and wants the PRC on board for that.

The Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation likewise holds the PRC to account on such issues as wild life markets; one prominent activist Henry Smith, the MP for Crawlet, was a Huawei rebel. Its website lists Stanley Johnson and Carrie Symonds as leading lights.

Defenders of aspects of the existing policy towards the PRC are less vocal, but they are still there. Again, there is some overlap between the different strands:

The upshot of such frictions is that Westminster is a colder house than it once was for the PRC. Thus, Dominic Raab stated on 16 April that “we can’t have business as usual” — and that a “deep dive” review is coming; Priti Patel took a little-advertised decision to ban Hikvision from a security conference because of its role in surveillance of the Uighurs; and there was controversy over the PRC role in an attempted boardroom coup at Imagination Technologies. It won’t be the last.

But is the Government’s apparent change of approach one of substance or style – or, in the jargon of the Huawei decision, is it about the policy “core” or the tonal “periphery”? For example, it remains to be decided what the “deep dive” review will consist of; who will undertake it; and when it will emerge.

A new policy has not yet come into being because senior Ministers are often reminded by permanent servants of the State that the UK is heavily invested in the current broad terms of trade with the PRC – from which it cannot easily be extricated. Indeed, one senior former Minister notes with grudging respect Mark Sedwill’s part in persuading two very different Prime Ministers, May and Johnson, to stick with Huawei.

This approach is reinforced by the Treasury — which sees itself as the guarantor of economic growth and, increasingly, of big infrastructure projects to help the country out of recession. The PRC potentially has an important part to play there; Philip Hammond’s appreciation for Belt and Road is one legacy of his Chancellorship. And then there is the Government’s immediate dependency on the PRC for PPE.

So as with Brexit, much of the Conservative family finds itself pitted against the permanent State on how Britain aligns itself in the world; as with Brexit, the China rebels face a long (reverse) march through the institutions; and as with Brexit, Conservative Ministers find themselves caught between those contending forces.

One PRC-sceptic senior Minister has given colleagues copies of The Hundred-Year Marathon by Michael Pillsbury – a prominent US Sinologist admired by Donald Trump. The Minister’s point is that Conservative MPs need the same patience and craft as the PRC. The Parliamentary politics of China will be determined by whether Ministers have the credibility persuade backbenchers that they are genuinely playing that long game.

The new Labour Opposition will be worth watching. Labour sources state that precisely because Keir Starmer was author of Labour’s disastrous pledge for a second referendum, he now needs to show to the lost Red Wall heartlands that he is no Blairite globaliser – and will turn to the institutions of the nation state to defend distressed British companies going for a song to Chinese investors.

Both front benches share a common vocabulary – describing the absence of alternatives to Huawei as “market failure”. So how open will Labour be to cooperation with the Conservatives – either with the rebels, or even the Government? Or will the Conservatives succeed in determining policy on their own terms?

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Scruton and the Conservatives. “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country.”

A popular image of a philosopher is a solitary man in an ivory tower hunched up in the pose of Rodin’s thinker.  Were it true, Roger Scruton would not have been a philosopher – titan polymath that he was: academic, barrister, rider to hounds, farmer, novelist, composer of operas, pianist, wine critic, and much else…including, of course, philosopher.  And journalist.

For Scruton had an activist temperament, of which we offer two examples, drawn from our own experience.  The first involves this site.  In 2013, he set up a new section within it called “Thinker’s Corner“.  The aim was to provide a platform for Tory intellectuals and an opportunity for new writers.  It failed comprehensively.  This was as much the fault of the Editor as that of Scruton, if not much more so.

The second was a reworking of an older idea.   Scruton was one of the original founders of the Conservative Philosophy Group, one of the symptoms of the Thatcher revival of the 1970s and 1980s.  He revived is more recently.  If his aim was to recreate that ethos, he did not succeed.  It was not well attended by Tory MPs.  One might conclude that Scruton was ineffective as an actor rather than a thinker.  This would be mistaken.

For his energy got results in what was Czechoslovakia, where he set up an underground university to offer education from those expelled from the state system – and more broadly to teach them in the western tradition.  Thirty years on from the Velvet Revolution, he was awarded the country’s highest civilian honour.  This work was heroic.

ConservativeHome wrote that Scruton deserved a peerage (though we also said later that “doubtless he would not accept one unless it were hereditary”).  We were delighted when he was knighted, describing the honour as “a knighthood for the movement”.  This was an attempt to capture his sense of commitment.  Which brings us to the Conservative Party and Scruton himself.

He never quite gave up on it – treating it with the derisive affection that one reserves for some impossibly errant relative.  Like this site, he was supportive of it while also remaining independent, recognising that for all its faults the only practicable vehicle for the realisation of conservative ideas is the Conservative Party.  His interest was not reciprocated.

This leads us to ask why it has engaged so little, over so many years, in the small but lively domestic network of Conservative intellectuals.  Margaret Thatcher was the exception that proves the rule.  It is impossible to imagine John Major turning up to one of the meetings of the original Conservative Philosophy Group.  We can only think of one Tory leader who would have done so with enthusiasm: Iain Duncan Smith.

One answer to the question is that the Conservatives remain, over 40 years on from the Thatcher experiment, “the Stupid Party” at heart – suspicious of ideas and those familiar with them.  (Even when those concerned are reacting against bad ones, which was part of what Scruton did.)  Those intellectuals with whom it comes to terms must be functioning politicians, such as David Willetts, Oliver Letwin, Jesse Norman, Chris Skidmore and Danny Kruger.

Another is that to the Cameron leadership – the most successful electorally since Thatcher’s, at least until Boris Johnson came along – Scruton was an embarrassment, with his commitment to fox hunting, opposition to multiculturalism as Editor of the Salisbury Review, hostility to same-sex marriage (later rescinded) and general dispostion to take ideas seriously.

That knighthood took a very long time to come.  At least two Cabinet Ministers claim credit for it, and it may be worth adding that Michael Gove has said that Green Philosophy, Scruton’s magnificently balanced book about ecology and the environment, helped to inspire his work at Defra.  He is a bit of an exception to the rule that we are writing about.

At any rate, Scruton had come in from the cold by the time of his knighthood – having been appointed to an advisory post on housing.  The Cameron Government had come round to recognising his value.  Our readers will be familiar with what happened next.  Scruton was fired as Chairman of the Government’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” Commission after a New Statesman interview before eventually being reinstated.

We thought that he had shown a lack of comradely discipline by giving the interview at all (though noting from the start that his words had been twisted).  The Commission has published an interim report.  Its final one will be part of Scruton’s legacy.  Its purpose is “to tackle the challenge of poor-quality design and build of homes and places, across the country and help ensure as we build for the future, we do so with popular consent”.

ConservativeHome looks forward to the publication of the final report.  And to the Johnson leadership engaging more actively with Tory intellectuals than its predecessors have done.  Whether it will do so or not is open to question.  Johnson has an interest in ideas – consider The Dream of Rome – but dislikes being bound by them: he sees politics as a practical business.  Dominic Cummings has ideas of his own.

We close by looking back on that list of names we suggested for peerages in 2015: Eamonn Butler, Paul Johnson, Ruth Lea and Charles Moore, as well as Scruton himself.  Others whose talents might be utilised by this new Government include: Noel Malcolm, Sheila Lawlor, Michael Clarke, Philippa Stroud, Niall Ferguson, Patrick Minford, Andrew Roberts, David Goodhart, Richard Ekins.

There is also a fledgling network of Conservative academics – the furthering of which has been slowed by the recent chaos at the top of the Party.  Scruton would have approved.  He would also have known that it wasn’t the Tory Party alone that under-recognised what he had to offer.  It is safe to say that his views been less blue, and less colourfully expressed, his academic career would have been more successful.

Then again, there was a part of Scruton that seemed to relish confrontation.  His fighting spirit was very like his father’s – a lifelong socialist of a very English kind still remembered, in High Wycombe where Scruton himself was raised, for helping to save the Rye, a park near the centre of the town, from development during the 1960s.  Jack Scruton was agent for a petition of protest presented to a joint committee of the Commons and Lords.

Roger Scruton himself, though a practising Anglican, may not have been a Christian – not throughout his adult life as Conservative, at any rate.  But he would ruefully have recognised the force of the verse: “a prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house” – even if that prophet dies, as in his case, not without honours.  We mourn his passing.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Nick Hillman: Don’t be swayed by the outrage. Treating EU students like other non-British students makes sense.

Nick Hillman is the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, and is a former Special Adviser to David Willetts, then Minister for Universities and Science. This piece is written in a personal capacity.

The media is full of stories saying that the Government will soon confirm EU students in England are to be treated like other foreign students after Brexit. This means the former will have to pay full international fees, not the lower home fees. Plus, they will no longer have access to subsidised tuition fee loans. That is a real double whammy.

Twitter is suitably outraged. The decision will hit our universities, impoverishing them financially and intellectually, and is at one with the Government’s hostile attitude towards students from other countries. Or so it is claimed.

In fact, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

International students, whether they hail from another EU country or from a non-EU country undoubtedly benefit the UK. Typically, they come here, spend lots of money and then go home again, generally with warm thoughts about their host nation. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), for which I work, has shown just one cohort of international students bringing net benefits of over £20 billion. Every constituency gains.

I have long argued that the Government’s approach to international students is their worst higher education policy. I argued against it inside Whitehall, as Special Adviser to David Willetts during the Coalition. I have argued against it outside Whitehall, too. Since I became Director of HEPI in 2014, our three biggest reports have been on the benefits that international students bring to the UK.

But, despite the real problems with the Government’s general approach to international students, the idea that EU students should come to be treated like other non-British students makes sense.

First, there is the moral case.

While we are in the European Union, there is a defensible logic in having more generous rules for students from fellow EU states. The arrangements are all part of the reciprocity that comes from being in the club. If we are not in the EU, there is no easy way to defend charging richer Germans much less to study here than poorer Indians.

European nations are predominantly white and non-EU international students typically come from countries where white people tend to be in a minority. So maintaining the current rules would be exceptionally hard to defend for other reasons too. (Some people claim it would be illegal as well, but the specifics are murky so lawyers may need to clarify that in due course.)

Secondly, there is the economic case.

Student loans have a cost to British taxpayers because the repayment terms mean much of the money is never repaid. There is a strong case for this for home students. Their families are likely to be contributing to the Exchequer in other ways and they are likely to end up as UK taxpayers themselves. (US states charge less to in-state students for the same reasons.) There is also a logic to subsidising EU students while we remain a member state. But the logic doesn’t so easily apply to residents of anywhere beyond the UK after Brexit.

Remember, the Office for National Statistics are about to reclassify student loan write-off costs as current public spending (rather than a cost that falls far in the future). So the Treasury has to decide whether continuing to subsidise students from other EU countries to study here is a more urgent priority than other public spending needs. Cutting A&E waiting lists, raising school funding, spending more on research or future tax cuts may seem more palatable.

This all brings us, as with so much else, to Margaret Thatcher. When she was a newly-installed Prime Minister, her Government abolished the subsidy that once existed for students coming to study in the UK from outside Europe. Overnight, they became liable for much higher fees.

The higher education sector was united in its outrage. Labour’s Education spokesman, Neil Kinnock, told the House of Commons:

“It is apparent that the policy has not a single friend. We hear nothing but continual criticisms—some extremely bitter and loud—of the Government’s policy from the Royal Commonwealth Society and the British Council to the Association of Navigation Schools, from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the United Kingdom Universities and the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics to every university, polytechnic and college of higher or further education, every education trade union and every students’ union. Disagreement with the Government’s policy is not limited to those sources. We have also heard criticisms from Conservative students, just as we have heard them, in a courageous and direct form, from Conservative Back Benchers.”

They were all wrong. We can date the UK’s success in attracting people from other countries to study here from that decision. Once universities could charge international students the full economic costs of their education and more, there was an incentive to recruit them. The number of students from other countries started rising fast because, in the words of Derek Bok (a former President of Harvard), universities resemble exiled European royalty and compulsive gamblers in their insatiable appetite for money.

We have calculated that international students who come to the UK now cross-subsidise research by £8,000 each. Without this funding, our higher education sector would be poorer, less good and lower down the global league tables.

I am not saying Brexit is bound to lead to a big growth in EU student arrivals. History doesn’t always repeat itself. The impending changes to the student finance rules for EU students really could put people off coming here to study, even though our universities boast so many strengths and teach in English. Many European countries have fantastic universities of their own and, often, they are free to attend. Research we commissioned concluded Brexit could mean a decline in students from other EU countries of over 50 per cent.

But I am worried that people are opposing the rumoured change to funding for EU students without any sufficiently strong arguments to win the debate. That would be counter-productive because it deflects from the more important task of ensuring the whole post-Brexit migration system makes sense.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com