A couple of years ago, a television advertising campaign in the UK showed cameos of people who said they ‘don’t do politics’ discussing everyday topics and thereby demonstrating that just about everything we encounter in our daily lives is imbued with politics. I can’t now recall the purpose of the adverts, but they came to mind recently with the sudden realisation that I hadn’t had a conversation or even a thought of late about what I and my colleagues do without thinking about the political context. I am, of course, making a distinction here between the ‘political’ and the ‘ideological’ – the former shaping the quotidian conditions in which work is carried out.

I work in a university and/or in higher education. Are they the same thing? In theory yes but the diversity of the provision in the sector and the increasing stratification of provider types suggests not. I am sure I was not alone in laughing out loud at a recently televised interview with the Universities’ minister, Jo Johnson, who was knocked momentarily off balance when asked if he would want his children to study for a degree with an ‘alternative provider’.

Does this matter? Well yes, if we are truly concerned about fixing the productivity gap and increasing social mobility. The Prime Minister has committed to doubling the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education by 2020 which is very welcome. But note this is currently undefined – is it just young people, is it full time, is it in degree programmes or higher apprenticeships? And how is disadvantage defined  – by low participation area, socio-economic group, ethnicity, gender? And most importantly what provider type is he referring to – does this mean higher education for all but university for only some?

Against this background, the recent Green Paper and the Comprehensive Spending Review in the UK have clearly set the direction of travel for the sector within the next Parliament. It is important that these two outputs are seen as mutually dependant – the content of the latter will constrain the way the former is developed into Policy. There is much to think about here, particularly the implications for widening access and social mobility, but the way in which both the green paper, and to some extent the CSR, reveal a very particular and nuanced view of both universities and higher education suggests that they  are not seen as , if they ever were, necessarily the same thing.

I began writing this on my return from a UUK conference on Student Engagement, having listened to an impassioned, well-argued and challenging speech from Megan Dunn, President of NUS. Her address was in the context of presentations about student engagement and the Teaching Excellence Framework and she was sandwiched between BIS and a Vice Chancellor. All three presentations were good but I couldn’t help thinking, as she was speaking, about the Press Release from OFFA that morning in which Les Ebdon warned of potentially unintended consequences of the TEF for fair access to higher education.

Most observers and commentators seem to agree that the metrics will be critical but also that identifying them is incredibly complex. Take employability – in response to a question, Megan Dunn pointed out that there are employers who will say we will employ someone who has an Oxbridge degree but not somebody who hasn’t. So how on earth can we suggest that employability outcomes can really be a measure of excellent teaching?  And how can we ever ensure they are comparable?

Furthermore, as Les Ebdon reminds us, we know that students from a disadvantaged background are less likely to get a good degree and a graduate level job than their more advantaged peers. Without contextual information which considers both institutional and student factors how can we ensure that institutions will not react by restricting access to some students? Will having to have an Access Agreement really guarantee that the sector increases in openness?

These are just some of the knotty issues we face in constructing our responses to the Green paper but for me there is a fundamental question about fairness and equality of opportunity that we need to seriously consider. Providing wider choice for students, through diversifying the range of providers and provision, is a good thing but creating a hierarchy within our higher education system does nobody any favours. The detail of the TEF and the routes for approving new entrants will be crucial in ensuring a level playing field for students and for ensuring that employers are able to make good decisions about how and from where they recruit.

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