Not 'ideological' but quest to gauge quality of universities

My recent column:

This week in Parliament saw a particularly heated exchange on the subject of higher education, contained within a relatively obscure 90 minute ‘motion to annul’. The detail is somewhat technical and most readers, indeed most of my constituents, will not have noticed it one iota. But it matters, and said a lot about the nature of today’s political divide.


Last Monday the Labour opposition tried to annul a piece of ‘secondary’ legislation designed to create the ‘Office for Students’, a new regulator of higher education. It has a wide remit including two particularly important responsibilities: improving access to higher education, where the statistics are currently very positive despite all the justifiable concern about student debt; and, most significantly in my view, ensuring universities deliver education of the highest quality.


In her remarks, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, accused us of “pursuing a deeply ideological agenda” and a “free market approach”. When I spoke briefly in response, I referred to a debate in November 1991 when the then Secretary of State for Education Ken Clarke brought in the Bill that would create school league tables and establish the Ofsted inspection regime – two key facets of our school system that we now take for granted. The Labour spokesman on that day over twenty-six years ago used similar language to what we heard on Monday, saying that the Bill to create Ofsted was an “ideologically driven privatising measure”.


Yes, I sincerely understand the growing concern which many readers will share about the cost of higher education; I said in Monday’s debate that was particularly worried about the interest rate now charged on student loans. I know from a recent Conservative Policy Form I attended in Long Melford that members of my own association very much share these concerns, particularly on the interest rate and debt burden. Nevertheless, I do fear the current debate so often misses the wood for the trees.


The purpose of higher education is not to graduate debt free, though of course that would be ideal. Nor is it to score cheap political points and win votes – not least as many a promise on higher education has been broken before by parties of the left. No, the purpose of a degree is to equip our students with the highest quality education, so that they can make the most of their talents and succeed in an ever more global market place, with the dawn of artificial intelligence and robotisation just around the corner.


I hope readers will indulge a somewhat political thread but this difference of approach really matters. Ofsted was not a ‘privatisation’, far from it. The system of league tables and inspections has driven up standards in our schools and is now a core feature of our education system, and I am constantly struck by the number of parents who genuinely exercise a choice about their children’s future, in many cases not choosing the nearest school – but in their view – the option that is best for them.


Only last Friday I visited Stutton primary school in my constituency. Not so long ago the school was really struggling, but the community has rallied round and through excellent leadership from governors and Headteacher Anne Clarke, it has been awarded a ‘good’ rating and has recently received applications from pupils in Essex and other parishes who could have gone to schools closer to home.


The Ofsted system has even been replicated in healthcare, with similar rankings awarded by the CQC for hospitals, care homes and GP surgeries. One reason I believe these changes will never be undone is that it is clear that they help deliver higher standards through greater transparency.  Far from being ‘ideological’, I sincerely hope that the OFS will work in the same way, bringing a far greater transparency to the performance of universities, not least in terms of the value they add in enabling their respective graduates to enter good quality employment.


After all, it is easy politics to promise ‘free’ goods – free tuition fees, the restoration of grants. But someone has to pay. And it is a strange type of ‘equality’ that transfers wealth from those not attending university, including some of the lowest income earners in society, to those attending higher education who will include some of the highest. If the Government’s review of funding higher education can bring a degree of greater fairness, but still focus on quality, hopefully we will one day strike the right balance on this (regrettably) ever more divisive political subject.


Published by the East Anglian Daily Times.