What if flashier buildings don’t make happier learners?

First published 3rd August 2016 on the Society for Research into Higher Education’s News Blog

In some respects, students at UK universities have never had it so good. Dusty old lecture theatres are being torn down and shimmering new ‘learning environments’ erected in their place. Between 2013 and 2017, outlay on buildings and facilities at higher-prestige institutions alone matched that spent on the London Olympics (BiGGAR Economics, 2014), with some universities issuing public bonds to raise extra coffers for campus development projects.

PM3199093But how can the UK Higher Education sector be sure that its unprecedented levels of capital expenditure are leveraging commensurate ground-level pedagogical gains? Evaluation mechanisms, where they exist, tend not to be student-centred. For example, the Association of University Directors of Estates reports that income per square metre increased by 34 per cent across the sector between 2004 and 2013. While this might make for a healthy balance sheet, it tells us little about the ways in which staff and students engage with their environment. As Paul Temple noted in his 2007 report for the Higher Education Academy (“Learning Spaces for the 21st Century”), university buildings have the potential to transform how learning happens. The challenge for the sector is how best to assess their impact.

Earlier this year, I published initial evidence from a collaboration between researchers at the University of Manchester and Kingston University. We took one new building at one higher-prestige university, conducted detailed interviews with 10 staff members and 28 students, and surveyed over 200 other users. Positive feedback was common: students relished airy, well lit corridors, with comfy seating areas for pre- and post-session collaboration; open spaces could be ‘colonised’ and made their own; water coolers, and other features associated with workplace environments, drove new conversations.


However, not all responses were as expected. Many students told us that attractive-looking buildings helped them to choose their university, but when asked to rank what would most improve their experience now, fewer than 5 per cent prioritised their learning environment. Students’ primary needs were much likelier to be staff-related – they wanted more academics to be more available more often, both formally and informally.

Among staff, frustration was often expressed about ‘flexible’ spaces that could not be easily moulded to their teaching needs. Though communal areas were welcomed as a means to foster cohort identity, many associated capital expenditure with a tacit expectation that they should teach students in ever-larger groups. The design of buildings was often seen as a reflection of managerial naivety about their role: “I don’t even take a lunch break, let alone go and mingle,” said one in relation to an atrium designed to stimulate staff-student interaction. Others noted that many students lacked the critical thinking and other independent skills that their new learning environments implicitly demanded.

Indeed, a recurring theme in the interviews was the transition from school or college to university, which many felt was being disrupted, not smoothed, by campus architecture. “In college, you knew5images what everything was for,” said one student, capturing the wider view that more guidance was needed for students to exploit communal learning spaces. Few comparisons between school and university facilities favoured the latter. Technology was a particular focus of misunderstanding, with the design of new estates seeming to make untested assumptions about students’ digital learning dispositions and behaviours. While staff struggled to make unnecessarily intricate equipment work, students remarked that they didn’t “need everything all hi-tech all the time” anyway.

Our research, though no more than exploratory, raises important questions about the extent to which universities’ investment in new estate reflects students’ perceived pedagogical needs. It is clear that the sector could better consult about buildings’ design and better evaluate post-occupancy usage. A 2015 report by the Higher Education Policy Institute refers to an “arms race” in capital expenditure, and the risk is that pedagogy becomes the first casualty of universities’ recruitment wars. Only through long-term, systematic evaluation can we know whether the enormous resources being allocated benefit current students as well as lure new ones.

CJHEJones, Steven, Michael J. Sutcliffe, Joanna Bragg and Diane Harris. 2016. “To what extent is capital expenditure in UK Higher Education meeting the pedagogical needs of staff and students?” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Published online: 09 May 2016. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2016.1181881



Could universities learn from the TEF’s advocates how better to influence public discourses?

Note: this piece was originally published here on the Sociological Review‘s website. It is co-authored by my Manchester Institution of Education colleagues, Steven Courtney & Ruth McGinity.9Public-Speaking

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is no easy sell. For a sector already awash with audits, metrics and league tables, the prospect of new measurements – especially ones underpinned by a brazenly market-driven ideology – is difficult to embrace. The ways in which the TEF is discursively framed therefore become crucial to its reception, and the strategies used offer a ready case study into how policymakers co-opt, cajole and (if all else fails) coerce their way to implementation. In an age where headlines matter more than procedural detail, and media messaging more than academic buy-in, the success of higher education policy can hinge on how convincingly it is spun. Wittgenstein’s notions of ‘language games’ are becoming as relevant to higher education research as Bourdieu’s theories of class distinction.

That’s not to implJo-Johnsony that the TEF is without any substantive arguments of its own. When the current Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, talks about “rebalancing” teaching and learning, few would argue that the scales are in need of no correction. When one of his predecessors, David Willetts, characterised teaching as “by far the weakest aspect of English higher education,” we grimaced, but we couldn’t deny that it has often been over-shadowed by research imperatives. Indeed, as TEF enthusiasts point out, only 37% of undergraduates now report that their degree represents good value-for-money, down from 53% just four years ago.

But such statistics should be treated with caution. First, because they assume commercial paradigms and implicitly deny any notion of university as a public good; in other words, once value-for-money becomes the currency, what counts is not society’s collective advancement but the individual’s net return on their financial investment. And second, because it’s wholly disingenuous to bash university teaching using value-for-money indicators; many students reporting poor value will be doing so because of the extraordinary hike in fees rather than any deterioration in their learning experience.

The reliance on metrics means that, all too frequently, universities are positioned as either reform averse (far too ivory tower’d to understand what their students want) or greedy and self-interested (seeking to preserve a bloated, over-protected sector from the market’s natural justice). The TEF, by contrast, is framed by its supporters as “strengthen[ing] the position of students and prospective students vis-à-vis these powerful institutions” (Emran Mian, 06.11.15). Jo Johnson goes further, claiming that “students are looking critically at what they get for their investment, and so must we, as a government, on behalf of taxpayers” (01.07.15). The government thus become plucky Davids slaying the Goliaths of an outmoded, authoritarian higher education sector. No matter that the National Union of Students passed a motion in favour of “principled disengagement” from the TEF, and has threatened to sabotage next year’s National Student Survey in protest.

9indexAnti-university discourses are legitimised through mass reiteration: the ingeniously named Office for Students sounds like it will champion and defend learners’ rights; Study UK emerges as a “national representative body for independent providers of higher education”; a methodologically flawed but widely reported survey of staff at independent schools finds they don’t much like the sound of how undergraduates are taught; “too many universities teach pointless degrees that offer nothing to their students,” runs a headline in The Telegraph (Fraser Nelson, 15.04.16). Space rarely opens up to question why one of the economy’s most consistently high-performing sectors (a “world leader, with four universities in the global top ten,” according to the government’s 2016 White Paper) should model itself, both commercially and pedagogically, on a private school system.

The co-opting is relentless, and stressed-out university staff eventually turn on the very undergraduates who should rightly be their allies. “My students have paid £9,000 and now they think they own me,” writes an anonymous academic in the Guardian’s Higher Education Network (18.12.15). Undergraduates become pawns in a very public game of chess, discursively courted by government and universities alike, but faced with the same unprecedented levels of debt regardless of allegiance.

9banksy-twitter-fight1On the day that the government’s White Paper was published, the Minister busied himself on Twitter, disseminating responses to the document from stakeholders such as the Confederation of British Industry (“it’s good that proposals have taken on board the business view”), the University of Buckingham’s Vice Chancellor (“full marks to the minister for not succumbing to pressure from university traditionalists”) and the editor of Conservative Home (“if more would-be students had better information about future earnings they might not go to University at all”). Some might claim that what’s important is the detail of the policy, not the social media clamour surrounding it. However, as quick-to-tweet ministers probably realise, to own the discourse is to the win the argument.

And so the TEF wheedles its way into the sector, despite the perverse incentive of inflationary fee rises and the likelihood of an already-stratified sector being divided further. The prospect of an “outstanding” rating (rather than merely an “excellent” one) will seduce those institutions best equipped to play the game. And despite Green Paper pledges to “address the ‘industries’ that some institutions create around the REF and the people who promote and encourage these behaviours,” similar activities are sure to emerge around the TEF, as numbers are crunched, metrics optimised and self-glorifying statements written.


Meanwhile, so-called “challenger institutions”, summarily checked, enter the market. Public discourses frame them as high-quality food providers, and question why they must seek permission of their corporate competitors to compete (“akin to Byron Burgers having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant,” Jo Johnson, 09.09.15). Their stakes are small: low start-up costs and minimal regulatory oversight. The bigger gamble is that taken by the UK higher education sector: centuries of hard-won reputational gain wagered on the untested principle that new providers will show a crusty establishment just how HE-level teaching should be done.

If the sector were better able to speak as a united profession, public opinion may be more inclined to lean in its direction. The best way to rebalance research and teaching is probably to obsess less about measuring the former rather than to obsess more about measuring the latter. But greater coordination and discursive agility is required to persuade those outside academia how damaging an unchecked marketisation agenda might ultimately prove. Students need winning over with evidence, not assurances, that their learning is our top priority; the role of research in pedagogy needs defending more stoutly; and the value of higher education to wider society needs articulating more forcefully and more often. Perhaps the sector could learn a thing or two from the TEF’s advocates about how to frame public discourses.

It’s not easy to raise prior attainment, but universities could better contextualise applicants’ grades

Note: this piece was originally published here on LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.


The government has challenged the Higher Education sector to double the proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and to raise by 20 per cent the number of undergraduates from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. However, last month’s report by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) casts doubt on the achievability of either  goal.

Among the observations offered by the SMF is that the spread of disadvantaged students across UK universities is very patchy. While some institutions’ Widening Participation (WP) intake is pushing 30 per cent, proportions elsewhere barely top 2 per cent. No surprise there, perhaps. But what may come as more of a shock are differences in the rate of improvement. As the SMF graph below shows, progress since 2009 among Top 10 institutions (according to rankings in the Times Higher) is less than half that made by institutions ranked 11-20 and by those outside the Top 20. In other words, the rate at which the UK’s highest prestige universities are growing their WP intake is more sluggish than everywhere else.


Does that matter? Well, as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission has noted, the top professions tend to be dominated by alumni of the highest ranking universities. And according to the Sutton Trust, graduates from such universities enjoy the more substantial earnings premium. The risk is that the sector’s uneven distribution of WP students allows social hierarchies to be reproduced and causes social mobility to stall.

The response of selective universities invariably involves locating the problem further down the food chain by arguing the “real” barrier to access is the attainment gap: the difference in the grades with which young people from different socio-economic backgrounds leave school or college. This position is starkly reinforced by UCAS data reported in the SMF report: in 2015, the total number of young people from society’s most disadvantaged quintile holding entry qualifications that placed them in the top attainment bracket was 1,880; however, the total number of young people from the least disadvantaged backgrounds was 17,560. As the graph below shows, the ratio of high-attaining applicants to low-attaining applicants increases exponentially with socio-economic advantage.


One option suggested by the SMF is that “institutions themselves get much more involved in raising prior attainment.” Clearly, there are important ways in which universities could and should work more closely with lower-attaining state schools and colleges. We can ‘inspire’; we can do more to smooth school-to-university transitions; we can ensure that pupils apply to appropriate course and that our admissions processes treat them justly. Research continues to indicate that young people from low-participation backgrounds conceptualise higher-prestige universities as beyond their reach and worry about not fitting in. Selection practices may also disfavour them.

However, it’s another matter entirely to suggest that university staff have the expertise needed to close attainment differentials. The SMF suggests we offer tuition, provide summer courses and “directly take on responsibility for running schools”. However, the pedagogies favoured in higher education – those that develop critical thinking, independent scholarship and research-driven enquiry – are a far cry from the teach-to-the-test model to which schools are increasingly forced to submit.

If the problem is that the highest prestige universities are not pulling their weight in terms of progress with WP, an alternative approach would be for them to become more sensitive to the educational background in which applicants’ grades were achieved and more explicit about how this information is used in admissions processes. Contextual data is not a new idea, but the sector lacks a consistent, transparent policy on how, when and why it is applied. We even have the absurd situation of league tables using entry tariffs as an indicator of institutional quality, thereby incentivising the more elite end of the sector to continue fishing in familiar waters.

Some colleagues express concern that students admitted on the basis of contextual data might not have the skills needed to cope with higher education. But let’s not forget that state school applicants outperform their independent school peers at university on a like-for-like basis. It’s not so much social engineering as rational investment in talent that hasn’t yet had the opportunity to manifest as attainment.

The SMF doesn’t mention admissions. Instead, it turns to market-based solutions, speculating that some new providers may provide a boost to WP. However, as Andrew McGettigan and others remind us, newly-created private colleges have so far been associated more with empty classrooms and suspect business practices than with driving forward the nation’s social mobility agenda.

The job of improving attainment levels among society’s least advantaged groups is deeply specialised, and one that may be better left to trained, time-served professionals than to well-meaning university staff. However, the sector could seek to address social mobility in other ways. Our rankings could reward diversity and inclusivity, not penalise the use of contextual data. Our admissions processes could become more transparent and less gameable. Our teaching could compensate for previous educational shortcomings by offering targeted, sustained support. And we could fixate a little less on prior attainment and the league tables that peddle it.

The University Game

I’m looking forward to giving a Sarah Fielden seminar on May 11th at the University of Manchester. All welcome. Further details here.


Why does employer engagement make a difference to young people?

Note: this piece was originally published here by Anthony Mann (Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers Taskforce) & Steven Jones on February 11th 2016. The academic paper on which the blog is based appears in the Journal of Education and Work.


It is now more than fifty years since the British state first acted to enable schools to bring workplace experience into the schooling of young people. The 1963 Newsom Report paved the way for the first formalised work experience placements aimed at young people intent on going into work during their mid-teens. In the half century that followed, experience of workplace has moved from a marginal activity, affecting fewer than 5% of pupils in the 1960s, to a universal expectation. Through the rolling waves of government, charitable and business initiatives, a tidal change has been witnessed in both the UK and in countries around the world.


The policy push for closer ties between schools and employers has been primarily driven by an expectation that employer engagement will enhance young people’s labour market prospects. This was an explicit rationale behind the reforms of both the Labour Party in the 2000s and of the Conservatives in the 2010s. Historically, with little evidence available on impact, policy makers were required to trust their instincts. In recent years, however, a growing body of US and UK research literature has tested whether school-mediated exposure to the workplace can be linked to improved outcomes in the early labour market. While some studies raise reasonable questions about methodological approaches, a compelling story emerges of improved employment outcomes: notably, in terms of wage premiums (found up to age 24) accruing to young adults who, as teenagers, engaged in higher volume levels of employer engagement through their schools than comparable peers.

bourdieuWithin research and policy debates, increasingly it has been asked not whether employer engagement makes a difference to the prospects of young people, but why it does so and how it can be optimally delivered. Stanley and Mann (2014), for example, draw on insights from three inter-related concepts commonly used in academic and public policy literature to explain relative advantage and disadvantage experienced by individuals within the labour market: human, social and cultural capital.1024 Drawing particularly on work by sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Mark Granovetter, Stanley and Mann offered ‘a theoretical framework that can comprehend accounts of how employer engagement is experienced and how it provides resources that aid progression in the labour market.’ In new research, this framework is tested for the first time.

Steven Jones (University of Manchester) and colleagues have analysed 488 responses to an open question in a 2011 YouGov survey exploring young adults’ experiences of schoolmediated employer engagement: for example, work experience, careers talks, enterprise education, business mentoring. They look at answers to a broad question which invited respondents to reflect on ‘what [they] got out of employers being involved in [their] education.’ Participants were prompted to consider whether the involvement was responsible for ‘changing the way [they] thought about school or college, providing useful information or encouragement for thinking about possible jobs or careers, helping to get actual jobs either through people [they] got to know or giving [them] something useful for job applications or interviews, or in getting into a course at college or university.’ A reassurance was added that ‘maybe [they] got nothing out of it at all.’ In the analysis, responses from 190 young people providing sufficient information relating to personal benefit of some type were considered. Not all young people reported positive benefits, it should be noted. As one individual reported:

“I worked in a bookshop doing the jobs no-one else wanted. This did not affect my decision to become a diagnostic radiographer.”

Using textual analysis of the statements, the researchers explored whether any evidence was apparent of different types of capital (human, social or cultural) being accumulated through experiences.

Perhaps, the most striking finding from the study emerged from its attempt to find evidence of human capital accumulation. It is a theory at the heart of most educational policy – that the more young people know and can do, the better their employment outcomes will be. In the field of employer engagement, considerable attention is devoted to the idea of ‘employability skills’, or the abilities that allow an individual to act effectively in a workplace. It has long been posited that exposure to authentic workplace situations in some ways serves to improve communication, problem solving, team working skills etc. While teachers often testify this is what they routinely observed in episodes of work-related learning, questions have been raised as to whether the typical British experience of school-mediated employer engagement (episodic, short duration, nonassessed, not integrated into the curriculum) could generate significant variation in such skills years into labour market participation.

And in the analysis of reflective statements, this scepticism was upheld. Little evidence of human capital accumulation was found. Significantly less apparent than evidence of cultural and social capital accumulation, improvements in human capital were most commonly witnessed in an indirect fashion – reflections on how workplace exposure led to increased academic application or experiences enabled easier progression into further study – especially at university level. It was in the realm of social and cultural capital that young adults reported the greatest benefits to them emerging from their workplace experiences.

Young people, particularly from independent school backgrounds, provided evidence of social capital in a number of forms. It was expressed as access to information and guidance which was unusually useful and trustworthy because it was deemed authentic:

“Told us from experience. Told us straight.”

“I trusted the word of someone in the working world as opposed to a careers’ advisor or teacher ‘telling’ you what to do.”

Others reported that economic opportunities emerged from connections made initially through school-mediated engagements:

“Following my work experience placement I obtained permanent part-time work at the same business. This steady job helped as a stepping stone into the working world.”

Most striking, however, was evidence that employer engagement activities had in some ways contributed to accumulations of cultural capital. Particular use is made of Bourdieu’s idea of ‘habitus’: that the behaviour and decisions of an individual are shaped and constrained through often inherited and/or unconsciously acquired attitudes and selfperceptions that are linked, to some degree, to wider social structures such as social class, ethnicity and gender. Policy makers often attempt to influence such ways of thinking – for example, in challenging gender stereotyping or making university attendance ‘thinkable’. Mentoring programmes and careers-focused campaigns in a similar vein are commonly designed to encourage young people to think differently about themselves and who they might become.


The new research finds considerable evidence of changes in thinking that can be related to an ultimate economic importance: of young people gaining confidence around their decisions, broadening or eliminating potential options and changing the ways in which education itself was seen:

“It stopped me from leaving school early and made me stay on to go to uni which I think was a good thing in the end.”

“I found my work experience horrible, which is why I made an effort to get a better education and a better job.”

Ultimately, however, complexity is found in the relationships between different types of capital accumulation, as illustrated by this statement:

“Work experience helped me to better understand how my school studies translate into the job world and which areas of my studies would be useful in work. This provided motivation to work hard at university modules that were not necessarily the most appealing in terms of enjoyment but I could see that they would be valuable to finding employment later on.”

Considering such relationships, Jones and colleagues argue that young people gain access to multiple, complex and overlapping opportunities to gain benefit, proposing an Employer Engagement Cycle (see diagram at top). For example, through employer engagement activities, a teenager may make the contacts needed to be offered a job (social capital … as access to employment) while simultaneously acquiring the expertise or ability to make them employable in that role (human capital … as skills development). Or, to give another example, a young adult may report maturing and becoming more assured about themselves (cultural capital … as enhanced personal confidence) as a result of trusted information from employers (social capital … as authentic guidance). The research joins a growing body of literature that demands policy makers and practitioners think afresh of employer engagement initiatives, how they relate to a young person’s wider life and what truly drives the significant benefits many appear to experience.


Making A Statement

qLast week, the Sutton Trust published a Research Brief that I co-authored with the HE Access Network. The theme is a familiar one for me: the UCAS personal statement. I’ve blogged about it here and here, written a previous Sutton Trust report, and published findings in an academic journal and a book about global HE admissions practices.

Saint-Mary-s-School-oqLD3CThis study was a really interesting addition to the evidence because it was the first to compare how teachers at state schools and admission tutors at high-prestige universities read statements. The results were alarming: what teachers think make a good personal statement is a far cry from what universities are looking for.

The researjohnhumphMS2010_468x402ch attracted plenty of press attention, including an excellent opinion piece by Catherine Bennett for the Observer. Other print coverage included reports in The Sun, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Times Education Supplement. My interview on the BBC Radio Four’s Today programme is available here (listen from 52’45”) until February 26th 2016.

While I think personal statements offer a useful lens through which to view distributions of social capital and explore teenagers’ self-conceptualisations, I’m hoping this will be the last time I write about them. A review of their use in the application process – ideally as part of a wider review of the HE admissions in the UK – is long overdue.


Who gains from the grumbles?


Note: this piece was originally published by WonkHE on January 11th 2016.

“My students have paid £9,000 and now they think they own me” runs the headline. It’s one of those anonymous pieces, so the wider context is difficult to figure out, but the author seems troubled by a message that reads “all I’m asking for is a little respect seeing as I pay you £9,000 a year”.

It’s the “blunt, consumerist language” that offends the author, and a number of anecdotes follow, each reinforcing this interpretation. “If you ask me,” quips a colleague in the car park, “all universities are going to need a customer services department before long”. Another claims a student once told them: “I pay you to teach me what’s in the article, not the other way around”. The author recalls how very different they had “acted and spoke” when at university – assignments were completed punctually, guidelines followed diligently, etc. How they wish they could say the same of their students now.

passengers.jpgSuch rhetoric is becoming familiar on English campuses, and the points about unfair workload allocation, expectations of across-the-board excellence, and often counter-productive management culture all deserve to be made forcibly and repeatedly to policy-makers, sector representatives and intuitional leadership teams. But venting at students about how universities are funded is like confronting fellow passengers because your train is running late.

Remember, the student’s plea is not for higher grades, quicker feedback or the guarantee of a graduate job, but for “a little respect”. Is this really a case of neoliberal higher education policy coming home to roost? Or is it something altogether more localised and petty?

images22Perhaps the student was wrong to mention fee levels at all. But let’s not forget the extent to which the 2012 funding system has driven higher education to “hurl the cost of itself at graduates”, as Jim Dickinson recently noted on this site. According to the Sutton Trust, only one in twenty will now repay their debt in full by the age of 40, compared to almost 50% under the previous system. An average teacher will still owe £25,000 by their early 50s. The freezing of the repayment threshold will make an undergraduate degree more costly still and, last year, we saw maintenance grants turned into loans and student nurses stripped of their bursaries.

It’s naïve to believe that such wholesale reconfiguration of the way in which our sector is funded won’t disrupt the nature of undergraduates’ engagement with their university or change academics’ working conditions. That’s exactly why our students were placed at the heart of the system – so they’d behave like consumers and enact the marketisation agenda.

Teaching-Excellence-Framework2However, in many respects, they’ve refused to play ball. Take the proposal to link success in the Teaching Excellence Framework to higher fees. The National Union of Students objected immediately, taking a position of principled disengagement long before the rest of the sector began to follow suit. Yes, there are some individual undergrads who’ll seize their rights as newly-empowered service users to make unreasonable demands on staff as they seek to maximise their return-on-investment. But there are millions of others who don’t measure their experience in solely utilitarian terms and want their time at university to be inspiring, cordial and enlightening.

The nameless author of the piece fantasises about replying with: “Hey student – all I’m asking for is a little respect, seeing as how much you pay makes no difference to my wages, yet the level of support I am forced to offer you takes up 80% of my time despite the fact that teaching still only equates to 33% of my workload.”

Is support for students really something that academics are “forced” to offer? And if we must gripe about our salaries, might it be judicious to acknowledge the inter-generational unfairness that the current funding model precipitates?

arguing.pngBut the bigger question here is who gains from such grumbles. A frostier relationship between students and academics doesn’t benefit those who yearn for campuses of old. Rather, it benefits those who seek to marketise and instrumentalise the sector further. Undergraduates can be framed as dissatisfied customers, then as budding agents of change, while academics can be positioned as ivory-towered and over-protected. Many of the 4,000+ comments beneath the original piece offer precisely this reading.

But the student-academic relationship at English universities is surely stronger than such simplistic polarisations allow. Is a little respect really too much to ask for?