Are headline writers getting it wrong on fees?

This piece was originally published by WonkHE on July 6th 2017.

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Yesterday’s briefing by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Higher Education Funding in England: Past, Present and Options for the Future) was covered in the same way by most of the national press. “Three quarters of graduates will never pay off student debts” ran the headline the Independent. Coverage in the Times was almost indistinguishable. The Mirror did little more than capitalise its NEVER, and the Telegraph headline merely framed the 77.4% figure as “almost eight in ten.”

For journalists, it’s the obvious way into a complex story, a hook that ostensibly captures the current system’s flaws and rank unfairness. What better evidence of a broken model than millions of graduates weighed down with debt they’ll never earn enough to repay?

 

But there’s a danger that the terms of the much-anticipated national debate (as called for by Damian Green last week) will be shaped too narrowly by this statistic. While some evidence suggests that students graduating into higher levels of debt feel more anxiety than those in previous generations, the report offers other kinds of evidence that should arguably have a greater bearing on public thinking.

Indeed, to some extent, the unrepaid bit of a graduate’s debt embodies the funding model’s most progressive element. Because it kicks in when a graduate’s earnings are too low for repayment to be deemed possible, it’s effectively the government’s subsidy for HE, a solitary concession that universities might just be a public good as well as a private one. Jo Johnson hints at this when he talks about “a vital and deliberate investment in the skills base of this country”.

The problem is that the more substantive defects of the current system are trickier for newspapers to distill into a few big-font words on the front page. Take the “back-door” freeze on graduates’ opening repayment level. This not only contravened assurances that the threshold would rise with inflation, but we now learn that it costs students an average of more than £4,000 each. As the IFS briefing note explains, this is because the impact of the freeze is permanent. Over the five year period to which it initially applies, the long-run taxpayer cost is reduced from £7 billion to £5.9 billion. If extended for another five years, the government saves a further £700 million. Middle earners are hit hardest.

The 6.1% interest rate that some graduates will face come September is equally difficult to justify. For high earners, the use of RPI + 0–3% (rather than CPI + 0%) increases lifetime repayments by almost £40,000 in today’s money. A blog from Million Plus’s CEO uses adjectives like “staggering” and “usurious”.

We also need to be more mindful of those who don’t fall into the government’s go-to definition of a ‘student’. While recruitment holds firm among the young, full-time cohort, the same cannot be said of part-time or mature students. Many commentators have explained why we should avoid looking at HE participation through such a conveniently narrow lens, but policy discourse doesn’t budge, and the sector’s part-time and mature students remain largely invisible.

Claims about the graduate premium, such as Jo Johnson’s that “a degree is worth on average £250,000 in higher lifetime earnings for a woman”, should always be accompanied by an acknowledgement that subject-by-subject differentials are enormous. Other broken promises – on maintenance grants, on nurses’ bursaries – must be central to any national debate. Perhaps IFS’s most damning observations is that “incentives for universities to provide high-quality courses in return for the money they receive are surprisingly limited.”

As David Kernohan notes, the briefing should allow the sector to take a more nuanced and long-term view on HE funding in the aftermath of a heated election campaign. Our students deserve nothing less. The immediate focus of the press has been on the proportion of graduates who are projected never to earn enough that their debt is paid in full. But beneath the headlines lie a series of issues that more directly impact on equity, and potentially present greater long-term threats to students’ participation and the sector’s sustainability.

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A response to the House of Commons Education Committee report on Multi-Academy Trusts

The number of schools joining multi-academy trusts has grown over the last five years, and it is expected that this growth will continue. The House of Commons Education Committee has, as a result, looked into the performance and role of these trusts. This blog, which I co-authored with Steven J Courtney, Ruth McGinity, Robert Hindle, Stephen M Rayner and Belinda Hughes focuses on four key aspects of the Committee’s report and argues that broader questions about the government’s policy remain untouched. It was originally published on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog.

The House of Commons Education Committee published its report on multi-academy trusts (MATs) on 28th February. At a time when the health of school budgets is increasingly jeopardised, the report is a timely reminder that the role of the select-committee system is to hold government to account. The report consequently critiques some aspects of the development and administration of multi-academy trusts, whilst largely accepting the overarching policy strategy.

Academisation since 2010 has increased rapidly, leading to new types and configurations of academy. A MAT is the most common way of uniting diverse academies into one legal entity, governed by a single board of trustees. Government policy on MATs reflects an expectation that maintained schools should become academies and that these should join or form a MAT. What is in doubt, and is addressed by this report, is how this policy aim is being operationalised.

In this response to the report, we focus on four key areas: the report’s attitude towards local authorities; how it addresses MATs’ financial sustainability; its distinctive treatment of leadership; and the report’s use of language.

The role of local authorities

One of the most striking features of the report is the marked change in the way in which local authorities are described and positioned. After many years as a target of what Stephen Ball called ‘discourses of derision’, local authorities are now seen as the potential saviours of an incoherent programme of MATification.

Allowing local authorities to set up their own MATs, which has been impossible until now, might entice hitherto reluctant school governors and leaders, particularly in primary schools, to join a MAT, because they would expect to retain valued relationships and support structures. We support the report’s conclusion that the fundamental problem remains, however. A triangle of power-bases – Ofsted, Regional School Commissioners and local authorities – has been established, without clarity about the place of each within what the present Secretary of State calls ‘the schools ecosystem’.

Financial sustainability

The report gives a warm reception to the idea of a ‘growth check’ on MATs and we await the metrics on which such checks will be made. This acknowledges that larger MATs increasingly become monopoly providers, both regionally and nationally. Previous thinking might have suggested that larger-scale organisations benefit from cost-saving economies of scale­ – important in a tight financial climate – and an Austrian economics view of the power of innovation driven by greater funds. The need for ‘growth checks’ suggests a consideration of the drawbacks of monopoly positions.

Are some MAT leads driven by power rather than quality? In The New Industrial State (1967), JK Galbraith introduced the notion of a small number of larger corporations dominating markets, a ‘technostructure’ of self-interested managers, a system by which ‘predator’ firms govern and which serves to maintain their own power through expansion. The performance of many academy chains to date suggests that the scale of a MAT has at best an inconsistent impact on outcomes. Furthermore, the report’s warning that neither the Department for Education nor the Education Funding Agency may cope with future MAT growth should ring alarm bells.

Leadership

‘Strong leadership’ is the fifth of the six characteristics identified by the Committee as key to MAT success. It is not called leadership, however, but ‘a shared vision’, supporting findings that the former is increasingly reducible to the latter. ‘Leaders’ in this report mean MAT CEOs and the overarching Board of Trustees, which includes sponsor representation.

In fact, there are many more references here to ‘sponsor’ than ‘leader’. This has the effect of diffusing the act of leadership, of partly removing its exercise from a single, perhaps heroic figure in the New Labour mould. If trusts may ‘do leadership’, two questions immediately follow. First, which activities apparently constituting leadership are possible or impossible? Second, how is accountability for the impact of such activities understood and experienced?

Language

Finally, it is worth noting the subtle shifts in language that pervade the report. As well as the now-familiar market-based metaphors (“sponsored” school, “brokered” deals, etc.), we also find new imagery. For example, some MAT-less schools are framed as “untouchables”, presumably because they are deemed financially unviable rather than because they belong to a caste system that regards them as impure. The term seems to follow similar rhetoric used by Warwick Mansell and others when characterising such schools as “orphans”. This image may capture a sense of rejection, but the danger is that in framing schools as in need of benevolent parenting we disguise the truth – that they’ve been forsaken not by misfortune but by an ideology.

In conclusion, this report ostensibly leaves untouched the broader questions concerning the appropriateness of the overarching MAT policy: who the winners and losers are from their very existence, for example, and what this means for public education. However, the extent and radical nature (for these times) of some of its proposals amount to a damning indictment of the direction of travel. For instance, it is highly unorthodox to call for the sort of role for local authorities that it has; to call into question MATs’ financial sustainability and to downplay (relatively) individual leadership. In that spirit, it is seeking to obtain maximum value, effectiveness, and usefulness from a policy constructed as unopposable.


Could universities learn from the TEF’s advocates how better to influence public discourses?

Note: this piece was originally published here on the Sociological Review‘s website. It is co-authored by my Manchester Institution of Education colleagues, Steven Courtney & Ruth McGinity.9Public-Speaking

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is no easy sell. For a sector already awash with audits, metrics and league tables, the prospect of new measurements – especially ones underpinned by a brazenly market-driven ideology – is difficult to embrace. The ways in which the TEF is discursively framed therefore become crucial to its reception, and the strategies used offer a ready case study into how policymakers co-opt, cajole and (if all else fails) coerce their way to implementation. In an age where headlines matter more than procedural detail, and media messaging more than academic buy-in, the success of higher education policy can hinge on how convincingly it is spun. Wittgenstein’s notions of ‘language games’ are becoming as relevant to higher education research as Bourdieu’s theories of class distinction.

That’s not to implJo-Johnsony that the TEF is without any substantive arguments of its own. When the current Minister for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson, talks about “rebalancing” teaching and learning, few would argue that the scales are in need of no correction. When one of his predecessors, David Willetts, characterised teaching as “by far the weakest aspect of English higher education,” we grimaced, but we couldn’t deny that it has often been over-shadowed by research imperatives. Indeed, as TEF enthusiasts point out, only 37% of undergraduates now report that their degree represents good value-for-money, down from 53% just four years ago.

But such statistics should be treated with caution. First, because they assume commercial paradigms and implicitly deny any notion of university as a public good; in other words, once value-for-money becomes the currency, what counts is not society’s collective advancement but the individual’s net return on their financial investment. And second, because it’s wholly disingenuous to bash university teaching using value-for-money indicators; many students reporting poor value will be doing so because of the extraordinary hike in fees rather than any deterioration in their learning experience.

The reliance on metrics means that, all too frequently, universities are positioned as either reform averse (far too ivory tower’d to understand what their students want) or greedy and self-interested (seeking to preserve a bloated, over-protected sector from the market’s natural justice). The TEF, by contrast, is framed by its supporters as “strengthen[ing] the position of students and prospective students vis-à-vis these powerful institutions” (Emran Mian, 06.11.15). Jo Johnson goes further, claiming that “students are looking critically at what they get for their investment, and so must we, as a government, on behalf of taxpayers” (01.07.15). The government thus become plucky Davids slaying the Goliaths of an outmoded, authoritarian higher education sector. No matter that the National Union of Students passed a motion in favour of “principled disengagement” from the TEF, and has threatened to sabotage next year’s National Student Survey in protest.

9indexAnti-university discourses are legitimised through mass reiteration: the ingeniously named Office for Students sounds like it will champion and defend learners’ rights; Study UK emerges as a “national representative body for independent providers of higher education”; a methodologically flawed but widely reported survey of staff at independent schools finds they don’t much like the sound of how undergraduates are taught; “too many universities teach pointless degrees that offer nothing to their students,” runs a headline in The Telegraph (Fraser Nelson, 15.04.16). Space rarely opens up to question why one of the economy’s most consistently high-performing sectors (a “world leader, with four universities in the global top ten,” according to the government’s 2016 White Paper) should model itself, both commercially and pedagogically, on a private school system.

The co-opting is relentless, and stressed-out university staff eventually turn on the very undergraduates who should rightly be their allies. “My students have paid £9,000 and now they think they own me,” writes an anonymous academic in the Guardian’s Higher Education Network (18.12.15). Undergraduates become pawns in a very public game of chess, discursively courted by government and universities alike, but faced with the same unprecedented levels of debt regardless of allegiance.

9banksy-twitter-fight1On the day that the government’s White Paper was published, the Minister busied himself on Twitter, disseminating responses to the document from stakeholders such as the Confederation of British Industry (“it’s good that proposals have taken on board the business view”), the University of Buckingham’s Vice Chancellor (“full marks to the minister for not succumbing to pressure from university traditionalists”) and the editor of Conservative Home (“if more would-be students had better information about future earnings they might not go to University at all”). Some might claim that what’s important is the detail of the policy, not the social media clamour surrounding it. However, as quick-to-tweet ministers probably realise, to own the discourse is to the win the argument.

And so the TEF wheedles its way into the sector, despite the perverse incentive of inflationary fee rises and the likelihood of an already-stratified sector being divided further. The prospect of an “outstanding” rating (rather than merely an “excellent” one) will seduce those institutions best equipped to play the game. And despite Green Paper pledges to “address the ‘industries’ that some institutions create around the REF and the people who promote and encourage these behaviours,” similar activities are sure to emerge around the TEF, as numbers are crunched, metrics optimised and self-glorifying statements written.

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Meanwhile, so-called “challenger institutions”, summarily checked, enter the market. Public discourses frame them as high-quality food providers, and question why they must seek permission of their corporate competitors to compete (“akin to Byron Burgers having to ask permission of McDonald’s to open up a new restaurant,” Jo Johnson, 09.09.15). Their stakes are small: low start-up costs and minimal regulatory oversight. The bigger gamble is that taken by the UK higher education sector: centuries of hard-won reputational gain wagered on the untested principle that new providers will show a crusty establishment just how HE-level teaching should be done.

If the sector were better able to speak as a united profession, public opinion may be more inclined to lean in its direction. The best way to rebalance research and teaching is probably to obsess less about measuring the former rather than to obsess more about measuring the latter. But greater coordination and discursive agility is required to persuade those outside academia how damaging an unchecked marketisation agenda might ultimately prove. Students need winning over with evidence, not assurances, that their learning is our top priority; the role of research in pedagogy needs defending more stoutly; and the value of higher education to wider society needs articulating more forcefully and more often. Perhaps the sector could learn a thing or two from the TEF’s advocates about how to frame public discourses.

Why does employer engagement make a difference to young people?

Note: this piece was originally published here by Anthony Mann (Director of Policy and Research, Education and Employers Taskforce) & Steven Jones on February 11th 2016. The academic paper on which the blog is based appears in the Journal of Education and Work.

 

It is now more than fifty years since the British state first acted to enable schools to bring workplace experience into the schooling of young people. The 1963 Newsom Report paved the way for the first formalised work experience placements aimed at young people intent on going into work during their mid-teens. In the half century that followed, experience of workplace has moved from a marginal activity, affecting fewer than 5% of pupils in the 1960s, to a universal expectation. Through the rolling waves of government, charitable and business initiatives, a tidal change has been witnessed in both the UK and in countries around the world.

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The policy push for closer ties between schools and employers has been primarily driven by an expectation that employer engagement will enhance young people’s labour market prospects. This was an explicit rationale behind the reforms of both the Labour Party in the 2000s and of the Conservatives in the 2010s. Historically, with little evidence available on impact, policy makers were required to trust their instincts. In recent years, however, a growing body of US and UK research literature has tested whether school-mediated exposure to the workplace can be linked to improved outcomes in the early labour market. While some studies raise reasonable questions about methodological approaches, a compelling story emerges of improved employment outcomes: notably, in terms of wage premiums (found up to age 24) accruing to young adults who, as teenagers, engaged in higher volume levels of employer engagement through their schools than comparable peers.

bourdieuWithin research and policy debates, increasingly it has been asked not whether employer engagement makes a difference to the prospects of young people, but why it does so and how it can be optimally delivered. Stanley and Mann (2014), for example, draw on insights from three inter-related concepts commonly used in academic and public policy literature to explain relative advantage and disadvantage experienced by individuals within the labour market: human, social and cultural capital.1024 Drawing particularly on work by sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Mark Granovetter, Stanley and Mann offered ‘a theoretical framework that can comprehend accounts of how employer engagement is experienced and how it provides resources that aid progression in the labour market.’ In new research, this framework is tested for the first time.

Steven Jones (University of Manchester) and colleagues have analysed 488 responses to an open question in a 2011 YouGov survey exploring young adults’ experiences of schoolmediated employer engagement: for example, work experience, careers talks, enterprise education, business mentoring. They look at answers to a broad question which invited respondents to reflect on ‘what [they] got out of employers being involved in [their] education.’ Participants were prompted to consider whether the involvement was responsible for ‘changing the way [they] thought about school or college, providing useful information or encouragement for thinking about possible jobs or careers, helping to get actual jobs either through people [they] got to know or giving [them] something useful for job applications or interviews, or in getting into a course at college or university.’ A reassurance was added that ‘maybe [they] got nothing out of it at all.’ In the analysis, responses from 190 young people providing sufficient information relating to personal benefit of some type were considered. Not all young people reported positive benefits, it should be noted. As one individual reported:

“I worked in a bookshop doing the jobs no-one else wanted. This did not affect my decision to become a diagnostic radiographer.”

Using textual analysis of the statements, the researchers explored whether any evidence was apparent of different types of capital (human, social or cultural) being accumulated through experiences.

Perhaps, the most striking finding from the study emerged from its attempt to find evidence of human capital accumulation. It is a theory at the heart of most educational policy – that the more young people know and can do, the better their employment outcomes will be. In the field of employer engagement, considerable attention is devoted to the idea of ‘employability skills’, or the abilities that allow an individual to act effectively in a workplace. It has long been posited that exposure to authentic workplace situations in some ways serves to improve communication, problem solving, team working skills etc. While teachers often testify this is what they routinely observed in episodes of work-related learning, questions have been raised as to whether the typical British experience of school-mediated employer engagement (episodic, short duration, nonassessed, not integrated into the curriculum) could generate significant variation in such skills years into labour market participation.

And in the analysis of reflective statements, this scepticism was upheld. Little evidence of human capital accumulation was found. Significantly less apparent than evidence of cultural and social capital accumulation, improvements in human capital were most commonly witnessed in an indirect fashion – reflections on how workplace exposure led to increased academic application or experiences enabled easier progression into further study – especially at university level. It was in the realm of social and cultural capital that young adults reported the greatest benefits to them emerging from their workplace experiences.

Young people, particularly from independent school backgrounds, provided evidence of social capital in a number of forms. It was expressed as access to information and guidance which was unusually useful and trustworthy because it was deemed authentic:

“Told us from experience. Told us straight.”

“I trusted the word of someone in the working world as opposed to a careers’ advisor or teacher ‘telling’ you what to do.”

Others reported that economic opportunities emerged from connections made initially through school-mediated engagements:

“Following my work experience placement I obtained permanent part-time work at the same business. This steady job helped as a stepping stone into the working world.”

Most striking, however, was evidence that employer engagement activities had in some ways contributed to accumulations of cultural capital. Particular use is made of Bourdieu’s idea of ‘habitus’: that the behaviour and decisions of an individual are shaped and constrained through often inherited and/or unconsciously acquired attitudes and selfperceptions that are linked, to some degree, to wider social structures such as social class, ethnicity and gender. Policy makers often attempt to influence such ways of thinking – for example, in challenging gender stereotyping or making university attendance ‘thinkable’. Mentoring programmes and careers-focused campaigns in a similar vein are commonly designed to encourage young people to think differently about themselves and who they might become.

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The new research finds considerable evidence of changes in thinking that can be related to an ultimate economic importance: of young people gaining confidence around their decisions, broadening or eliminating potential options and changing the ways in which education itself was seen:

“It stopped me from leaving school early and made me stay on to go to uni which I think was a good thing in the end.”

“I found my work experience horrible, which is why I made an effort to get a better education and a better job.”

Ultimately, however, complexity is found in the relationships between different types of capital accumulation, as illustrated by this statement:

“Work experience helped me to better understand how my school studies translate into the job world and which areas of my studies would be useful in work. This provided motivation to work hard at university modules that were not necessarily the most appealing in terms of enjoyment but I could see that they would be valuable to finding employment later on.”

Considering such relationships, Jones and colleagues argue that young people gain access to multiple, complex and overlapping opportunities to gain benefit, proposing an Employer Engagement Cycle (see diagram at top). For example, through employer engagement activities, a teenager may make the contacts needed to be offered a job (social capital … as access to employment) while simultaneously acquiring the expertise or ability to make them employable in that role (human capital … as skills development). Or, to give another example, a young adult may report maturing and becoming more assured about themselves (cultural capital … as enhanced personal confidence) as a result of trusted information from employers (social capital … as authentic guidance). The research joins a growing body of literature that demands policy makers and practitioners think afresh of employer engagement initiatives, how they relate to a young person’s wider life and what truly drives the significant benefits many appear to experience.