Can Higher Education be depoliticised in 2018?

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


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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


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


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

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


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.

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.


Who gains from the grumbles?


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.


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.