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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Making A Statement

qLast week, the Sutton Trust published a Research Brief that I co-authored with the HE Access Network. The theme is a familiar one for me: the UCAS personal statement. I’ve blogged about it here and here, written a previous Sutton Trust report, and published findings in an academic journal and a book about global HE admissions practices.

Saint-Mary-s-School-oqLD3CThis 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.

The researjohnhumphMS2010_468x402ch attracted plenty of press attention, including an excellent opinion piece by Catherine Bennett for the Observer. Other print coverage included reports in The Sun, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Times Education Supplement. My interview on the BBC Radio Four’s Today programme is available here (listen from 52’45”) until February 26th 2016.

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.

 

2013: the year in HE

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

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

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

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

EntryRate_4UKCountries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what to expect from 2014?

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

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

Student-Debt

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.

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.