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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The University Game

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


Why does employer engagement make a difference to young people?

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Told us from experience. Told us straight.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Making A Statement

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

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

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

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


What’s in a name?

Note: this piece was originally published as Anonymising UCAS forms is only a first step towards fair and discrimination-free university admissions on LSE’s Democratic Audit blog.

Glasgow University, Credit: Chor Ip, CC BY SA 2.0When pledging to make university applications “name-blind”, the Prime Minister yesterday cited research showing that top universities make offers to 55% of white applicants but only to 23% of black applicants. From 2017, universities will follow major employers that “recruit solely on merit” by offering anonymity to their applicants.

In many respects, this is a sensible move. Universities can hardly claim immunity from ‘unconscious bias’, and admissions processes could be seen to exemplify the “quieter and more subtle discrimination” that the Prime Minister wishes to address. However, those of us who have looked closely at the issue would argue that concealing candidates’ names does not go far enough.

In 2012, I authored a report for the Sutton Trust showing that the quality of UCAS personal statements could be predicted by applicants’ school type. For example, those from Sixth Form Colleges and Comprehensive Schools made several times more basic spelling and grammar errors than those from Grammar Schools and Independent Schools. Ethnicity was also a major factor, with British-Bangladeshi applicant making 2.29 errors per 1,000 words of statement, compared to white applicants’ 1.42 errors. All of the statements I examined were written young people who went on to achieve identical grades at A-level. The differences in their statements were not down to ability; they were down the amount of help and guidance available.

There are other ways in which our university application systems may reproduce existing forms of privilege. Candidates from the fee-paying sector are much more likely to mention the name of their school in their personal statement, even though this information is captured elsewhere in their application, perhaps as a means to accentuate their perceived fit for leading universities. Social capital is demonstrated through prestigious work placements, internships and job shadowing experiences; cultural capital through overseas trips and LAMDA examinations. Evidence suggests that interviews are no less discriminatory, with some candidates drilled extensively in how to perform under pressure while others remain intimidated by an unfamiliar, hostile environment.

So how should selective universities select when almost every indicator is potentially problematic and we cannot be trusted with even a candidate’s name? An extreme solution, favoured by some European countries, is to allocate places on over-subscribed courses based on a lottery for those who meet a minimum academic threshold. Other nations, notably the USA, ask for statements but offer greater reassurance to students from under-represented backgrounds that their application will be read in its appropriate context and the odd spelling mistake will not count against them. Few nations rely on the personal statement as much as the UK. However, with Independent Schools increasingly competing with one another on entry rates to leading universities, and with new markets emerging around the tutoring and coaching of applicants, the pressure to maintain the status quo is considerable.

The Prime Minister is right to say that the UK Higher Education sector needs to take a close look at why young people from some backgrounds can be disadvantaged in the application process. We also need to understand better why ethnicity predicts the likelihood of graduating with a higher degree award. But to stop at anonymised applications would be to pretend that the root of the problem is a handful of prejudiced admissions tutors. The candidate’s name is not the only issue. Indeed, this information may allow more sympathetic admissions tutors to make appropriate allowances. If the goal is to bring greater fairness to the process, we also need to think about more systemic issues, such as why offers are made on predicted rather than actual grades, how candidates’ attainment can be suitably contextualised, and why personal statements are given more prominence than any evidence suggests they are worth.

When it comes to higher education policy, Labour is asking itself the wrong question

(Note: I published this piece first at the London School of Economics’ General Election 2015 blog on 06.02.15…)

“How can we bring down the headline £9,000 per year figure?” seems to be a challenge that Labour Party policymakers have set themselves ahead of the General Election, perhaps concerned that higher fees could deter participation, especially among society’s less privileged groups, and that too many student loans are being written off. These are valid concerns and, to some extent, the “intense focus” on the £9,000 headline figure is justified: since English universities became the most expensive in Europe, enrolment rates for mature and part time students have fallen sharply. Moreover, estimates continue to suggest that the new funding system will prove more expensive for the taxpayer than the one it replaced.


But there’s a risk that trying to reduce the headline figure will actually cause further damage. The first thing to remember is that £9,000 is an irrelevant sum to most graduates because they’ll never repay their debt in full. Whether higher fees deter young people from applying to university is difficult to gauge. There’s no evidence to support that position yet, even among those from the lowest socio-economic quintile, but it is possible that early trends are being skewed by a lack of meaningful labour market alternatives.

Labour is reportedly toying with the idea of capping fees at £6,000 per year. But university VCs are already demanding to know how the lost revenue would be replaced. It would be a bold government that asked the Higher Education sector to do it all a bit cheaper. Relative to the share of GDP received, many indicators suggest that UK universities already punch above their weight.

One solution would be to change the income threshold at which graduates begin their repayments. At the moment, it’s £21,000 per year. It would be very easy for any government to raise revenue by reducing this threshold, or by freezing it as inflation rises, thereby making graduates repay more of their loans more quickly. But such a move raises all kinds of equity issues. Remember that when £9,000 fees were introduced the biggest losers, relative to the previous model, were middle earning graduates. As the Sutton Trust noted, the “average teacher” would now pay back around £42,000 of student debt, and still be making repayments when they reach their early 50s. Under the previous system, the same teacher would have repaid around £25,000 and completed at the age of 40. In relative terms, changing the income threshold would hurt low and middle earning graduates more than those on higher incomes, and cutting the headline figure to £6,000 may well have a similar effect.

So what are the alternatives? As a recent report by the Higher Education Commission concluded, there’s no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to higher education funding. But the question that Labour might want to begin asking itself is “Can those who benefit most from Higher Education contribute more?” Such thinking immediately brings to mind the Graduate Tax, a phrase that increasingly means whatever its user wants it to mean, as several commentators have noted. A ‘pure’ form of Graduate Tax, levied against all income at the same rate, would be controversial for practical reasons – very high earners may choose to leave the country rather than keep paying. It would also raise issues of fairness – should any graduate be required to foot the bill for their degree thousands of times over?

The kind of funding system that Labour might want to think about is one that demands more for longer from the very highest earners. At the moment, it’s possible for some graduates to repay their loans relatively quickly, thereby dodging interest. But what if everyone had to contribute something for the full thirty years? Just a regular flat, fee for those lucky enough to have finished their loan repayments and still be earning a healthy salary?

Would anyone complain about fairness if the resultant income allowed the 2012 funding system, with its safeguards for lower earning graduates, to be preserved at less expense for the taxpayer? And for the all-important repayment threshold to rise with inflation, as promised, for all graduates? Might it even allow further support for students struggling to get by on inadequate maintenance loans, or for hard-hit groups, such as mature and part time students?

The main opposition to a Graduate Tax seems to be ideological rather than economic. We’re told that, in the marketplace of Higher Education, “competition, with suitable regulation, benefits the student”. To treat all graduates equally is to make free market behaviour, such as price discrimination, more difficult. And that raises the toughest question of all: “What are universities for?”

Is the optimum model of Higher Education is one that drives up quality by using dubious metrics to pit university against university? Or should the goal now be to reclaim Higher Education as a public good as well as a private good, and to accept that some graduates will earn more than their peers simply because they enter better-paid professions? Labour need to ask the right question.