The Accidental Narrative – what happens after the exams omnishambles?
By Dan Beynon
I’ve refrained from sharing my huge disappointment and anger at how this government has been developing and implementing its education policy until now. I wanted to focus on what we needed to do to help make this serious, disastrous and embarrassing situation a bit less challenging for our young people and our Universities. But enough is enough.
In the last 18 months, not just the last few days, just at the moment when this country needed to create more learning opportunities for young and old not less, this government adopted a political narrative that belittled our Universities and all that they provide to this country and their students from the UK and all around the world. They persisted with this narrative despite the lack of any real evidence. They ignored the growing demand for UKHE at home and internationally. Instead they pedalled stories of extremism, low value degrees, mickey mouse courses, snowflake students and lack of free speech. In amongst this political tirade there were actually real and challenging issues facing UKHE like funding, student well-being, social mobility and governance that needed dealing with in order to secure this crucial sector’s future. But these were not addressed. They were lost in the noise. An atmosphere was created that did not help the people of the UK or go anywhere towards meeting those very real challenges we currently face. And the Government did all this pre-COVID-19 to win populist votes in the febrile atmosphere around Brexit.
As the cleverer members of the government were then exiled one by one in creating our current Cabinet of none of the talents (sorry not to credit that I don’t remember where I read it maybe Private Eye!?), the bigger issue became a general Ministerial lack of knowledge, ability and experience around their brief coupled with the appointment of SPADs who either also lacked that knowledge or held an ideological position that matched the populist agenda. Nowhere was this highlighted more clearly than in Education and illustrated by the removal of any Minister with an understanding or advocacy of the value and importance of HE (Johnson, Skidmore, Gymiah) and the triple whammy appointment of Gavin Williamson, Nick Gibb and Michelle Donelan.
COVID-19 then happened and the whole situation for our country, our young people and our Universities became a lot more challenging almost overnight.
Now we have the catastrophic handling of the exam results situation. This whole fiasco is down to this Government’s lack of any understanding of the sector, its data and how all the processes work. They have caused serious and unnecessary trauma to thousands and thousands of young people as well as setting back many of the great achievements made in relation to widening participation and social mobility potentially by years. Instead of working with Universities to ensure the future of the sector, Ministers have limped from one panic decision to another to save their own skin or take a hit for the current Prime Minister. Those panicked decisions now threaten the future of significant numbers of young people as well as some Universities right across the country. And this is happening just at the moment we need those institutions more than ever to provide more learning opportunities and protect a generation from increased unemployment.
So now we find ourselves with the accidental narrative. Having attacked the UKHE sector for years this reactionary and short-sighted government have realised that the only way to save themselves from their own disastrous mess is by adopting a position in which they are suddenly battling for the rights of as many of our young people as possible to have places at our magnificent UK Universities. It has been stomach churning to witness. However might it be possible that the end result of this catalogue of very serious errors could be that the government realises it must now build a strategy that can help the UKHE sector through this very challenging period? We work with Russell Group, UniAlliance, MillionPlus, specialist and private Universities. They all have a major role to play in the recovery of the UK whether that is through research, skills development, staffing the NHS and supporting our local and national economies. The government may now realise we badly need all those institutions and those institutions need additional funding and a more supportive policy. If the government doesn’t realise this we may lose some of our great Universities just at the moment we need them all more than we ever have.