Can Higher Education be depoliticised in 2018?

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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.