When it comes to higher education policy, Labour is asking itself the wrong question


(Note: I published this piece first at the London School of Economics’ General Election 2015 blog on 06.02.15…)


“How can we bring down the headline £9,000 per year figure?” seems to be a challenge that Labour Party policymakers have set themselves ahead of the General Election, perhaps concerned that higher fees could deter participation, especially among society’s less privileged groups, and that too many student loans are being written off. These are valid concerns and, to some extent, the “intense focus” on the £9,000 headline figure is justified: since English universities became the most expensive in Europe, enrolment rates for mature and part time students have fallen sharply. Moreover, estimates continue to suggest that the new funding system will prove more expensive for the taxpayer than the one it replaced.

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But there’s a risk that trying to reduce the headline figure will actually cause further damage. The first thing to remember is that £9,000 is an irrelevant sum to most graduates because they’ll never repay their debt in full. Whether higher fees deter young people from applying to university is difficult to gauge. There’s no evidence to support that position yet, even among those from the lowest socio-economic quintile, but it is possible that early trends are being skewed by a lack of meaningful labour market alternatives.

Labour is reportedly toying with the idea of capping fees at £6,000 per year. But university VCs are already demanding to know how the lost revenue would be replaced. It would be a bold government that asked the Higher Education sector to do it all a bit cheaper. Relative to the share of GDP received, many indicators suggest that UK universities already punch above their weight.

One solution would be to change the income threshold at which graduates begin their repayments. At the moment, it’s £21,000 per year. It would be very easy for any government to raise revenue by reducing this threshold, or by freezing it as inflation rises, thereby making graduates repay more of their loans more quickly. But such a move raises all kinds of equity issues. Remember that when £9,000 fees were introduced the biggest losers, relative to the previous model, were middle earning graduates. As the Sutton Trust noted, the “average teacher” would now pay back around £42,000 of student debt, and still be making repayments when they reach their early 50s. Under the previous system, the same teacher would have repaid around £25,000 and completed at the age of 40. In relative terms, changing the income threshold would hurt low and middle earning graduates more than those on higher incomes, and cutting the headline figure to £6,000 may well have a similar effect.

So what are the alternatives? As a recent report by the Higher Education Commission concluded, there’s no ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to higher education funding. But the question that Labour might want to begin asking itself is “Can those who benefit most from Higher Education contribute more?” Such thinking immediately brings to mind the Graduate Tax, a phrase that increasingly means whatever its user wants it to mean, as several commentators have noted. A ‘pure’ form of Graduate Tax, levied against all income at the same rate, would be controversial for practical reasons – very high earners may choose to leave the country rather than keep paying. It would also raise issues of fairness – should any graduate be required to foot the bill for their degree thousands of times over?

The kind of funding system that Labour might want to think about is one that demands more for longer from the very highest earners. At the moment, it’s possible for some graduates to repay their loans relatively quickly, thereby dodging interest. But what if everyone had to contribute something for the full thirty years? Just a regular flat, fee for those lucky enough to have finished their loan repayments and still be earning a healthy salary?

Would anyone complain about fairness if the resultant income allowed the 2012 funding system, with its safeguards for lower earning graduates, to be preserved at less expense for the taxpayer? And for the all-important repayment threshold to rise with inflation, as promised, for all graduates? Might it even allow further support for students struggling to get by on inadequate maintenance loans, or for hard-hit groups, such as mature and part time students?

The main opposition to a Graduate Tax seems to be ideological rather than economic. We’re told that, in the marketplace of Higher Education, “competition, with suitable regulation, benefits the student”. To treat all graduates equally is to make free market behaviour, such as price discrimination, more difficult. And that raises the toughest question of all: “What are universities for?”

Is the optimum model of Higher Education is one that drives up quality by using dubious metrics to pit university against university? Or should the goal now be to reclaim Higher Education as a public good as well as a private good, and to accept that some graduates will earn more than their peers simply because they enter better-paid professions? Labour need to ask the right question.

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The UCAS personal statement: “just enough rope for a hanging”?

(Note: I published this piece first in Research Fortnight on A-level results day, 2014…)

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For many students, A-level results day is the culmination of a lengthy and complex university application process involving open days, UCAS forms, grade predictions, school references and admissions interviews. For some, the game will have started even earlier, with awards, experiences and sporting endeavours accumulated throughout adolescence on the promise that “this’ll look good on your personal statement.”

But Britain’s approach to undergraduate admissions is the exception, not the norm. Elsewhere in the world, systems tend to be more sensitive to uneven distributions of social capital, extra-curricular opportunities and guidance from friends, family and school. At a recent international conference, delegates from Northern European countries began to chuckle when I explained that applicants to British universities are given 4,000 characters to write freely about themselves. They felt sure such an indicator would reveal less about the applicant than their social and cultural background. Similar suspicions were raised in the 2004 Schwartz Report, which warned that “some staff and parents advise to the extent that the personal statement cannot be seen as the applicant’s own work.”

The alternative for many nations is appropriately contextualised attainment data. Rather than turn to non-academic criteria to choose between eligible applicants, universities in both Holland and Greece have experimented with lotteries to distribute places on oversubscribed programmes. Meet your course’s entry requirements and your name goes into a hat with every other applicant who reaches that threshold. No gaming the system with interview coaching, LAMDA examinations or extravagant work placements.

Even in the largely decentralised US admissions system, applicants must respond to ‘prompts’, including those below, that are designed to make the process fairer. Such prompts, rather than encourage applicants to cash in on past opportunities, call for focused, candid and reflective responses. College websites in the US reassure applicants that statements will be read “in their true context” (Princeton), and justify the use of non-academic indicators in terms of a “long history of encouraging diversity” (Brown).

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My interest in the higher education admissions was sparked by Vikki Boliver’s 2012 finding that “applicants to Russell Group universities from state schools are less than two-thirds as likely to receive offers as privately educated applicants,” a differential that wasn’t attributable to ‘facilitating’ subjects. Last month, a study of 50,000 students by the University of Bristol confirmed similar concerns in relation to ethnic minority applicants. For example, for every 100 candidates of Pakistani ethnicity, seven fewer offers were made than for 100 equivalent white British candidates, a pattern that “could not be fully explained by differences in academic attainment or patterns of application.”

Last year, I published Sutton Trust funded research demonstrating that equal-attainment students submitted very different personal statements. Basic linguistic errors (such as spelling errors and apostrophe misuse) were almost three times more common in statements submitted by applicants attending sixth form colleges than by those attending independent schools. For some candidates, work experience meant school-facilitated day trips and paid Saturday jobs; for others, it involved shadowing public figures and undertaking high-prestige placements. My findings resonated with a 2010 survey by the Education and Employers Taskforce showing that 42% of young people from independent schools felt their work experience helped them get into university, as opposed to only 25% of those from comprehensive schools.

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Of course, it’s possible that admission tutors see through advantages of school type to the candidate beneath. “Does the Sutton Trust really think I’m taken in by slick expensive personal statements?” tweeted Prof Mary Beard when my report first appeared. But last year The Times reported that statements were now regarded as “worthless” by many tutors, and the recent Pearson Think Tank report, (Un)Informed Choices, concluded that “the use of personal statements should be ended.” Unless all students’ applications are judged by staff with the experience and skill to separate privilege from potential, it’s difficult to excuse the continued use of an indicator that, according to a 1996 paper by Karen Surman Paley, affords hopefuls “just enough rope for a hanging.”

Whether this year’s A-level results bring good news or bad for individual students, questions remain about whether the half a million or so personal statements written every year represent an efficient use of time, energy and resource, either for schools and colleges or for the higher education sector. A growing body of evidence suggests that non-academic indicators, rather than bringing equality to the selection process, further advantage those applicants already favoured by school type and socio-economic background.