Prizes for the elite: gold medals and mission groups

The latest rumour from the May government’s efforts to square the circle on international students takes an unexpected turn. It is a proposal to deal with the long-running bickering over post-study employment rights of international students.

According to The Sunday Times, ‘the government is considering allowing overseas students who attend one of the 24 universities in the elite Russell Group to work in Britain after graduating. Those at other universities might be required to return home.’ This would allow the government to claim it is doing something to support universities and international relationships, while still maintaining control of immigration.

According to The Sunday Times, this was all foreshadowed by Amber Rudd’s Conservative party conference speech, in which she referred to possible preferential treatment for ‘our best universities’. At which point we all thought, ‘Ah yes, the Russell Group.’ Or maybe we thought nothing of the sort.

Actually, many of us probably thought this was code for the judgements we’re expecting from the TEF. A strong TEF result – ‘gold’, according to the current proposal – might quite logically lead to preferential treatments of this kind. The possibility that the Russell Group might be used instead as a proxy definition of the UK’s ‘best’ universities poses some interesting questions.

 

Do they know what they’re doing?

This is the year when the irrational has become the norm. But it’s also – to add a little perspective – been a year of lots of talk and not a lot of resolution. It’s a year when we’ve learned to be prepared for anything, but not really to believe it until we see it.

But one common thread in the Conservatives’ stance towards universities has been a determination to draw lines through the sector. The wisdom of this is an open question. It’s not hard to find countries that give preferential treatment, usually in terms of research funding, to selected groups of universities. Concentration of resources in this way can support elite groups to compete internationally in research, while a mass education system is sustained in parallel. The counter-argument would be that the UK’s strength has been built on the back of a broad and fiercely competitive structure, that has produced excellence, in different shapes and sizes, across the board.

If, however, we take the desire to draw lines of demarcation as a given, what would it mean to do so by accepting the Russell Group as the privileged elite? The Russell Group is a mission group that maintains control over its own membership. Traditionally entry was determined overwhelmingly by volume of grant income; however, the defining supremacy of that criterion was frayed somewhat by the last round of entry in 2012, which arguably signalled a commitment to a more rounded model of excellence. It’s possible to join the Russell Group, but almost impossible to be asked to leave.

In recent years the Russell Group has done one thing astonishingly well: branding itself as the ‘elite’ group of UK universities. This is understated in its public mission statement, but a huge part of its public relations and marketing operation. At government level, among busy people, often with only superficial knowledge of their briefs, the idea of an accepted elite group must feel comfortingly easy to grasp.

Russell Group universities have never (to my knowledge, anyway) been given special favours by government, simply by virtue of their membership of the mission group. Hence the elaborate mechanisms of the REF, TEF and QAA, which apply equally to all. The present suggestion therefore feels, potentially, like a pivotal moment.

 

What about the TEF?

One question I’ve been asking since the TEF was first proposed goes roughly along the lines: what happens when people at the highest levels of government realize that some of the universities most likely to lose from the exercise are some of the country’s biggest higher-education brands?

If we follow the proposed logic of the TEF, some universities currently low on the national league tables, though doing very well on teaching metrics, could end up with the right to charge higher fees than some that are very high in the international tables. Existing education metrics, such as the NSS, certainly point in this direction. At that point, it seems to me, the commitment of policy-makers to objective tests of teaching quality, with rewards to match, will be sorely tested.

I wonder whether this scenario is only just dawning on people at the top of government: people conditioned into thinking that there is an ‘elite’ group of universities, bound to rise to the top on any measure of performance. While a decision on work-study visas is only one issue – something, indeed, that may seem peripheral to many people in the sector – it would be hard not to see it as something of a test-case. If Russell Group universities were to get special treatment on this matter – sidelining, in the process, the objective measures of the TEF – what next?

Of course, some might argue that the TEF was never going to do what it claimed anyway. It will not be a reliable measure of teaching quality. Maybe, but that feels to me like a different argument. It’s one thing to debate whether teaching quality can be measured; it would be another thing altogether to abandon objective measures in favour of ‘distinction by mission group’.

 

This particular suggestion, about work-study visas, feels to me a bit like a political advisor flying a kite. It’s not been picked up by other media outlets, and I’m not betting on it happening. But it’s an interesting moment nonetheless: one that indicates the power and potential of elitism in a sector that has been built on more egalitarian foundations, but is creaking under the political and financial strains of the moment.

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