Vince Cable’s lifelong learning commission – a missed opportunity?

An under-reported part of Vince Cable’s first conference speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats was his announcement of an independent commission on lifelong learning. Being a lifelong learning geek, this announcement thrilled me far more than anything else he said that day. Lifelong learning has shamefully been political tumbleweed for far too long. It’s not a topic that the Conservatives or Labour have seriously engaged with over the last decade or more. It’s to Vince’s great credit that he’s the first national party leader to take lifelong learning seriously in the modern era.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s been a long wait since last Autumn’s speech, but yesterday the TES revealed the twelve-strong commission. They are:

  • Chair: Rajay Naik – Chief Executive of Keypath Education
  • David Barrett – Associate director of fair access and participation, Office for Students
  • Stuart Croft – Vice chancellor of the University of Warwick
  • Stephen Evans – Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute
  • David Hughes – Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges
  • Simon Hughes – External adviser to the Open University (and former Lib Dem MP)
  • Shakira Martin –  The current president of the National Union of Students
  • Polly Mackenzie – Director at Demos (and former Lib Dem SpAD)
  • Ruth Silver – President of the Further Education Trust for Leadership
  • Ruth Spellman – Chief Executive / General Secretary of the WEA
  • Matthew Taylor – Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts
  • John Widdowson – The principal of New College Durham

I have no doubt that they will do their job to the best of their abilities, but I can’t help but feel incredibly disheartened and annoyed at the lack of balance on this commission.

With due respect to the NUS president, there’s not a single member who represents the “consumers” of lifelong learning opportunities. There’s also no-one who directly represents the needs of industry. Concerningly, the representatives of the educational providers and regulators are all (very) senior managers. I do wonder precisely how much time they will have to devote to this task. A sprinkling of talent from elsewhere in the education hierarchy would have been a very good thing indeed.

In my view these omissions are a huge missed opportunity. Without effective challenge, the commission is in real danger of delivering something bland, seen primarily through the eyes of education providers. While I trust that evidence will be taken from lifelong learners and industry, it’s not the same as having these voices directly shaping the commission’s recommendations.

Hopefully, it’s not too late to address these flaws. There are lots of talented people who understand what it’s like to be a lifelong learner, juggling the demands of family and career to ensure their skills stay up to date. There are people who understand what it’s like to be an employer and how difficult it can be to persuade people to take up learning opportunities.

I’d volunteer, but I probably won’t get a call now that I’ve written this!

But please Vince, address these issues. Otherwise you won’t get the radical proposals that you’re looking for, or what lifelong learners need.

Thank Trump or tackle homelessness this Christmas?

I received two Christmas messages from political campaigners yesterday. The first was from a right-wing US website. I have no idea how I ended up on their mailing list. I’ve tried to unsubscribe many times without success. Their endless stream of nonsense is now fed directly into my junk email folder.

The Christmas mailing asked me to thank Donald Trump for fulfilling 150 campaign promises by choosing one of “… six beautiful digital cards you can personalize and send to the president without cost … to counteract the constant attacks on his policies, his character and his dedication to putting America’s interests first.”

The second message came from Vince Cable. In it he asked us to do something to support a local charity tackling homelessness this Christmas. In Derby, the Padley Group have helped people with a range of issues including homelessness, debt and destitution, drugs, alcohol, mental health issues, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, severe autism and long-term unemployment since 1985. It’s challenging to maintain services when £250,000 in local and central government grants have been removed.

However, they’re trying hard to attract new supporters to their Padley 4000 scheme which you can subscribe to for £2 a month – less than the price of a cup of coffee. They’ve asked their existing supporters to publicise the scheme this Christmas. If you are local to Derby, please think about joining it. There are also opportunities to volunteer if you’d prefer to donate your time.


A Happy Christmas and peaceful new year to you all.

Vince Cable for Chancellor?

I’ve just run across this rather unscientific poll which suggests that despite (because of?) two years of coalition government, Vince Cable is still the people’s favourite to dig us out of the economic mess that we’re currently in. However, my enthusiasm is tempered somewhat, not only because of the self-selecting nature of the respondents to the poll, but also that Gordon Brown is currently at number two. Go figure.

It may very well all change over the course of this week while the poll remains active, but it’s interesting to see that the Lib Dem minister who was most closely associated with the immensely damaging student fees episode is nonetheless still regarded (by the respondents to this poll) as the best politician on offer to steer us to economic safety.

Higher Education white paper due out today

I see from the report on the BBC website that the long-awaited HE white paper is finally due out later on today. While most of the comment currently seems to be concerned with the idea of ranking universities according to graduate employment outcomes, I'm intrigued by the idea that "local FE colleges will be able to offer Open University degrees" in future.

I shall resist the temptation to publish what I think about all this until I've had a chance to read the white paper itself.

Update: 28th June, 9.40pm – some first observations: The HE white paper – mentions of the Open University

Oh, go on then, say universities – Bar Chart Edition!

Despite @fourinten tweeting “Succinctly put” about last night’s post on why Vince Cable’s hope that students would be able to drive better value for money by shopping around for universities and comparing offers is a rather forlorn one, I thought of a far simpler way to make the same point on the train home in the form of a “Lib Dem Bar Chart”. Here it is:


Supply and Demand Bar Chart
Supply and Demand Bar Chart




Oh, go on then, say universities

I read with interest today about Vince Cable’s comments to university vice-chancellors that:

The biggest mistake a university could make is to underestimate its consumers.


Students will search for value for money and compare the offers of different universities.

He’s now just a small step away from suggesting that VCs are public enemy number one, joining bankers on the list of people he will no longer be sending Christmas cards to. I suggested this might be a likely strategy in a post at the start of March, when it began to become clear that the outcome of the tuition fees fiasco was that just about every single university would be charging the maximum amount. Even mid-ranking institutions like the University of Central Lancashire, whose VC was making soothing noises as late as the end of February to their local press about tuition fees, have now decided to try to charge the maximum £9,000.

Sadly, as I and many others have pointed out, the horse has now well and truly bolted. Without a rethink on a scale of what we’re seeing happening over the proposed NHS reforms, the universities will have to charge this amount – partly to cover the removal of £2.9bn per year of direct teaching funding from the HEFCE and partly to ensure that their institution is perceived to be excellent – “or seek to be in the same fee bracket as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial”, as the deputy chief executive of Exeter University so charmingly put it in his letter to current students at the start of March.

And if the majority of institutions are intent on charging the maximum, then the ability of the individual student to shop around for better “value for money” will be severely restricted, if not impossible.

I think the satirical (and very rude – so don’t click on the link if you’re easily offended) Daily Mash got it just about right today: Oh, go on then, say universities.

With respect, Dr. Cable, it’s now time for you and Mr. Willetts to rethink your approach. And quickly.

University funding for novices

You know how it is – or maybe not – perhaps your lifeworld is a little different to mine 🙂 . You’re sitting in bed on a Sunday morning, surfing the blogs, and you come across something that is just too irresistible to pass up the opportunity of commenting on.

Last Sunday, I found an interesting article over on the “Politics for novices” blog, which suggested that the current changes to university funding will aid social change. I couldn’t resist commenting on it (you’ll have to follow the link if you want to read the article and what I said) and it’s provoked a lively debate between myself and the blog owner. Michael’s response to my original comment is in a follow-up post he made very early this morning and I’ve since commented on his response too (though at the time of writing it’s being held in his moderation queue).

If only all debate about university funding was quite so reasonable and civilised we might just get somewhere …

Are university Vice-Chancellors about to replace bankers as the new bogey men?

Following on from earlier announcements by Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial that they intend to charge the maximum possible tuition fees from 2013 for undergraduate courses of £9,000 per year, Exeter university has entered the fray today by indicating it will follow suit.

The Exeter announcement is important, as they are the first university outside of the “Russell Group” of self-proclaimed elite establishments to decide to do this. I’m hoping that BIS are looking on with a degree of alarm and concern about this development as it suggests that many universities will now do the same.

By dint of the way that the complicated funding maths works out, this development means that the taxpayer will be paying even more to fund university education in the future than under Willett’s and Cable’s over-optimistic projections that the average fees would end up around £7,500 per year and that “low-cost” subjects such as arts and humanities would be closer to £6,000 per year.

Remember that the introduction of the new funding arrangements were going to mean it costing the taxpayer more, not less, than the current arrangements during the period of the current comprehensive spending review (i.e. between now and 2015.) If the average fee is going to be closer to £8,000-£9,000 per year, then it will cost taxpayers more still. The universities get the money now, of course, not as the students pay it back, so it needs to be found from somewhere along with the interest that the government will incur borrowing it on our behalf. This is in addition to saddling the majority of students with the equivalent of an extra 9% tax bill (over earnings of £21,000 per year) for up to 30 years after graduation.

That 9% “graduate contribution” is significant. It will obviously reduce graduate disposable income and mean they won’t be spending it their local economies helping the business community to thrive and so create jobs. It also probably means that they won’t be saving towards their pensions either. I’m glad I’m probably not going to be alive (or at least, not be a taxpayer!) in 2060 to pick up that “little bill” from the welfare state.

So we already know that Willetts and Cable have been caught out. After all, if you tell someone they can charge “up to” an amount for a service that while not a monopoly is certainly one delivered by two or three cartels of universities, what cartel would say that they would charge less than that amount?

There’s also the prestige argument being advanced. If you charge less for something, it’s obviously not going to be perceived as being as good as the more expensive item. Reality is usually different of course – Apple iPads are expensive, certainly, but they’re not as good for the purposes I require, or as cheap, as (say) an Android tablet. However, UK universities seem to believe that they are all Apple iPads rather than Google Androids and that they need to be perceived in this way to be taken seriously on the international stage.

Whether or not university VCs become seen as the next “greedy bankers” will depend to a large extent on how slickly Willetts and Cable can argue the case that they simply don’t need to put their fees up this much to replace the direct funding from government they will lose. They’ve done a pretty poor job of this so far, of course. However, there’s certainly a chance that the coalition will be able to portray the £9,000 a year universities and their VCs in this way. Public anger, whipped up by the usual suspects in the media is an easy thing to re-direct when organisations are apparently attempting to get away with shady pricing practices.

It’s interesting that the registrar and deputy CEO of Exeter University in his email to current students today doesn’t attempt to justify the £9,000 a year price tag for undergraduate courses by saying it’s necessary to fill a funding gap. Instead, he concludes:

I am sure you will share our confidence that Exeter should seek to be in the same fee bracket as universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial, which have already signalled their intent to charge the full amount.

I sense that a whole new set of battle lines in the funding debate for higher education are about to be drawn. It will not end well for anyone.


Will it still be possible to pay in advance for OU modules next year?

I recently tweeted the OU’s “Four in Ten” campaign with a question asking about the current situation of England-based students who were studying with the OU who wanted to carry on paying for their modules in advance, as many of us do at present.

They answered this question in a blog post yesterday. Yet again the answer seems to demonstrate the lamentable way in which the 40% of us in part-time tertiary education are being misunderstood and/or ignored by Willetts and Cable.

This is the comment I submitted in return, after a contributor called Tina had vented before I had had a chance to!

Dear Four in Ten,

Thanks for the reply to my tweet. Sadly, it confirms what I thought the situation was. As Tina points out, it’s not an answer to the question that I asked, but it is an honest statement of what the current “thinking” from government is.

My real concern is that despite the campaigning activities of four in ten and the OU, the responsible ministers at BIS (David Willetts and Vince Cable) really don’t understand what motivates people to study part-time.

As Tina says, if it becomes no longer possible to study modules or qualifications in a “debt-free” way, then it will severely impact my desire to ever want to study anything with the OU ever again, which would be a real shame. I suspect many of us who are in full-time employment like myself and are studying for “fun” would vote with our feet – and find alternative ways of satisfying our quest for knowledge.

Some of the US distance learning colleges are starting to look very attractive to me in this regard …

Tuition fees – commons vote likely to be on 9th December

On the 15th October this year I wrote to Nick Clegg on the subject of the Browne report and university tuition fees.

With the vote in the commons now being reported on Sky News as likely to be taking place on 9th December, I thought I’d revisit what I’d written to see if I still felt the same way about the subject.

If anything, I think what is being proposed is even worse than I feared in October.

One thing that has becoming increasingly apparent is that it looks as if the proposed method of funding will not only cost students more, but it will also cost the general taxpayer more too. After all, the interest being deferred on the much larger loans that students will need has to come from somewhere while they are studying and earning too little to pay their loan off. The proposal therefore won’t contribute to the deficit reduction and will probably make the deficit worse by 2014-15. Madness.

I’ve also had time to read the OECD’s report (which I’ve blogged about previously) which demonstrates that government funding of tertiary education pays for itself in both monetary and social terms over the lifetime of the individuals receiving it.

In addition to the OECD report, the HEFCE has now also published the full details of their survey into the attitudes of the public into the funding of tertiary education.

It’s worthwhile reading and demonstrates that only 2% of the public think that a substantial reduction in government funding for tertiary education (which is what the announced 80% / £2.9bn cut in university teaching budgets is) should take place. More than 80% of respondents thought that funding should be maintained or increased from 2009 levels.

No wonder the coalition is in such a mess over this – there isn’t that level of agreement from the UK public about anything else in politics that I can think of.

The tuition fees policy therefore has no financial rationale, almost no public support and is being driven through largely because the Conservative elements of the coalition believe in their hearts that tertiary education should be privatised, with public support going only to “economically useful” subjects. After all, what have the social sciences, humanities and arts ever done for us?

I’m ashamed that people I considered to be good Liberals or Social Democrats have been duped over this, as even Vince Cable now seems to be belatedly realising, talking openly about the possibility of him abstaining on his own department’s proposals.

The NUS aren’t helping the cause much either – particularly as there’s little practical difference between their graduate tax and the coalition’s graduate contribution proposals. The NUS are focusing their firepower in the wrong direction.

The real issue is the withdrawal of the £2.9bn/year from funding HE teaching. As this will cost taxpayers more in the long run it needs to be seen for what it is – a policy motivated by a destructive political ideology, rather than a pragmatic approach to providing the future skills our country needs.