Are the OfS proposals on quality and standards good for the sector?

The Office for Students (OfS) has launched a consultation on quality and standards – potentially one of the most important changes to its practice since its inception. We’ve posted a summary of the OfS consultation paper here and the OfS’s own documents can be found here. 

We are conducting a survey, so that the EPC can give a representative response. Please contribute your thoughts.


In this blog, Chief Executive Johnny Rich provides a critical commentary on the proposals. These are his personal opinions to help stimulate the community into synthesising for themselves the possible implications and they do not necessarily reflect the views of the EPC nor its members.


(Rhys A. via Flickr, CC-BY-2.0)

The Department for Education has got a hold of the idea that ‘low quality’ courses are rife in UK higher education. It is determined that they must rooted out. It’s hard to argue with a policy of tackling shortcomings – that makes it good politics, without necessarily being good policy. 

The problem is that there’s not actually sound evidence to support this idea of low quality. What do we even mean by it? 

Until recently the terminology was ‘low value’, but a pandemic-related newfound appreciation for low-paid nurses made it seem too reductive to focus too much on graduate salaries and that highlighted how problematic it is to define value. So the DfE now prefers to talk about ‘quality’ but the definition is no clearer. 

Never mind, that’s not the Government’s problem. The English regulator can worry about that. That’s why we now have a potentially far-reaching consultation from the Office for Students (OfS) on quality and standards and what, in future, the OfS proposes to do to hunt down low quality and quash it with “tough new measures”. 

As the consultation was launched, Universities UK boldly stepped up to defend the honour of courses everywhere by announcing a new charter on quality. Well, not actually a new charter, but a working group to consider one. I fear, however, that the possibility of a charter is like trying to slay this dragon with a plastic butter knife.

“This is full-on chemotherapy to treat a few bunions.”

So what’s so bad about the proposals? Surely, if there is any low quality, we should all want to cut it out? And if there’s not, there’s nothing to fear? Sadly, the cure is not harmless. This is full-on chemotherapy to treat a few bunions. 

It would be complacent to imagine there are not many courses and whole institutions that can be improved and there are many in HE who say we won’t win friends by being close-minded to criticism. I agree. Indeed, the EPC regularly engages in activities to support enhancement of teaching, learning and student experience. 

But we don’t do anyone any favours by not being rigorous about critics’ motives and the evidential basis for change. Every international comparison suggests we have one of the best HE systems in the world and calling for “tougher measures” as if there’s a regulation deficit is more to do with doing something than doing something necessary or even justified. 

This isn’t about fixing an actual problem. It’s about pandering to backward-looking diehards that see unis as too open, full of ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses with too many students. 

No one could call engineering a Mickey Mouse course, though, so perhaps we needn’t worry? Well, even if we didn’t care about colleagues and students in other disciplines, rather than improve HE, the proposals are likely to narrow fair access, stunt social mobility and protect elitism while cementing the goal of high education as basically a job conveyor belt. That’s not good for anyone.

Let’s just start by mentioning the timing. As EPC members know all too well, in recent months it’s been really tough to deliver high-quality courses and so choosing this moment to launch a major consultation on delivering high-quality courses, is, to say the least, insensitive. In all likelihood, it may distract from the very delivery that they want to improve and any current data that may be used to inform the consultation is going to be from the most outlying wildernesses of every bell curve. 

OfS proposes gifting itself greater powers to assess Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) more closely, including at subject level, and to apply sanctions for performance metrics (on continuation, completion and progression) that it deems unsatisfactory. These sanctions could include fines and even deregistration. A full summary of the OfS proposals is here.

“There are no reliable metrics of success, only proxy measures – and when you let proxies do your decision-making, you get people gaming the data and you get unintended consequences.”

There are many obvious concerns about this. For a start, metrics are a very blunt instrument. There are no reliable metrics of success, only proxy measures – and when you let proxies do your decision-making, you get people gaming the data and you get unintended consequences. (Ironically, this is exactly the argument that the Government has recently been deploying about the National Student Survey, which it has suddenly decided is the cause of supposed dumbing down. Again, there’s no actual evidence of this. Nevertheless, the OfS is currently reviewing that too.)

OfS wants to take a more metric-based approach in order to reduce bureaucratic load, which is fair enough, but if you want data to tell you anything useful, you really need to understand the context. No two HEIs are alike and the same numbers can tell very different stories. 

The consultation does explicitly acknowledge that the context needs to be considered, but the context will explicitly exclude anything to do with the socioeconomic disadvantage or other protected characteristics of the students (disability, ethnicity, etc). OfS intends to impose non-negotiable “numerical baselines” – ie. cut-offs for universities with outlying data – whatever the reason.

Some unis and courses will end up being ‘low quality’ for a host of reasons to do with their intake rather than anything that they might actually be doing wrong. Quite the opposite, trying too hard to do the right thing will open them up to sanctions. 

For example, dropout rates are higher among students with extra financial or social challenges, and bias in recruitment practice disadvantages certain graduates. So if students are from lower socioeconomic or minority ethnic backgrounds, or they are disabled or they are returners to study, their course might look ‘low quality’ while actually the prospects of those students (compared to not having achieved that degree) have been greatly improved.

BTEC students, for instance, have far higher non-continuation rates on engineering courses than students with A level maths and physics. When they do graduate, they face higher hurdles in gaining employment because they may not have the connections, the extra-curricular brownie points and the right accent. Is it really fair for the OfS to hold an HEI that helps these students establish fulfilling lives to the same standards as a university with nearly half of its intake with straight As from private schools?

HEIs could also be penalised for being based in parts of the country with lower employment rates or for drawing students from the locality who might want to stay in their home region post-graduation. Social mobility should not have to mean geographic mobility. To many students a positive outcome means worthwhile employment in their home region rather than maximising their income by moving away. 

This is not only a fair choice for them to make, it’s a really positive choice for the Government’s goal of levelling up regions by creating high-skilled employment in disadvantaged areas. Penalising universities that support this is counterproductive.  

“Were this year’s graduates ‘low quality’? Or is it just that they graduated into the worst labour market for decades?”

Outcomes data will also be subject to the vagaries of economic circumstances. Were this year’s graduates ‘low quality’? Or is it just that they graduated into the worst labour market for decades? These effects can happen locally too, which means they affect individual universities and subjects. For example, if a big local employer exits a region, there may be a knock-on effect for local courses and graduates.

Employment effects take time to show up in the data – a lag of several years if you want to get a reliable picture. By design, the metrics will identify only those stables where horses have long since bolted. By the time problems show up in the data, the HEI will have known about it for a while and may well have either improved or closed a course if it was genuinely deficient. “Tougher measures” won’t support this in any way, but they might close courses that have turned around.

Positive employment outcomes need to show themselves quickly. HEIs won’t want to encourage enterprising students to start businesses that may take a few years to mature, earn money for their founders and create wider jobs and prosperity. Because that would be ‘low quality’.

And, of course, the focus on continuation and employment penalises any subject that attracts students who are studying for love of learning rather than for the sake of optimising their employment outcomes.

It also penalises those courses that allow students to do anything other than join a course, stay the duration, and graduate. None of the hop-on-hop-off flexibility that the Government has been urging in other policy initiatives and which the evidence says is needed.

By definition, some HEIs and subjects will always be less ‘successful’ than others according to the metrics.”

Worst of all, depending on how the ‘tougher measures’ are applied, it is statistically inevitable that a recklessly wielded axe will cut off healthy branches. By definition, some HEIs and subjects will always be less ‘successful’ than others according to the metrics. 

There will always be a bottom of the pile to be removed. Someone will always need to be penalised to justify the quality assurance process. Being in the relegation zone in the Premier League doesn’t mean yours is a bad team, it simply means a team whose performance has been relatively less good amongst the very best. Sadly, the sanction for HEIs and courses will not be relegation, but elimination.  

If the comparison of what constitutes a ‘low quality’ course is made at a subject level, rather than across all HE courses, then some departments that have good metrics compared to other subjects, will be made to suffer. For example, an engineering course that is ‘low quality’ in comparison to other engineering courses, may be sanctioned. 

However, on the other hand, if the comparison is made at HEI level, then certain subject areas will be the victim because their outcomes do not translate easily into highly paid workplaces. Heads I win, tails you lose. 

Ultimately, this is likely to encourage universities to be risk-averse in their admissions, effectively raising the bar for any students that don’t look like those who have been successful in the past, closing down the opportunities until only those least in need of a break can get a look-in.

Even if all these proposals were a good idea – and you may have gathered I don’t think they are – this level of oversight by the regulator might not even be legal. I am sure the OfS has consulted its lawyers carefully, but it’s hard to square this with what was intended by the Higher Education & Research Act (HERA). 

HERA’s progress through the chamber of Parliament saw more amendments than almost any other bill ever laid before the Lords and, among those that the Government was forced, reluctantly, to accept was the legal protection of the institutional autonomy of universities. The Lords could see that one day the regulator would be asked to overstep the mark and tried to set protections in stone. These proposals would undermine those protections, undermine that autonomy and – ironically – undermine the very standards of high-quality education for all who can benefit from it that they seek to improve.


Do you agree? Do you disagree? Are there other important points to make? How might this affect engineering courses? Please respond to our survey here.

The OfS consultation on quality and standards in a nutshell

The Office for Students has just launched a consultation on one of the most important changes to its practice since its inception. What does it say? We’ve summarised the key takeaways.

In 2017, the Higher Education & Research Act (HERA) dissolved HEFCE, which was a funding body, and replaced it with the OfS which began work the following year as the regulator of higher education in England. In the process it subsumed the remaining activities of HEFCE and OFFA (the Office for Fair Access). 

Since then, some of OfS’s main activities have included establishing a register of approved higher education institutions and signing off on the ‘Access and Participation Plans’ of those institutions that want to be able to claim funding via the Student Loans Company. 

The OfS’s regulation of HE quality and standards has been through signalling and recognisable processes, mostly farmed out under a contract with the QAA. There have been a few interventions from OfS on grade inflation, unconditional offers and TEF, but these haven’t been accompanied by significant new regulatory controls. 

Although OfS does have powers in case of failure (and it has used them by rejecting the registration of a few institutions), its light-touch approach was in keeping with the spirit of HERA, which, during its difficult passage through the Lords was amended to include an explicit commitment to the autonomy of higher education institutions (HEIs) over their admissions and the education they deliver. 

But now the OfS is consulting on a what it calls “tougher minimum standards” with the threat of fines and even deregistration for HEIs that don’t meet them. These powers, it is proposed, will be exercised not merely at an institutional level, but at a subject level too, which, in effect, might allow OfS to exert direct or indirect pressure on an HEI into closing a department whose metrics looked like underperformance. 

The EPC will be responding to this consultation on behalf of members and we’re keen to hear what you think. We will be inviting members views through a survey shortly. (Come back here for the link.) To help you, we’ve provided the following summary of the proposals.

So what are the proposals? There are four areas:

1. “Define ‘quality’ and ‘standards’ more clearly for the purpose of setting the minimum baseline requirements for all providers”

‘Quality’ will be defined in a metric way. This is, it is said, intended to reduce the regulatory burden. The metrics will relate to five areas: access and admissions; course content, structure and delivery; resources and academic support; successful outcomes; secure standards. 

The inclusion of ‘access’ does not mean wider participation targets, but rather admitting students who “have the capability and potential to successfully complete their course”. OfS has been explicit in saying that it “is not acceptable for providers to use the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds they have as an excuse for poor outcomes”. In other words, they are rejecting the idea that non-academic circumstances or lower prior attainment might be mitigating circumstances for lower (according to the metrics) student outcomes. The argument put forward is that using the greater challenges of certain students as an “excuse” would “risk baking disadvantage into the regulatory system”.

The goalposts will be different for new HE institutions, because they can’t be judged on track record.

OfS will also set ‘standards’ for higher education – that is any courses beyond A level or equivalent (so that means drawing higher apprenticeships and other programmes into a unified quality framework). These standards will involve “sector-recognised” definitions of achievement – in other words, OfS intends to establish common standards for degree grades.

2. “Set numerical baselines for student outcomes and assess a provider’s absolute performance in relation to these”

OfS would impose “a numerical baseline”: this is intended to be a cliff edge for outcomes metrics, namely continuation to second year, course completion and progression into graduate-level work or further study. (There’s also a reference to employer satisfaction, but as there are no measures for that, it’s only an aside.) If you fall off the cliff, there’s a range of sanctions (see below) including fines or even deregistration of the institution.

What will matter is absolute – not relative – data. There is a reference to considering the context, but this is more to do with what may have changed rather than a profile of the student body. Unequivocally, the consultation paper states, “We would not set lower regulatory requirements for providers that recruit students from underrepresented groups, or with protected characteristics.” The idea is to spell out “more challenging” minimum standards that students can expect. 

Further consultation will be conducted around the exact metrics.

3. “Clarify the indicators and approach used for risk-based monitoring of quality and standards”

As the metric used for the baseline are about things that have happened in the past, the OfS proposes to keep an eye on potential risks in institutions by monitoring other metrics and being clear about which metrics those are. Among those mentioned are admissions data (offers, grades achieved, student demographics), student complaints, National Student Survey results, other regulators’ and PSRBs’ activities, TEF, and the outcomes metrics as above. It should be noted, by the way that NSS is currently under a separate OfS review and we’ve been awaiting the publication of an independent Review of TEF for DfE for nearly two years (which is believed to be critical).

There may be some extra data gathering and reporting for universities, but the intention is to minimise the need for unnecessary interference in the long-run by identifying risks before they become problematic outcomes. 

4. “Clarify our approach to intervention and our approach to gathering further information about concerns about quality and standards”

This proposal sets out what might be called a precautionary approach to intervention. In other words, the OfS makes it clear they would be willing to step in to investigate or gather evidence in the case of a feared risk of an institution failing to meet quality thresholds. 

It also sets out their available “enforcement” actions: impose conditions on an institution in order for it to continue to be registered; issue a fine; suspend some of the privileges of being registered (such as access to student loan funding for fees or OfS public grants); remove an institution’s degree-awarding powers or its right to use ‘University’ in its title; deregistration.

Please note: This precis is intended as guidance only. The aim has been to summarise the proposals objectively while providing some interpretation of their implications. Necessarily this involves some subjective inference and the omission of details. We advise referring to the OfS’s own consultation documents for the full details. Also, if you feel we have interpreted any proposals wrongly, unfairly or left out critical details, please let us now and we can make changes to this summary as needed.

New Approaches to Engineering HE: The Six Facets

The EPC and IET are delighted to launch six case study examples for each of the six new approaches. We believe this proves that the required changes can be achieved – are already being achieved – and that by taking their lead, other institutions can be inspired to come up with new approaches of their own. Download the New Approaches Case Studies. or view the press statement.

New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education is on ongoing initiative that the EPC is running in partnership with the IET, with Professor John Perkins presiding as Chair. The aim is to encourage innovation in the sector’s approaches to policy, pedagogy and practice.

The initiative was launched in May 2017 at a landmark conference held at the IET in London on innovative approaches to the teaching of engineering in universities in the UK and globally.

One year on, the EPC hosted a round table meeting, at which the EPC, IET and senior HE stakeholders – including several vice-chancellors – met to take soundings on what we are calling ‘the Six Facets’ of innovative engineering higher education.

In the Autumn of 2018, we hosted a further round table of stakeholders with a national policy perspective. Chaired by IET Chief Executive Nigel Fine and hosted by Stephen Metcalfe MP, Government Envoy for the Year of Engineering, the workshop was an opportunity for MPs, leading industry figures and academics to talk through some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to create a successful engineering skills pipeline between schools, universities and industry that suits the needs of businesses, educators, students and the UK as a whole. A summary of the main points raised as well as recommendations for policymakers, industry and academia to take on board that were put forward in the meeting is available here.

The Six Facets are common themes drawn from the papers presented to the New Approaches conference (the proceedings of which can be read here) that address fundamental problems: skills shortages; the shifting nature of engineering, the workforce and the demography of the student population; promoting inclusion and diversity.

While the EPC isn’t seeking to impose the Six Facets on anyone – that isn’t our role – we have identified these as key indicators of an innovative and adaptive response to today’s challenges. Universities can use them as a marker by which to judge their progress and as an inspiration for further development.

The Six Facets

Incorporating creativity into engineering: To reflect developing industrial needs and to attract a broad range of applicants, engineering programmes should enhance and emphasise the creative and innovative nature of the work of engineers. Although maths and science are important, they are a necessary but not sufficient part of the required skill set.

Broaden the diversity of students: The image of engineering means that women and ethnic minorities are far less likely to apply to study it. The emphasis (and the perception in schools of an emphasis) on maths and physics as a requirement to study engineering at top engineering schools also restricts access to the subject. This is especially true in physics where the proportion of female students at A-level is particularly low. Opportunities to increase the diversity of engineering students by proactive steps to address the image of engineering and the barriers to entry should be explored.

A strong emphasis on project work: Students engage and are enthused by authentic and relevant engineering experiences. In engineering, a primary vehicle for this is the design project. However, it is not sufficient that these are only in the latter years once sufficient grounding in theory is achieved. They should be from day one and spread throughout the degree programme to develop skills and encourage active learning.

Industry engagement in design and delivery: It is vital to work with industry to frame the skills graduates need and highlight to students their relevance and importance. This is particularly important to encourage students to enhance their transferable and employability skills.

Experience of the workplace for students: The formation of the professional engineer is a process; one that involves education, training and experience. In an ideal world these are not separated. It is incumbent on academics and industry to work together to develop programmes that bridge the separation between university and work in a way that provides equal opportunities for all students, regardless of background and career aspirations.

Greater interdisciplinarity: Modern engineering challenges and the global issues that most enthuse our current cohort of students will not be solved by any one discipline, but instead by teams of engineers from across the disciplines and non-engineers, bringing together their skills and expertise to create innovative solutions. We must prepare out students for this with appropriate experiences, such as undertaking complex projects in interdisciplinary teams.


There has been a lot of support for the work of the EPC and IET so far and we will now be looking for  exemplars from across the sector. If your work exemplifies one or more of the Six Facets, please contact the Chief Executive with your thoughts.

Statement on strike action over USS Pensions

As the EPC represents both institutional members and individuals, we cannot directly take sides in supporting or opposing the current strike action. That said, we understand this is an issue of profound importance to our members and to the future of the Engineering HE sector and hence it is an issue on which EPC should not remain silent.

The EPC believes universities should try to maintain the conditions of employment under which academics were originally employed. That includes pensions. Many academics – and engineering academics in particular – forgo potentially better salaries and conditions outside academia because of their commitment to teach the next generation and to push back the boundaries of understanding through research. Universities cannot and should not take this dedication for granted. Ensuring that the sector continues to attract the brightest and best to academic positions is the right thing to do for the academics’ sake, for the benefit of students and for the country’s engineering skills needs.

We hope the dispute will be resolved speedily and welcome the efforts by, for example, the Director of Imperial College London, to have an independent, expert-led discussion informed by evidence with the employers accepting their existing risk in the meantime.

For the time being, this is the only statement the EPC is in a position to make. However, we would greatly appreciate it if members would like to make their thoughts known by commenting below or contacting the Chief Executive so we can continue to adopt a representative and informed position.

Party Conferences 2017

From Johnny Rich, EPC Chief Executive…

The Party Conference season is an opportunity to bend the ears of politicians, policymakers and thought leaders at a time when they’re relaxed and open to a lively discussion of ideas.

For that reason, we like to try to get to the main parties’ conferences, but not to the big set-piece speeches that make it on to the news. The real opportunities to influence the discussion take place in the fringe – the cavalcade of presentations, round tables, panels, receptions and other formal and informal events that take place in and around the conference venue over the course of the few days that the political parties descend on their host cities.

This year, we’re attending both Conservative and Labour Party Conferences and I’m delighted to report the highlights…

Labour Party Conference, Brighton

The most interesting event at the Labour Conference in Brighton was an invited round-table discussion hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the UPP Foundation. UPP had published research on the ‘brain drain’ that operates away from regional universities as graduates move to larger cities – particularly London – in search of work.  How then can we better support the aims of the Government’s Industrial Strategy by ensuring universities contribute to their locality economically and culturally?

The main recommendation from UPP’s report was the need for graduate accommodation, but the discussion ranged more widely: the need for R&D spending in the area; business spin-outs; spin-ins (companies setting up partnerships with university departments); industrial links with students through placements and work-related learning; innovation centres; supply chain; etc, etc, etc. I couldn’t help feeling – and so I said to the meeting – that what we’re talking about more than anything is the impact of engineering departments as key drivers of higher education’s regional (and national) impact.

Another important fringe event was a UCU-sponsored panel with Gorden Marsden MP (Labour’s shadow universities minister), Shakira Martin (NUS President) and Sally Hunt (UCU’s general secretary). This was a debate on the funding of HE and tuition fees in particular. The political climate feels ready for change. At the last election, Labour’s policy to axe fess was a vote winner and the Government is looking for an approach that’s politically acceptable to their ranks and which defuses the issue.

Before the Labour Conference, chancellor Phillip Hammond had already floated the possibility of reducing the fee cap to £7,125 and lowering the interest on repayments and, during Conference, shadow chancellor John McDonnell said they were willing to support the  Government with good proposals. McDonnell may just be being canny rather than kind. He is staking a claim on any movement by the Conservatives as a victory. The political bomb of fees will still be primed as the Conservatives are cornered into either a total climbdown or allowing Labour to say they’re on the run, but aren’t going nearly far enough.

At the Fringe event, Marsden was keen to point out that the issue is not just about fees, but about repayments and, importantly, maintenance. The question is, however, will any political movement in this area put further financial pressure on the funding available for high costs disciplines like engineering?

Conservative Party Conference, Manchester

The Conservative Conference kicked off with a slew of policy announcements about student finance in England (which some commentators were rushed out so they’d be something for the PM to say on the Andrew Marr Show on the first day of Conference). There were three main points: the freezing of the fees cap at £9,125; the raising of the repayment threshold for student loans to £25k; and a major review of HE funding.

The first two of these are going to cost the taxpayer around £2Bn a year and there is fear the Treasury will try to claw some of this back through cuts elsewhere to the higher education budget. Furthermore, while fees of £9,125 may seem steep to students, they are still lower than the cost of running most engineering degree programmes. There is talk of finding ways to reduce the fees for cheaper courses; that would put pressure on the ability of universities to cross-subsidise engineering.

I was at the Conference for the Monday only. By then, the “major” HE funding review had shifted from an announcement to a description of business-as-usual. At an LSE-backed fringe event on the sector after Brexit, Jo Johnson, the Universities & Science Minister, looked distinctly irritated to be asked about the review. Would it a be a full independent commission (like the Browne Review) or an internal DfE review? “We always keep the system under review”, he insisted. And then he repeated that line. Twice. And then at other fringe events too.

But by Theresa May’s now notorious speech-cum-Frank-Spencer-impression on Wednesday, the review was clearly intended as an initiative with a specific start and end: “We will undertake a major review of university funding and student financing. We will scrap the increase in fees that was due next year, and freeze the maximum rate while the review takes place.” There are many possible explanations for the inconsistent messages: Jo Johnson is being kept out of discussions relating to his brief; the policy is being made up on the spot; or, more charitably, flags are being raised while expectations dampened in order to flush out the appetite for a review.

Ultimately, promises that the PM makes at the lectern will probably trump the Minister’s softly-softly remarks on the fringe, but that depends how long she keeps her job and in the meantime, since the Conference, there has been radio silence from Government on when the review might take place or what form it might take. 

At another LSE-backed Brexit-related fringe event – this time on skills gaps – the Immigration Minister, Brandon Lewis made a fleeting visit to justify the continued inclusion of international students in net migration figures by repeating the Government’s line that they have to include them because of UN definitions. While this may be technically true, it doesn’t explain why they need to be included in net migration targets which the Government still insists it will reduce to “tens of thousands”. (The latest figures were over 300,000.)

While justifying the definition of international students as immigrants who the Government is seeking to limit, Lewis also said that there is “no cap” on them. He extolled the benefits of international students and indeed expounded the necessity of attracting them to fill skills gaps, particularly in engineering.

Meanwhile, there was an enlightening juxtaposition of comments from two other speakers. In a display worthy of ‘Just a Minute’, Economist Vicky Pryce explained in the clearest terms I have ever heard the economic case for immigration, including, among other benefits, that since the 2008 crash, it had enabled high levels of employment and resilient growth without expected levels of inflation, because this hadn’t been accompanied by wage increases. Meanwhile, Conservative MEP Syeed Kamall described how people in his constituency feel that wages and opportunities have stagnated. Therein lies the rub behind Brexit: immigration does benefit the nation – indeed, it’s essential to plug our skills gaps – but long-term benefits for all are felt as short-term deprivation by some.

Elsewhere at the Conference fringe – at events on access, excellence, skills gaps, etc – the mood was distinctly less triumphalist than the Labour Conference – anyone would think the Tories hadn’t just been returned to power at election in May. Comments directed at speakers tended to be combative rather than rousing. Perhaps the die-hards were staying inside the ‘secure zone’ (where only the party faithful and those with big lobbying budgets are allowed to venture), rather than braving the challenges of the policy wonks beyond.

Even so, if the Labour Party’s trip to the seaside felt like a band of cockroaches who’d just been told a nuclear winter was coming, the Tory Conference felt more like penguins huddling on a shrinking ice floe.