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.

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.

What can defuse the student loan time bomb?

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

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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)

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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’).

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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).

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.”