What if flashier buildings don’t make happier learners?

First published 3rd August 2016 on the Society for Research into Higher Education’s News Blog

In some respects, students at UK universities have never had it so good. Dusty old lecture theatres are being torn down and shimmering new ‘learning environments’ erected in their place. Between 2013 and 2017, outlay on buildings and facilities at higher-prestige institutions alone matched that spent on the London Olympics (BiGGAR Economics, 2014), with some universities issuing public bonds to raise extra coffers for campus development projects.

PM3199093But how can the UK Higher Education sector be sure that its unprecedented levels of capital expenditure are leveraging commensurate ground-level pedagogical gains? Evaluation mechanisms, where they exist, tend not to be student-centred. For example, the Association of University Directors of Estates reports that income per square metre increased by 34 per cent across the sector between 2004 and 2013. While this might make for a healthy balance sheet, it tells us little about the ways in which staff and students engage with their environment. As Paul Temple noted in his 2007 report for the Higher Education Academy (“Learning Spaces for the 21st Century”), university buildings have the potential to transform how learning happens. The challenge for the sector is how best to assess their impact.

Earlier this year, I published initial evidence from a collaboration between researchers at the University of Manchester and Kingston University. We took one new building at one higher-prestige university, conducted detailed interviews with 10 staff members and 28 students, and surveyed over 200 other users. Positive feedback was common: students relished airy, well lit corridors, with comfy seating areas for pre- and post-session collaboration; open spaces could be ‘colonised’ and made their own; water coolers, and other features associated with workplace environments, drove new conversations.


However, not all responses were as expected. Many students told us that attractive-looking buildings helped them to choose their university, but when asked to rank what would most improve their experience now, fewer than 5 per cent prioritised their learning environment. Students’ primary needs were much likelier to be staff-related – they wanted more academics to be more available more often, both formally and informally.

Among staff, frustration was often expressed about ‘flexible’ spaces that could not be easily moulded to their teaching needs. Though communal areas were welcomed as a means to foster cohort identity, many associated capital expenditure with a tacit expectation that they should teach students in ever-larger groups. The design of buildings was often seen as a reflection of managerial naivety about their role: “I don’t even take a lunch break, let alone go and mingle,” said one in relation to an atrium designed to stimulate staff-student interaction. Others noted that many students lacked the critical thinking and other independent skills that their new learning environments implicitly demanded.

Indeed, a recurring theme in the interviews was the transition from school or college to university, which many felt was being disrupted, not smoothed, by campus architecture. “In college, you knew5images what everything was for,” said one student, capturing the wider view that more guidance was needed for students to exploit communal learning spaces. Few comparisons between school and university facilities favoured the latter. Technology was a particular focus of misunderstanding, with the design of new estates seeming to make untested assumptions about students’ digital learning dispositions and behaviours. While staff struggled to make unnecessarily intricate equipment work, students remarked that they didn’t “need everything all hi-tech all the time” anyway.

Our research, though no more than exploratory, raises important questions about the extent to which universities’ investment in new estate reflects students’ perceived pedagogical needs. It is clear that the sector could better consult about buildings’ design and better evaluate post-occupancy usage. A 2015 report by the Higher Education Policy Institute refers to an “arms race” in capital expenditure, and the risk is that pedagogy becomes the first casualty of universities’ recruitment wars. Only through long-term, systematic evaluation can we know whether the enormous resources being allocated benefit current students as well as lure new ones.

CJHEJones, Steven, Michael J. Sutcliffe, Joanna Bragg and Diane Harris. 2016. “To what extent is capital expenditure in UK Higher Education meeting the pedagogical needs of staff and students?” Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management. Published online: 09 May 2016. DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2016.1181881



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.


What can defuse the student loan time bomb?

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


According to a new pamphlet issued by the Social Market Foundation, “the Tories’ student loan system that finances our universities, voted through by the Lib Dems, is a timebomb waiting to go off”.

The author Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow minister for universities, science and skills, rues a “free-market experiment gone wild”, but offers few insights into Labour’s preferred alternative. There is no shortage of ideas out there for him to choose from.

The reason the system isn’t working is because, on current estimates, 45p for every £1 borrowed will never be paid back.

In a recent statement, the Russell Group dropped several hints about what Britain’s leading universities think should happen next in terms of student funding. Responding to a Business Innovation and Skills Select Committee report that also warned of an “increasingly fragile” system, the Russell Group pointed out that graduates currently pay back “only” 9% of their annual earnings above £21,000. This, they noted, was a “far” higher repayment threshold than under the previous system before the new fee regime was introduced in 2012.

The statement added that the government “can, of course, change these repayment conditions in order to increase the amount of money repaid, if they so choose.” With this line, the Russell Group acknowledged that the 2012 system requires change, but stopped short of calling directly for new thresholds for student loans to pay their loans back. The decision for that would remain the government’s, as would any subsequent blame.

Who benefits from a lower threshold?

Some, such as LSE’s Nicholas Barr, have explicitly advocated a lower opening repayment threshold. £21,000 is an arbitrary figure, for which no specific rationale was ever provided. If it were cut to, say, £15,000, a graduate earning £20,000 per year would still repay only £37.50 per month (compared to nothing now). A graduate on £25,000 would pay £75 (compared to £30 now).

However, such benign calculations do not address the broader question of whether lower-earning graduates should be hit harder than their higher-earning counterparts.

The graph below is a crude initial attempt to visualise how a reduced repayment threshold would affect graduates’ total lifetime repayments.


The blue blocks represent how much four types of earners would currently pay back, in today’s money, in return for borrowing £9,000 in fees, plus £5,500 maintenance per year, using the defaults currently set on a popular student finance calculator.

The red blocks represent approximate total repayments under a lower £15,0000 threshold for the same four groups of earners. The groups are those with starting salaries of £20,000, £30,000, £40,000 and £50,000 respectively.

As the graph shows, a reduced threshold would hit lower earning graduates harder than higher earning graduates (excluding those whose incomes never rise above £15,000 and who therefore receive full debt forgiveness). Higher earning graduates would be slightly better off.

Punishing middle earners

Note that in neither system do the very highest earning graduates repay most. As explained by the University of Bristol’s Ron Johnston, the 2012 system is regressive because high earning graduates complete their repayments earlier and thereby accrue less interest on their debt. Cutting the threshold at which repayments begin would both benefit and enlarge this group. They’d be the winners.

The losers would be graduates who aren’t high earners. As noted in the Sutton Trust’s report, Payback Time, under the 2012 system an “average teacher” will pay back around £42,000 of student debt, and still be making repayment in their early 50s. Under the system that was withdrawn in 2012, the same teacher would have paid around £25,000 and complete at the age of 40. The danger is that tinkering with repayment thresholds makes the current system even more punishing for such graduates.

On the surface, keeping a loan-based system has its advantages. The Russell Group is right to point out that UK universities punch well above their weight relative to the proportion of GDP that comes their way, and though the 2012 system failed as an austerity measure, it has safeguarded overall funding levels for most students.

What’s more, fears that the 2012 fees hike would deter young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds from enrolling on full-time degree programmes appear not to have materialised. This summer’s figures have shown an 8% increase among the poorest groups (though the number of mature and part-time students has fallen alarmingly).

Give graduate tax a go

An alternative approach that receives less attention is that of a graduate tax. Understandably, some commentators have expressed concern that “hypothecated” taxes (ones earmarked for a specific purpose such as a graduate tax) might be diverted elsewhere by capricious future governments. But the principle that England’s highest earning graduates should contribute the most (or, at least, as much as their middle earning counterparts) is one that would surely enjoy popular support.

Liam Byrne is right. Today’s students are, as he says: “highly anxious about taking on an average of £44,000 worth of debt in an uncertain job market where nearly half of employed recent graduates are in non-graduate jobs.”

Of course, a graduate tax would make it trickier for universities to compete on price and therefore sits uneasily within fashionable, “student-as-consumer” thinking. But the alternative is that the cost of higher education, having already been transferred from taxpayer to graduate, could be further shifted from those who benefit most to those who benefit less.

Willetts’ Legacy? Too soon to say…

This piece was originally published on LSE’s Impact of Social Science blog as “Higher Education community responds to cabinet reshuffle, but it is too soon to foretell David Willetts’ legacy” (July 15th 2014)



Last night, @timeshighered initiated a Twitter hashtag to gather users’ thoughts about how posterity might record the outgoing Universities minister’s contribution to the sector. It was fascinating to watch #WillettsLegacy develop, with initial ire that “Higher Education has never been so deep in the shit” (@dolbontboy) slowly giving way to “real admiration” (@mikegalsworthy) for a “thoughtful and respected” (@keith_herrmann) minister with “passion” and “enthusiasm” (@Suzanne_Wilson) for his brief.

For some, the legacy was “crippling debt” (@tmyoungman), “accelerated marketization” (@DrLeeJones) and a “black hole in funding” (@cmsdengl).  For others, Willetts was “a visionary” (@LE_Aerospace), “brilliant” and “outstanding” (@ProfRWinston). Often mentioned was “the value of having a universities minister who understands science” (@AlanHeavens).

At the time of writing, about 30% of the #WillettsLegacy tweets were positive, 45% were negative and 25% were mixed.

The success or otherwise of Willetts’ reforms won’t be known for some time yet, of course. The 2012 funding model places graduates in hitherto unknown levels of debt. Indeed, the Institute of Fiscal Studies recently noted that where under the previous student loans system 50% of graduates would complete their repayment by the age of forty, only 5% will do so under the new system. The 2012 model may be more progressive during the period immediately after graduation, but future generations of middle-earners are likely to pay more for longer.

david willettsWhich? University Launch. Image credit: Which? Press Office (Flickr, CC BY SA)


If the reforms were an attempt to introduce competition to the sector, they were largely unsuccessful. Predictably, raising fees to £9k per year didn’t result in universities ruthlessly undercutting one another in the market place. What it did create was a plethora of “Cashpoint Colleges” teaching nothing much at all, at eye-watering expense to the taxpayer.

Indeed, early predictions of how costly the government’s underwriting of the new system would be proved wildly optimistic. RAB estimates have now risen from 30% to 45%, making the system more expensive than that which it replaced. Some call for the fee cap to be lifted; others suggest some kind of Graduate Tax may be a fairer option.

Though the widening participation agenda seems not to have taken a hit from the introduction of higher fees, UCAS report that applications from mature students and part-time students are down substantially since 2012. Even when young people from state schools get the grades for a top university, evidence shows that they’re less likely to apply and less likely to be offered a place than their equal-attainment peers from the independent sector.

Findings also indicate that some applicants are much more favoured by the applications process than others. Willetts supported the use of contextual data in admissions (“if they’ve come from a school that doesn’t get many good A-level grades,  getting a grade at that school is even more of an achievement”), but missed key opportunities to level the playing field further.

On the other hand, Willetts did much to raise the profile of teaching in Higher Education. For all of its faults, the National Student Survey shows student satisfaction rising every year. Open access for journal articles (triggered by Willetts’ own frustrations at being charged to read scholarly publications when researching his most recent book, The Pinch: How Baby-Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, and Why They Should Give it Back) is a step in the right direction.

Indeed, in Willetts, we had a minister who was willing to engage directly and openly with academic research. At a Sutton Trust event last year, I recall Willetts taking issue with an academic report authored by John Jerrim of the Institute of Education. The debate was heated, and Willetts repudiation of the evidence wasn’t entirely convincing, but it was heartening to see a policy-maker engage directly with educational research (rather than, say, dismiss its authors as blobbish ‘enemies of promise’).


With four years’ service as the Minister of State for Universities and Science, Willetts is entitled to the odd blunder. Among his most cringe-worthy was citing feminism as the “single biggest factor” for the UK’s social mobility problem, although selling off old student loan books smacked of fiscal desperation and the proposed cuts to the Disability Student Allowance are particularly offensive.

With no student having yet graduated under the 2012 system, Willetts’ legacy can be no more than a matter of speculation. Hasty measures to open up the Higher Education sector to alternative providers may yet take their toll both on universities and on the taxpayer. Those of us who received our degrees for free may wince at the levels of debt new generations of graduates face.

However, the consensus from social media, and beyond, is that Willetts shielded the Higher Educations from the worst excesses of austerity and neoliberalism. He’s generally remembered as a minister committed to his brief and ready to engage with dissenting voices; as “one of government’s genuinely nice blokes” (@tnewtondunn).

New Year, New Blog

Having been The Missing 3,000 since March, I’ve decided to relaunch this blog as H.E. Watch for 2014.


Two reasons:

First, some people question whether there really are 3,000 young people every year who get the grades to enter a top university but end up elsewhere (as the Sutton Trust reported in 2005). Recent statistical evidence seems to indicate that the shortfall could still be very high, but it’s difficult to pinpoint a precise figure, I agree.

Second, talk of the ‘missing 3,000’ does raise questions about how ‘top’ universities are defined. Who’s to say some of these young people aren’t making a rational choice to study at a less élite universities? And who’s to say their degree programme isn’t the right one for them?

Thanks, as always, for the feedback.

Time to stop gambling on advantaged university applicants?

Coinciding with the publication of this summer’s exam results was a familiar spate of media pieces warning universities not to “patronise poor kids” by lowering offers to those who don’t get the grades.

As usual, such students are constructed as a “gamble”, universities as well-meaning but naïve institutions, and OFFA as meddling social engineers. The “real” problem always lies elsewhere.

But is it really an academic “gamble” to acknowledge that not all young people have the same schooling advantages?

No, says most of the evidence. Primarily because such students actually outperform those from the private sector once at university. In fact, to recruit on grades alone would be a far greater gamble – that’s why most universities now consider contextual data when choosing between similarly qualified candidates.

In this week’s TES, Tom Bennett argues that such approaches simply move the injustice elsewhere, “from lack of opportunity for some from birth, to lack of opportunity for some at the point of university admission”.

This is a quite a claim: that advantaged students, often brimming with social capital and coached to game the HE admissions system, could face a “lack of opportunity” at the Russell Group gates.

I’m not sure we need worry about that just yet.

Indeed, using a Freedom of Information request, The Guardian last week showed that private school applicants were 9% more likely to be admitted to Oxford than those from state schools with same grades. Long-term academic studies of UCAS data reach similar conclusions.

Put simply, applicants from the state sector must earn higher grades than their private school counterparts to have the same chance of entry.

This is generally lost on the authors of topical opinion pieces, where the approach tends towards “I know of one student…” anecdotes.

For Bennett, “universities are not places in which to unpick the stitches of historical injustice”.

But if those stitches need unpicking, where better to start?

Does the ‘Attainment Gap’ get Russell Group universities off the hook?

In the UK, Russell Group universities are the posh ones: institutions with the highest entry grade requirements, the highest graduate salaries and the most prestige. There’s 24 of them, and the group take its name from the Hotel Russell, which currently ranks 455th of 1,079 hotels in London by Trip Advisor (“bathroom not hygienic,” says Jan from Ghent, “there was some brown substance in the corner of the window”).

The question of who gets into Russell Group university is, for obvious reasons, an important one. According the UCAS application figures for 2013/14, “18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas are three times more likely to apply to higher education than those from the most disadvantaged areas, and entry rates to institutions that require high grades are typically six to nine times greater for applicants from advantaged areas.”

‘Six to nine times greater’ sounds an awful lot. However, the Russell Group do have an explanation: “The main problem is that students who come from low-income backgrounds and/or who have attended comprehensive schools are much less likely to achieve the highest grades than those who are from more advantaged backgrounds and who have been to independent or grammar schools,” explains Wendy Piatt, Director General of the Group. And she’s right: go to a private school and you’re four times more likely to get AAA in your A-levels than you would be at a comprehensive. “Universities simply cannot solve these problems alone,” says Dr Piatt.

Among the research supporting the ‘attainment gap’ is a paper by Haroon Chowdry and colleagues at the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It’s  a fascinating study, following two groups of English pupils from the age of 11, and noting how their academic performance at each stage of school testing affects their likelihood of participation. Findings suggest that differences in participation rates across the social classes “are substantially reduced once prior achievement is included”. They add that:

“Poor achievement in secondary schools is more important in explaining lower HE participation rates among pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds than barriers arising at the point of entry to HE. These findings are consistent with the need for earlier policy intervention to raise HE participation rates among pupils from low socio-economic backgrounds.”

Few would argue with the second point. What’s most helpful for children of low socio-economic status is intervention at an early age. You can’t correct for years of educational disadvantage as a UCAS deadline is approaching. The first point is also true – low attainment is undoubtedly the UK’s biggest barrier to participation. However, there is a tendency for Chowdry and Co to gloss over the differences that still remain at the point of entry.

Take this finding: once all prior attainment is taken into account, girls from the lowest socioeconomic quintile are 5.3% less likely to enter HE than girls from the highest socioeconomic quintile. Boys are 4.1% less likely. If you want a place at a Russell Group university, your odds are reduced by 4.3% and 2.5% respectively. Similar findings were reported earlier this week by Vikki Boliver for equal-attainment applicants in a survey of UCAS applicants from 1996 to 2006. Applicants from lower class backgrounds and from state schools were less likely to be offered a place at Russell Group universities than their comparably qualified counterparts from higher class backgrounds and private schools (even when ‘facilitating’ subjects were controlled for, despite the spin put on the research by some).

For Chowdry and his fellows authors, the point-of-entry gap between applicants of different socioeconomic status is “modest”. Encouraging less well-off students to apply to university at the age of 18 is therefore “unlikely to have a major impact” on participation. In relative terms, of course, this is perfectly true – improving attainment for all young people of lower socioeconomic status would make a bigger difference than focusing on the small proportion who defy the odds and get good grades.

But doesn’t this line of thinking get HE off the hook a little too easily? What of the thousands of high-achieving young people who aren’t making it to a top university each year? Jonathan Portes makes the same points about Chris Cook’s interpretation of the Oxford University data. He also uses the graph below to show that, if these young people did participate, they’d probably outperform students from more privileged backgrounds.

We cannot offer places to those who do not apply,” says Dr Piatt. True. But there’s a growing body of research that suggests those who do apply to Russell Group universities are not always treated equally. The ‘attainment gap’ certainly isn’t to blame for that.