It’s Metricide – Don’t Do It

Demand for universities to release more and more data from their students is growing. Thus far, it has focussed on the academic quality of teaching and research. A new departure is to measure universities on the salaries of their graduates. Liz Morrish gives the background.

If you thought that feeding the audit vultures with data for “better performance metrics in higher education” would placate them, you would be wrong. The last blog discussed a small section of the Conservative manifesto (see last blog post 23rd May). Let’s return to it, because there is still an unexamined proposition – to “require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates”. Once again, the focus is on graduate outcomes, but this time they are entirely financial. This truly sinks the last nail in the coffin of higher education as intellectual self-fulfilment. The manifesto anticipates a little-publicized outcome of the recently passed Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill 2015 (SBEE) 

Here’s a quick summary of the purpose and intent of this new legislation. First, to put it in context, let’s take a step back to the 2010 Browne Review which recommended a tripling of university fees in England. Lord Browne, the Labour government which commissioned the review, and the coalition government which acted on it, never imagined that ALL universities would charge the £9000 maximum fee. They assumed they had tweaked the right drivers and incentives to ensure that fees would mirror university reputation and thus perceived ‘value for money’. Instead of forming an orderly hierarchy, universities all moved to charge the maximum, or near to it, for fear of signalling an inferior ‘product’. This has landed the government with a far bigger outlay on student loans that they ever intended or budgeted for. There is now a very large hole in the balance sheet for the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, and to make matters worse, the RAB charge (Resource Accounting and Budgeting) seems to grow with each new estimate (the RAB charge is the portion of student borrowing that will not be paid back). This may be in excess of 45% of the sum borrowed, and is a debt which BIS will need to service.

And so, having vastly inflated the actual public spend on higher education, albeit through the agency of student borrowers, BIS and the government need to find a way to make this improvident model sustainable. Taking an idea from President Obama, one way to reclaim the money is by ensuring that graduate salaries exceed the threshold for repayment. This is no easy deal in the current economic climate, and so the government’s ‘nudge’ unit must have been employing all their imagination towards their solution – the FEER. It stands for the Future Earnings and Employment Record. In an era of big data, it has become possible to link the following records to individuals: university attended (and possibly even subject studied), amount owed in tuition and maintenance loans, and, via HMRC tax records, the amount that a graduate currently earns. This intrusive leakage is now permissible since the passing of the SBEE. BIS can simply ask for these records in order to compile them into a league table of graduate loan repayments, by university. What better way to weaponize that data than to try and influence student choices, cast as ‘aspirations’ in the legislative text, or even punish universities for having the temerity to confer degrees on deadbeats who cannot repay their loans?

You know you’re in trouble when the discourse turns to ‘journeys’ and ‘destinations’, but it gets worse. Although the government’s Education Evaluation fact sheet constitutes a total failure of logic, it displays a discursive masterstroke,  with a chaining of ‘learning outcomes’, ‘performance data’, ‘accountability’, ‘interventions’, and then serving the whole salad up as a solution to ‘social mobility’. And the final section re-designates universities as mere factories for the production of labour inputs: “This data, presented in context, will distinguish universities that are delivering durable labour market outcomes and a strong enterprise ethos for their students”.

So, that is the future. Applicants for university courses will be invited to consider Key Information Sets including projected earnings, and make their choices accordingly. More worryingly, will universities fear the FEER to the extent they will discriminate against women – seriously at risk of defaulting on loans with all those inconveniently timed maternity leaves? Will universities continue to offer course that lead to lower-paying graduate jobs: nursing, teaching, fine arts? Who knows what knowledge and skills may be in demand in ten years’ time? Having sacked off excellent chemistry, physics, zoology and sociology departments, universities are full of forensic science, criminology and equestrian studies courses. These are all popular ‘vocational’ subjects, but lead to mixed outcomes in terms of employability and earnings. Meanwhile, graphic artists and English graduates seem to be climbing the salary scales with recent developments in computer games.

We can only hope that students are not as mercenary as their political masters. Students, I imagine, will continue to make choices based on love for their chosen subject, desire to remain in their home city, or to move to a new one, to attend a university to be with their current partner, or the one that gives them the opportunity to study overseas – or any of the countless other factors that motivate student choices. I may be institutionalized in an arts and humanities faculty, but I have met very few students in any university I have visited who had graduate salary as top of their aspirations. But, then, the government thinks I live in an ivory tower, insulated from economic realities. Nevertheless, I’d bet my perception of students is more accurate than either their initial estimate of the RAB charge or their strategy for retrieving it.

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