“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.

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The Role of Ethnicity in Admissions to Russell Group Universities


(Note: I published this piece first on the British Educational Research Association’s Respecting Children & Young People blog on 17.03.15…)


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Here’s an excerpt from a UCAS personal statement written recently by an applicant to a Russell Group university:

“There are various times where I have been a team member such as in hockey, this is where we have to understand our team member’s strengths and weaknesses to evaluate best positions, it makes us understand that one’s ability may be skilful but can always be tackled by two. We had to quickly judge aspects; we also understood how goals and motivation can go through team members, as high motivation can motivate another.”

Within the excerpt, some details have been altered to protect the applicant’s identity. However, the writing style is unchanged and captures that of the whole statement.

A natural first response is that the applicant doesn’t belong at a high-prestige institution: the text is poorly punctuated, with muddled content, and reads as though it were thrown together at the last moment. Thank goodness for UCAS personal statements, one might conclude, for allowing universities additional evidence on which to make important selection decisions.

Except things aren’t quite so straightforward.

First, note that this applicant went on to receive A-level grades that were sufficient to gain entry to the courses for which she applied. This suggests that her personal statement difficulties were not caused by a lack of academic ability so much as confusion about what was required. Second, studies like this one, this one and this one, question whether personal statements are really of much value in predicting students’ subsequent performance at university anyway. Third, the applicant was educated in the state sector, and evidence suggests that she may therefore have had limited access to the kind of high quality information, advice and guidance available to many of her competitors. And fourth, the applicant is of British-Bangladeshi heritage, a group which fares poorly in admissions to high-prestige universities compared with White applicants of similar academic attainment.

In 2012, I undertook research for the Sutton Trust looking at how university applicants from different backgrounds set about the task of writing their personal statement. My primary focus was on school type, and I discovered that applicants from Sixth Form Colleges and Comprehensive Schools were much more likely to make basic language errors (spelling mistakes, apostrophe misuse, etc.) than those from Grammar schools and Independent Schools. Workplace experience could also be predicted by school type, with some applicants able to list up to a dozen placements at flash companies while others struggled to make a Saturday job sound relevant to their chosen course of study.

I’ve since returned to the data to find out whether personal statements also differ according to the ethnicity of the applicant. On average, I discovered, British-Bangladeshi applicants make 2.29 clear linguistic errors per 1,000 words of statement, compared to White applicants’ 1.42 errors. British-Bangladeshi applicants are also low on meaningful work-related activity, averaging 1.57 per statement compared to 2.32 for White applicants (where ‘meaningful’ means undertaken for genuine vocational experience rather than for cash – all such activities were blind coded by two text analysts). The total sample size is 327, and all of the statements were submitted by students who would go on to achieve identical A-level grades.

What prompted me to carry out these new counts was the graph below, based on UCAS data analysis by Durham University’s Vikki Boliver. This analysis showed that applicants’ chances of getting an offer from a Russell Group university differed markedly according to their ethnicity. British-Bangladeshi students have a 42.6% likelihood; White British students a 52.0% likelihood.

Table Russell Group Applications

Source: Boliver in Alexander and Arday (2015), via Economics of HE

As Parel and Boliver note, ethnicity actually trumps school type as a predictor of admission to leading UK universities. Figures obtained from Oxford University by the Guardian in 2013 under the Freedom of Information Act indicated that “43% of White students who went on to receive three or more A* grades at A-level got offers, compared with 22.1% of minority students”.

Such differentials can be explained in many ways. Even though Boliver’s data controls for ‘facilitating’ subjects (those the Russell Group claim are preferred by universities), it could be that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) applicants take inappropriate combinations for the degree courses to which they apply. It has also been implied that BAME applicants tend toward oversubscribed subjects, such as medicine or law. However, as Boliver continues to point out, the kind of individual-level data needed to develop a clear picture of why differentials arise is increasingly being restricted because, supposedly, it “presents a high risk of individuals’ personal details being disclosed.”

1astatementDoes the application process itself discriminate against some applicants? I’ve written before about how the UCAS personal statement is, in many respects, a flawed indicator, and I’ve also responded to specific arguments made in its defence. Other researchers have noted similar problems with university interviews (see Burke and McManus on would-be Art & Design students who make the mistake of citing hip-hop as an influence, or Zimdars on a tendency for admissions tutors at Oxford University to recruit in their own image).

Such studies raise awkward but crucial questions about what exactly non-academic indicators are supposed to indicate. Is the personal statement simply an “opportunity to tell us about yourself”, as UCAS benignly describes it, or is the real goal to flaunt one’s cultural and social capital, signalling what Bourdieu characterises as the “dispositions to be, and above all to become, ‘one of us’”?

The Observer’s Barbara Ellen notes that certain kinds of applicant are much more likely to “speak uni” and be able to “decode the foreign language of the admissions process.” And Pilkington reminds us that BAME applicants are “entitled to know that they will not be subject to potentially indirect − or indeed direct − discriminatory practices in an institution’s admissions processes.”

However, the problem may well go beyond the level of institution. A key structural barrier seems to be an admissions process that assumes all applicants are equally equipped to understand (and have sufficient support to meet) its veiled requirements. The personal statement purports to help university admission tutors make informed choices based on holistic evidence, but may actually reproduce White and other forms of privilege at the point of application.

Enrolments slide further for ‘forgotten’ part-time undergraduates

(Note: I published this piece first at The Conversation on 19.01.15….)

We were told that the 2012 changes to England’s student funding system would boost the number of part-time students at university. But new data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency confirm that such predictions were wide of the mark. In fact, there were 30% fewer new, part-time, first degree enrolments on undergraduate programmes in 2013-14 than there were in 2011-12.

Prior to 2012, part-time study was rising in popularity. The Browne Report into English higher education recommended that those studying for an undergraduate degree part-time should be given the same access to funding, proportionately, as those studying full-time. The previous method of up-front fees, it claimed, “put people off from studying part-time and stopped innovation”.

The subsequent government white paper, Students at the Heart of the System, accepted Browne’s recommendations about finance for part-time study and went further still, promising “a more diverse sector with more opportunities for part-time or accelerated courses, sandwich courses, distance learning and higher-level vocational study”. According to free-market logic, with universities deregulated and therefore more responsive to student demand, flexible learning would become the norm and part-time enrolments would rise.

Big drop in part-time students

The graph below tells a different story. The annual number of new students enrolling part-time on a first degree fell by 15,820 (20.3%) in 2012-13, then by a further 8,005 (12.88%) in 2013-14. As a result, the proportion of all new undergraduate students that are enrolling on a part-time basis has dropped from 14.11% to 10.37%.

 

The slide is a cause for concern because many part-time students are “from backgrounds under-represented at universities”, according to the white paper. They are the “forgotten” group in higher education, their absence not receiving the attention it might because of a tendency for public discourses to focus on more positive trends among young, full-time students.

As the second graph shows, although enrolment rates for new, full-time, first degree undergraduates dipped immediately after the fee rise, they recovered in 2013-14. This recovery allows claims to be made that higher fees do not deter demand for higher education. Applications from lower socio-economic students also appear to have risen within this group since 2012. However, enrolment rates for new, part-time, first degree undergraduates have not recovered from their dip.

 

Even for full-time students, it may be premature to hail the 2012 system an unqualified success. A lack of meaningful labour market alternatives to higher education may skew the figures for the current crop of students. The number of young people choosing to study abroad, though still lower than leaders of independent schools imply, continues to rise. But, as a former leader of the National Union of Students Aaron Porter points out, the main reason to be cautious is that the data relied upon for good-news participation narratives generally exclude the huge number of students who are not full-time.

Why are part-time students disappearing?

Claire Callender, a higher education policy researcher at Birkbeck College, notes that part-time students face problems with eligibility criteria, and that employers may be increasingly reluctant to fund higher education courses as fees rise. Campaigns by the government and by individual universities may implicitly target the “typical” (young, full-time) student.

Drives like Universities UK’s “Part-Time Matters” aim to address the problem through clearer communication to those considering part-time study. Yet opportunities are not distributed equally between institutions – and more selective universities may find part-time students limit the speed with which they can launch and withdraw degree programmes, as market forces ostensibly demand.

Burden of fees

The effect of higher fees on part-time students is also poorly understood. It could be that those students most likely to be part-time are also those most likely to worry about placing themselves in substantial debt. The Sutton Trust charity demonstrated that the 2012 student loan system requires that graduates pay off their debt for longer than under the previous system, and that they repay more in total.

Budding part-time students may be deterred disproportionately, especially if their opportunity cost is greater because they already have work. Cost-benefit analyses soon become less straightforward, and the “graduate premium”, so often cited by advocates of the 2012 system, becomes less directly relevant.

The government white paper characterised the 2012 funding changes as “a major step in terms of opening up access” and predicted that “up to around 175,000” part-time students would benefit. In reality, the opposite has happened. This fall in part-time undergraduate enrolments, if not reversed, will have significant consequences for the make-up of higher education and, in due course, for the nation’s workforce.

Manchester Asks… Prof Les Ebdon

A couple of weeks ago, I hosted a University of Manchester public event at which the Director of the Office for Fair Access, Prof Les Ebdon, responded to pre-recorded questions from staff, students and alumni.

One of Prof Ebdon’s key points was about the under-performance of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students. According to Prof Ebdon, the issue is now “bigger than access into university” for such students.

Prof Ebdon was responding to a question asked by undergraduate student, Aasia Hanif, in which she cited HEFCE research showing that the likelihood of students from some minority ethnic backgrounds being awarded a good degree was lower than that for other students with the same entry qualifications.

“It happens at nearly every university,” said Prof Ebdon. “The expectation for those students is lower than the expectation for white students.”

Prof Ebdon described university as “the best investment you can make”. However, when pressed on the complexity of student loan model, he conceded that “the advantages of the system take a lot of explaining to people who just see the headline £9,000 per year”.

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In response to a question from Diana Khasa about the lack of encouragement received by some would-be applicants, Prof Ebdon urged universities to address the “myth” that young people from non-traditional backgrounds don’t fit in.

However, he also acknowledged important differences in the quality of advice, information and guidance received by students from different educational backgrounds.

“When I go into a fee-paying school, they’re usually very hot about university admissions,” said Prof Ebdon, before recalling his own difficulties navigating the university admissions system, which he described as “a complete lottery”.

“But lotteries are usually random,” I said.

“You’re absolutely right,” Prof Ebdon replied. “It isn’t a lottery. It’s a loaded dice.”

Prof Ebdon talked about “continued improvement” in the young participation rate of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. However, in response to a question about mature students from Student Union Campaigns Officer, Clifford Fleming, he accepted that participation rates for some other groups had fallen since the introduction of higher fees in 2012.

For mature students, Prof Ebdon advocated a “more flexible provision” noting that “ministers believe there are big opportunities in Distance Learning.”

“The picture is changing all the time,” added Prof Ebdon, pointing to “remarkable success” in admissions with minority ethnic groups, but noting that the increasing under-representation of ‘working class boys’ was “building up quite a significant social problem.”

When asked about access to postgraduate study by Clive Agnew, my University’s Associate Vice-President for Teaching and Learning, Prof Ebdon agreed that this was a growing area of concern. “Postgraduate admissions is the new glass ceiling for Widening Participation and we’ve got a problem with double glazing.”

Prof Ebdon also maintained that the Widening Participation agenda should not stop at the point of admissions, noting that non-traditional students “are likely to need extra support” once at university.

Finally, responding to a question about employability skills posed by Director of the Student Experience, Tim Westlake, Prof Ebdon said: “Students with professional parents very often have access to networks which enable them to understand what goes on in particular professions. They have a much wider range of professions that they know about. But students from non-traditional backgrounds may not have experienced that.”

Are counter-arguments to a Graduate Tax wearing thinner with every new RAB estimate?

Last week’s news that the 2012 student fee system is likely to cost more than the one it replaced was met with silence by those who previously blamed public opposition to it on “a failure of presentation”.

For some, the solution involves lifting the cap on fees further. So when Channel 4 newscaster Cathy Newman suggested to David Willetts that another rise was on the way, his response was that it “could be“.

For others, like John Denham, the answer is to introduce shorter degrees and to cut fees by having employers part-fund students.

Somewhere between the two, advocates of a Graduate Tax point out that, if levied at the right thresholds and subject to appropriate limits, such a contribution has the potential to raise more revenue in a way that’s more progressive.

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Often, the very idea of a Graduate Tax is shot down in flames, and today it was the Social Market Foundation’s Director, Emran Mian, who smeared it as “a terrible policy at a terrible time“. “If Labour does adopt a graduate tax policy,” he said, “it will be making a grave mistake.”

But are the counter-arguments to a Graduate Tax wearing thinner with every new RAB estimate?

According to Mr Mian, “everyone earning over £10,500 would have to make a contribution” and repayments would be “unlimited, both in terms of the total amount due and the period over which it is to be paid”.

Really?

Could repayments not be levied on earnings over, say, £21k, as the current system does? And could a Graduate Tax not cease 30 years after the degree is completed, as loan repayments now do?

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The underlying objections of Mr Mian, who headed up the supporting civil service team for the 2010 Browne Review, seem to channel those of Nicholas Barr, who rejected a Graduate Tax on the grounds that universities should “face a system that encourages competition“.

The problem is, changes to the funding model made in the name of “austerity” begin to look ill-conceived when the tax-payer is left footing an even bigger bill.

And Mr Mian’s piece doesn’t acknowledge one of the main problems with the £9k system – that high-earning graduates end up getting their degree for substantially less than their middle-earning counterparts.

That’s not to say a Graduate Tax is without any problems of its own, of course. Hypothecated revenues would need tightly ring-fencing to stop future governments dipping their hands into the till, and the Russell Group are right to point out that “the prospect of incurring a punitive tax liability would create incentives for those who anticipate higher earnings to avoid paying“.

Some wealthier graduates may indeed drift overseas to dodge their contribution.

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The SMF’s Chair, Mary Ann Sieghart, described Mr Mian’s piece as a “great demolition of the Graduate Tax“. And John Rentoul went further, arguing that the Graduate Tax has a “mythical quality of otherness shared in the old days by communism and in the new days by Swedish social democracy“.

But rather than dismiss the idea with a sweep of rhetorical flourish, wouldn’t it be better to commission some detailed economic modelling and make long-term comparisons with a £9k system that increasingly seems unfit for purpose?

Who knows? Maybe bigger loans and cheaper degrees aren’t the only two options?

Why lowering tuition fees may not be the answer

Last month, former Universities Minister John Denham addressed the Royal Society of Arts, saying:

“I don’t know of any progressive principle [in] which it is a good idea to induce people, generally from lower income backgrounds, to take on huge loans, demand big payments and then to tell them they don’t have to pay after all.”

On first reading, the argument seems a persuasive one. It’s consistent with Higher Education being a public as well as a private good. It acknowledges the significant additional debt we’re asking younger generations to take on. And it points towards broader cost-sharing mechanisms being more equitable.

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The problems raised by Denham’s position aren’t to do with hypocritical fiscal policy, as Conservative Home lamely claim. But there may be some unintended consequences to an otherwise refreshing intervention.

First, Denham talks about “turn[ing] our backs on the ideology behind the high fees system.” He wants to reduce the average total fee for a three-year degree to under £10k (“the same as when Labour left office”). Let’s spend more on teaching and less on debt cancellation, he says.

This will come as a blow to those at elite universities looking to ramp up their charges further and may strike the ‘squeezed middle’ as a step in the right direction.

However, those graduates who’d benefit most from the proposed cut would arguably be those who on the highest salaries. Fewer non-repayment concessions would kick in for lower-earning graduates, and an important progressive feature of the current system would be lost.

Second, Denham moots the idea of two-year courses (£5k in total) and encouraging more students to attend university while living at home. The UK HE sector increasingly accommodates both, and this flexibility is welcomed by many undergraduates.

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However, the danger is a two-tier system, in which three-year degrees in arts and humanities subjects become the preserve of a wealthier élite and cheap n’ dirty degrees are rolled out for the masses.

That’s fine if you’re a fan of price discrimination and a heavily marketised HE system, but not so great for long-term social mobility and equity of opportunity.

Denham wisely notes that university finances are “sliding off a cliff”, a point that needs to be made more forcibly (and acknowledged more openly) by politicians on all sides. “Despite steady progress in widening participation,” he says, “we are still miles away from a genuinely meritocratic, lifelong higher education system.”

I agree.

A strong case is also made for further partnership between universities and employers, and the point that £6 will be spent on debt cancellation for every £1 spent on teaching, though contested by some, is a powerful one.

However, the most obvious solution – cutting fees – isn’t necessarily the best. The headline £9,000 figure seems not to be deterring lower-income applicants and the long-term issue is probably more with an unsustainable repayment structure.

The current system is often described as a graduate tax even though the very highest earners actually repay less than middle-income graduates. Denham does allow for the option of a genuine graduate tax, but this seems more a concessionary afterthought than a firm policy recommendation.

Perhaps the most progressive principle of all would be to have those who gain most from HE cough up a little more.

2013: the year in HE

In 2012, following a near-trebling of student fees in England, recruitment fell by 9%.

However, 2013’s headline is that normal service has now been resumed. Indeed, entry levels are close to a record high.

This is good news for all. That HE brings both individual and societal gains is well established. Rumours persist that participation may even offer the odd cultural benefit, though ‘public good‘ remains a phrase conspicuously absent from most wider discussions of HE.

History will also record 2013 as the year in which the mature student began heading towards extinction. Application rates for those aged 21 or over have fallen 14% since the fees hike, and there’s little real hope of recovery. (Note that the graph below covers only 18-year-old applicants.) Prospects look similarly bleak for would-be UK postgraduates.

EntryRate_4UKCountries

On a more positive note, the 2013 National Student Survey found undergraduates to be happier with their lot than ever before. A blunt instrument though the NSS is, it would be churlish to argue that the ‘student experience’ hasn’t improved since its launch in 2005. 85% of graduating students are satisfied with their degree programme.

With universities now all REF‘d out, the pendulum is likely to swing back towards teaching. For England’s 1.5 million £9k-a-year paying undergrads, this can only be good news.

Private universities continued to be welcomed into the English HE market, though the New College of the Humanities fell short of its very modest recruitment targets once again. Three-quarters of its £18k-a-year paying students attended an independent school.

Such was demand elsewhere, however, the government was left with a black hole in its budget. With plans to sell off the student loan books being likened to a Ponzi scheme, some wonder why we seem intent on following the US down the path of bubbling, unsustainable student debt at a time when Germany are abandoning their fees experiment altogether.

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Sadly, 2013 saw the demise of the 1994 Group. Meanwhile, the University Alliance’s end-of-year message raised eyebrows by commending the government for courageously taking the “economic and moral high ground” (my italics). It also raised questions about what exactly HE mission groups and consortia are for.

Politically, Willetts and Cable continue to pull the strings, while Graduate Tax advocate Liam Byrne replaced Shabana Mahmood as Labour’s Shadow HE minister.

Universities UK got told off by Polly Toynbee for suggesting it’s okay to segregate female and male students, and Sussex Uni quickly reversed its decision to suspend five students for protesting peacefully.

In terms of WP, the proportion of poorer students applying for university held firm, though ‘top’ universities continue to recruit at much lower levels than other institutions.

According to a Sutton Trust report issued in November, at least one quarter of this “access gap” can’t be attributed to academic achievement, further evidence that there may be more to Russell Group under-representation than A-level performance.

And what to expect from 2014?

Well, English universities will soon be able to take as many students as they like. That’s good news for many, but it could increase the pressure on struggling institutions to maintain market share as their sought-after WP students are lured elsewhere.

Universities free from recruitment anxieties will continue to press for the £9k cap to rise.

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Meanwhile, early applications figures for 2014 are down 3% on the same time last year.

Long-term, it may not be the headline £9,000 figure that’s most damaging to the HE sector.

Rather – as I’ve argued elsewhere this year – a bigger problem could be continued uncertainty about the security, fairness and expense of the student loan system itself.