This study was a really interesting addition to the evidence because it was the first to compare how teachers at state schools and admission tutors at high-prestige universities read statements. The results were alarming: what teachers think make a good personal statement is a far cry from what universities are looking for.
While I think personal statements offer a useful lens through which to view distributions of social capital and explore teenagers’ self-conceptualisations, I’m hoping this will be the last time I write about them. A review of their use in the application process – ideally as part of a wider review of the HE admissions in the UK – is long overdue.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With the first UCAS deadline of the academic year looming, thousands of University hopefuls are putting the finishing touches to their personal statements. But growing evidence points towards the current process favouring some applicants more than others – and it may be time for a radical overhaul, according to Dr Steve Jones.
“The UCAS personal statement is academically irrelevant and biased against poorer students,” ran the headline of one Telegraph blog last month.
According to its author, paying a private company to write your statement now costs between £100 and £200, and the whole thing is little more than “an exercise in spin”. Meanwhile, The Times report that tutors “often ignore students’ personal statements,” describing the indicator as “worthless”.
Perhaps more significantly, last week saw the publication of a Pearson Think Tank report called “(Un)Informed Choices“. The executive summary was surprisingly frank in its recommendation: “the use of personal statements should be ended.”
The debate has interested me since I was commissioned by the Sutton Trust last year to collect new evidence about the personal statement.
My findings were stark. Basic writing errors (like misspelling and apostrophe misuse) were three times more common among applicants from state schools and sixth form colleges as those from independent schools. There were also big differences when it came to work experience: independent school applicants had lots more, and it tended to be high prestige.
All of the statements I looked at were written by students with the same A-level results, so I wondered whether the textual differences offered a partial explanation for the unfair outcomes reported in UK admissions processes more broadly.
For example, research at Durham University has shown that state school applicants are only 60% as likely to be made an offer by Russell Group universities as independent school applicants with the same grades in “facilitating” subjects.
So why hasn’t the personal statement been binned by UCAS already? In my experience, there are five main lines of defence:
1. “Admissions Tutors aren’t taken in by slick expensive personal statements”
This was the response of Cambridge University’s Prof. Mary Beard to my research, and I think it’s a very reasonable point. Any experienced reader of statements will have well-honed “crap detection” skills. Who’s to say our admissions tutors aren’t seeing right through the fancy work placements and LAMDA successes? The problem is, as a sector, we’re neither consistent nor transparent in how personal statements are read. Sometimes they’re given close, critical attention; sometimes not. Either way, we keep schtum about the criteria we use and the weight we attach to them.
2. “There’s never an excuse for spelling mistakes, is there?”
This point was made to me twice by a BBC TV newscaster. The answer is no, there’s never an excuse. However, if you have lots of people to proofread your statement and you’re repeatedly told it’s something you’ve got to get right, chances are you’ll take a bit more care. The sixth form college applicant who made twelve basic language errors in his statement wasn’t stupid – his attainment record proves that – he just didn’t understand how much those mistakes could count against him.
3. “We like to be holistic in the way we select our students”
It’s never easy to argue with the word ‘holistic‘, but there’s no advantage to using lots of indicators unless every one is bringing fairness to the selection process. Perhaps a small amount of appropriately contextualized attainment evidence is actually more equitable than a wide range of hazy non-academic indicators?
4. “We use the personal statement as a starting point for interview questions”
5. “Actually, we know personal statements aren’t a reliable, and we don’t bother reading them”
This point is made regularly, but with half a million statements written every year, maybe it’s time someone mentioned it to the young people who stress and sweat over writing them?
There’s room for compromise, of course. In 2004, the Schwartz Report suggested redesigning the UCAS application form to include prompts that elicit more directly relevant information in a more concise fashion. Those applicants with the social and cultural capital to secure the best work experience and highest prestige extra-curricular experience would then have less opportunity to cash in on their good fortune.
But for the last word on the subject, here’s a member of admissions staff (quoted anonymously in the Pearson report) on just how much difference school type can make to the personal statement:
“I’ve spoken to heads of private schools about the question of how much help they give students in writing statements. They say ‘well, they’re paying £7,000 a term, of course we give them a lot of help, that’s what they’re paying for’. And yet you see statements from what [are] potentially good students from schools which have not got a lot of experience of sending their students to HE, and they’re not very good because no-one knows what to do, how to do it.”