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Higher and Further Education Minister speaks to HEPI annual conference

Minister Donelan's address to Higher Education Policy Institute's annual conference, appointing Professor Edward Peck CBE as the first Student Support Champion (09 June 2022).

Thank you for that warm welcome, and for inviting me to speak here today at such an exciting time for HEPI and for our whole sector.

This year marks 20 years since HEPI was established – as the first independent higher education think tank in the UK.

In its two decades of work, HEPI has made a major contribution to the sector and its reports continue to shape the future of higher education for the better. It is willing to entertain voices from across a broad spectrum of opinion and to be a home for debate.

HEPI has of course, also built a reputation as a think tank that values substance and meaningful reform over fads and arbitrary targets.

These are the values that are important to me too – putting substance and meaning first. And for the vision I have for higher education in the future, substantive and meaningful long-term progress is an absolutely necessity.

Because if we look ahead, higher education needs to drive talented people forward despite the changing nature of careers. It needs to be a powerhouse of skills, filling skills gaps in communities up and down the country. It needs to continue its role as the engine of social mobility, lifting people of all backgrounds up so they can realise their talents.

And for any of those things to happen, quality is the pivotal factor that will determine whether we can achieve these goals. Because the idea that anyone, regardless of their background, can gain a degree from a world class institution is a concept that we take for granted, but that is fundamental to a meritocratic society.

Empowering the individual to change their own life through education is the best tool we have in levelling up the country. For me, this is not just a belief, it is a lived experience.

The same year HEPI was established, I started my first year of university as the first in my family. And many of the people I grew up with were not going to university. But I saw it as a springboard. One which opened so many opportunities for me.

Because it does all go back to quality. Quality of teaching, quality of curriculum and resources and most importantly quality of outcome. The evidence has shown, again and again, that it matters both what and where you study.

And let me clarify what I mean by outcome, I am not talking about something narrowly defined by salary. But it does mean courses where students are supported to complete the course, and where that course gives them the employability skills that will allow them to progress to a graduate job or further study.

Our status as a world class provider of higher education is a brilliant but fragile title, only lasting for as long as quality remains the focus. Part of that means being honest about where the problems are.

OfS data shows that, at 25 providers, less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to finish that degree and find higher skilled employment or further study 15 months after graduation.

And there are 5 providers with drop-out rates above 40% in Business and Management. 8 providers with drop-out rates above 40% in Computing. And 4 providers where fewer than 60% of Law graduates go on to graduate jobs or to further study.

Getting in has been prioritised over getting on, and too many students, including disadvantaged students, have found themselves on low quality courses that fail to deliver them a good outcome.

Imagine being a student whose parents and peers never went to university, and one of these courses is your first experience with higher education. It does untold damage not only for the individual, but it damages confidence in our entire sector – especially in the very people who we ought to be working hard to attract.

But it is not anti-university to identify the pockets of poor quality and drive improvement, any more than it is anti-NHS to observe when a hospital needs improvement, or anti-education when Ofsted finds a school to be Inadequate.

As Michael Gove observed a decade ago, world class public services are built upon a combination of autonomy and accountability.

That is why I have stuck to my principles of substance over style and worked with the OfS to create a quality regime, which includes boots on the ground inspections of courses that are failing students. It is also why I’ve been so vocal about the small minority of providers who are failing to return to pre-pandemic levels of in person teaching.

HEPI reporting on this has been very welcome, and your research showed that over 80% of students prefer face-to-face teaching over any other method.

And what was even more striking for me – the number of students who preferred online learning when surveyed in 2019 was nearly cut in half when surveyed in 2021.

It is absolutely clear that a full return to face-to-face learning, complemented by innovative, genuinely valuable online learning where appropriate, is what students want.

And because we expect a lot from universities, this Government is prepared to back them financially to achieve these ambitious goals. Every extra penny that goes toward a piece of industry-standard equipment, or toward a new seminar room, is felt by students, and providers need to know they have our backing to deliver the highest standard of learning.

This is why we are investing an additional £750m over the next three years for high quality teaching, facilities and equipment – the largest increase to higher education grant funding to support students and teaching in almost a decade.

This will be crucial to helping providers drive up quality even further, and for us to expand those strategically important high-cost courses that we know are going to be the driving force behind our economy in the future, as well as our sustainable energy system.

In addition to funding for traditional priorities, such as STEM, we are using this to turbocharge something I am particularly passionate about – degree apprenticeships.

Putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to asking the sector to deliver more.

And because we know that helping talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education benefits them and our country, we are also launching a £75 million national state scholarship.

Earlier I spoke about the people in my area growing up who never thought university was possible for them, despite their obvious talents.

This state scholarship programme will help to make sure that talented people across our country are given the same opportunity and advantages as everyone else.

Talent being wasted is an issue that has affected communities up and down the country for decades now.

HEPI’s brilliant research on the economic benefits of Level 4 and 5 education show that this is the area to target if we are going to make a positive change in these communities.

This is why I was so pleased to announce last month that we are making a £10 million investment in a new partnership between the Open University and local colleges to offer more high-quality technical education in people’s home towns and cities.

Improving that local access to Level 4 and 5 is going to be a fantastic tool in the fight against the cost-of-living crisis and skills shortages in communities who have previously been left behind in further and higher education opportunities.

On top of this, I am launching a new Higher Technical Education Skills Injection Fund.

Colleges and universities are set to benefit from up to £32 million of additional funding this year so they can invest in equipment and facilities that will support technical studies, and boost training opportunities with businesses in key areas such as digital, construction and health care.

This sits alongside new funding within the Strategic Priorities Grant to encourage and support level 4 and 5 provision, and will help to deliver our wider goals, many of which will come as a result of the Augar Review.

Even before I started my current ministerial role, I knew that our response to the Augar Review had the potential to be a watershed moment for higher education.

So much of what has been done in the past to improve and modernise higher education has failed to address the central question of what higher education is for.

Our response to Augar and our subsequent proposals finally tackle that issue head-on, with a series of ambitious proposals that put individual students at the heart of our answer to that question.

And they have been rooted in the same principles of quality and real social mobility that have underpinned the rest of our reforms.

In my view, the most transformative of these proposals is undoubtedly the Lifelong Loan Entitlement or LLE.

We have been known for centuries as the country with the oldest university in the English-speaking world. But now I want us to be the first major country to revolutionise higher education for the modern world.

In an age where the average person changes jobs every six years, tinkering with the system is no longer an option.

Under our new, modern, flexible skills system, people can build up learning over their lifetime and have a real choice in how and when they study to acquire new life-changing skills.

They will have the opportunity to train, retrain and upskill as needed in response to changing skills needs and employment patterns. Individuals will be able to log in online and they will find a learning loan entitlement worth the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to be used on any studies they choose.

Their fund can be used to study flexibly, module-by-module, as-and-when they want throughout their life.

LLE turns education from a narrow, set destination into to an accessible, flexible journey.

It is a journey that can stop and start when you like.

Above all, it is a system that will support a lifelong learning culture that will improve opportunities, support businesses and in turn increase our productivity.

Our LLE consultation was a huge opportunity to allow everyone to take part in the discussion, and it will help us to realise the transformational potential of LLE.

This is taking place alongside our large-scale reforms to Further Education set out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper last year – the first half of our response to the Augar Review.

We want to make sure that students, regardless of their level of education, are equipped with the skills they need to progress, on whichever pathway suits them best.

But changing our learning culture to fit with the changing nature of modern careers means that we must take action to protect the benefits of higher education and ensure quality.

The success of LLE will hinge on our ability as a sector to effect and support a culture change toward lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling. And underpinning that culture will be confidence in the value of the courses on offer.

There is absolutely no sense in improving access to higher education if simultaneously we allow low quality courses to grow uncontrollably.

I would like to be clear – no-one is talking about limiting the overall number of people who go to higher education.

In my view, we spend too much time debating whether there should be more or fewer people going, when we should instead be focusing on ensuring every young person has a range of routes available to them – be that university, college or an apprenticeship – and all of those routes are good quality.

But targeted limits on low quality courses, to prevent courses that are known to be of low quality from proliferating, may make a good deal of sense.

We have also consulted on the idea of minimum eligibility requirements.

I want more people from all backgrounds to enjoy the benefits and positive outcomes higher education has to offer, and that starts with being honest with prospective students about what is required for some courses.

Again, there has been some misrepresentation of our proposals.

No-one is talking about banning anyone from going to university – to say otherwise is simply a falsehood.

What we have consulted on is a plan to ensure we don’t set people up to fail and don’t push some students into university before they are ready preparing them instead with either a Foundation Year, an Access to HE course or an appropriate Level 4 or 5 course or re-sits.

If young people are not ready for university, providers should not be drawing them into courses that are setting them up to fail. This is only common sense.

If a 19 year old has not been able to get, for example, 2Es at A-Level – to take one of the options we consulted on – surely it would be better for them to first do a preparatory courses like a foundation year.

It is what I would say to any young person who came to me for advice. It really is time for the sector and the government to show students that we care about their outcomes, and that they won’t be lured onto courses that they are not ready for.

As I said earlier, putting students first is a basic requirement for any provider or minister in this sector.

And I know that our university leaders agree with me. This is why supporting mental health by putting students at the centre of their care is of utmost importance to me.

I have listened to students and the HE sector to understand the challenges some students face in accessing mental health services, including how university and NHS services could be more joined-up.

To make faster progress, I have identified up to £3million of funding for OfS to distribute to universities to develop better partnership working with NHS services.

Minister Keegan and I will jointly chair a summit this month to launch this work and ensure that our departments work together to achieve this common goal.

The summit will include representatives from both HE and health sectors to showcase examples where integration is already underway, sharing of effective practice, and lessons learned.

As I am sure you agree, the benefits of cross-sector collaboration are clear, and I am pleased to see the excellent work over the last few years to develop the University Mental Health Charter.

The HE sector has continuously improved standards of practice and the Charter led by Student Minds is a great example of the HE sector working in collaboration with students.

I have also recently set out my ambition for all HE providers to sign up to the University Mental Health Charter Programme within the next 5 years, though I expect most institutions to do so sooner.

I am delighted that 41 institutions signed up to the Charter last year and that a number are already working towards the Award.

With so much positive action for students and so much more potential to fill, I am very pleased to be able to make an announcement today regarding the new Student Support Champion.

I recently said that it is important to me that we create a brand new role called the Student Support Champion, which would be a funded position to embody my commitment to putting students first.

The Champion’s overarching role will be to provide sectoral leadership to share best practice and promote new initiatives for how to ensure students remain supported and engaged with their course.

Because the evidence shows that a student becoming disengaged with their course is not just a problem in its own right.

In fact, student disengagement is a critical warning sign for mental health issues, which as we know, when left unchecked can have devastating consequences.

So these critical warning signs to me present an opportunity for prevention, hitting the problem at the source and helping to defend students from mental health issues before they strike.

And of course, ensuring that we are focussed on combatting student disengagement will result in better attainment and better outcomes too.

This new role marks the first time any government has created a position like this, and I think it sends a clear signal to both students and the sector that substance and meaning come first for me.

So today here at the HEPI conference, I am delighted to announce that Professor Edward Peck, Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University, has been appointed as the Student Support Champion.

Professor Peck has been an absolute trailblazer at Nottingham Trent and is both passionate and committed to this agenda.

I am sure you will all join me in wishing Professor Peck the very best in his new role.

Looking ahead, I think it is clear that this is a turning point for higher education.

The world is becoming increasingly globalised. Careers are shorter and change with faster than ever before. Technology is evolving faster than we educate our population to operate and maintain it.

If we are going to be a growing, socially mobile, financially stable country in the future, higher education is the sector that is going to get us there.

Whether it is through LLE, our quality drive, or our relentless student focus, the UK is and will remain the best place in the world to go to university.

I want to take the opportunity to thank HEPI for its incredible work over the last two decades, and for supporting our sector with expert insight and reporting.

What we have set in motion in the last two years will, in my view, make the next 20 years the most exciting, transformational and successful years in higher education we have ever seen.

Thank you again.


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