Tag Archives: Conservative HE policy

While you were away…Summer 2015 HE news catch up – Part I

Welcome back. That’s assuming you had a holiday in the first place. In case you missed them, here are some of the issues which have emerged since the UK General Election in May (remember that?).

University teaching

You will probably be aware that student number controls have been relaxed from this September. You might imagine this would signal the government’s huge confidence in the university sector. However, the Minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson, made a speech to the Universities UK Annual Conference on Wednesday 9th September 2015. A useful Bird-and-Fortune-style commentary on the speech can be accessed here. In the speech he announced,

“there is lamentable teaching that must be driven out of our system. It damages the reputation of UK higher education and I am determined to address it”.

This pronouncement reprised some of the themes from his speech at the same venue on July 1st, particularly the idea of a Teaching Excellence Framework.

This was the speech where some additional information was added to the Conservative Manifesto promise to “introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality”, but we have still to hear what format it might take, and despite much discussion in the media, the focus is still not clearly defined. Nick Hillman has suggested there are three possible candidates: the familiar Quality Assurance process, National Student Survey scores or a measure of ‘learning gain’. Or a mixture of all three, with DLHE (Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education) data thrown in as well.

This is as much as we know so far, from the July 1st speech:

“I expect the TEF to include a clear set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics. This should be underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape”. [http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/back-to-school-with-jo-johnson/]

The only thing that has been asserted with any clarity is that any increase in the tuition fee will be linked to an institution’s performance in the TEF. In doing so, the government could, at last, claim a success in creating a market in higher education ‘providers’. As we know, the post 2012 reforms had led to a rush for all universities to charge the maximum £9000, or near to it. But now vice-chancellors, particularly in the Russell Group, are lobbying for a fee hike. This could mean some strange incentives arising. If students know that their positive NSS scores will result in a tuition increase for their successors, will they seek to skew their responses, and the university’s league table position, downwards?

Could the TEF resemble a QAA style subject review format? It is hard to imagine that the tried and tested, despised but thoroughly gameable process, will not emerge in some new form. The usual promises have been made, that it would be light touch, and it would need to be, considering the £5 currently spent on QA. However, the QAA was process-focussed, and Jo Johnson has been clear that he wants the emphasis to be on ‘outputs’. In that case, what might it measure?

One candidate is ‘learning gain’ and please see here for a discussion. Simply put, can our graduates demonstrate the nominated transferable skills to a greater extent than before they started higher education? Some commentators talk about ‘distance travelled’.

The OECD just completed a feasibility study into an international comparison of graduates. It seems that European universities are not yet willing to rank their graduates’ learning outcomes against those from other continents. Last week, it was announced that a Europe-only feasibility study will begin: Measuring and Comparing Achievements of Learning Outcomes in Higher Education in Europe project, known as Calohee.

Yet another possibility for the TEF seems to be favoured by Edward Peck, Vice-Chancellor of Nottingham Trent University. He has evidently read this section from the Conservative Manifesto:

“We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality… and require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates”.

Peck takes that textual linkage of teaching quality and career paths of graduates and makes a learning gain metric out of them. In a piece entitled “Finding new ways to measure graduate success”, he outlines his view thus:

“[T]he forthcoming availability of HMRC tax data to HESA and the Student Loans Company means that we could use a robust measure where we can select the census point at which we present data on average earnings by university and/or by course. This would not be dissimilar to the approach some rankings take to MBA programmes. With secondary education performance data also being brought into the mix, we have the hope of finding a much needed way to measure added value or learning gain”. [http://www.wonkhe.com/blogs/finding-new-ways-to-measure-graduate-success/]

Added value and learning gain are not the same thing, and neither can be measured by graduate salaries. There seemed further valid points to be made against Peck’s suggestion, and so I did, here.

Learning Gain is changing its shape almost daily, and even HEFCE can’t keep up. The Times Higher reports that a number of English (and it is only English) universities are trialling standardized tests from the Wabash National Study.Lots of luck getting your students to turn out for this battery of 13 different tests which have no direct relevance for them.

Meanwhile, BIS is still busy consulting about what the TEF should look like, and at the same time has commissioned a study by RAND Europe into what learning gain is, and how it might be measured. Spoiler – like me, they don’t seem to favour graduate salaries as a valid measure.

Happy new Academic Year. More soon on Research, Quality Assurance, Student debt, and the road ahead in Part II.

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.