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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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.

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.

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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.”

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.

Not another Widening Participation blog?

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The title of my blog refers to a 2004 Sutton Trust report which suggested that, every year, 3,000 disadvantaged young people in the UK don’t attend a top university despite having good enough grades to do so. The figures, based on benchmarks by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), showed that 45% of independent school students who obtain ABB+ (or equivalent) go to a leading university, but only 26% of state school pupils obtaining the same grades do so. ‘Leading’ universities are defined as the 13 highest-ranking UK institutions, and they’re the ones associated with greater prestige, better facilities and higher salaries. The consequences for social mobility are obvious.

Much has changed since 2004, of course. On one hand, a tripling of student fees and the abolition of AimHigher and the Educational Maintenance Allowance may make participation even trickier for some disadvantaged young people. On the other hand, the latest figures from UCAS actually show applications from the poorest 20% of the population at a record high.

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The point of this blog is to help make sense of the (often contradictory) stats and the (often controversial) policies, with a view to finding out whether 3,000 young people still go ‘missing’ every year. I also want to shed some critical light on debates about Higher Education (HE). By ‘critical’, I mean asking questions like:

  • Is being ‘missing’ from a top university the same as ‘missing out’?
  • Does Widening Participation (WP) still matter? How wide must participation be? Can the WP battle ever be won?
  • What makes a young person ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘non-traditional’? Which are the overrepresented groups in HE?
  • What assumptions are encoded in the language and discourse of WP? Why do we frame the debate in terms of ‘barriers’ to participation?

The Sutton Trust’s ‘Missing 3,000’ suggests that high-achieving working class youngsters may be deterred by the prestige associated with top universities, by the prospect of moving away from home, and by the cultural and social distance they perceive university to be from their own lives. Lots of other published research in the field (by Diane Reay and Penny Jane Burke, among others) find similar factors at play, and recent data I’ve collected in low-participation Manchester secondary schools suggest that these problems persist.

Despite the modest gains in WP over the last ten years, recent quantitative studies by Vikki Boliver and Chris Cook find alarming disparities. According to Boliver, state school applicants are only 4/5ths as likely to receive an offer from a Russell Group university as private school applicants, even when their  grades are the same  (although that statistic doesn’t control for predicted grades, subject choice or applicants being either under- or over-ambitious in their selections).

Clearly, debates in this area are complex and sensitive. But since dipping a toe in the field of HE (my academic background is in Linguistics), I’ve found the research to be stimulating and the debates fascinating. University participation is a topic about which everyone holds a view. Some of those views are well-informed, evidence-based and insightful. Others aren’t. This blog is simply one scholar’s attempt to help distinguish between the two.