Why is there such a fuss about today’s IPPR Report? Largely for two reasons – firstly some interesting HE figures have been involved from Nigel Thrift and Janet Beer to Steve Smith and John Sexton. Second is its – and the IPPR’s – proximity to the Labour Party, where the timing alongside the policy review process towards the 2015 manifesto matters more by the day. I’ll come back to that…
What does it say? Quite a lot – from well trailed recommendations for a student premium of £1k (with no number control for small SNC institutions) and a ‘stay at home’ fee of £5k, alongside other flexible options to a call for merging HEFCE, OFFA and QAA and the recreation of polytechnics for FE colleges with over 50% studying HE programmes. These are all subjects that I’ve written about before – from sector ownership to innovative HE provision (see blogs) so you can see why I find the proposals interesting and intriguing. Others don’t – see David Kernohan’s Wonkhe blog.
In essence the report is the IPPR’s (and possibly Labour’s) response to Coalition policy and the current and future public spending climate i.e. this is where we are and this is what we’d now do about it (a kind of Leftish update to Lord Browne perhaps?). Timing is always interesting in politics and the IPPR’s careful examination of the costs of different options (from the £6k fee to the Graduate tax and both helpfully including PG) is particularly intriguing given that Labour spent a lot of time last week promising to be fiscally responsible and to stick to various spending limits and policy decisions at least in the short term. Taken together this might give us the biggest clue to Labour’s eventual manifesto position.
But the report launch this morning often felt as much like a pitch to the current Government and in particular to George Osborne as he finalises spending decisions as it felt like a set of possible policies for Labour. Every Vice Chancellor talked more about 26th June and BIS cuts of £1 – £1.7 billion and how it might be possible to avoid the worst. Every speaker talked about the UK’s low levels of investment in human capital and research compared to most OECD countries. Everyone hoped that politicians of all parties would hear their words and to work them into both the political scripts and spending plans for 2015 and beyond.
To that end there were several recommendations that might be considered by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as well as by Labour. Translating existing funds for Widening Participation and the National Scholarship Programme into a £1000 student premium is one – and as relevant to the Coalition in run up to Spending Review as it is to Labour in 2015. Spending more on a wider network of applied innovation or ‘catapult’ centres by diverting some of the R&D tax credit is another. Ideas about high level apprenticeships, flexible and part time and postgraduate study are also important and relevant to each political party.
All of which brings me to today’s headline idea of resurrecting the Polytechnic. It’s proved to be an effective way of drawing attention to the UK’s continuing need for higher level vocational skills and applied research as well as to HE in FE. But I’d suggest that it’s pretty unlikely either as a policy position or something that individual institutions will seek. By my calculations there is only one current FE institution that meets the criteria of having over 50% of students in HE and they might be better described as a mono, rather than a poly-technic.
It’s a powerful and a legitimate idea not least because it’s something that other countries seem able to grasp and operate as part of a diverse system of vocational and academic education. But not us – at least not yet.
Andy Westwood – CEO, GuildHE