Interview_ John Blake

Harriet Swain talks regulation with the Workplace for College students’ director for honest entry and participation


5 minutes into our interview with John Blake, who oversees participation and honest entry on the Workplace for College students, an overhead tannoy crackles into life within the nook of the room.

“Please can colleagues make their manner all the way down to the canteen in Sanctuary Buildings,” it introduced, “for the all-staff assembly with the secretary of state, hosted by the everlasting secretary.”

Blake identified shortly that it didn’t apply to him, joking that he had orchestrated the intervention to show simply how impartial the OfS is.

However given the eyebrows raised on the regulator’s choice to maneuver from its authentic Chancery Lane London residence to the identical constructing because the Division for Schooling, the timing was unlucky.


Transferring into the DfE places of work was to do with issues about saving public cash, in response to an OfS spokesman—and consciousness that the OfS is working at a time of straitened larger schooling funds run via a lot of Blake’s dialog.

The OfS’s work round entry and participation recognises that “we’re now not in an age during which the sector can count on vital will increase in home revenue”, he stated.

A key a part of this work since Blake’s arrival has centred on asking suppliers to replace their entry and participation plans to acknowledge a brand new danger register that units out the assorted dangers to entry skilled by totally different teams of scholars, and to include his precedence for them to work extra carefully with colleges.

Again to varsities

Blake’s personal background may be very a lot schools-focused: he taught historical past at a lot of colleges round London, labored for the Harris Federation academies belief and, after a stint as head of schooling and social reform on the assume tank Coverage Alternate, joined Now Train, adopted by the colleges community Ark.

In March, suppliers have been advised they might have longer to develop their up to date plans, with only a handful anticipated to submit this summer time and most by spring or summer time subsequent 12 months. Blake stated round a dozen had already submitted plans, with round 40 anticipated altogether within the first wave. They’ll obtain extra one-to-one consideration and can inform the OfS’s response to future submissions.

Whereas Blake stated it was too early to determine patterns within the plans submitted up to now, they have been suggesting that though present partnerships with the third sector seemed to be rising, the identical was not true of the variety of new partnerships.

He’s decided that choices made round bettering entry needs to be primarily based on proof. “The evidential base isn’t almost robust sufficient given the amount of cash put into it, given how essential it’s,” he stated.

His concern, he stated, shouldn’t be just for college students however for the workers finishing up this work who need reassurance that every one their onerous work is making a distinction.

Saying that extra analysis is required is at all times more likely to garner approval in educational circles, however the concept a lot of the work completed up to now has been primarily based on flimsy proof may not go down so effectively with Blake’s predecessors within the job.

Cash points

In the meantime, may all this stress on amassing information be a manner of avoiding the actual drawback—cash, or a scarcity of it?

“A part of the purpose of the analysis is that cash is a constraining think about plenty of methods, but it surely isn’t essentially the one one, and infrequently, given the shortage of proof for a few of these actions, it’s not clear that it’s cash that’s the issue,” Blake stated.

However it may well’t assist that entry budgets are having to do extra (together with extra analysis) with much less. Funding plans for 2023-24, revealed in June, confirmed that budgets for scholar premiums for full and part-time undergraduates, the disabled college students’ premium and the premium for scholar transitions and psychological well being, in addition to the price range for Uni Join, would all be maintained in money phrases, which, with inflation, quantities to a lower. The price range for the Uni Join outreach programme has already been halved over the previous three years.

Blake says he labored in colleges within the early 2000s at a time of repeatedly upward budgets and that enchancment didn’t monitor the spend then.

What about scholar upkeep help? Each Universities UK and the Russell Group have known as for a evaluate of the help out there due to the challenges for deprived college students of upkeep loans failing to maintain up with inflation.

Once more, Blake, who identified that the OfS doesn’t management upkeep grants, desires to see the proof first. “I can see a legitimate line of reasoning from the issue they’ve recognized to the answer they assume will work, however what’s the proof base that that’s the proper answer?”

Different elements may very well be affecting these college students, he suggests, resembling pressures on lodging, pastoral techniques, and entry to educational assets. “Suggesting that one single change would remedy these issues shouldn’t be proper.” Though, absolutely, no mission group has instructed that upkeep help is the one problem.

Paying fines

Then there may be the uncomfortable incontrovertible fact that lots of the suppliers performing worst on entry are these performing finest by way of output.

Blake has run out of persistence with the argument from some high-tariff suppliers that they don’t seem to be taking candidates from various backgrounds as a result of too few obtain excessive sufficient grades.

“Should you can’t diversify your consumption since you don’t assume they’ve bought the abilities or data mandatory, what are you doing to make sure that that’s corrected?” he asks.

The OfS has threatened to high-quality establishments that fail to do sufficient on entry. Is that actually doubtless—particularly when a few of the worst culprits are probably the most prestigious?

He stated fines weren’t his desire as a result of the issue shouldn’t be that individuals are failing to take equality points significantly however that they’re failing to match actions with phrases.

He attracts a distinction with the work the OfS is doing on high quality. There, it’s endeavor inspections and threatening monetary penalties as a result of “we face a sector that’s nonetheless proof against the concept that there’s a real high quality drawback, and I believe we should be clear that there’s and that there are real issues they should do about it”. Even right here, although, nobody has been fined but.

Questions of high quality

This concept that suppliers aren’t taking the concept of high quality significantly sufficient lies behind the federal government’s latest announcement that it desires to cap the variety of college students on “low high quality” programs—to be outlined by the OfS and by metrics on continuation and employment after commencement.

However given how totally different universities are by way of their missions and the sorts of scholars they serve—one thing that has struck Blake, significantly compared with colleges, since coming to the job—nobody has up to now appeared eager to spell out which these programs are.

Blake says extra will should be completed between universities in sharing finest observe, and right here once more he suggests they will be taught from colleges, significantly in discussions across the curriculum and the aim of evaluation. He means that lecturers in larger schooling must have interaction extra in future in pondering via decisions round what they’re educating and the way they’re assessing it.

Blake grew up in Basingstoke and was the primary in his household to go to school—Oxford, the place he was president of the scholars’ union. He ended up as a trainer, he stated, as a result of it was an expert job that he understood.

His concern shouldn’t be a lot for the straight A children like him, or these deprived sufficient to have entry to schemes designed to assist them, however for many who do OK at college and rely primarily on luck to discover a course after which a profession during which they will succeed, with out a lot help.

Faculties, employers and better schooling all must work on bettering data and probabilities for this group of scholars, he suggests, “guaranteeing the connective tissue of our schooling and expertise sector is stronger”.

Meet the scholars

A part of this absolutely is discovering out from college students what sort of help they want. The OfS has been criticised, together with by its personal scholar panel members, for failing right here.

Analysis Skilled Information discovered that the OfS chair and chief government had solely visited a handful of establishments on non-essential enterprise, however Blake stated he will get out so much, together with chatting with college students with out college administration being there.

One of many issues is that any scholar eager to speak to somebody from the regulator is “uncommon”, he stated. It was due to this fact essential to entry the views of other forms of scholars as effectively—and to stability totally different priorities. “We aren’t essentially going to do what present college students need as a result of we additionally serve the pursuits of potential college students and previous college students, and we’ve to stability these issues.”

He stated the regulator was within the means of discussing with the panel and others find out how to reinforce the extent to which scholar perception is put on the coronary heart of what it does.

All the time eager to current a balanced view, the one time Blake appears wrong-footed is when requested what distinction a Labour authorities would possibly make to the work of the OfS. Blake was a founding father of the web site Labour Lecturers however was additionally impressed by the schooling reforms of Michael Gove, now secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities and co-founder of the right-leaning Coverage Alternate assume tank the place Blake as soon as labored.

After some hesitation, he stated: “I don’t consider any authorities of any color won’t think about larger schooling to be of elementary significance to the lives and life probabilities of folks on this nation. I believe we supply on with the necessity to defend the pursuits of scholars inside a sector that’s extremely profitable, to be clear, however not at all times as aware of scholar wants as we expect it needs to be, and I believe that may maintain, no matter the federal government.”

Future plans

As for future OfS work, he stated that whereas the LifelongLoan Entitlement may have profound results on the system in the long run, the three-year residential undergraduate diploma was more likely to dominate provision for a while into the long run. “I don’t assume folks ought to count on [that on] day one of many LLE we’ll be residing in Blade Runner.”

Extra instantly—and intriguingly—he thinks work must be completed round how the OfS allocates the £1.4 billion of funding that it distributes to the sector. That is the cash that helps non-capital spending, together with high-cost topics, scholar entry tasks, and improvement of diploma apprenticeships and stage 4 and 5 provision.

He significantly singled out the coed premium and disabled scholar premium as needing consideration—the OfS has just lately established a committee on incapacity in larger schooling and the expertise of disabled college students.

He instructed a rethink was wanted of “the form” of this funding and whether or not it was the correct option to stimulate the sorts of exercise wished within the sector.

It’s two years for the reason that OfS consulted on its method to recurrent funding for 2021-22, which led to reductions for arts-based programs and the scrapping of London weighting.

With even much less fats to chop from the general price range, will probably be attention-grabbing to see what a reshaping of distribution of this cash would possibly seem like, and, as he conceded, authorities can even have a view.

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