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.

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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.

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Who gains from the grumbles?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why research and teaching need to be reintegrated as well as rebalanced

Note: this piece was originally published on the All-Party Parliamentary University Group website. Further details of the presentation I gave to the Group are here.

Among the stronger arguments made in the government’s Green Paper is that a ‘rebalancing’ of research and teaching in Higher Education is needed. As a sector, we’ve become accustomed to close scrutiny of our research while our teaching has largely remained unaudited, sometimes reliant on the dedication of personally committed academics. But there’s an equally strong case to be made for 4research and teaching to be reintegrated. What makes students’ learning at university different from earlier, more instrumental educational experiences is the opportunity to be immersed in a culture of scholarly enquiry and research advancement, to learn first-hand from those leading their field, and to conspire in the creation of new knowledge. In measuring teaching, we must take care not to set it further adrift from research.

For any teaching audit to benefit the sector, buy-in from both students and academics is vital. Attempts to frame the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) as siding with long-suffering undergraduates are undermined by ‘principled disengagement’ from the National Union of Students. The link with fees makes the TEF the hardest of sells to the ‘consumer’ it supposedly empowers, especially now maintenance grants have become loans and repayment thresholds are frozen.

For academics, the risk is that separate audits for research and teaching put the sector in a state of perpetual preparation and further fuel the kind of game-playing ‘industries’ that the Green Paper rightly chides. A better integrated, lighter-touch framework might allow more time for universities to do what matters, instead of just reporting it in the most favourable terms possible.

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The questions a TEF might most usefully ask of the Higher Education sector are those that encourage us to make better use of our data, communicate more clearly with applicants, and draw on our own research to ensure that every student receives the teaching and support that’s best suited to their needs. For example, we know all about key outcome differentials, such as the relative under-attainment of Black and Minority Ethnic students compared to White students. But how do we address them? Part of the answer surely involves research. We need to understand better how cohort and staff diversity, curriculum design and campus culture affect performance.

201CKm_cEcUAAEB3arIndeed, one problem with relying on metrics is that some are such distant relations of teaching quality that they’d barely recognise one another. Graduates salaries, for example, are predicted much more by subject choice, university prestige and social capital than by how effective your lecturers were. Similarly, high satisfaction scores can be achieved by pleasing students rather than challenging them. In so diverse a sector, metrics can never tell the whole story.

Would-be students will benefit far more if universities – and then disciplines – created their own narratives. Many young people find their school-to-university transition difficult to negotiate and would benefit from clear, evidence-based guidance about the pedagogical approach and distinctiveness of individual courses.

2imagesThe Impact and Environment Statements used in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) offer useful potential templates. Teaching impact could be evidenced by localised measurements of learning gain; teaching environment by learning culture and staffing strategy, as well as by facilities and extra-curricular learning opportunities. Emerging narratives would be accompanied by relevant supporting evidence, such as student attendance at research seminars, the ratio of contact hours spent with senior academics relative to teaching assistants, the retention and performance of WP students relative to non-WP students, etc.

Eventually, any ‘excellence’ framework will get gamed. What’s arguably more important is the direction in which it nudges the sector and the behaviours it implicitly encourages. As universities grow more confident in their own research into Higher Education and articulate richer pedagogical narratives, the TEF’s role may develop into one of overseeing panel assessment rather than imposing metrics of its own. A low-maintenance REF and low-maintenance TEF could evolve and coalesce according to consistent underlying methodological principles, and in ways that allow research and teaching to complement, not compete with, one another.

“Fulfilling Our Potential”: what policymakers’ rhetoric reveals about the future of Higher Education

Note: this piece was originally published on LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog (September 29th 2015)

Jo-JohnsonSpeaking earlier this month at the Universities UK Annual Conference, the Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, offered few new pointers about the upcoming Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) but may have revealed more – not necessarily intentionally – about the government’s broader view of the Higher Education sector.

Take the comment about new providers’ courses being validated by established universities. According to the Minister, it’s “akin to Byron [Burgers] having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant.” The point being made is clearly about perceived anti-competitive practices, with eager young upstarts being denied market entry by larger, entrenched operators. However, the metaphor is a curious one, with the new providers framed as purveyors of posh hamburgers and their validating institutions as lower-end fast-food joints.

Byron-Burger-02-hop-1-interiorsNick Hillman cleverly traces the root of the analogy to Matthew Batstone, co-founder of the New College of the Humanities, whose favoured version was more confectionary: Batstone likened the validation process to new chocolate bar manufacturers needing approval from Mars Bar. However, as John Gill notes, “high-profile problems have dogged attempts to inject competition” into the Higher Education arena. And though some alternative providers have targeted Byron’s end of the market, not all private colleges have been made of the finest ingredients, as investigations by Andrew McGettigan and others have shown.

Also revealing was Johnson’s definition of inspiring academics as those “who go the extra mile, emailing feedback at weekends and giving much more of their time than duty demands”. Within the sector, eyebrows lifted at the expectation that university staff should work harder still, and the implication that their weekends aren’t already spent on the job. Some wondered whether excellence within all professions would now be judged on out-of-hours contributions, and questioned why academics’ work-life balance was being further eroded. Remember that 40% of university teaching staff are on temporary or zero-hours contracts, and that university management is plagued by gender imbalance.

But the definition was probably born more of frustration than disrespect. Finding TEF metrics that actually work has proved trickier than anticipated. Learning gain might (and probably should) be measurable at local levels for individual cohorts of students, but it doesn’t allow the kind of cross-institution and cross-discipline comparisons that the TEF craves. Employability and salary data tell you lots about students’ background characteristics but, as Graham Gibbs notes, they remain hopelessly distant proxies for the quality of teaching they received at university.

images3Elsewhere, the Minister’s speech did offer some optimism for the sector’s future. The goal of increasing by 20% the number of black and minority ethnic students going to university by 2020 is to be applauded. UCAS was ordered to publish more detailed breakdowns of candidates’ background characteristics and application patterns, as the Social Mobility Commission requested some time ago. There were even intimations of a lighter-touch Research Excellence Framework (REF), with welcome acknowledgement that many in the sector want an audit that is “less bureaucratic and burdensome” and which “takes up less of the time that could be spent more fruitfully on research and also, of course, on teaching”.

Keeping the sector on side remains the TEF’s biggest challenge. Mike Hamlyn rightly worries about higher education “being seen as a transactional good, rather than a transformational experience,” while Paul Martin Eve fears that the TEF heralds “a massive coming wave of shake-ups to Higher Education finance, both research and teaching”. Pleas to rebalance teaching and research may seem more reasonable to academics if excellence in the former was acknowledged to rely on excellence in the latter.

TEF-Briefing-August-2015Disappointingly, the student voice is fading from TEF debates, with the NUS executive electing for “principled disengagement” because of threatened links with an inflationary fee rise. This despite the NUS having previously issued an excellent briefing paper on the topic.

The full title of the Minister’s speech referred to “fulfilling our potential”. The challenge ahead is to ensure that “our” embraces the whole of the Higher Education sector, and that “potential” denotes opportunities for it to become more equitable, more pedagogically responsive and more transparent about what it does. Greater care should be taken with language. How exactly is “patchiness” in the student experience being differentiated from learner-appropriate pedagogical diversity? Who exactly is lamenting the “lamentable” teaching?

That “extraordinary teaching deserves greater recognition”, however, is incontrovertible. As is the claim that Higher Education is “the most powerful driver of social mobility we have”. The TEF will soon find friends in the sector if it nudges institutional cultures in this kind of direction.

But equally important is that the TEF skirts avoidable pitfalls, in terms of both policy and rhetoric. Such pitfalls include hierarchy-enshrining outcome indicators, student-alienating associations with a fee hike, and tortuous metrics that reward only the wiliest gamers. The sector may also have had its fill of burger metaphors.