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27 Sep 2021



The challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic have significantly disrupted Higher Education (HE) over the last 18 months, impacting teaching practice, access, and student experience.

Once the pandemic struck, universities were swiftly thrown into disarray as they wrestled with lockdowns and social distancing requirements. New pedagogies had to be developed and technologies adopted to ensure appropriate teaching approaches were in place for online and hybrid classes.

At the same time, the challenge of teacher allocated A-Level results has thrown admissions into chaos for two years in a row.

With increasing numbers of students gaining top grades, although unequally distributed across private and public sectors, many universities have struggled (and continue to struggle) with unexpectedly large student cohorts. This has placed increasing pressures on teaching spaces, accommodation, resources, and staff time.

This has all contributed to a radically different set of experiences for Covid-19 pandemic cohorts. Students have had significantly less contact time and have missed out on key developmental experiences associated with HE, and becoming independent adults.

At the extreme end, students have experienced physical and emotional isolation, financial hardship, and issues with their mental health.

Commentators and researchers have highlighted how these issues are impacting HE: from the way in which the sector has been suddenly opened up to the commercial interests of multi-national edtech companies, to mass redundancies and increased casualisation of the research and academic workforce, and deepening inequalities in the student population.

Fixation on financial returns

However, despite these concerns, policy focus, particularly in England, has remained largely on ensuring degrees are seen as providing ‘value for money’, offering graduates good labour market outcomes and strong financial returns on their educational investments.

As such, policy discourse in England has been dominated by debates over tuition fees and ongoing criticism of ‘low value’ degrees, described by Gavin Williamson as ‘dead end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt’.

This fixation on graduate labour market outcomes has impacted courses associated with low financial returns, particularly subjects in the arts and humanities, and has resulted in proposed reduced funding and student number allocations for these subjects. This has resulted in tensions within the sector and a slough of research projects and commentary highlighting the importance of creative, arts, and humanities subjects.

For example, a recent report funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (Storycraft: the importance of narrative and narrative skills) highlights the ways in which skills associated with the arts and humanities are valued in business contexts.

Student loan debt driving HE policy

This instrumental approach to HE is a continuation of a policy approach that predates the pandemic. However, the economic impact of Covid-19 and the associated challenging pandemic labour market conditions have inevitably intensified concerns over graduate labour market outcomes and financial returns on degrees.

Recent university graduates have been entering an extremely challenging jobs market. Although certain parts of the economy may be bouncing back, youth and graduate labour markets tend to recover much slower than the wider economy, so graduates will likely face challenges for several years to come, even as a best case scenario.

Evidence from previous recessions shows that periods of unemployment and underemployment, particularly early on in individuals’ careers, have a long-term scarring effect on career trajectories and life-time earnings. As such, there is a danger of multiple Covid-19 cohorts of graduates struggling in the labour market and failing to gain ‘graduate level’ jobs.

This is likely to play out unequally across regions, class, socio-economic status, and ethnicity. As such, there are important concerns over long-term implications for fairness and intergenerational social mobility. However, from a policy perspective, a driving concern is unpaid student loan debt.

In England, student loans are income contingent with graduates only beginning to repay their loans when they earn over £27,295 a year. Current projections suggest that fewer than a third of graduates will earn enough to completely pay off their student loans. Given the challenging labour market conditions, this proportion could well be higher for Covid-19 cohorts.

The cost to the government of unpaid student loan debt is called the Resourcing Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge. Changes to government accounting in 2018 now mean that student loans are included in the deficit on the point of issue rather than when they are written off thirty years later.

As such, the growing black hole of unpaid student load debt has increasingly become a policy driver in England, underpinning the attacks on low value courses, and the instrumental discourse focused on financial returns on degrees.

In the challenging Covid-19 labour market and with increased government pandemic spending, concerns over the RAB charge, arguably sit at the heart of almost all HE policy in England.

Cross-jurisdiction divergence

Importantly, this focus on degree returns and loan debt are not shared across the devolved nations of the UK. Pressures from Covid-19 and other issues are manifested differently in educational policy across the jurisdictions. This reflects ways in which underpinning ideologies and political structures shape policy responses to emerging challenges. This is particularly apparent in the recent Scottish Funding Council’s Review of Coherent Provision and Sustainability.

This emerges from a context with lower tuition fees, system-led thinking, and pre-existing collaboration between the Further and Higher Education sectors. As such, the Covid-19 policy approach focuses on developing a more coordinated tertiary system through a unified quality framework across FE and HE and a whole-system level approach to funding teaching, research and innovation, piloted by a set of ‘Tertiary Provision Pathfinders’.

In contrast, English policy is rooted in a quasi-market, driven by market logic for funding and governance, student choice, and competition between institutions and sectors.

These differences mean that the UK presents a unique research opportunity as a ‘policy laboratory’. In each jurisdiction, policy choices can be easily traced and diverging responses to emerging challenges can be mapped across different policy structures. Covid-19 has highlighted that comparative analysis within this kind of policy laboratory is critical to deepening our understanding of policy formulation and enactment.

By James Robson, Departmental Lecturer in Higher Education and Associate Director of the Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance at the University of Oxford.


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