University Governance in a new age of regulation: a conversation between Steven Jones and Nick Hillman

 

The dialogue below is taken from HEPI Report 119, the full version of which includes an excellent introduction from Professor Michael Shattock.

HEPI is the Higher Education Policy Institute and Nick Hillman is its Director.

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Steve Jones 005-1

Dear Nick,

It’s good to have this exchange with you. The role of university governors is beginning to get some critical attention, but it still seems neglected relative to the responsibility that it now carries.

I sense that Board members across the higher education sector feel pulled in different directions. On one hand, there’s a traditional idea of ‘wise elders’ meeting to offer some light-touch and well-mannered guidance on a university’s general direction of travel. On the other hand, there’s a regulatory framework that positions governors as legal custodians of multi-million pound, global organisations.

The Office for Students wants Boards to be accountable for upholding ‘public interest governance principles’, but what are those principles and how best can they be defended?

University staff who volunteer for governance roles are usually regarded with suspicion. I received condolences from some colleagues when elected! Maybe this follows a long tradition of academic misgivings about perceived compromises of ‘freedom’.

Back in 1918, Thorstein Veblen characterised non-academics who join Boards as ‘quite useless to the university for any business-like purpose’. I was reminded of this more recently when Peter McCaffery, a former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cumbria, suggested Whitehall departments privately regard the way in which universities are governed as ‘bogus professionalism’.

However, my main concern isn’t lack of know-how. It’s that university governance – and the corporate model upon which it’s generally based – seems detached from the day-to-day reality of many academics’ working lives.

In my experience, this gap is wider in the higher education sector than in the compulsory part of the sector, where the pressures of school teaching are perhaps better understood by governors.

As an ‘insider’, I sense frustration among colleagues that representation on decision-making bodies is usually limited to a handful of staff, and that Boards sometimes focus on the narrow market needs of their individual institution at the expense of the wider societal contribution that universities make. As an ‘outsider’, what do you think?

 

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Dear Steven,

Thank you for starting this important conversation. My experience is different to yours. When I was appointed as a lay governor, no one commiserated me. Nor did they congratulate me. Perhaps the silence reflects how poorly understood the role of university governors is – far below knowledge about school governorship.
I am amused by Peter McCaffery’s words but they don’t resonate with me. When I worked on higher education in Whitehall, little thought was given to university governance issues. There were many reasons for this but perhaps the most important is that Whitehall looks for big problems to solve and university governance seemed at the time to be ticking over quite nicely. Admittedly, my Whitehall experience came before the really big rows on vice-chancellors’ pay as well as before Hefce had made way for the new Office for Students.

During my own experience as a governor at two universities, I have been very impressed by the professionalism and calibre of the governors, especially the chairs. Many other lay governors that I have come across have fitted well into that general definition of a good Board member: an intelligent person who asks ignorant questions. That is not meant to sound rude. Anyone who has ever been interviewed by the media knows that perceptive but unexpected questions can prove the most testing. An intelligent outsider’s perspective can teach an institution lots about itself – and, of course, new lay members rapidly stop being ignorant anyway.

But no one associated with higher education must allow the core strengths of the sector to hide the need for constant improvement. Nor should we respond so defensively to media coverage that we refuse to look in the mirror for flaws. I want to avoid sweeping generalisations, yet I do worry that the quality of governance in our sector may not always be as quite good as we like to think.

The regulation of higher education has been transformed in recent years, especially from the top via initiatives like the Higher Education and Research Act (2017), which puts far more onus on governors – including for self-reporting of problems. I am not entirely convinced, as I travel up and down the UK speaking to senior managers and governing bodies, that governance has changed as fast as regulation.

Perhaps it is naïve to think this could happen quickly but, unfortunately, the regulatory changes have occurred at the same time as other changes that have, in some instances, literally threatened the existence of long-standing universities.

Moreover, people with experience governing other comparable bodies that sit between the public and private sectors – for example, in the health sector – often claim change has come later in higher education than elsewhere.

Perhaps because I am not an ‘insider’, I worry less than you about the disconnect between academics and governors. For a start, I think the supposed disconnect is overdone: the input of academics at governors’ meetings (either as members or observers), at away days discussing strategy and in other ways is more common than might be expected. This helps to provide a map for those governors still trying to uncover the lie of the land. Lay governors come into close contact with the day-to-day life of academics in other ways too – for example, when chairing disciplinary review hearings.

Notwithstanding this, if I were an academic I am not confident I would worry too much about not knowing the finer points of the latest discussions among governors. They can be some way removed from the core responsibilities of teaching students and pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge so could sap time and effort from the more immediate responsibilities that would have brought me into academia in the first place.

 
Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

You’re right to say that academics would much rather be doing teaching and research than pondering institutional strategy. But in the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in staff becoming more curious – and then better informed – about how their university is run. The pensions dispute is the obvious example, but there are other issues too, from capital expenditure to investment strategy. In my view, this is a good thing. But it does bring to the fore questions about who gets to govern our universities and what kind of values they bring to the table.

Take the current composition of most governing Boards in England. Having a lay majority is useful in that that universities are forced to justify their activities to people who come from different professional backgrounds and have different perspectives.

For me, it’s always refreshing to hear non-academic voices – university staff quickly become institutionalised, losing touch with how the sector is viewed from the outside. But the lay-majority composition has drawbacks too, especially where academics are framed in negative terms: as change-resistant, or ‘difficult’, or instinctively critical.

The job of the university lecturer requires a huge amount of flexibility and there’s pressure to be excellent at everything. Metrics track our every move. League tables pitch us against colleagues elsewhere in the sector with whom we’d rather be collaborating. Newer academics are under particular stress, often in precarious employment conditions. I’m not sure that Board discourses always fully acknowledge this wider professional context.

You’re unusual among lay members: you know the higher education system inside out because of your day job. But for most lay members academia remains shrouded in mystery. I think universities need to expose their governors to more routine institutional activities. Maybe induction should involve taking in a few undergraduate lectures, or attending some research seminars or eavesdropping on a departmental meeting?

I also wonder about representation. Local communities seem to have fewer Board members than in previous generations, but institutional activity can affect them fundamentally, for better and worse. And given that taxpayers underwrite what we do, I think it’s important for Boards to have representation from those who never went to university.

Then there’s the question of the student voice. Most Boards seem to have a token representative or two, but it can be incredibly difficult for those individuals to make themselves heard, surrounded not only by highly successful lay members but also by academic representatives who may well be directly involved with their teaching and supervision. The system marginalises students, not deliberately, but through top-down mechanisms that don’t always speak to their concerns.

There’s recently been talk of a ‘licence to practise’ for university governors, but the system remains largely dependent on goodwill. The Code of Governance, developed by the Committee of University Chairs in 2014, is useful. However, it captures little of the cultural expectations and challenges faced by Board members. The ‘critical friend’ role is fine, but governors mustn’t cross management lines. It’s a tight-rope for members to walk, not least because the sector can be damaged reputationally when an institutional Board is too hands-off.

 
Wonkhe-Nick-Hillman-contributorDear Steven,

There probably is not a person alive who would claim that university governing bodies are properly diverse. They do not accurately reflect the demographics of students and staff, let alone society at large. There is clearly a mountain to climb. Middle-aged white men like us are in a majority. We are often caricatured as ‘male, pale and stale’ and I plead guilty to at least two of these attributes.

The question is, as always, what to do about it. As with other realms of life, we need to advertise roles more widely, ideally in a centralised place (as used to happen) rather than wait for people to stumble across opportunities in the sector for themselves. I remember an experienced governor at the top of their own profession telling me their partner, another senior professional, was interested in becoming a university governor, but that she had no idea where to start looking. Too often governors are appointed over a drink after a tap on the shoulder. We need to employ headhunters to dig deeper.

But while the personal characteristics of governors is far from representative, a great deal of thought is typically put into the skillset of any governing body. Financial skills are especially important, such as for audit committee work. I am regularly contacted by people searching for names of potential governors with a background in policy, as many universities feel underpowered in that area.

Incidentally, it is tragic that the Department for Education (DfE) discourage their civil servants from serving as university governors. The loos in the DfE are plastered with posters encouraging staff to become school governors. But university governorship is, weirdly, seen as a conflict of interest and actively discouraged or even barred. Yet we wonder why policymakers don’t always seem to understand our sector.

On metrics, I agree academics typically dislike being constantly measured and tend to think their work cannot be easily captured by a few headline numbers. But this isn’t the fault of non-academic governors. Governors with a background in other sectors might just as likely propose more rounded ways of assessing performance than believe academics can be easily squeezed into a REF / TEF / KEF triptych.

On student representation, I agree. Student members can feel overwhelmed and inexperienced. But when I am a visiting speaker at a governing body meeting, the student rep(s) will often seek me out afterwards and the conversations are usually incredibly illuminating. A good chair will draw a student out so that their experiences inform the work of the governing body as a whole. One remaining problem is the typically short tenure of a student governor and I am genuinely uncertain as to what can be done about that. The best chief executives of students’ unions know as much about their institution and how its students are faring as anyone: can governing bodies capture their knowledge more effectively in some way, I wonder?

I also agree we need to look for mechanisms to bring governors closer in touch. Perhaps the single most interesting thing I have done as a governor is to take part in semi-structured discussions on issues like mental health and student support services with students. I am not the only governor who has found such conversations provide a year’s supply of new points to make at future meetings.

Having greater civic engagement with university boards is a good idea but it is not a dealbreaker for me. Our universities are generally national and regional, not just city-based, so there are limits to the desirability of this in my view, especially when other areas of civic life may need more urgent support. The relationship can work the other way around though, with academics becoming part of their locality’s policymakers: try attending a local council meeting in either Oxford or Cambridge and you will hear many declarations of interest from serving councillors whenever university issues come up.

I think you slightly overdo the risk of governors stepping over the management line. Any competent chair knows when this is happening and can delicately point it out. It is a challenge for every organisation with a board of trustees and widely acknowledged in all sorts of contexts. The line is an important one, as is the line between governance issues and academic decisions, because it provides clarity on who should do what.

 
Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

I didn’t know the DfE discourage their civil servants from acting as university governors. It is curious that so many major organisations (universities included) now press their staff to volunteer as school governors, but joining a university Board often still requires a furtive tap on the shoulder.

You acknowledge that more could be done to connect governors with the mass of students, but what about the mass of staff? Can the broad range of views from employees spanning multiple roles and disciplines be captured by a handful of volunteer representatives? I can’t help thinking that universities miss a trick by not drawing on the expertise of their own workforce more systematically.

Michael Shattock has been writing about governance in UK higher education for decades, and he points out that there are big differences in how different universities approach the process. My anxiety here is that academics at the more elite universities retain a relatively firm grip on governance, while those elsewhere in the sector see the balance of authority steadily tipping away from them. In an already hierarchical higher education system, the danger is that this results in yet more stratification.

Michael also points out that it’s not the state that has directly imposed changes on university governance structures; it’s more a consequence of relentless shifts towards competition. I do think that’s where misunderstandings can arise.

Lay governors from a private sector background are often fluent in the language of the market, and know plenty about keeping their customers satisfied. But it’s not easy for them understand why their views might meet with push-back from academics who just don’t think it appropriate that higher education is further commodified.

Having said that, one thing that is always good to see is conflict. From the outside, Boards give the impression of being united in their views, but beneath this veneer is often forceful debate and challenge. Because academics are trained to see both sides of an argument, and to reach informed and balanced conclusions, most would be reassured by such deliberation.

However, staff are sometimes informed of blunt outcomes without being privy to any underpinning rationale. I get the idea of ‘collective responsibility’, but it’s unfortunate when it runs counter to the spirit of courteous disagreement that fuels most academic enquiry. I’d like university Boards to prioritise transparency over confidentiality, where possible.

 
Dear Steven,

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I suspect the proliferation of governors with a business background does help explain the explosion in senior staff pay. If you come from business and are put on the Board of a university with a turnover of a billion pounds a year, then you are bound to make some comparisons in your head with the salary of a CEO at a business with a similar turnover.

But this sort of influence is hugely exaggerated in importance. Consider the pensions issue. Defined benefit pension schemes have essentially disappeared in the private sector. If lay governors had imposed their private sector practices on our universities, then the USS would have become a defined contribution scheme many years ago. It is too simplistic to think anyone who has helped run a large business cannot recognise that charitable universities are different.

A glance at my Twitter feed leads me to doubt your assertion that ‘academic research’ is typically fuelled by ‘courteous disagreement’. It can feel more like the old Newman and Baddiel sketch ‘History Today’. But I nonetheless accept your comment about transparency, at least up to a point. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, to coin a phrase.

There are many important issues that governors need to discuss though, such as restructuring, senior appointments and purchasing land, which could go badly awry if they were immediately and fully put in the public domain. So it is important we do not fall for demands for transparency that are really thinly-veiled attacks on the whole operating system of a 21st century university, especially if they also discourage good people from accepting Board positions.

Diversity seems to me to be a concept that is nearly always good, including when applied to education. So I have no principled objection to the idea that the roles played by lay governors, university managers and academics will be different at different institutions. It is, after all, nothing new. Our universities have such diverse histories that, to me, it seems odd even to entertain the idea that this is something we should worry about as a matter of principle. A single higher education system, yes; a monolith, no.

 
Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

You’re right to say that not all academic disagreement is courteous. But my point was more that it usually takes place in public (in journals, on social media, and at conferences), whereas governance disagreement tends to take place behind closed doors. Decisions can then emerge from the Board that, from an academic perspective, seem not to be based on even-handed reasoning. It’s a bit like publishing a paper without the methods section.

Maybe where we disagree most is in terms of the extent to which academic involvement actually matters? Many university staff feel that the ‘comms’ are one-way and the ‘consultations’ insincere. To some extent, university governance is performed in a managed environment (more so than in schools, in my experience). I know that senior leadership teams can’t always operate in a democratic and open fashion, and that some choreography is occasionally necessary. But where two-way interaction is possible I think it’s important that it occurs as authentically as possible.

You mentioned earlier that perhaps headhunters would be useful in increasing the diversity of university governors, and I note that much of the recent coverage of Board issues has revolved around whether lay members should be paid for their contribution. I don’t have a strong view on this.

Lay members devote a generous portion of their time to governance work, and if a small fee recognised this, I think it would be a reasonable use of money. But it’s noticeable that some of the loudest voices making this argument are from private agencies that would, presumably, get a slice of the cake. I had no idea that these agencies existed, but there’s a growing industry around governor recruitment. It’s another market that, in my view, the sector doesn’t really need.

My underlying fear is that university Boards are being co-opted to enact market-driven ideologies (some of which you may support, but I know you’d also support the principles of institutional autonomy and academic freedom). Even if this isn’t the case, it remains very difficult for any group of individuals, however well-meaning and committed, to reflect the views of the incredible range of communities that universities now serve, and to act simultaneously as savvy market advisers and protectors of the public good.

 
Wonkhe-Nick-Hillman-contributorDear Steven,

I have shifted from being agnostic about, or even slightly against, paying lay governors to supporting the idea. It is, honestly, not because I am now one, and I am not necessarily arguing for payment for all. When the time spent serving as a governor is provided fully or partly by an employer, then a fee for attending would be to pay someone twice for the same job.

But how on earth are we to get the diversity we want if someone cannot afford to be a governor? Indeed, why should we expect a younger person, with not much to their name, to give up their time freely the way that a retired CEO with a huge pension and no mortgage might?

I also think people tend to take roles more seriously when they are being paid for them. It is easier to ease out underperforming people if they are not doing the job you are paying them for than it is if you are not paying them in the first place. So, in my view, a system of payments for at least some governors can’t come soon enough.

The role of a governing body is to protect their institution by reacting to the context in which they find themselves. So I don’t think a governor who recognises the reality of high fees / loans and no student number controls is somehow being ‘co-opted to enact market-driven ideologies’ any more than they would be co-opted to socialism if a left-of-centre government forced governors to take a new set of circumstances into account.

 
Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

Returning to the comparison with schools, is it significant that university governors have not been subject to the same regime of ‘professionalisation’ and ‘accountability’ as their school-based counterparts? Policy now seems to be nudging higher education more in that direction.

I accept there are good reasons for this – massive and complex institutions can’t be operated by academic rota – but it’s vital that incoming lay governors understand what’s going on at the local level. Governing bodies tend to meet in their institution’s grandest surrounding, and the danger is that they soon become isolated from the day-to-day struggles and mundane resource issues with which staff must cope.

Managing academics is difficult: we tend not to be motivated primarily by income and we tend to view our employers with wariness. So it can’t be simply assumed that because someone has been successful in the private sector or as a social entrepreneur that they have the insights needed to make a university perform better.

I admit there’s sometimes too much exceptionalism in the way that higher education is discussed, but I do think the challenges are very different to those sectors in which the main goal is to gratify shareholders. The danger is that if UK universities are run just like any other business, they lose the very qualities that have made them so historically successful.

For me, there are significant core issues to address in university governance. Should we assume the corporate Board model is always fit for purpose? Can the often divergent directions in which Board members are drawn ever be compatible? Can universities learn from schools about more inclusive governance? In what ways should (and shouldn’t) Boards be empowered by government? My fear is that we’ll only get round to thinking fully about such questions when the sector reaches breaking point.

 
Wonkhe-Nick-Hillman-contributorDear Steven,

There is a saying that is used heavily by civil servants: ‘Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good’. I worry you are falling into the trap of listing the problems of the current governance model (alongside some of the positives), without really explaining what a better one would look like and how it will come about.

I fully accept some of your criticisms. As someone who regularly speaks to governing bodies, it always seems strange when meetings take place in a country house hotel somewhere miles from campus. A better model is to move meetings around so that one might be in the oldest part of the university, another in a new satellite campus and a third in the students’ union or hall of residence.

But I think the current governance model works to the extent that it is a conversation between insiders and outsiders. There are problems from having too many or too few of either, if the external expertise is not sufficiently tempered by the academic expertise or vice versa. While some Boards were unwieldy in the past, I worry that the general trend towards smaller boards risks creating imbalance as well as ensuring insufficient (internal and external) experience is on tap.

No one is saying life is perfect at the moment. Governing bodies should be more diverse, capture the student voice more and become somewhat more professional. But, compared to what we have, the European model of running universities as an arm of the state is much worse, in my opinion, because of the limited room for manoeuvre that it gives proud long-standing institutions that want to protect their future by innovating.

You assume a ‘breaking point’ is coming. Perhaps it is. It looks likely that it is for a small number of institutions, at which point managers and governors will be in the firing line but so will policymakers and regulators. More institutions will struggle if we move to a system in which the Treasury are expected to foot the entire costs of educating students – taxpayers tend to have higher priorities than higher education and most students accept good-quality mass higher education is best delivered through a mixed funding model.

The predictions of failure that echo endlessly around our sector remind me of my academic research on a fringe politician: he spent so long waiting for a crisis that he was certain would happen that he spun out of the mainstream to the extremes before spending decades in the wilderness. No doubt this analogy would break down if considered too closely. But I am sure many outside observers would find it bizarre that some people want our well-funded, open, diverse, high-quality and ancient university system to be subjected to the upheaval of a revolution in the unproven hope that there might just be something a little better to be discovered around the corner.

 
Steve Jones 005-1Dear Nick,

I’m not sure I’m about spin out into the wilderness, but I take your point about there being no perfect alternative to the current model. Without lay governance, it’s unlikely that consensual academic democracy would organically emerge in its place.

But I do believe that university Boards would be better placed to respond to an increasingly complex and difficult policy environment if they engaged differently with staff and operated less opaquely.

Your earlier point about practice changing less quickly than regulation is well made. But if university governance is ever to catch up with policy – and if public, academic and student confidence in the sector is to be improved – further dialogue is surely required.

 
Wonkhe-Nick-Hillman-contributorDear Steven,

On that, I wholeheartedly agree – indeed, I would say it is long overdue.

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Is PQA scepticism damaging the sector’s reputation?

This piece was first published on WonkHE (27.08.19)

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Only in the UK does PQA have a name. Post-Qualification Admissions, the practice by which universities make offers to students before their results are known, has been debated every summer since it was first mooted in the Dearing and Schwartz reports of 1997 and 2004 respectively.

The reason that other nations don’t have an equivalent term for PQA is because it’s something they’ve always done. The abbreviation would be as redundant as PPC (post-pregnancy childbirth) or PND (post-night day).

But the UK system is historically wedded to guesswork, making offers to students based on how well their teachers reckon they might do in their exams. We know that such forecasts tend to be imprecise. Research by Gill Wyness demonstrates that nearly one in four disadvantaged students who go on to achieve AAB or better at A-level have their final grades under-predicted. Only 16% of students have every one of their grades prophesied accurately. What’s more, our crystal balls are becoming more, not less, prone to malfunction over time.

Increasingly, there’s political backing for PQA. Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner recently reiterated that a Labour government would scrap predicted grades, adding that “our education system must work for students and be driven by fairness, not market forces”. Newspaper editorials point to the UK’s “outdated” model. Danny Dorling, like many senior academics, is a long-time supporter of reform.

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Local admissions staff are on board too, with seven out of 10 respondents to a recent survey saying they back PQA. And David Olusoga gets to the heart of why the current admissions process feels unjust to those without the requisite social and cultural capital, likening it to a first encounter with estate agents: “one of those moments in life when the realities of class and privilege are brought out into the open and thrust into the faces of the disadvantaged”.

What’s more, PQA would mean an end to the rise in unconditional offers, a practice which possibly breaks consumer law and for which the sector is rightly attacked from all sides. Teachers are aghast that their efforts to secure the very best grades for their students can be so casually undermined one game-playing, supposedly market-savvy university.

In the face of such widespread support for PQA, one might expect the HE sector to embrace the opportunity. At the very least, one might expect acknowledgement that the current system – mostly untouched since the early 1960s – is out of line with what’s now regarded as fair and transparent.

But this is not how sceptics frame PQA. Take the response of UCAS to Angela Raynor’s statement, which argued that:

“If introduced wholesale within the current timetables, [PQA] would be likely to significantly disadvantage underrepresented and disabled students, unless secondary and/or university calendars changed”.

It may be technically correct to say that if PQA were imposed on the sector without any adjustments at all then those (typically middle class) students with in-the-know personal contacts to draw on in mid-summer would be further advantaged. But of course timetables would change. And of course schools and universities would adapt to a new system.

The claim that underrepresented and disabled students would be “significantly” disadvantaged is both premature and speculative, muddying moral waters. Any negatives would need to be carefully and systematically weighed against the many positives of PQA, a system that could potentially open the door for the kind of ambitious, joined-up progress in widening participation that’s long overdue.

Few of the advantages offered by PQA are acknowledged in the UCAS statement, which drifts unhelpfully into paternalistic and market-based language (“our admissions service protects students, enabling them to exercise their consumer rights”), before ending with boasts about high student satisfaction. As Jo Grady notes, it’s a “lazy defence of the status quo”. But it’s also a self-defeating position if it allows the sector to be framed by outsiders as bureaucratic and change-resistant.

Timing is not the only problem with the UK’s admission process. Indeed, as Debbie McVitty points out, arguments about PQA threaten to suck the oxygen from wider conversations about support for under-represented groups. It’s essential that forthcoming reviews look at other problems with the application process.

For example, each UCAS applicant currently requires a reference from their school, something that can take up many hours of valuable staff time. But do generically glowing exaltations really help universities to select the most suitable applicants?

Similarly, my own research for the Sutton Trust has shown that the personal statement disproportionately benefits applicants from better off backgrounds, and that state school teachers struggle to give appropriate guidance to their students because they don’t what universities are looking for in an application. It’s also time we took seriously Vikki Boliver’s finding that ethnic minority applicants to selective universities are less likely to receive offers than comparably qualified white applicants.

No doubt the shift to PQA will create many new challenges, as Chris Husbands and others warn. But the narrow logistical problems aren’t insurmountable. Remember that every other nation’s admissions agency copes perfectly well with a post-qualification system.

What’s vital is that the UK sector doesn’t unwittingly give the impression it’s complacent about equity, and tone deaf to legitimate criticism of its practices. With senior politicians now openly seeking to “rebalance” resources away from higher education, the risk is that excess caution about PQA – justified or not – gives ammunition to those who think the sector has lost touch with what society wants from it.

2019 National Teachers and Advisers Conference – slides

Good to meet so many committed and clued-up school staff at this event last week. Unconditional offers clearly remain a big concern for colleagues in the pre-18 sector, and questions were asked about why universities remains complicit in ‘pressure selling‘ something that it is to the detriment of young people, and may hit disadvantaged youngsters hardest.

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The slides from my presentation are here:

2019-05 (final pdf) – Steven Jones – UoM – National Teachers and Advisers Conference.

 

Can Higher Education be depoliticised?

This piece was first published on *HE Research (09.01.18)

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At a conference in December of last year, Professor Clare Callender called for debates around student funding to be depoliticised. Such is the extent to which tuition fees have become an ideological and partisan issues, many of us in attendance found it difficult to conceive of discourses that were not politicised. Subsequent appointments did not help this situation. So, at the start of a new year, this blog considers some of the steps that might be taken – and the basic principles that might be followed – if funding issues are to be discussed in less divisive ways.

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  1. Loan repayment terms should be set in stone, not subject to change at a political whim. When higher fees were introduced in 2012, borrowers were told that their repayment threshold would rise with inflation. In 2015, as part of an austerity agenda, this promise was broken. And in 2017, as part of a wheeze to win back young voters, it was announced that the threshold would increase to above its initial level. This adjustment will bring welcome relief to many recent graduates, but that’s not the point – whether the changes are generous or ungenerous makes no difference. Once a loan is agreed, students have a right to expect that their repayment terms won’t be meddled with to meet political agenda.

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  1. Funding models should be analysed independently, according pre-determined long-range indicators. An unedifying aspect of the funding system introduced in 2012 was how quickly and unproblematically it was hailed a success. Jo Johnson characterised the model as a “great success story,” citing the OECD’s description of England as “one of the few countries to have figured out a sustainable approach to higher education finance.” Of course, the often-repeated claim that ‘more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds attend university than ever before’ is entirely true. The problem is that the relentless focus on the ‘young’ conceals a sharp fall in mature students and a 56% collapse in part-time numbers. And then there’s question of which type of institution these additional young students are attending. Evidence suggests it’s twice as likely to be a university outside the top ten as one inside the top ten. While a high ranking institution is no guarantee of high quality teaching, we know that the top jobs tend to get hoovered up by alumni of elite universities. And with the most recent UCAS figures noting that the participation gap – the difference in likelihood of attending university between those in the most and least disadvantaged quintiles – has widened for a third consecutive year, it’s worth asking whether ‘young’ participation is the only indicator in town? A more forward-thinking system would surely set a range of goals – across demographic groups, university types and modes of engagement – and assess outcomes strictly on a long-term basis.

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  1. Students should have enough to live on. Given the levels of debt that students are now expected to enter into, one would reasonably assume that enough money would be provided to cover day-to-day expenses. But the current maintenance system for students offers no such guarantee. According to one study, 10% of students say they may have to drop out of university because they can’t afford to continue. Since maintenance grants were most recently abolished, the NUS claim that 46% of students worry about being unable to afford basics such as bread and milk. It’s not only an implicit deterrent to wider access, it’s a practical impediment to healthy living and good mental health.

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  1. Universities should be more upfront about what they spend their money on. The sector has for too long obscured the way in which it manages its own budgets. Despite calls for greater transparency when fees rose, institutions have largely shrouded themselves in secrecy. But this position is not only unsustainable, it’s counter-productive. The recent furore over VC pay will not be the last of its kind; politicians, students and wider society will continue to probe the sector’s finances, asking why universities are complaining about real-term cuts in student income while sitting on often substantial Humanities students, in particular, will ask why they’re paying the same fees as students elsewhere when their degree usually costs less. By no means are such questions unanswerable. Indeed, I’m quite happy to explain to my Education undergrads why some of their fees may be used to subsidise the Medical School across the road. But the sector’s reticence is itself political.

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  1. The sector should reclaim language that’s consistent with the role of university as an educational institution. It’s remarkably how quickly the language of politics and business have replaced the language of learning in Higher Education. This is partly justifiable on the grounds that the sector now, thankfully, serves a wider function in society. No longer are universities the finishing schools of the elites and ivory towers for uninterrupted contemplation. The emergent language – ‘employability’, ‘impact’, etc. – is mostly a reflection of necessary evolution. But the new vocabulary isn’t politically neutral. If you frame students as under-protected consumers, and degrees as potentially mis-sold, then you are reducing education to a private good. If you talk relentlessly about students’ ‘value-for-money‘ then you are changing the nature of students’ engagement with their learning. A depoliticised funding model would remind society that the university experience is potentially life-changing, with new intellectual itches to be scratched and new kinds of knowledge in which to become absorbed.

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  1. Higher Education should be reintegrated with earlier forms of education. No-one has ever been sure quite where universities should sit within government. Are we there to educate, in parallel with FE colleges and adult learning centres, as part of a pedagogical pipeline that stretches from primary, through secondary, to its final destination? Or are we more about business, a supplier of highly productive graduates to feed the needs of high-skills labour markets? Whatever your preference, there’s a mismatch. Schools’ curricula have reverted to rote learning and long exams, while universities cling to ideas around independent learning, critical thinking and the co-production of scholarly knowledge. But the students we receive, though often brilliant at remembering and recalling facts, don’t always associate education with the development of informed opinions. A more joined-up, inclusive and progressive education system would recognise disadvantage and seek to compensate at all levels. A provision based on pedagogy rather than politics would better serve the needs of all young people.

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Perhaps by talking about Higher Education – and the options for funding it – in less nakedly politicised terms, its status as a public good might begin to be reclaimed. As we move into a new year, the need for educational policy to be underpinned by some basic principles is arguably greater than ever before.

Narrowing participation: calculating the likely impact of two-year degrees isn’t simple maths

This piece was originally published on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog (December 20th 2017)

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For some, the numbers are straightforward. You take the 78 weeks ostensibly needed for an undergraduate degree, and you squash them into two years instead of three. You raise tuition fees for each of those two years, but make sure that the overall cost of the degree remains lower than for the three-year version. Then you sit back and watch as your accelerated degrees lead to accelerated job market entry and accelerated student loan repayments.

Perhaps that’s part of the thinking behind the consultation recently launched by the government. Some newspapers went out of their way to frame the proposal as a breakthrough for young people. The Express picked up on the idea that two-year degrees will “save students £25,000,” a figure arrived at by opportunistically adding one year’s projected graduate income to the actual saving. A Telegraph piece made unsupported claims about knowledge accumulation being stunted during the long summer months, and two-year degrees enabling stronger friendships to be forged. That students currently spend half of their degree “on holidays,” the report claimed, was “astonishing”.

What’s astonishing is that such myths persist. The students that I teach, and who’ve participated in research projects with which I’ve been involved, rarely talk of holidays. What they do talk about are the part-time jobs they need to pay down urgent debts, and often to top up maintenance loans. And the unpaid work experience they need to get a graduate job. And the performance anxiety that’s inevitable when there’s so much at stake.

Non-teaching time is often used for independent learning, with dissertations planned, re-sits revised for, and course reading absorbed in advance. Universities facilitate, and increasingly expect, academic engagement the whole year round. It’s hardly a ‘high-drink, low-work’ culture, and it’s very different from the summers that policy-makers and commentators may fondly recollect, where some ventured overseas to ‘find themselves’ while others stayed home to sign on.

Like most lecturers, I receive (and respond to) hundreds of e-mails from students during ‘holiday’ periods. But academics are routinely positioned as part of the problem, perhaps softened up in public discourse by mischievous tweets about their “sacrosanct” three-month summer break.

As usual, ‘diversity’ is framed as a key driver for change (because how can anyone be anti-diversity?), but when it comes to accelerated degrees the heavy lifting would most likely be done not by the elite providers but by those institutions already over-achieving in terms of widening participation. It’s greater choice, perhaps, but it’s not the kind of diversity that the sector requires: cultural and academic mixing, across institutions, regardless of socioeconomic and ethnic background.

The Office of Fair Access welcomed the proposals as a response to the alarming drop in mature students since the 2012 fees hike. But mature students, always more likely to be juggling family and workplace commitments, have historically been drawn to slower, part-time, and flexible routes. It’s unclear how many would embrace an accelerated option.

Is the financial incentive meaningful? Perhaps, but given how few graduates are now projected to pay off their student loan in full, it’s questionable whether a modest cut in the total bill would make much difference. Concerns have been raised that the two-year degree is a backdoor route to higher fees.

The 2017 end-of-cycle report from UCAS show the participation gap – the difference in likelihood of attending university between those in the most and least disadvantaged quintiles – extending for a third consecutive year. It’s now as wide as it has been at any point in the last decade. Could accelerated degrees divide society further, as those with the financial means and the cultural inclination to study at a leisurely pace become further detached from their less fortunate peers? Will employers value a two-year degree if those from the higher socioeconomic quintiles quietly ignore it?

That only 0.2% of students are currently enrolled on an accelerated degree programme does suggest more could be done to accommodate the needs of young people who make an informed decision to opt for a shorter programme. But in the current climate, it’s too easy to dismiss the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of undergraduate teaching as another example of universities’ self-interest. The impression given by supporters of the two-year route is that students are left twiddling their thumbs every summer, but this understates the immense academic and financial pressure under which they find themselves.

The main objection to accelerated degrees is that some students will continue to enjoy an all-round university experience, as their parents did, while others will be fast-tracked towards premature entry into a precarious graduate labour market. Mathematically, three years of learning could indeed be compressed into two. But what complicates the calculation is that the option to accelerate would be viewed very differently across social classes.

Are headline writers getting it wrong on fees?

This piece was originally published by WonkHE on July 6th 2017.

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Yesterday’s briefing by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Higher Education Funding in England: Past, Present and Options for the Future) was covered in the same way by most of the national press. “Three quarters of graduates will never pay off student debts” ran the headline the Independent. Coverage in the Times was almost indistinguishable. The Mirror did little more than capitalise its NEVER, and the Telegraph headline merely framed the 77.4% figure as “almost eight in ten.”

For journalists, it’s the obvious way into a complex story, a hook that ostensibly captures the current system’s flaws and rank unfairness. What better evidence of a broken model than millions of graduates weighed down with debt they’ll never earn enough to repay?

 

But there’s a danger that the terms of the much-anticipated national debate (as called for by Damian Green last week) will be shaped too narrowly by this statistic. While some evidence suggests that students graduating into higher levels of debt feel more anxiety than those in previous generations, the report offers other kinds of evidence that should arguably have a greater bearing on public thinking.

Indeed, to some extent, the unrepaid bit of a graduate’s debt embodies the funding model’s most progressive element. Because it kicks in when a graduate’s earnings are too low for repayment to be deemed possible, it’s effectively the government’s subsidy for HE, a solitary concession that universities might just be a public good as well as a private one. Jo Johnson hints at this when he talks about “a vital and deliberate investment in the skills base of this country”.

The problem is that the more substantive defects of the current system are trickier for newspapers to distill into a few big-font words on the front page. Take the “back-door” freeze on graduates’ opening repayment level. This not only contravened assurances that the threshold would rise with inflation, but we now learn that it costs students an average of more than £4,000 each. As the IFS briefing note explains, this is because the impact of the freeze is permanent. Over the five year period to which it initially applies, the long-run taxpayer cost is reduced from £7 billion to £5.9 billion. If extended for another five years, the government saves a further £700 million. Middle earners are hit hardest.

The 6.1% interest rate that some graduates will face come September is equally difficult to justify. For high earners, the use of RPI + 0–3% (rather than CPI + 0%) increases lifetime repayments by almost £40,000 in today’s money. A blog from Million Plus’s CEO uses adjectives like “staggering” and “usurious”.

We also need to be more mindful of those who don’t fall into the government’s go-to definition of a ‘student’. While recruitment holds firm among the young, full-time cohort, the same cannot be said of part-time or mature students. Many commentators have explained why we should avoid looking at HE participation through such a conveniently narrow lens, but policy discourse doesn’t budge, and the sector’s part-time and mature students remain largely invisible.

Claims about the graduate premium, such as Jo Johnson’s that “a degree is worth on average £250,000 in higher lifetime earnings for a woman”, should always be accompanied by an acknowledgement that subject-by-subject differentials are enormous. Other broken promises – on maintenance grants, on nurses’ bursaries – must be central to any national debate. Perhaps IFS’s most damning observations is that “incentives for universities to provide high-quality courses in return for the money they receive are surprisingly limited.”

As David Kernohan notes, the briefing should allow the sector to take a more nuanced and long-term view on HE funding in the aftermath of a heated election campaign. Our students deserve nothing less. The immediate focus of the press has been on the proportion of graduates who are projected never to earn enough that their debt is paid in full. But beneath the headlines lie a series of issues that more directly impact on equity, and potentially present greater long-term threats to students’ participation and the sector’s sustainability.

A response to the House of Commons Education Committee report on Multi-Academy Trusts

The number of schools joining multi-academy trusts has grown over the last five years, and it is expected that this growth will continue. The House of Commons Education Committee has, as a result, looked into the performance and role of these trusts. This blog, which I co-authored with Steven J Courtney, Ruth McGinity, Robert Hindle, Stephen M Rayner and Belinda Hughes focuses on four key aspects of the Committee’s report and argues that broader questions about the government’s policy remain untouched. It was originally published on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog.

The House of Commons Education Committee published its report on multi-academy trusts (MATs) on 28th February. At a time when the health of school budgets is increasingly jeopardised, the report is a timely reminder that the role of the select-committee system is to hold government to account. The report consequently critiques some aspects of the development and administration of multi-academy trusts, whilst largely accepting the overarching policy strategy.

Academisation since 2010 has increased rapidly, leading to new types and configurations of academy. A MAT is the most common way of uniting diverse academies into one legal entity, governed by a single board of trustees. Government policy on MATs reflects an expectation that maintained schools should become academies and that these should join or form a MAT. What is in doubt, and is addressed by this report, is how this policy aim is being operationalised.

In this response to the report, we focus on four key areas: the report’s attitude towards local authorities; how it addresses MATs’ financial sustainability; its distinctive treatment of leadership; and the report’s use of language.

The role of local authorities

One of the most striking features of the report is the marked change in the way in which local authorities are described and positioned. After many years as a target of what Stephen Ball called ‘discourses of derision’, local authorities are now seen as the potential saviours of an incoherent programme of MATification.

Allowing local authorities to set up their own MATs, which has been impossible until now, might entice hitherto reluctant school governors and leaders, particularly in primary schools, to join a MAT, because they would expect to retain valued relationships and support structures. We support the report’s conclusion that the fundamental problem remains, however. A triangle of power-bases – Ofsted, Regional School Commissioners and local authorities – has been established, without clarity about the place of each within what the present Secretary of State calls ‘the schools ecosystem’.

Financial sustainability

The report gives a warm reception to the idea of a ‘growth check’ on MATs and we await the metrics on which such checks will be made. This acknowledges that larger MATs increasingly become monopoly providers, both regionally and nationally. Previous thinking might have suggested that larger-scale organisations benefit from cost-saving economies of scale­ – important in a tight financial climate – and an Austrian economics view of the power of innovation driven by greater funds. The need for ‘growth checks’ suggests a consideration of the drawbacks of monopoly positions.

Are some MAT leads driven by power rather than quality? In The New Industrial State (1967), JK Galbraith introduced the notion of a small number of larger corporations dominating markets, a ‘technostructure’ of self-interested managers, a system by which ‘predator’ firms govern and which serves to maintain their own power through expansion. The performance of many academy chains to date suggests that the scale of a MAT has at best an inconsistent impact on outcomes. Furthermore, the report’s warning that neither the Department for Education nor the Education Funding Agency may cope with future MAT growth should ring alarm bells.

Leadership

‘Strong leadership’ is the fifth of the six characteristics identified by the Committee as key to MAT success. It is not called leadership, however, but ‘a shared vision’, supporting findings that the former is increasingly reducible to the latter. ‘Leaders’ in this report mean MAT CEOs and the overarching Board of Trustees, which includes sponsor representation.

In fact, there are many more references here to ‘sponsor’ than ‘leader’. This has the effect of diffusing the act of leadership, of partly removing its exercise from a single, perhaps heroic figure in the New Labour mould. If trusts may ‘do leadership’, two questions immediately follow. First, which activities apparently constituting leadership are possible or impossible? Second, how is accountability for the impact of such activities understood and experienced?

Language

Finally, it is worth noting the subtle shifts in language that pervade the report. As well as the now-familiar market-based metaphors (“sponsored” school, “brokered” deals, etc.), we also find new imagery. For example, some MAT-less schools are framed as “untouchables”, presumably because they are deemed financially unviable rather than because they belong to a caste system that regards them as impure. The term seems to follow similar rhetoric used by Warwick Mansell and others when characterising such schools as “orphans”. This image may capture a sense of rejection, but the danger is that in framing schools as in need of benevolent parenting we disguise the truth – that they’ve been forsaken not by misfortune but by an ideology.

In conclusion, this report ostensibly leaves untouched the broader questions concerning the appropriateness of the overarching MAT policy: who the winners and losers are from their very existence, for example, and what this means for public education. However, the extent and radical nature (for these times) of some of its proposals amount to a damning indictment of the direction of travel. For instance, it is highly unorthodox to call for the sort of role for local authorities that it has; to call into question MATs’ financial sustainability and to downplay (relatively) individual leadership. In that spirit, it is seeking to obtain maximum value, effectiveness, and usefulness from a policy constructed as unopposable.