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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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.

 

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.”

Metaphors of HE Access: time to mind our language?

Like applying a bandage to lung cancer.”

That’s how Dr Martin Stephen last week described the idea of allowing disadvantaged students into top universities when they’re an A-level grade or two below the usual threshold.

Dr Martin Stephen is a former chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HHC) and ex high master of St Paul’s School in London. He was responding to Bahram Bekhradnia expressing dismay that, in his time as director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, the top universities had remained “as socially exclusive as ever.

Mr Bekhradnia suggested that the UK should follow US institutions’ lead in seeking to create cohorts that “represent wider society as far as possible,” obsessing less about academic attainment at the point of entry.

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For Dr Stephens, such a move would let low-achieving schools ‘off the hook’. It’s social engineering gone made, or whatever.

Our schools are not helping disadvantaged children to achieve respectable grades and these things don’t do anything about that problem,” he complained.

There are several problems with this position. First, a good deal of one-way evidence tells us that state schools pupils actually outperform independent school students once they reach university. Second, we know that state school applicants are less likely to be offered a place at Russell Group universities than independent school applicants with the same grades, even when ‘facilitating subjects’ are controlled for. Third, it is questionable whether low-achieving schools are incentivised by their students’ progression rates to top universities in anything like the way Dr Stephens implies.

But more disturbing than the views being represented are the metaphors increasingly being traded by those with vested interests.

Is academic under-performance, and the schooling system responsible for it, really like lung cancer? Or are such schools actually working hard to raise attainment among young people with multiple disadvantages, social problems and often chaotic home lives? The latest PISA findings suggest that socioeconomic background is the key determinant of educational success, not school type.

Note the similarly belligerent response to a recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who found that England’s grammar schools were now four times more likely to admit private school children than those on free school meals. This time it was the turn of Robert McCartney, chairman of the National Grammar School Association (NGSA), to return fire:

“Many, many parents from deprived areas, including what is generally called the dependency classes, are essentially not particularly interested in any form of academic education,” said Mr McCartney. “Their interests are directed towards pop culture, sports.”

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Naturally, the HHC, NGSA and other such organisation are bound to defend their market edge. Many independent and selective schools actively recruit on promises of entry to prestigious universities.

But should this defence spill over into unsubstantiated slurs against those from less advantaged communities? Poorer parents share the same aspirations for their children as their wealthier counterparts. It helps no-one to liken low-attainment schools to horrible diseases.

Let’s debate the evidence and leave the name-calling in the playground.

University as a ‘public good’? Only for those who never went…

This post, co-authored by Anna Mountford-Zimdars, was first published on Oct 4th 2013 by “British Politics and Policy at LSE“.

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Using data from the last 30 years, Steven Jones and Anna Mountford-Zimdars examined public attitudes towards participation in higher education. Despite questions being framed in ways that increasingly constructed university as a public expense, they identified a persistent belief in the core values of Higher Education. Among some of the surprising results, they found that graduates were more than twice as likely to favour a reduction in participation as non-graduates.  

In an era of rising tuition fees, deepening student debt and the global commodification of learning, any remaining notion of Higher Education as a ‘public good’ may seem improbable. However, evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey shows that the broader, society-wide benefits of Higher Education are still prized, albeit not always by those you might expect.

Together with colleagues from Oxford and London University, we examined surveys from the last thirty years to chart how public attitudes towards participation have reflected changes in policy. Despite questions being framed in ways that increasingly constructed university as a public expense, we identified a persistent belief in the core values of Higher Education. For example, 43% of those surveyed in 2010 thought that over half of young people should go on to university, a finding at odds with popular perceptions of a labour market saturated by graduates of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree programmes.

More surprising, Higher Education was cherished most highly by those from lower social classes. Only 10% of working class respondents thought opportunities should be reduced, compared to 26% among the professional and managerial classes. We also found gender and school type to be key predictors of attitude. Men were more likely than women to say that university isn’t worth the time and money, as were those educated privately. But the strongest predictor was whether respondents had themselves participated, with graduates more than twice as likely to favour a reduction as non-graduates. Those who profit most from Higher Education, it would seem, are those most inclined to pull up the ladder behind them.

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Of course, such are the private benefits of Higher Education for many graduates that public funding for universities could be regarded as little more than a middle class subsidy. However, this frames debates within the narrow, individualistic terms of human capital, problematic not only because different degree programmes yield different income ‘premiums’, but because, for some students, the value of a degree isn’t solely economic – it’s also about personal growth and the chance to become part of a better-educated, fairer society.

Self-interest is increasingly assumed to be the main driver for Higher Education participation, with students constructed as savvy consumers and debt justified in terms of enhanced lifetime earnings (or repayment concessions for those less fortunate). But against this tide of marketisation, support for Higher Education as a public good lingers.

Full paper:  Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Steven Jones, Alice Sullivan & Anthony Heath (2013) “Framing higher education: questions and responses in the British Social Attitudes survey, 1983–2010”.  British Journal of Sociology of Education (34, 5-06), pp. 792-811.