Widening participation and the demise of the great British university*

Let’s think, for a minute, about why British universities might be slipping down the international league tables. The figures are fairly clear: 51 of the UK’s top 76 universities, including sixteen from the Russell Group, have dropped in the latest QS rankings.

The Telegraph had a go at this exercise this morning, and concluded that ‘experts [blame] the decline on pressure to admit more disadvantaged students’. In response, I’d start with the word ‘experts’. It seems to me they had just one, from the University of Buckingham (and I’m not even sure that he would be comfortable with the way his words have been used). Their other interviewees seemed to be pulling in different directions; but, hey, why miss an opportunity for a spot of reactionary elitism on the day of a general election?

What this extraordinary explanation for the fall of Britain is doing, after all, is blaming a programme of social mobility – the longstanding commitment to widening participation in higher education – for a decline in quality. Or, in a not wholly subliminal way, it’s suggesting that our top universities could be great again if only they didn’t have to admit so many of the wrong kind of persons. Those poor people from underfunded schools: they really pull us all down.

Another way of analysing these results might have been to start with the QS methodology. It encompasses six metrics:

  1. Academic Reputation
  2. Employer Reputation
  3. Faculty/Student Ratio
  4. Citations per faculty
  5. International Faculty Ratio
  6. International Student Ratio

As hard as I look, I don’t see anything here about the average net worth of the parents of a university’s students. Funny that; if we could only take ourselves back a few generations, it was all so much more straightforward.

So where else might we look for explanations? First of all, we might consider the level of international competition. There are countries around the world, not least in Asia, that have methodically and ruthlessly targeted success in the international league tables. They have increased investment across the board, and also concentrated resources on identified elite groups of universities. They’re not relying on reputations rooted in the past; they’re aggressively building those reputations right now.

Secondly, let’s pause on the final two measures, which are all about international outlook. For all our ‘we are international’ hash-tags, British universities are hamstrung by a government that is and insular in its outlook and hostile – at least in its rhetoric – towards international students. Other countries are increasing their numbers of international students while we are going backwards on this measure. Our participation in EU research funding schemes, which have been the single greatest engine of international collaboration, is in serious doubt.

Which leads us to Brexit. After an election campaign in which both major parties have made promises about this and that while determinedly ignoring the fact that Brexit will rip a bloody great hole in the nation, it seems appropriate that we should be looking every which way other than Brexit for an explanation for these league table trends. Because it couldn’t have anything to do with Brexit, could it? It surely couldn’t – or not, anyway, for The Telegraph – be influenced in any way by this historical act of insularity and xenophobia?

No: there must be someone else to blame. It must be caused by our dreadfully misguided efforts to drag forward all these frightfully uneducated oiks. Britain was an altogether greater nation when those folk knew their place, and when the higher education system was designed to damn well keep them there.

* Published under a different title by wonkhe.com

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Making the evidence disappear: how the referendum was won

Here’s one of the most telling quotes from the post-referendum period: ‘The remain campaign featured fact, fact, fact. It just doesn’t work.’ That’s Arron Banks, who did so much to fund the Leave campaign.

And here’s another quote, from before the vote: ‘We just want the facts’. That’s one I heard, over and over, from ordinary voters interviewed on radio and television.

Hence my question: if people wanted facts, and only one side had them, why didn’t that side win?

 

Evidence & argument

‘Evidence’ is a more appropriate word than ‘facts’. Evidence is the very stuff of successful argument. How many Leave arguments, though, began with the words ‘I believe’? Hell, anyone can believe all sorts of bollocks, but without evidence a belief is no argument at all. This is something we fix in first-year undergraduate essays.

Of course it was worse than this. We had, as well, Michael Gove’s claim that ‘Britain has had enough of experts’. I’ve heard it said that Gove surely does believe in expert opinion himself; but that’s beside the point. What he set out to do was legitimize not merely anti-intellectualism, but a form of debate wilfully devoid of evidence. And that has troubling consequences for the nature of democracy.

 

A post-truth media

The media, meanwhile, were caught short by Britain’s first full-scale encounter with ‘post-truth’ politics. We know what to expect from Leave newspapers, but the BBC – upon which we rely so much – had a bad referendum. In their obsession with balance, they repeatedly allowed leavers air-time to peddle their ‘beliefs’, even as the public were crying out for ‘facts’.

One morning, the lead item on the ‘Today’ programme was Boris Johnson offering one of his more outlandish beliefs. The headline began with the phrase ‘Boris Johnson warns’. By lunchtime, the BBC’s ‘fact-checker’ made clear that this belief was wholly fictional. But the damage had been done; lies – and note that verb ‘warns’, as though this might actually be fact rather than fiction – were allowed to seep into the public consciousness.

This is to treat news by the rules of talkback radio, which operates by presenting a balance of – generally extreme and unsubstantiated – views. But might we dare to expect more of serious journalists than this? Might we expect them to inform us accurately? Who in the media told us – as legal expert Michael Dougan did – of the multi-volume UK-government-sponsored Balance of Competences Review, that found overwhelming evidence in favour of EU membership? Dougan got millions of hits on YouTube, but neither he nor those precious volumes of evidence got much attention from the mainstream media.

And it’s still happening. Last week the ‘Today’ programme had what seemed initially an eminently sensible piece on the grave threats to research funding presented by Brexit. But then, in the interest of balance, they dug out one of the few scientists in the country who believes that the situation might actually be positive. If 99% of experts – and yes, I happen to believe in experts – argue one thing, why would we give 50% of the air-time to the 1%. That’s not balance; it’s journalists abandoning their responsibility to inform the public.

Britain’s two seventeenth-century revolutions produced not only the nation’s first newspapers but some of the greatest political theory of all time. So it’s possible to do better, but we’ve got a way to catch up.

 

The place of passion

Here’s another BBC quote, from the day before the referendum. The vote was, the ‘World at One’ journalist said, a contest between ‘the head and the heart’.

The lesser mischief of this quote is its implication that there was no emotion to the remain side of the argument. The greater is the suggestion that, in a decision of such magnitude, the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’ are somehow of equivalent value. Sorry to sound, well, emotional, but that’s bullshit. Having a warm feeling about freedom and sovereignty counts for bugger all, in my book, against the near-certainty of a shrinking economy, more austerity and a fracturing Union.

Since the referendum we’ve seen where a validation of emotion, devoid of evidence, can lead us. Brexit may have no effect on immigration whatsoever, but hasn’t it done a great job at legitimizing the fear and hatred of migrants? It wouldn’t have suited the leave campaign to have an evidence-based debate about immigration, because the weight of evidence is against them. And so now, having got by just fine without evidence, they’re unable to change their narrative in order to put a stop to the epidemic of racism they themselves have unkennelled.

 

Getting on with it

The post-referendum Leave line is that we all need to ‘get on with it’ – as though those of us who are deeply concerned about the risks ahead are no more than sore losers in a bloody game of Monopoly. We’re not; we’re focused intently on making the best of the present, and that’s a responsible attitude for any citizen in a democracy. Now, more than ever, we sorely require a commitment to evidence-based argument.

The initial signs are not good: while senior EU officials and hugely credible British experts have been lining up to give us very clear information, potential prime ministers have been resorting as much as ever to assertions of belief that border upon fantasy. And have a guess which story makes the front-pages? Political drama is easy news.

Meanwhile, many Leave voters would prefer simply to close the nation’s ears. One wrote to the BBC, days after the vote, urging them to be ‘more positive’. I mean, where’s Pravda when you need it?

 

So Remain lost the vote because evidence-based argument lost the campaign. And that happened because the media weren’t ready for post-truth politics. Looking ahead, it seems to me that finding a way to retrieve the value of evidence in national debate is maybe even more important even than finding a way back into the EU.