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.