The REF-erendum of 2018: building the case for remain*

Imagine that academics across the United Kingdom were granted a referendum on membership of the Research Excellence Framework. How would they vote?

This is a facetious question, since there’s never been anything democratic about the way the government distributes research  funds. But if the mood of academics swings against the REF, there will always be politicians and bureaucrats prepared to suggest enticingly simpler systems. So a groundswell of opposition, whipped into life by a distaste for all forms of performance monitoring, should give cause for concern among remainers.

A month ago, I would have predicted a strong vote for remain; after recent experiences with the leave movement on social media, I’m not so sure. It’s therefore worth considering what could be done to secure the vote.

 

Project fear

Any good referendum campaign – I think I’ve got this right – needs fear. If there was no REF, that would surely mean the end of Quality-Related funding, currently one part of the UK’s dual-support structure for the distribution of public research funds. That would mean either a loss to the sector of approximately £2 billion per year, a transfer of that £2 billion into grants, or a combination of these options. (Anyone hoping, by the way, that the government might just hand over QR regardless is misreading the definitions of ‘quality’ and ‘related’.)

Regardless, a REF-less world would mean less autonomy for universities in decisions over research development, at a time when the government is already being more intrusive, most notably through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. It would also be disastrous for humanities and social sciences disciplines, which do disproportionately well out of QR and disproportionately poorly out of grants. Toss in the possibility of variable fees by discipline, and HASS departments could face a generation in the freezer. Armageddon my point across?

But maybe we need a more positive message as well. It’s striking just how many academics don’t see any benefits from QR. Some associate it merely with the few hundred pounds of research allowance that their departments hand them. Others resent central decisions to devote QR to grand projects that seem remote and unimportant.

There are lessons to be learned here for VCs and PVCs. Granted, from their perspective all income falls into one big pot; researchers, however, want to feel the benefit of their labours. And it shouldn’t be difficult: for a start, how about universities transparently cost their research leave policies (for those that have them), and connect the dots with QR?

And there may also be some lessons for UK Research and Innovation. RAEs and REF of the past have generated powerful, inspirational narratives of research success for the benefit of politicians and policy-makers. Might some of this effort be redirected towards researchers themselves, who more commonly experience the REF as an oppressive process than a source of inspiration? Perhaps their good will has been taken for granted.

 

#loveREF

On the evidence of recent social media exchanges, some of the most vocal supporters of REF are immigrants. If the UK’s REF-shaped clarity of expectations has offered an international researcher a career-lifeline, to move from a country in which appointments and promotions are more sluggish and opaque, this can engender a warm glow of affection.

By comparison, academics who have known nothing but the REF are less likely to appreciate what it has done for them – creating jobs, expediting promotions, and so forth – and more likely to view those distant pre-REF days with a sense of wonder. Back then, people spent longer on their big ideas, didn’t they? Britain produced big, serious books, and Nobel prize winners. Academics were left alone to just get on with it.

Too much detail in this table, but it demonstrates the rapid growth of UK research impact, by citation, in the RAE-era. From Adams & Gurney, Funding selectivity, concentration and excellence.

One way of confronting this nostalgia is through data. There is evidence that British research in general was lagging through the 1980s. The surge that has brought the UK to its current position can be traced back to the effects of early RAEs beginning to bite within universities. The UK now UK ranks first amongst its comparator countries by field-weighted citation impact, and this can be explained in part by its broad research base.

But data alone won’t convince people to love the REF. Leavers have the more compelling stories: of poor management in the name of REF preparation; of ECRs being suspended in casualization as they try to build sets of publications to sell to an employer that will immediately push them to repeat the performance for the next cycle.

So there’s work to be done for the remain campaign. Pointing to Professor Ego who has just secured a big pre-REF pay-rise won’t necessarily seize the imagination of a lecturer losing money on the picket-line. UKRI might do well to take some initiative, aiming to make the REF less forbidding. A training programme for line-managers might help, or some research into the effects of REF on appointment decisions. REF might also align itself more explicitly with ethical frameworks such as Athena SWAN or the Vitae Concordat. The ‘real-time review’, announced this week, looks like it might be a step in the right direction.

REF managers may feel burned by the reception of their well-meant proposals on portability, intended to iron out distorting effects of their system on the job market. But now that the rules for REF 2021 are settled there is space for further efforts to inform academic culture. Maybe love is unrealistic; trust, actually, would probably suffice.

 

Close your eyes and it might all go away

There are more important debates to be having than the one about REF. We should be focusing on the overall quantity of public research funding. Then we might consider the balance between grants and QR. And then again there’s the desperate uncertainty over European Union collaboration. Fussing about the mechanism for distributing QR feels insular, and risks giving the impression that academics are not much bothered with accountability.

But perhaps the REF-erendum is a process we need to embrace all the same. The remain camp can win, yet they may need to engage more openly with their critics’ concerns. These won’t just disappear; and if the remainers lose, nobody can expect a second vote on the withdrawal terms.

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How we spend it: the students’ take on ‘value for money’*

For academic researchers, there is one headline figure in the report Value for Money: the student perspective, published this week. Although this particular statistic is bound to be ignored in all mainstream media coverage of the report, it states that 70% of students either “definitely” or “mostly” agree that their tuition fees should support “academic research related to [their] subject”. Students, in other words, want their lecturers to succeed as researchers, and are prepared to underwrite these efforts. Only 18% disagree.

We have learned over the past year how easy it can be to harvest grumpy quotes from disaffected students. We have also heard politicians and commentators endlessly rehearse assertions about the supposedly poor value for money of many degrees. Amid this morass of hyperbole and bile, Value for Money: the student perspective, produced by a consortium of students’ unions and based on a survey of over 5,000 students and 500 recent graduates, offers some precious shards of sense.

As we might expect, the messages are not entirely rosy. On the overall question of whether students perceive that their courses represent good value for money, only 38% agreed, while 44% disagreed. These figures are consistent with the finding from last year’s Higher Education Policy Institute survey, imprinted into the minds of politicians and newspaper columnists, of 35%  “value for money” satisfaction. So there is an issue here, and this has been endorsed by the Office for Students, which has a commitment to “value for money” written into its mandate. But maybe this report also includes some signals towards solutions.

For a start, it helps us to unravel what students understand when they are asked about value for money. The picture here is far from clear. For instance, how might we account for the fact that only 70% of Scottish students feel they are getting value for money? The mainstream media has reported this as a high number; however, when we consider that Scottish tuition fees are precisely £0, one starts to wonder about the perceptions of the remaining 30%. Granted, it was a small sample, and some of them may have been paying English fees, but what more do they want? For a second example, consider the disparity in views between English and international students. The latter subsidise the former, yet they report significantly higher levels of satisfaction on the question of value for money.

Furthermore, the figures suggest some instructive misconceptions about university finances. Take the statistic that 24% of students do not think that their fees should fund “university management costs”. One explanation for this figure is that there is a higher number of edu-anarchists among our student body than previously acknowledged. Another—perhaps more plausible—is that many students believe universities have other sources of funds that can cover all that stuff. Maybe such students assume that the state is funding universities rather more than is the case.

This suggests, as the report’s authors also argue, that greater transparency about university finances may be beneficial on all sides. There will always be some students who divide £9,250 by their number of contact hours and dash off a stinking letter to The Telegraph. Indeed we now also know that 10% of students evidently do not want any library resources. (I mean who cares, really, about books and journals when all you’re after is a degree and a job?) But the majority of students are more than capable of thinking carefully—and critically—through questions of cross-subsidy and university management.

This may even present a way forward on the thorny matter of vice-chancellors’ salaries. If we accept the Russell Group’s calculation, that its average vice-chancellor’s salary absorbs 0.05% of the respective university’s turnover, then each student is contributing roughly £4.63 to those salaries. For some, to be sure, that may be £4.62 too much; for the rest, one could reasonably hope that any VC could make a case for an impact on the student experience equivalent to the cost of a cup of coffee a term.

There may also be lessons here for the Labour Party. That gap between satisfaction with value for money in Scotland and England is substantial, but is it really worth the cost attached to abolishing tuition fees south of the border? And is it worth the risk of under-funding, especially when this report provides such powerful evidence of the value students place on low staff-student ratios, high-quality learning resources, employability support, and so forth? As I read this report, the key lesson is one of communication, not financial revolution.

At its best, the value for money debate may help to focus afresh on the nature and values of the university. As this report demonstrates, the discourse of value for money does not need to be as reductive and punitive as it has appeared in much recent criticism. Most students are unquestionably committed to the institutions in which they have chosen to invest their time and money, wanting them to succeed. A majority—58%—approve even of their fees being committed to “capital expenditure”. Indeed if I have one criticism of this survey, it is that students were not asked about the value to them of their university’s reputation or international standing. Responses on that score would have been fascinating.

So Value for Money: the student perspective, for all of the challenges it presents, represents an important step towards more meaningful debate. Students want their universities to flourish, just as they want to support their lecturers as researchers. While many who work in universities worry about increased financial constraint on the horizon, an openness to dialogue with our most important stakeholders—our students—still holds the potential to take the sector forward.

* This piece was first published in Research Fortnight

Sam’s day out: how a modern Minister for Universities learns his brief*

Sam Gyimah was never going to throw new light on the Office for Students when he spoke last week at its inauguration. It was never his project, and after its early stutters he probably just wanted to get through the day as uneventfully as possible. But his speech, ‘A Revolution in Accountability’, was enlightening nonetheless, for the evidence it provided of a minister coming to terms with his brief. Proclaiming Gyimah’s desire to be ‘a minister for students’ as well as minister for universities, it was in part personal, in part naive, and in part troubling.

The speech’s greatest howler, the assertion ‘that universities need to act in loco parentis’, has been debunked elsewhere. To be generous, this suggests an admirably deep commitment to students’ welfare; to be critical, it positions the minister alongside so many other critics of universities, identifying a few problems and coming up with an answer that kind of feels right. Intentionally or not, indeed, this speech says rather  a lot about the current state of higher education policy.

 

Where did he get that idea?

Like so much recent public discourse about higher education, Gyimah leans heavily on anecdote and popular politics. In his first two months in office, he has prioritized meetings with students, listening to ‘their hopes and concerns’. This leads him to a range of personal revelations, from the scale of mental health problems on campus, through the attainment gap for ethnic minority students, and on to some statements of the dazzlingly obvious. ‘One student,’ he says, ‘told me that above all … they valued excellent teaching.’

Yes, we could have told him all that, yet there is no harm in learning through engagement and dialogue. What is more worrying for me is that he appears to have little interest in other forms of learning. Many politicians will sprinkle speeches with quotes from social theorists, or references to key books and reports. Gyimah surely must have noticed, for instance, that one of his predecessors, David Willetts, has published rather a weighty volume on universities. But there’s not much indication in the speech that he has read anything beyond the ‘credible commentators’ he mentions, who have turned critical eyes upon universities in newspaper columns and social media over the past year. Quite how they become ‘credible’, in Gyimah’s eyes, is not clear: maybe by saying the same things over and over.

His willingness to settle for the word of popular critics leads Gyimah to the only hard statistic in the speech. ‘The most recent HEPI survey,’ he tells us, ‘showed that 34% of students feel they are getting poor value from their courses.’ I wonder sometimes whether those at the Higher Education Policy Institute are embarrassed by the caricature their ‘Student Academic Experience Survey’ has become. (‘Ah yes,’ they’re told, ‘that’s the “value for money” survey.’) It also strikes me as odd that the minister should not bother to look beyond this figure. The profile of the National Student Survey – completed by roughly twenty times as many students as the HEPI survey – is maybe as low outside universities as it is high inside them. Might that be because it tells more nuanced stories?

 

Trust us: we’re doing stuff

Maybe it would be unfair to expect a new universities’ minister to present his party’s policy as coherent. After all, nobody else has managed to do so. Nonetheless, this speech provides some eye-watering moments: such as the segue from a paragraph boasting how the Tories have ‘put universities on a sustainable financial footing’, to another that begins: ‘This year, we are doing more. We have frozen student fees.’ If that’s Gyimah’s idea of action, we might all settle down for a doze.

In line with his ‘credible commentators’, Gyimah presents universities as resistant to the ‘winds of change’, but struggles to put his finger on precisely how. Is it ‘free speech’, perhaps. He doesn’t choose to elaborate. Is is ‘decolonizing the curriculum’? Well, he just tosses that one out there, as you do. Is it ‘top pay’, perhaps? In all, there’s a sense of someone ticking off a list of topical issues, with little sense of how he, as a minister, might approach them more meaningfully than someone who has just dashed out 1000 words for the Telegraph. For these winds of change have been fanned largely by the pages of newspapers.

This is also a worryingly limited vision of higher education. When Gyimah speaks of ‘students’, he almost always means undergraduate students. Moreover, his statement that ‘the brightest and the best [students] from around the world are queuing up to study here’ will surprise many people. On the one hand, it echoes a line we’ve heard before from the Tories, that only the ‘brightest and best’ people from overseas really matter to us. On the other hand, it reeks of complacency at a time when his own government places unnecessary barriers in the way of international students.

The speech also leaves one wondering whether, if Gyimah styles himself minister for students, who might be the minister for research. The speech does not ignore research; indeed it includes the assertion that we have seen ‘the largest increases to research spending for 40 years’. (I guess there’s evidence for that, but it will surprise many readers.) Moreover, Gyimah offers no comment on how research spending might benefit students, just as he avoids any reflection on the distinctive combination of research and education that shapes universities.

Gyimah’s UK university system is also gloriously insular. We are, he boasts ‘a global superpower in HE’: as though we have our top universities trained on our enemies like Trident missiles. He dodges questions of international collaboration, which is perhaps the greatest single determinant of research quality. A ‘successful post-Brexit future’, for Gyimah, ‘depends on harnessing all the creativity, ingenuity and excellence in our universities’. Many academics might suggest that access to European research funding would help a little as well.

 

Maybe this speech came too early for Gyimah. For those of us who might meet him on his national tour, however, it indicates some areas where he still has much to learn. It can only be hoped that he is willing now to listen to people within the sector, as well as those ‘credible commentators’ who have done so much to warp perceptions of higher education.

* This piece was first published at wonkhe.com

Value for money in higher education: a very English debate

The term ‘value for money’ is now deeply entrenched in public discourse about higher education in England. It is written into the Higher Education and Research Act. It is the subject of an ongoing enquiry by te House of Commons Education Committee, and it has launched a few dozen identikit newspaper columns. It is at the centre of what the Office for Students describes as a ‘major piece of research’ that it has recently commissioned, intending to probe students’ perceptions of value for money to ‘inform’ how the OfS ‘takes forward its legal responsibilities to promote’ it. And no doubt it will in turn inform the thinking of Sam Gyimah, the new minister for Higher Education and Science, as he implements the review of student finance and university funding announced last week.

But one missing element in this debate is an agreed definition of value for money. When we talk about “value” in the context of university education, are we really thinking only about the material return of an undergraduate degree to an individual – as opposed to the wider impact of a vibrant university system? Whose “money” are we even talking about? And are we happy with individual perceptions, or are we looking for objective evidence?

Given this lack of clarity, it’s worth pausing to consider where we are and how we got here. It’s also timely to reflect on the risks carried by these three little words. Nobody, least of all academics, wants universities that are not providing value. But if “value for money” continues to mean radically different things to different people, this peculiarly English debate is unlikely to lead to a better place.

 

How we got here

In a sector that is profoundly globalized, the value for money debate is surprisingly local. While other countries debate the funding of higher education in various ways, it is difficult to find anything comparable to our value for money terminology. And it is misleading even to call it a British issue; in truth it is confined almost exclusively to England. It can be traced back to the 2012 fee-increases, which have affected students in the four UK nations quite differently.

The Telegraph made an early attempt to assess value for money in the wake of the £9000 fees, producing a table that rolled differences in living expenses into the overall costs of higher education. Given the relentless increases in the costs of university accommodation, this appeared to make sense; but it didn’t last. The Complete University Guide trialled a ‘value for money’ index, created by isolating the facilities and academic services spending of universities. This produced in 2015 a somewhat eccentric top five of: Buckinghamshire New University, Royal Agricultural University, University of Northampton, Durham University and the University of Hertfordshire. It duly sunk without trace.

The Higher Education Policy Institute’s Student Academic Experience Survey, in operation since 2006, has achieved far greater impact. Just 14,000 undergraduate students, from all years of study, completed this survey in 2017 (less than 5% of the number who completed the National Student Survey). It has never enjoyed a fraction of the profile of the NSS within universities, in part because it has no impact on league tables, yet it has managed to achieve remarkable levels of attention within the media and with politicians.

In its early years the survey attracted attention mainly for its valuable data on students’ work-patterns. Indeed very recent analysis has demonstrated its ongoing value in this respect, arguing on its basis for the importance of independent study, and pointing to the risks of two-year degrees. But it has blasted into the mainstream through its ‘value’ question. Specifically, in the 2017 version of the survey, Question 16 asked: ‘Thinking of all the things you’ve been asked about in this questionnaire so far, which statement best describes your view of the value for money of your present course?’ Hence the survey’s definition of ‘value for money’ is not so much explicit as implicit in those preceding questions. These cover matters such as contact time, assignments and feedback, the quality and qualifications of teaching staff and overall satisfaction.

Interestingly, in 2017 Question 15, immediately preceding the ‘value for money’ question, asked: ‘Universities are now allowed to raise their fees in line with inflation to £9,250 if they meet certain teaching standards.  Do you think this new fee should apply to [your university]?’ Given this trajectory of questioning – the sort of thing that may raise eyebrows in a court of law – it is perhaps not wholly surprising that the responses should have suggested a declining sense of value for money. The headline finding, repeatedly rehearsed in the months since the results were announced, was that only 35% rated their degree as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ value for money. When students face the question this coming spring, the constant media attention to the issue over the past twelve months can surely only be weighting the scales still further.

The other key factor that has shaped the debate on value for money has been the increased availability of graduate employment data. The Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey has steadily risen in status over the past ten years or so, and feeds into most league tables. The release of graduate salary figures has also seized public attention. The concept of ‘low value’ degrees, now prevalent in popular commentary, tends to gesture loosely in the direction of such data. In actual fact, the data have tended to show that, while there are a handful of outliers – disciplines and institutions – at each end of the spectrum, the vast majority of graduates find that there are job opportunities and graduate premiums there to be seized. But rules of evidence are not strictly observed in this discourse.

At a time of economic and wage constraint, cutting hard into the expectations of millenials, it is perhaps understandable that value should be rendered so consistently in financial terms. The cost of higher education weighs very hard on young shoulders. And in the context of the political and cultural instability of 2017, with one major party committing itself to slashing fees, it is equally predictable that students and their families should pause in their thinking on concerns value for money. Ye it remains striking – and disturbingly so – quite how weakly grounded in reality many of the popular complaints actually are.

 

Where we are now

The Office for Students, established on 1 January this year, is charged (among other things) with ‘promoting value for money in the provision of higher education’. So the concept of value for money has slid effortlessly from the realm of a small-scale survey into the English higher education regulatory structure. One might expect we would therefore have a degree of agreement over what ‘value for money’ means – but evidently not.

A remarkable amount of commentary, especially from the level of government, in fact begins with data from the Student Academic Experience Survey, as though its implicit definition of value for money was self-evident all along. Discussion has also been swayed over the past year by evidence that many students now leave university with over £50,000 of debt. While the figure was not far short of this amount previously, and while a student’s overall debt makes no difference at all to his or her monthly repayments, £50,000 was a sum that seized imaginations.

This miasma of anxiety led to reports such as The Higher Education Market, produced by the National Audit Office, which fretted over the lack of variation in fees and made some headline-grabbing comparisons with the regulation of financial services. While such concerns seemed like old news to many people within the sector, the attempt to apply the logic and methods of the market to higher education was significant in itself. Like the Office for Students itself, with its focus on the interests of students as consumers, this report positioned higher education as almost entirely transactional in character.

The ongoing enquiry into value for money established by the Education Committee stretches matters further. Taking its cue, as one might by this point expect, from the Student Academic Experience Survey, it is considering: graduate outcomes and the use of destination data; social justice in higher education and support for disadvantaged students; senior management pay in universities; quality and effectiveness of teaching; and (through a curiously circular rationale) the role of the Office for Students. Quite how some of these matters relate to value for money may escape sceptical observers. Perhaps the key lesson is how this discourse, once given credibility and licence, can become an umbrella under which all manner of concerns might be sheltered.

The Office for Students consultation exercise, launched last autumn, suggested an intriguing new direction in the debate. Value for money is not just a matter for students, the Office suggested, but also ‘for taxpayers’. This line had been rehearsed by Jo Johnson, former Minister for Universities and Science, in a speech in the summer, and essentially follows the money-trail, since roughly 35% of the cost of the average undergraduate’s education is likely to fall into the lap of the state. Yet it perhaps leaves the door ajar to a more comprehensive appreciation of the value of universities within a nation. As Johnson himself stated, universities today are not merely suppliers of degrees; they are expected ‘to help drive national prosperity and advance individuals’ life chances’.

This is the argument of the universities themselves. Universities UK routinely produces statistics demonstrating the net national benefits produced by expenditure on higher education. It’s an investment, they argue, not a cost. The university sector, in the most recent calculations, contributed £21.5 billion to GDP, representing 1.2% of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product. International students are worth £7.3 billion to the economy, and so forth. Other countries take this sort of thing for granted in any consideration of the value of higher education. Australians, for instance, routinely speak with pride about higher education as a leading export industry, and consider the UK’s indifference to international students with open-mouthed incredulity.

Further, one of England’s more articulate and passionate vice-chancellors, Sheffield’s Sir Keith Burnett, consistently maintains that figures, whether wielded by the NAO or UUK, are not enough. In particular, he stresses the importance of the international reputations of universities, and the need also to consider research activity in relation to the cost of teaching. These are arguments welcomed by academics across the sector. ‘If a parent wants “better value for money” in the sense that they long for their child to be taught by truly great thinkers,’ he writes, ‘then they need to think of education in its fullest sense. Perhaps they should be concerned at the erosion of resource for the kind of work which won their child’s university and department international respect.’

It is possible that Burnett’s arguments will gain traction, and that popular discourse around higher education will return to historically more familiar territory. But this remains a challenge. In the midst of a media-storm about student-debt, it is demonstrably easier to place alarmist stories about the salaries of vice-chancellors than to present evidence about the value, to students and their nation alike, of a well managed and highly regarded university. And it is very tempting, for commentators and legislators alike, when considering value for money, to separate the education functions of a university from all else.

 

What could possibly go wrong?

It can be argued that higher education has enjoyed a relatively easy ride through the era of austerity. While other sectors – health, schools, local government – have suffered severe cuts, the fee arrangement of 2012 was higher education’s ‘get out of jail free’ card. Arguments have also been won, with successive ministers and chancellors of the exchequer, over the value of research funding. These victories have brought a measure of stability, though also bred resentment, fairly or unfairly, within wider society. In precarious times, the discourse of value for money poses some undeniable risks.

One element of risk is now written into the structures under which higher education is managed. In 2016 higher education was effectively split between two government departments: the education functions shifted into the Department of Education, and research left behind in the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Moreover, the Office for Students is more narrowly focused than its predecessor, the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It has some oversight – rather vaguely defined – of the nation’s ‘research base’, but otherwise research falls to the new UK Research and Innovation, and its subsidiary Research England.

Hence when the Office for Students focuses on value for money, it is not easy for it to encompass the overall functions of universities, including research. These matter hugely in terms of institutional reputations, which in turn matter hugely in terms of attracting international students. By contrast, the isolation of the education-function invites reductive appreciations of universities. It leads people to ask why universities can’t deliver their products more cheaply, and even more swiftly. Far from representing a smart national investment, then, MPs can now be heard asserting that universities are ‘ripping off’ their consumers. Once the value of higher education is equated with the cheap delivery of skills, such arguments are no more than logical.

In these forms, the value for money debate could have wildly unpredictable effects on the unfolding structural change within higher education. Commentators tend to overlook the intensity of competition within the system. In recent years some universities have expanded rapidly, while others have struggled, year by year, to meet their target numbers. Research funding is also being concentrated relentlessly into the hands of a minority of institutions. In this context it becomes easy enough to see how a discourse of value for money could be used to drive through sweeping reforms, such as differential fees, the formal downgrading of research at some universities, and even institutional closures.

 

A funny kind of marketplace

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “value for money” in terms of “reasonableness of cost of something in view of its perceived quality”. It isolates the relationship between a buyer and seller, focused on the quality of a commodity. But degrees are a peculiar kind of commodity. Students studying for one are years away from reaping the likely economic and social rewards, and their success is dependent as much on their own commitment as that of their lecturers. It is therefore an open question how they can possibly be expected to make an informed judgement on the value for money of those degrees.

Yet such judgments now hold the potential to redraw the landscape of English higher education. The major review of funding, apparently resisted by Johnson and his sacked former boss, Justine Greening, looms large in 2018. It is being cheered on by influential Tories asserting, against conventional logic, that it will at once make fees “lower” and universities “better”. A secure government might assert greater, more mature influence in such an environment. Yet, at a time when universities are being sucked relentlessly into more profound debates about the kind of country England’s citizens want, this seems unlikely.

 

  • This piece was first published (in slightly different form, with nicer picture but without the hyperlinks) in Times Higher Education.

Burning books on Boxing Day*

It’s unnerving to wake on Boxing Day to the news that universities are apparently opposed to free speech. It’s frankly alarming when this news is being delivered by the Minister for Universities.

Newspapers overnight appeared to rely exclusively on a press release about a speech Jo Johnson would deliver the following day. It was full of broad assertions, with a little bit of balance about Prevent regulations that in fact prescribe limits on free speech when it comes to extremist organisations. By the morning we had Jo Johnson on the Today programme, tossing out some rather wild claims about books being removed from libraries, trigger warnings somehow closing minds, and so forth. Yes, that’s our minister.

 

Where’s the evidence?

It is possible that Johnson has a dossier of evidence to support his assertions. If so, let’s hope this doesn’t prove as elusive as those Brexit impact assessments, because every academic in the country is curious. It’s equally possible, though, that the evidence is somehow always over the horizon.

Some journalists leapt to an apparent link with the debate raging in Oxford over the research into and teaching of colonial history. But it’s not yet clear that Johnson wants to draw this link himself, however much he might like the feeling of crowd-surfing through a dull news day on the back of it. The simple fact, worth underlining, is that this debate is the very stuff of academic discourse. It’s about the practice and ethics of an academic discipline, not about closing minds and burning books. That’s a critical distinction, and one would hope the minister might acknowledge it.

Others reach to a couple of cases that might just about be labelled ‘notorious’, if only because they have been rehearsed in the media so many times. Hence the supposed ‘no-platforming’ of Germaine Greer at Cardiff University, which has assumed near-mythical status. Well fine, but the evidence is not entirely clear; indeed she did eventually give a talk. More importantly, that was an event organised by a students’ union rather than a university, and there’s an important distinction between the two. One would hope that the government does not want universities to interfere in the independent decisions of their students’ unions.

Beyond that, the criticism degenerates rapidly into vague suggestions that certain views are not being heard. On the one hand, this misrepresents what actually happens in universities. We’re not like parliament or the BBC, organising the pursuit of knowledge around spurious notions of binary contestation or balance. I mean, is Johnson about to suggest that we invite Nigel Lawson to speak at our climate-science conferences? Nor do we routinely stage public debates that, say, a member of the far right might even want to attend. Such events occasionally happen on university premises, but they are much more likely to be organised by students.

And as for those books we’re removing from sensitive student eyes: please show us the evidence. Sensible and committed academics have been on social media this morning, genuinely bemused by this claim. Without evidence, it’s a contemptible insult to people who care deeply about universities.

 

Murky politics

I would be willing to bet that no UK university will ever be sanctioned under the regulations that Johnson proposes. This issue says much less about any real problem than it does about a minister keen to present his right-wing credentials and create an impression of putting universities in their place. But he’s playing with fire.

The politics of this debate have been marked out clearly in the US. There, far-right political figures (who of course prefer the term ‘alt-right’, because that makes extremism sound more acceptable) have repeatedly manipulated events to create an impression that universities are censoring them. In fact the evidence is more equivocal. Berkeley, for instance, was prepared to spend millions of dollars on enhanced security so that Milo Yiannopoulos could safely speak on its campus. But – what do you know – he didn’t show. He preferred the ‘censorship’ narrative.

So universities are hammered over and again as closed-minded and politically uniform. This plays nicely to a certain audience, but represents a risky positioning of political games over reality. It also threatens to undermine the public status of universities, and in turn their standing internationally. One would hope that similar trends in the US might worry a UK minister, but in this instance he seems happy enough fiddling with his box of matches.

There’s also a nasty generational politics at work here. The Today programme interviewer played into this by making claims about what ‘the students’ want – which, listeners were told, was absolutely not free speech. That’s seriously crap journalism. While some students are arguing with passion about particular political and cultural issues, the ‘snowflake’ slur remains a nasty, unsubstantiated political fabrication.

So here’s an idea: how about we talk with some students at times like these? How about we not rely on the ventriloquizing of them – the ‘students think’ piffle – of middle-aged men? How about we prepare ourselves to engage with some articulate, intelligent people, who want to change a world that isn’t always working in their interests?

 

The best piece of journalism I read this morning was also about the political corruption of speech, but it had nothing to do with universities. This article, in The Washington Post, was a detailed investigation into Russian interference in Western politics. For anyone who heard Jo Johnson’s brother Boris in Moscow last week, rather illogically arguing that the Russians interfered in the Brexit referendum, but ‘not successfully’, this should be essential reading.

So yes, minister, there are reasons to be concerned today about the politics of speech. But before you proceed with this extraordinary assault on universities, it would be nice if you could reveal your evidence, and it would be worth your while to reflect on where this might lead you. We had been led to believe, after all, that you were the Johnson who thought a little about the consequences of his words.

First published at wonkhe.com

Two-year degrees: another week in the media trenches*

The latest kerfuffle over two-year degrees tells us a lot about the current condition of debate about higher education in the United Kingdom. As Mike Ratcliffe has demonstrated, the long-foreshadowed consultation announced last week proposes a small-scale fix to a niche in the higher education market. At the most ambitious end of the government’s projections, only about 5% of students will be studying on these degrees by 2028.

But that’s not how it has felt. Proponents have seized another opportunity to represent British universities as dozy and dated, while academics have reacted with panic. I’m not sure this helps.

The provocateurs

Free degrees with every copy

It all starts with money, because that has become the baseline in much higher education discourse. The headline in The Sun seized the point: ‘Universities to offer fast-track degrees which will leave students £25,000 better off’. The Telegraph followed suit, stating that ‘Students will save up to £25,000 under radical plans’.

 

Jo Johnson tweeted links to both these pieces, but he knows this is a speculative figure. As the Department for Education announcement states: ‘The proposals … include a £5,500 (20 per cent) saving for students in total tuition costs compared to a standard three-year course. When added to the average salary of £19,000 in the first year after graduating, it means a potential £25,000 benefit overall.’ So let’s be clear: this is arguably a potential ‘benefit’, but it simply is not by any means a £25,000 ‘saving’ on the cost of a degree.

 

These reports have also fudged the question of demand. The consultation document states only that: ‘About three quarters of the providers who responded to our 2016 Call for Evidence reported seeing a demand for accelerated courses from students or employers.’ As market research, that wouldn’t convince me to invest. There’s very little evidence in practice that students are drawn towards cut-price options, while the three-year model retains unquestionable status and recognition.

 

I’d also be wary about trusting that data on employers’ attitudes. In some areas, granted, there may be immediate skills shortages; but in truth there are not many of these. Moreover, most employers tend to want evidence of work experience, internships, ‘international experience’, and so forth. What’s the point of cramming a degree into two years if the three-year students, who have collected these badges along the way, take the pick of the jobs?

 

Predictably enough, this wilfully fuzzy approach to facts has opened the door to the HE saboteurs. Jo Johnson himself didn’t help, with his quote about  ‘highly motivated students hungry for a faster pace of learning’, implicitly questioning the work ethic of all the others. Subsequently, on cue, we received a piece in the Telegraph from Anthony Seldon, with multiple reference to the summer ‘holidays’ enjoyed by three-year students. Seriously, anyone who thinks that students treat those summer months as one long holiday haven’t spoken to many of today’s students, who are busy in the summers ticking off those achievements that employers expect to see on CVs. (Many are also preparing for summer assessment resits; I haven’t seen any explanation of how these would work in the two-year model.)

And by the end of the week: enter Simon Jenkins. Yes, universities are a ‘cultural confidence trick’, and of course fees are ‘astronomical’ and vice-chancellors’ salaries are ‘indefensible’. It’s easy to fill a column with this stuff after the achievements of Adonis and his acolytes over the summer. I expect you could get a Russian bot to produce it. I imagine it also pulls in the readers, partly because academics can’t bring themselves to ignore it.

Yes, really

But it’s desperately damaging, and also massively misleading. Ben Rosamond exposed one of Jenkins’s statistics as worthless. Further, Johnson categorically did not say, as Jenkins claims, that the ‘three-year university course … is absurd and should end’. Once in awhile one might hope for a minister capable of calling out such lies and idiocy rather than just retweeting his fan-club and – yes, really – advertisements for private providers.

The backlash

But maybe academics don’t help themselves with their reactions to such provocation. The UCU’s response to two-year degrees (from last February) is a model of over-reaction, stating that accelerated degrees risk sacrificing the UK’s ‘global reputation for excellence’. And one doesn’t have to look far on social media to find assertions that two-year degrees will be inferior, or even impossible to deliver.

 

This is difficult to sustain. There is no logical reason why an additional 120 credits worth of modules could not be delivered over two summers. Granted, this would manifestly alter the nature of the academic year, and would most likely (although not necessarily) reduce research time for academics. It might therefore accelerate not only degrees, but also the differentiation between research-heavy and research-light universities.

 

But this ship has sailed. We have had the Higher Education and Research Act, which trashed the traditional idea of the university, while across the country many universities are not only struggling to attract students but are also earning precious little research income. The leaders of such universities are understandably desperate for new ideas. In this context, two-year degrees start to look less like a cause of trouble than a symptom of more profound changes.

 

I also wonder whether there is just a whiff of snobbery in this backlash. The three-year degree, with its built-in time for reflection and suite of development opportunities, is a gold-standard model for 18-year-olds. But what about the mature students who have been draining from the student-pool? A 30-year-old, with plenty of work experience but in need of a career boost, might have little interest in the trappings of the university experience. Such a person might quite reasonably want a degree from a local university, and want it fast.

 

Ratcliffe notes the way the two-year announcement was scheduled for release on a Sunday. In recent months this has become HE-bashing day, and academics across the country wait by their twitter feeds, steeled for the latest assault. That’s me as well, of course; however, I wonder whether occasionally our headlong rush into polarisation might only exacerbate the damage.

The skills debate needs more oohs and AHSS*

There was something a little underwhelming about the launch this week of a British Academy report on skills in the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS). To coincide with a royal engagement feels like misfortune; but to be overshadowed by the government’s underwhelming industrial strategy white paper looks more like miscalculation.

Making an AHSS of ourselves

The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences is the product of a project designed to map the skills that students develop across these subject-areas. It lists them under three headings: ‘communication and collaboration’, ‘research and analysis’, and ‘attitudes and behaviours’. For those of us working in these areas and keen to promote them, this is all hugely valuable.

Yet it’s hard not to set this report against the (albeit muted) fanfare attendant upon the industrial strategy. If the white paper represents the continued ascendancy of STEM – that canny little acronym that has taken such hold on the imaginations of politicians – The Right Skills feels rather more awkward. I mean, the acronym, AHSS, is just wrong any which way you look at it. Is it, do you think, to be pronounced ‘ass’, ‘arse’ or ‘aahs’? Then there’s the challenge of representing in one report the sheer breadth of disciplines, from economics through to dance.

As a result, The Right Skills feels to me like only one piece of a bigger, necessary project. As it stands it has the air of a sensible and well-mannered English person speaking politely in the corner of a crowded room. I’d suggest there’s more to be said: about the place of these disciplines in the world, and how they are taught.

The AHSS end of the world

By global standards, the AHSS disciplines in the UK are doing pretty well. I appreciate that’s not always how it feels to early-career academics, nor indeed right now to my friends at Southampton, but we remain well placed. This is partly because of a quirk in the fees system, which makes it advantageous for universities to increase their AHSS courses. But more profoundly I would argue that there is a remarkably solid appreciation – among the public, and also among employers – of what we pain-in-the-AHSS’s do as researchers and teachers.

But we can’t for a minute take this for granted. Beyond the UK, the arts and humanities have been in a state of contraction for some time. Try looking at the data kept in the USA on undergraduate choices of majors; try checking out the size of the average English department at otherwise huge Australian universities. And within the UK, applications are trending downwards in some key disciplines. Brexit also presents reasons to be nervous, especially since the UK’s world-leading services sector, which has traditionally employed so many AHSS-hole graduates, is in line to take a very big hit. And to date the only services strategy seems to involve a lot of waving goodbye.

In this context, The Right Skills helps, but leaves me wanting more. I want a ‘AHSS skills’ poster for my office door. I want a collection of quotes from employers to use at open days. I want to hear politicians endorsing our disciplines with the same fervour they tend to reserve for STEM. And I really, really want a better acronym than AHSS, if that wasn’t quite clear enough…

The AHSS end of the curriculum

When I first started teaching in the UK, a fellow immigrant took me aside and explained that the English single-honours degree model is wonderful because it takes students straight out of school and prepares them to enter research degrees. Even seventeen years ago that sounded a little myopic. Today, with all the emphasis on skills and graduate destinations, it is almost unsayable; yet many of our basic programme structures remain the same.

David Willetts is worried about the level of specialisation in the UK education system: he calls in his new book for both A-Level reform and the introduction of four-year degrees. But the trends are pulling in the other direction. In recent years I’ve been following data produced by surveying A level colleges, which demonstrates how funding constraints are forcing them to cut their range of subjects, and also to limit students to three subjects. Many of those students will, quite reasonably, stick within their comfort zones when choosing degrees, thus compounding the specialisation effect.

The Right Skills is onto this in principle. Its final chapter, ‘Are AHSS graduates fit for the future?’, recommends that universities encourage the development of ‘a mindset of innovation and enterprise’, stresses the value of ‘language, digital and data skills’, and promotes interdisciplinary learning. Precisely; but it would be helpful to have some case-studies of good practice, and maybe a rather more direct challenge to universities. By way of comparison, a useful American report more specifically identifies eight skill-sets that make liberal arts students more employable, and at higher salaries: IT networking and support, sales, computer programming, data analysis and management, marketing, graphic design, general business, and social media. In the UK Nesta and Pearson have also produced useful data-driven research about 2030 employment.

One reason why a greater sense of challenge might be needed is the in-built conservatism in our structures. Teaching single honours programmes is easy and cost-effective, they make sense in terms of workload planning and departmental budgeting. Several years ago I led the development of a Liberal Arts programme at Exeter, which had requirements of language-study, quantitative methods, and group-research. The programme is flourishing, but some of those requirements have been whittled away: partly for administrative reasons, and partly because applicants – trained as they are into conservative choices – were telling us they weren’t comfortable with them.

 

There are lots of reasons to celebrate AHSS skills. Those of us who teach in these areas know this, since we see our students progressing into excellent jobs. But there is also cause for anxiety, and reasons to promote some challenging reforms. As a next step, it would be good to see the British Academy tackling these issues – at which point I will stop being such a pain in the AHSS.

* Originally published at wonkhe.com

How much cross-subsidy? Research funding and the British university*

A recent HEPI report exposes the confidence trick that sustains British higher education. Research excellence leads to high international status; this in turn leads to high numbers of international students; and these students underwrite the research. Simple, but maybe not sustainable, especially in the current climate. Indeed an examination of this creaky merry-go-round exposes the risks that face UK universities.

How much is too much?

The report, How much is too much? Cross-subsidies from teaching to research in British universities, by University of Oxford MPhil student Vicky Olive, grabbed headlines for its calculation that international students contribute, on average, £8,000 per year to research funding. The author used Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) data (imperfect, yes, but the best information we have) to track income and expenditure, working largely at institutional level. Unsurprisingly, she found that teaching subsidises research. However, it’s almost entirely the surplus value from international students, rather than the income from home students, that is responsible for this effect.

The report’s fundamental point is about the chronic underfunding of research. Research councils never quite pay full economic costs, and increasingly demand match-funding. Charitable trusts and foundations never even pretend to cover full costs; and, again, they can make some stretching demands before releasing funds. Meanwhile, start-up equipment costs, especially in STEM fields, can be prohibitively expensive for many. In the most recent year that it analysed (2014-15), the report calculates a ‘research deficit’ across the UK of £3.3 billion, or 37 per cent of research income. It recommends that the government fills this gap.

There is increasingly intense competition for research resources. Successive rounds of the RAE and REF are driving universities to concentrate efforts on greater research productivity. Competition for grants has intensified as success-rates have waned. The growing trend for grants to be targeted in accordance with government policy (e.g. the Global Challenges Research Fund or the Industrial Strategy Research Fund), is prompting universities to reassess their entire operations. Universities are desperate to stay in the business of high-end research, and are stretching themselves to do so.

One of the ironies of this system is that, because research so consistently incurs losses, the financial strains are greatest on the most successful institutions. The concentration of resources at a select number of universities remains a controversial subject, but in fact it’s old news. The twenty-four Russell Group universities already win 76% of all available research grant and contract income, and 68% of all Quality-Related funding (determined by the REF). Many of the most costly areas of research are already the de facto preserve of a relatively small group of institutions. And these universities, as a result, become the ones that most desperately need to recruit – and charge, at a premium – international students.

Subsidising the cross

‘Cross-subsidy’, however, is an interesting idea. Some parts of university operations have always subsidised other parts. Moreover, in any business the tactical movement of resources from one unit to another is considered normal practice. But, as ‘How much is too much?’ demonstrates, the present circumstances of British higher education are placing practices of cross-subsidy under unprecedented scrutiny.

Critically, age-old tensions between research and teaching are now institutionalised in dual governing agencies: UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Office for Students (OfS). And the latter – with a wisdom that remains unproven – has already swathed itself in the discourse of ‘value for money’, which impels in turn a radical unpicking of university finances. People need to know, we’re told, where every penny of those home fees of £9,250 per year actually goes. Now, as this report reminds us, it is surely only a matter of time before students from our main international markets ask their own questions about ‘value for money’, and look towards ambitious and cheaper universities at home. I don’t expect that countries such as China and India intend to underwrite UK research in the long term.

So there is a lesson here about the underlying tensions of cross-subsidy: the ‘how much is too much’ question. Elsewhere on Wonkhe, David Morris argues that the report exposes a ‘dirty secret’ of universities under-valuing teaching. However, I don’t think this was ever really a ‘secret’, nor is it ‘dirty’ to want one’s university to compete in the expensive, noble business of research. There is real value, for everyone, in universities producing world-leading research, as British universities are doing. But there is also value in appreciating the divergent interests of different stakeholders. Trust matters.

I also wonder whether there is a lesson about what Billy Bragg once called “the temptation / To take the precious things we have apart / To see how they work”. Britain did a lot to establish the prevailing international model of the university, as an institution in which research and education co-exist, not always easily yet almost always creatively. Across the world this model is flourishing, and attracting heavy state investment. The international league tables which have assumed such prominence in recent years are derided by many, yet their attention to ‘reputation’ underlines an essentially conservative conception of what a university actually is. That’s one reason why, for the time being, British universities do so well in these tables.

 

So what happens when we take liberties with this model, under-funding research and exploiting the desperation of universities to stay in the game? And what happens when we pick it apart, tracing every incoming pound and every TRAC-hour in the interests of ‘value for money’? Maybe that confidence trick I mentioned above, which is fundamentally a story of success, starts to look a bit rickety. Maybe British universities as a result lose some of their reputation for quality in both research and teaching. And maybe we will find that the idea of the university might be easier to pull apart than to put back together.

* Published first by wonkhe.com

This is not normal: universities in the news

It is not normal for universities to occupy the front pages of national newspapers. Granted, at any time there is a vital, occasionally tense, dialogue between universities and the nations in which they are situated. The line between ideals of academic freedom on the one hand, and the realities of finances and state oversight on the other hand, is notoriously fuzzy. The extent to which universities reflect or represent their nations is always a potential point of controversy.

But these are not normal times. Over the past few months, debate has swirled frenetically around questions including university funding, whether we have too many universities, what our top managers are paid, free speech on campus, how we select our students, and what we teach. We appear now to be at the point where even what academics think might be a point for national outrage.

It seems to me that much of this isn’t even about higher education; it’s rather using universities as a site for thinking through bigger anxieties about the nation. It’s tough thinking about cultural diversity post-Brexit (hell, that’s the sort of thing academics are paid to do); it’s easier to focus on admissions at Oxford. The risk is that we lose track of the bigger issues, while dragging universities through the mud. I don’t see this as sinister, but nor do I see how it helps.

This dysfunction and muddled thinking starts at the head. We have a Prime Minister who announces a major change to university funding at her party conference, without so much as an email of notification to the relevant ministers. We have a cabinet in which the respective members are happy to make it known that they hold wildly differing ideas about universities and the funding of higher education. As a result, despite the agitation of restructuring and monitoring – the REF, the TEF, even the KEF (which many academics assumed at first was a joke) – the government has lost control of the narrative.

This environment has created a playground for the likes of Andrew Adonis. Whatever his higher motives might be, Adonis stumbled and brawled his way through a summer, a perfect role-model for a world in which every fool can have a view on universities. Conflicting evidence? Criticism? Hell, that’s what the ‘block’ button on twitter is for, isn’t it? Perhaps he never intended others to follow him with their own variant crusades; perhaps he thought that, being a lord of the realm and all, he might be licensed to speak on behalf of the nation. If so, he misread the times.

Next come the members of parliament. They want to know what we teach. Evidently they want to write books, but can’t be arsed to take our courses and learn stuff the hard way. Bless. And they want to use Oxford and Cambridge to fix the social inequality that their parliament is failing to address at its roots. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of academics want to be involved in widening access to higher education, and that Oxford and Cambridge work assiduously with the Office for Fair Access. But why would MPs bother engaging with academics or talking with OFFA – even trying to reform it, if they think it’s useless – when they can fire off columns for The Guardian? Let’s face it, the latter will generate more ‘likes’.

And then come the columnists, trailled by any old under-the-line dunce with a thought or two to rub together. Not many of these people could be bothered to understand, say, how the student finance system actually works. It’s kind of complicated, after all. Few will tackle the complex, often counter-intuitive data on university admissions and social inclusion. Only rarely does one acknowledge the role of higher education in generating national income. Most prefer to understand universities through hazy memories and anecdotes picked up from the younger generation. This week’s headlines, in which the Cambridge English syllabus has become a battleground in the war between The Guardian and The Daily Mail, with staff and students shamelessly drawn into the crossfire, has helped nobody and changed nothing. Just a hunch here, but I think my Eng-lit colleagues at Cambridge might have had that one covered all along.

It’s a curious thing that throughout this maelstrom of attention to higher education, nobody pauses to consider just how good they want UK universities to be. I don’t mean ‘excellent’, in the degraded language of TEF, REF and KEF, which confuses bureaucracy with vision; I mean just how, holistically and in a world context, good. That seems to be either taken for granted – in a complacent, nationalistic, Brexiteer, ‘we’ll always have Oxbridge’ kind of of way – or just not seen as particularly important.

There’s a character in a Narayan novel (The Painter of Signs, I think) who sits under a tree all day everyday, holding a sign that reads: THIS WILL PASS. For those of us desperate for a week in which universities are off the front pages, this is probably true; we’re just not that important. Yet the current malaise makes universities edgy and reactive, often from the top down, and that can’t be helpful in a fiercely competitive, international context. The UK university system remains world-class, but it’s worth remembering that this condition is neither natural nor unchangeable. The next time one of a nation of commentators sets out to attack us, it would be nice to think that this might be considered.

Feeling sorry for Oxford: another week in the widening participation debate

Just another week of fury in the coverage of higher education in the British media. On Wednesday The Telegraph was celebrating the fact that half of the students starting this year are the first in their family to go to university, and it seemed like all was well in the world. But in Britain, every patch of sunshine has a Storm Brian on the horizon. So along came The Guardian on Friday, barracked along by the BBC, to hammer Oxford on its record on social inclusion.

It’s not often I feel sorry for colleagues at Oxbridge, but this is one of them. The data are actually contestable (see an excellent twitter thread by @Dr_JSA yesterday), and say much about entrenched problems with social inclusion across the entire education system. It’s a bit tough to blame Oxford for inequality in the UK, but there we are. The Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach from Oxford was pulled onto the Today programme to be harangued by David Lammy, and social media was whipped into a frenzy. (That, by the way, is a definition of acting above one’s pay-grade. Oxford should have put forward a Pro-Vice-Chancellor for that spot.)

Give it a few days and Storm Lammy will blow over, the Daily Mail will publish a piece on the evils of contextual offers – as, let’s remember, they do – and we will stumble into another round of undergraduate admissions no wiser than we were at the outset. What an absurd – yet, in this country at this moment, absolutely typical – way of handling a hugely important social and educational issue.

So, yes, I feel a little bit sorry for Oxford. But I also think they – and other universities that could so easily be the focus of attention next week – could learn something from this.

 

Transparency and the contextual offer

Universities waffle when it comes to contextual offers (i.e. lower offers for students from disadvantaged backgrounds). Maybe that’s for good reason, since we sail between Scylla and Charybdis, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. Maybe it’s because central governments have been too spineless to give us some cover from the latter by speaking out in support of such offers. But we waffle. I’ve waffled myself at open days.

Yet there is solid evidence that underpins contextual offers: have a look, in particular, at anything from the Bristol Widening Participation Research Cluster. There are limits, of course; a student entering Oxford with A-Levels at CCC is probably more likely to drop out than to succeed. But the research supports making offers roughly two grades lower than standard for a course to students from under-performing schools and colleges. They will catch up.

But I’m amazed how opaque we all tend to be about contextual offers and the basis upon which they are made. My sense is that quite a lot of universities make them, but I’m much less convinced that potential applicants know about them. Surely transparency matters.

Which brings me to the Oxbridge interview. In practice, in the hands of skilled and sympathetic interviewers, I’m sure these can be a mechanism for making very generous contextual offers. I’ve certainly heard stories along these lines, while I know A*A*A* applicants from private schools who have been rejected. But it seems to me that this happens at the expense of consistency and transparency, and as a result all the good work is scattered in the wind. I wonder whether someone at Oxford has studied what would happen if they scrapped their interviews.

 

Cultural diversity and the dreaming spires

The other big issue with interviews is: how many potential applicants do they deter? I’ve had proponents of the Oxbridge interview tell me over and over that they are socially progressive: a way of weeding out the well-coached but intellectually vacuous privately-educated applicant. But is the working-class Islamic girl in Newcastle hearing this message? Or is she listing other universities on her UCAS form?

I heard a black Cambridge student on ‘The World at One’ yesterday talking about her interview experience. It was fair, she said, but she was glad to have been through an access programme that included interview training sessions. Well, precisely. Access programmes are fantastic and we should do more to publicize them, but they’re also costly and by nature patchy in their coverage of the population. If students like that one need the benefit of an access programme to demystify the Oxbridge interview, I’d suggest they have a problem.

These problems are compounded by the existing lack of cultural diversity. If I was that Islamic girl in Newcastle, I could quite imagine thinking that Oxford isn’t for me. Let’s face it, the public face of Oxbridge is white and comfortable; and much of the rest of the Russell Group – step forward my own university – is pretty similar. Who really wants to be the first black student in six years to enter the gates of Merton College, Oxford? What do universities like mine have, that will attract socially disadvantaged and ethnic minority applicants to us?

This is a huge challenge, but not one that I’ve yet seen any place tackle in an exemplary manner. Who is the outstanding Russell Group PVC with responsibility for cultural diversity? Any answers? Which university has stood back and really asked itself what it needs to do to make itself more welcoming – more of a home – to its ‘non-standard’ applicants? We’ve all addressed this question in relation to international students, so surely it’s possible to change if we really want to do so.

Let’s face it, the presence of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford doesn’t help, especially when an MP is accusing the University of ‘social apartheid’. I appreciate I’m in the minority, but I’d be doing something about that, because symbolism matters. Other universities can start with more of a blank slate, though still facing some undeniable challenges in terms of location, reputation, and so forth. Cultural change is hard – indeed it makes fiddling around with contextual offers look easy – but crucial if we really want to shift patterns of application.