Friday 24 October 2014

Blaming universities for our nation's woes

In black below is the text of a comment piece in the Times Higher Education by Jamie Martin, advisor to Michael Gove, on Higher Education in the UK entitled “Must Do Better”. In red are my thoughts on his arguments.

In an increasingly testing global race, Britain’s competitive advantage must be built on education.
What is this ‘increasingly testing global race’? Why should education be seen as part of an international competition rather than a benefit to all humankind?
Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings show that we have three of the world’s top 10 universities to augment our fast-improving schools. Sustaining a competitive edge, however, requires constant improvement and innovation. We must ask hard questions about our universities’ failures on academic rigour and widening participation, and recognise the need for reform.
Well, this seems a rather confused message. On the one hand, we are doing very well, but on the other hand we urgently need to reform.
Too many higher education courses are of poor quality. When in government, as special adviser to Michael Gove, I was shown an analysis indicating that around half of student loans will never be repaid. Paul Kirby, former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, has argued that universities and government are engaging in sub-prime lending, encouraging students to borrow about £40,000 for a degree that will not return that investment. We lend money to all degree students on equal terms, but employers don’t perceive all university courses as equal. Taxpayers, the majority of whom have not been to university, pick up the tab when this cruel lie is exposed.
So let’s get this right. The government introduced a massive hike in tuition fees (£1,000 per annum in 1998, £3,000 p.a. in 2004, £9,000 p.a. in 2010). The idea was that people would pay for these with loans which they would pay off when they were earning above a threshold. It didn’t work because many people didn’t get high-paying jobs and now it is estimated that 45% of loans won’t be repaid.
Whose fault is this? The universities! You might think the inability of people to pay back loans is a consequence of lack of jobs due to recession, but, no, the students would all be employable if only they had been taught different things!  
With the number of firsts doubling in a decade, we need an honest debate about grade inflation and the culture of low lecture attendance and light workloads it supports. Even after the introduction of tuition fees, the Higher Education Policy Institute found that contact time averaged 14 hours a week and degrees that were “more like a part-time than a full-time job”. Unsurprisingly, many courses have tiny or even negative earnings premiums and around half of recent graduates are in non-graduate jobs five years after leaving.
An honest debate would be good. One that took into account the conclusions of this report by ONS which states: “Since the 2008/09 recession, unemployment rates have risen for all groups but the sharpest rise was experienced by non-graduates aged 21 to 30.”  This report does indeed note the 47% of recent graduates in non-graduate jobs, but points out two factors that could contribute to the trend: the increased number of graduates and decreased demand for graduate skills. There is no evidence that employers are preferring non-graduates to graduates for skilled jobs: rather there is a mismatch between the number of graduates and the number of skilled jobs.
This is partly because the system lacks diversity. Too many providers are weak imitations of the ancient universities. We have nothing to rival the brilliant polytechnics I saw in Finland, while the development of massive online open courses has been limited. The exciting New College of the Humanities, a private institution with world-class faculty, is not eligible for student loans. More universities should focus on a distinctive offer, such as cheaper shorter degrees or high-quality vocational courses.
What an intriguing wish-list: Finnish polytechnics, MOOCs, and the New College of the Humanities, which charges an eye-watering £17,640 for full-time undergraduates in 2014-15.  The latter might be seen as ‘exciting’ if you are interested in the privatisation of the higher education sector, but for those of us interested in educating the UK population, it seems more of an irrelevance – likely to become a finishing school for the children of oligarchs, rather than a serious contender for educating our populace.
If the failures on quality frustrate the mind, those on widening participation perturb the heart. Each year, the c.75,000 families on benefits send fewer students to Oxbridge than the c.100 families whose children attend Westminster School. Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission found that the most selective universities have actually become more socially exclusive over the past decade.
Flawed admissions processes reinforce this inequality. Evidence from the US shows that standardised test scores (the SAT), which are a strong predictor of university grades, have a relatively low correlation with socio-economic status. The high intelligence that makes you a great university student is not the sole preserve of the social elite. The AS modules favoured by university admissions officers have diluted A-level standards and are a poorer indicator of innate ability than standardised tests. Universities still prioritise performance in personal statements, Ucas forms and interviews, which correlate with helicopter parents, not with high IQ.
Criticise their record on widening access, and universities will blame the failures of the school system. Well, who walked on by while it was failing? Who failed to speak out enough about the grade inflation that especially hurt poorer pupils with no access to teachers who went beyond weakened exams? Until Mark Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, stepped forward, Gove’s decision to give universities control of A-level standards met with a muted response.
Ah, this is interesting. After a fulmination against social inequality in university admissions (well, at last a point I can agree on), Jamie Martin notes that there is an argument that blames this on failures in the school system. After all, if “The high intelligence that makes you a great university student is not the sole preserve of the social elite”, why aren’t intelligent children from working class backgrounds coming out of school with good A-levels? Why are parents abandoning the state school system? Martin seems to accept this is valid, but then goes on to argue that lower-SES students don’t get into university because everyone has good A-levels (grade inflation) – and that’s all the fault of universities for not ‘speaking out’. Is he really saying that if we had more discriminating A-levels, then the lower SES pupils would outperform private school pupils?
The first step in a prioritisation of education is to move universities into an enlarged Department for Education after the general election. The Secretary of State should immediately commission a genuinely independent review to determine which degrees are a sound investment or of strategic importance. Only these would be eligible for three-year student loans. Some shorter loans might encourage more efficient courses. Those who will brand this “philistinism” could not be more wrong: it is the traditional academic subjects that are valued by employers (philosophy at the University of Oxford is a better investment than many business courses). I am not arguing for fewer people to go to university. We need more students from poorer backgrounds taking the best degrees.
So, more reorganisation. And somehow, reducing the number of courses for which you can get a student loan is going to increase the number of students from poorer backgrounds who go to university. Just how this magic is to be achieved remains unstated.
Government should publish easy-to-use data showing Treasury forecasts on courses’ expected loan repayments, as well as quality factors such as dropout rates and contact time. It should be made much easier to start a new university or to remodel existing ones.
So here we come to the real agenda. Privatisation of higher education.
Politicians and the Privy Council should lose all control of higher education. Student choice should be the main determinant of which courses and institutions thrive.
Erm, but two paragraphs back we were told that student loans would only be available for those courses which were ‘a sound investment or of strategic importance’.
Universities should adopt standardised entrance tests. And just as private schools must demonstrate that they are worthy of their charitable status, universities whose students receive loans should have to show what action they are taking to improve state schools. The new King’s College London Maths School, and programmes such as the Access Project charity, are models to follow.
So it’s now the responsibility of universities, rather than the DfE to improve state schools?
The past decade has seen a renaissance in the state school system, because when tough questions were asked and political control reduced, brilliant teachers and heads stepped forward. It is now the turn of universities to make Britain the world’s leading education nation.
If there really has been a renaissance, the social gradient should fix itself, because parents will abandon expensive private education, and children will leave state schools with a raft of good qualifications, regardless of social background. If only….
With his ‘must do better’ arguments, Martin adopts a well-known strategy for those who wish to privatise public services: first of all starve them of funds, then heap on criticism to portray the sector as failing so that it appears that the only solution is to be taken over by a free market.  The NHS has been the focus of such a campaign, and it seems that now the attention is shifting to higher education. But here Martin has got a bit of a problem. As indicated in his second sentence, we are actually doing surprisingly well, with our publicly-funded universities competing favourably with the wealthy private universities in the USA.

PS. For my further thoughts on tuition fees in UK universities, see here.


  1. This will not be popular, but I have some sympathy for Martin's arguments here. I did a classics B.A at KCL (2009-2012) when the fees were only £3k per year, and it was a bit of a joke (and this is a highly regarded course at a highly regarded university). The course was very badly structured, contact hours were far too few, essay feedback was generally mediocre, and a significant number of the staff, although brilliant academics, simply could not teach. This is not to say that its deficiencies had any impact on my later labour market prospects (how would employers know?), but it was just atrocious value for money. God only knows how the international students felt about it!

    The grade inflation he talks about is very real - standards of achievement in languages in general have collapsed. The rot of course starts at schools, but universities have not-so-cheerfully gone along with it. This may explain the lack of contact hours - a relic of an era in which students arrived at university with far greater proficiency in the subject and did not require so much explicit teaching.

    Nor is he wrong about the UCAS form - it's a unique form of torture for children, and the personal statement is, for the privileged, invariably subject to endless adult input. Quite what anyone is supposed to glean from such rubbish, I really don't know. Test scores are a better route.

    Ultimately, though I do think that higher student fees will perhaps empower students to be more outspoken about subpar educational experiences, nothing will change until the tension inherent at the heart of our universities - how we rate them, what we think they are for - is resolved. It does not seem as though specialized research institutions - what universities want to be - cannot also exist as institutions for the education of the undergraduate masses, which is what they are increasingly becoming. God only knows as to the solution, but the problem is real enough.

    I am not sure about German undergraduate education as a model either, if this and similar accounts I hear are in the slightest bit representative:

    1. Thanks for your comment. I am not saying everything in the current system is perfect, but I don't think that Jamie Martin has identified the nature of the problem, or the solution.

      I'm sorry to hear about your dismal undergraduate experience, but can it really be attributed to low levels of fees? And would it be improved by putting them up?

      It seems likely that at least part of the blame might lie with the relentless pressure on academics to focus on research in order to do well in the RAE/REF. Teaching has been lower priority for a long time, especially at elite universities. KCL is notorious for taking a particularly punitive stance towards staff who don't perform well.

      I don't know much about the topic of grade inflation and UCAS forms but I just don't see those as problems brought about by universities.

      I agree with you about the tension over what our universities are for, but it is not a case of either specialised research institutions or education for the masses: we need a mixture of higher education institutions for a range of purposes. But the real issue is who pays for this.

      In both health and education there are models of funding that regard these as a common good paid for by the state through taxation, and models that see them as commodities that can be purchased by those who use them. The latter model is very much the American one, whereas the former has been traditional in the UK and much of Europe. The Conservative position is to move as far as possible to the US model. This is justified by the idea that consumers can then shape the system, but it ignores the fact that many potential consumers simply can't afford to be part of the system.

      I speak as one who (a) had a fabulous undergraduate experience at a time when higher education was funded totally by the state and (b) had a recent letter telling me I could 'protect' my (more than adequate) pension from paying thousands of pounds worth of tax under new legislation introduced by the current government. I realise I may be unusual in this, but I would rather pay my taxes and help ensure that the next generation could have a decent education regardless of family wealth.

  2. There is so much that is wrong with this analysis that I could end up writing another blog addressing the issues. But let me comment on just one, the New College of the Humanities. This private venture would not have been possible without the infrastructure of Birkbeck so in no sense is it a model of how things could be done. More, the "world-class" faculty are largely absent. Take the faculty listed for psychology, my own field - Steven Pinker, Dan Dennett??? come on. Who's kidding who? I wonder what sort of contact hours they could put. And what of the full-time staff? A graduate student who really should be focusing on completing his thesis. Maybe this is being unfair but this "exciting" institution is hardly going to be able to provide education in medicine, engineering or other high-cost fields. What's more is that the industries that benefit from the universities are not going to invest back in the education unless they can see a return on their money - not a satisfactory mechanism to innovate or generate knowledge for the sake of knowledge which will produce its own unforeseen discoveries down the road.

  3. I think you are right about grade inflation, Andrew. There's plenty of evidence to support this, as lots of stories swirling around about the pressures put on academics by managers to nudge grades ever upwards. The contact hours debate is more complicated. In a Humanities subject such as mine, students arguably need less contact time than in a lab-based STEM subject. But it follows that the teaching needs to be excellent, especially since, as you say, students are not prepared as well as they were in the past for the rigours of advanced study, having been spoon-fed through A levels. The reason that teaching is often not up to standard is largely as deevybee says, the relentless emphasis on research, so that an excellent teacher with an average research profile will always lose out to an average teacher with an excellent research profile in the appointments process. And people who've been appointed on the basis of their research can't really be faulted for wanting to concentrate on that. There's another factor too: the fees. I've noticed in recent years that, despite the fact that no-one is paying fees up front, and many will never pay, the rhetoric about debt has created a culture where students feel they must work in part time jobs outside their studies to mitigate the effect of fees. The consequence is that many spend more time stacking shelves in Tesco than in the classroom. I have spent my Sunday morning on work admin, as usual. And, as usual, some of that has been writing to students who aren't turning up to class, and aren't producing work. I can guarantee that when they get back to me - if they get back - they will say they are committed to their studies and are really aiming at a 2.1 (because that's what they have been led to believe is a minimum entitlement). I will then point out that this is unlikely to happen if they don't attend and engage with their studies. They will say they have to spend 20 hours a week on minimum wage in a supermarket in order to fund their studies, which, I will point out, they aren't actually doing, and so it goes on...

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