Specialisation: Switching, Selection and Sorting

The ‘most significant reform is required’, said David Willetts, in the lack of breadth and the over-specialisation of our curriculum (Willetts, 2008, p340).  Not only is it a problem in itself – we will never tackle C P Snow’s two cultures otherwise – it drives other problems, particularly the division of our curriculum into a false academic/vocational dichotomy and the hyper-selectivity of parts of our entire education system.  The following expands on my piece as part of Wonkhe’s kite flying exercise but also responds to continuing debates about selectivity, a recent example being Iain Mansfield’s HEPI paper on Grammar Schools and comments by Nick Hillman posing a key question about the age at which selection is justified.

We’ve not seen much joined-up policy making from DfE since it took back FE & HE in 2016, so this could be a big opportunity. The biggest prize would be to move against the over-specialisation of courses. Over-specialisation at 18 sets in train specialisation at 16, 14 and 11. It drives an over-reliance on knowledge-based exams, which means students and their families making choices earlier and earlier.  As courses become specialised selection becomes necessary, and that also starts to spiral.

After the wave of expansion in the 1950s, the Robbins report looked at the criticism of first degrees, with concerns the curriculum was too full and too specialised. It was concluded that a ‘higher proportion should be receiving a broader education for their first degrees’ (Robbins 1963 p93).  The Dearing report explicitly picked up the issue from Robbins, recommending that HEIs review their programmes in terms of breath and depth.  They recommended:

Institutions that wish to introduce breadth to the early years of higher education programmes could consider admitting students to a faculty or to the institution, rather than to a specific programme, in order to send strong signals to schools and their pupils about the importance that higher education attaches to a broad education. (Dearing, 1997, p133)

A broad curriculum many have many advantages in its own rights, particularly as to what we value in education. In the specialised curriculum model, we prioritise knowledge.  If we were to organise a proper University Challenge series, this should be two interdisciplinary teams working on a problem for 30 minutes, not barking out facts as quickly as possible.  But there are other issues too.


Specialisation confounds those who would see ‘switching’ as the perfect market solution.  Higher Education is an unusual product – you normally only do the various stages of it once.  Although students do transfer, this is complex and many universities don’t facilitate it because their courses are specialised – even with highly regulated courses it can be hard to start, say a law degree, at one place and finish at another.  In the US with their more general education structures it is far more easy, some state systems are built around transfers from 2 year colleges to complete at 4 year ones and the federal government may mandate this.


I think specialisation plays a key part in our focus on selecting students.  Nick Hillman asks the question, if selection at 18 is acceptable, then why is it problematic at 11?   If you accept that admission to courses is primarily about determining whether a student can benefit from them, then specialisation plays a role.  Students need both knowledge and skills to be able to benefit, so additional specialisation creates pathways where pre-requisites are built up.  In England, the national curriculum prescribes the learning that should be followed at key stage 3, but there are choices which can be made at key stage 4 for GCSEs etc, including moving to a UTC offering a specialised curriculum.   Although choice opens out even further after key stage 4 , it does so in a highly specialised context, framed by the prospect of university offers or pathways to employment.

Specialisation drives selection, but selection drives specialisation.  I’ve noted before that there were complaints in the 1950s that as gaining university places became more competitive, universities could limit scarce places to better prepared students.  A process of transferring the curriculum from the first stages of university to the last stage of school slowly took place.

There’s a fine example of this with the two Maths Schools (with more to follow), twining specialisation with selectivity. At King’s a GSCE grade 8 is required in maths – an outcome limited to 8.3% of those who took it alongside a 7 in Physics (less selective – 42.6% of those who took that GCSE got at least that grade).

I think the justification for selection comes from choice.  This is broadly the same case that Jonathan Simons makes on Wonkhe that it comes from lack of compulsion.  I think it’s less about the choice not to engage with a level of education, but the choice of different courses with different entrance requirements.

That’s not the end of the story though; it is clear that as well as deciding who can benefit, selection is rationing places.  Oxford will only admit 3250 undergraduates a year, so it needs to ration its places.  No doubt there is a pool of at least 32500 school leavers who could benefit from going to Oxford (if they want to study the courses and live a particular kind of residential life), sometimes it’s assumed that 325000 people ought to envy going there.  Using success at A level is a perfectly rational basis to do decide who to admit, even if we know that success can be affected by other factors.

The impact of rationing and choosing work together.  We have a hierarchy that comes from a long legacy where choice was restricted.  Choosing the ‘academic’ route has greater esteem; it happens at 11, 14, 16 and 18.  Choosing the selective route has greater esteem.  Surely at the broadest stage, with the least choice, there should be the least rationing?  A key concern about selection at 11 is that we are rationing a route towards the greatest esteem on the least evidence, when we expect all students to take the same curriculum. As we increase specialisation, we increase the choice but we also decrease the esteem that attaches to the least rationed outcomes.


All of this would help DfE act on Simon Marginson’s conclusion that the hierarchy of value in higher education is the keystone issue:

In building greater social equity in higher education, within increasingly high-participation systems, the quality of mass higher education is the most important single issue. In short, the value of higher education should be made more equal between institutions, so that higher education can maximise its contribution to more democratic, more equal, more universally productive and more solidaristic societies. (Marginson, 2016, p273)

We are too dominated by hierarchy; that diminishes the importance of the diversity of approaches that we take. The preoccupation with knowledge enhances the fake dichotomy between ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ higher education, which fades off into a further, but lower, category of ‘technical’ education.

Less specialisation would helps DfE sell a diversity of educational approaches, especially technical education, by not creating it as a fixed path at 11, 14, 16 or even 18.  These junctions attract the extra issues of sorting: that the ‘choice’ between grammar and secondary modern, comprehensive or UTC, sixth form or FE college becomes laden with more than just the issue of the course chosen.  It ends with the most hyper-selective where schools measure themselves on the number of pupils entering Oxbridge or Russell Group universities.  The sorting becomes a signifier to others; accentuating the benefit it confers.

So with the impact specialisation has, and accepting all we hold dear about the autonomy of universities, why not have DfE try to tackle this? It could support broader first years? That might support more general study at 16, enable more switching of paths, enable students to range more along the continuum of ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ paths, allow students to build up a wider pattern of qualifications. Broader qualifications could see switching universities if you want, but also lifelong learning as students could have more learning skills.  Do what Dearing suggested and admit students to faculties, not courses.


Dearing, R, [The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education], 1996, Higher Education in the learning society, HMSO, London
Robbins, L, [Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins] 1963, Higher Education, London, HMSO
Marginson, S, 2016, Higher Education and the Common Good. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press
Willetts, D, 2017, A University Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press


Student Housing: an utopian vision

Student accommodation is returning to being a big issue.  Recent pieces have called attention to the cost, and that many accommodation packages now cost in excess of the annual maintenance loan.  Meanwhile, there is concern about the provision for ‘commuting’ students.  This brings us back to why we are in this situation – why has the UK, but particularly England, prioritised the residential student experience?

I did a quick summary of the history and emerging problems, but here I want to present an optimistic vision of student housing in the post-war period as described in a book by William Mullins and Phyllis Allen – Student Housing – Architectural and Social Aspects published in 1971.

This book sets out to look at student housing in the UK with an appraisal of its requirements, plans and photographs of some of the ‘better schemes’ built internationally, and a briefing guide for those ‘coming to the problems of student housing for the first time’ (Mullins & Allen 1971 p vii).

The chief glory is the plans and photographs, depicting an international style of housing.  Sometimes this is integrated with teaching, in collegiate settings, and sometimes in separate locations.  What’s clear is that provision is broadly equal; there are no luxury studio flats – these are not segregated gated communities built on the ability to pay (in the UK this is a deliberate consequence of UGC funding policies).  As a consequence these are temporary homes, intended to be a base away from the family home, encouraging integration in the common pursuit of study.

External Spaces

With the exception of the halls in London, the majority of the housing featured have generous external spaces, with clear connections between the different buildings. Mullins and Allen do not arrange their illustrated schemes in chronological order, but an early example featured is the Graduate Centre at Harvard, whose principal architect Walter Gropius taught at the Graduate School of Design.


Graduate Centre, Harvard 1951 (The Architects Collaborative) p77

The international style is such that this type of covered walkway is a feature of many post-war UK campuses.   Harvard could easily be York or Lancaster.


West Midlands College of Education, Walsall 1963 (Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners) p193

Away from the universities, colleges of education were being built on similar lines.  Architects for Local Education Authorities built campuses that looked very similar to those being constructed for the ‘new universities’.   In turn, student housing could also go upwards in precast concrete.

Student Life 

There is a clear sense that the housing is designed to create community.  Although the single study bedrooms (the briefing guide notes the privacy problems of shared rooms) are increasingly independent, there are generous communal spaces.

The plans shows that, as well as the corridor or staircase models of residences, the grouping into flats with shared resources was starting to come in.  There are rooms with ensuite facilities too.  Student life in the rooms is similar with a bed and a desk, but also different: record players and radios are the only technology in sight.

Furniture and Fittings

The guide at the end of the book raises issues that architects need to consider when planning housing, including the cost of furnishing the rooms. Handy hints are offered about new modular furniture, and how these might be converted to use for summer lets. The photographs provide further insights into student rooms in use.


Mullins & Allen note that Treasury grants (via the UGC) will be inadequate to meet the need created by rising student numbers, and universities should now be looking for loan finance. They note that Lancaster had the first successful scheme; borrowing £500,000 at 8% over 30 years. The sums worked on students paying £3 per week (the only possible upgrade bring an extra 2 shillings & 6 pence a week for a room with a hand basin).

There was no return to major capital funding of residences – student accommodation moved off the main balance sheet, as loans financed institutional building – especially as non-UGC HEIs caught up with provision. The growth of student housing companies now means a far greater variety of provision, but what was once the standard vision of decent communal spaces is reserved for luxury providers. Mullins & Allen offer an insight back to a vision of egalitarian provision for all students, a utopia – increasingly non-existent.


Mullins W & Allen P, 1971,  Student Housing – Architectural and Social Aspects, London, Crosby Lockwood & Son.  

National exams are no answer to grade inflation

The English HE regulator has made an entry to the grade improvement/inflation debate, firmly accusing universities of inflation. And as a response Sonia Sodha has pitched some solutions, including:

university examination boards that are responsible for setting assessment right across the system

She also suggests opening exams at universities to other students (the system that ran when external students could take London exams) which neatly subjugates the teaching of one university to another.

We had something similar in the summer with Tom Richmond’s A Degree of Uncertainty report for Reform. He clearly saw some of the obvious pitfalls with national exams, so came up with the concept of the ‘Designated Assessment Body’ (DAB). The DAB would set an exam for each subject which would be used each year to assess what proportion of the subject cohort would get which degree class.   We know that simple norm referencing would be awful; predetermining a fixed % across different universities would be a nonsense, so the DAB is a great example of British policy making.  It contrived an extraordinary system to deal with the intractable flaw to a solution no one wants to a problem that may not be real (cf TEF).

I want to focus on just one aspect of this, and explain why it brought Immanuel Kant to mind.  Richmond advances the idea that within each principal subject area, the OfS would appoint a DAB.  The DAB would adopt the most stringent powers of any of the existing PSRBs, the GMC, and allow it to require all sorts of things from universities – such as maximum SSRs.  But the heart of it comes in its assessment:

Each DAB would create a single, national assessment for all final-year students in the subject(s) that they are responsible for. This would be based on a ‘core curriculum’ written by the DAB in partnership with HE providers that would cover the fundamental elements of the degree course in question. It is envisaged that this assessment would be no more than 3-4 hours in length. It may comprise of one or two separate elements (e.g. one ‘knowledge’ and one ‘skills’ test) and it would be up to the DAB to decide whether the test(s) would be best suited to a paper-based or online format. (p37)

Richmond wants to limit this to a ‘core’ and for it to only count for 10% of a degree classification in order to deflect from the obvious concern that this would impose a national curriculum.  But clearly it would still have the same effect.  The assessment would drive what proportion of the subject cohort would be able to get good degrees.  A cohort of students that performed well would get allocated a greater slice of the national number of firsts.  Clearly performance in this assessment will really matter – not least as Richmond envisages running a value-added KPI it will be plugged into every league table.

Richmond knew that this is controversial, so he cited the existing work of two PSRBs here; Medicine and Law.  The GMC and the BSB/SRB systems are different, but both have defined the accepted content for the academic stage of the training for a regulated career.  In each case the curriculum to be followed is very well established, but with variations on the level of detail. For example law students must study the key elements and general principles of seven areas of legal study, thereby ensuring that every LLB graduate knows torts.  Although the joint standard is rather board, there is a great deal of acceptance of what constitutes the study of torts; a feature of legal study based on key precedents and cases.

This makes them rather different from other subjects.  The subject benchmark for history opens with the following statement:

History differs from many subjects in that historians do not recognise a specific body of required knowledge or a core with surrounding options. It is taken as self-evident that the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the human past is of incalculable value both to the individual and to society at large, and that a key object of education in history is to enable this to be acquired. It is accepted that there is variation in how the vast body of knowledge which constitutes the subject is tackled in different honours degree programmes.

Sodha’s notion that Oxford Brookes would prepare students for Oxford’s history exams doesn’t get around that – it’s just saying that their take on that variation should be prioritised over other universities.

Richmond’s solution of allowing history to have a core curriculum on ancient or modern history misses the point too.  The point is that history doesn’t have a fixed curriculum, and that is what makes it, and other subjects, a higher education.  This brings us to the Conflict of the Faculties.

Immanuel Kant wrote his Conflict of the Faculties in response to a rebuke issued under the king of Prussia’s name in 1794. Accused of misusing his philosophy to ‘distort and disparage many of the cardinal and foundational teachings of the Holy Scriptures’ the king demands he gives a ‘conscientious vindication’ of his actions and to not repeat his actions ‘Failing this, you must expect unpleasant measures for your continuing obstinacy’

Kant’s response builds on the traditional division of the university in a lower (philosophical or arts) faculty and three upper faculties (Theology, Law and Medicine).  This was the medieval structure where the arts had to be studied before a student could take a higher degree in one of the professions (broadly this distinction has been maintained in the US system).  For Kant, this distinction is important – the professions were directed by the state:

So the biblical theologian … draws his teachings not from reason but from the Bible; the professor of law gets his, not from natural law, but from the law of the land; and the professor of medicine does not draw his method of therapy as practiced upon the public from the physiology of the human body but from medical regulations.  As soon as one of these faculties presumes to mix with its teaching something it derives from reason, it offends against the authority of the government that issues orders…  (Kant, I, Conflict of the Faculties, 1992 Lincoln University of Nebraska Press p 35)

The lower faculty had to be free, it had to base its teaching on reason alone.  This version of academic freedom was, of course, highly disciplined (we must continue to draw the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech).  This is Lehrfreiheit – the freedom to teach.  In the contemporary British university this is qualified; there are approval processes, using those subject benchmarks, and the marketing department may have a view or two.  In curriculum terms, Richmond’s DAB proposal is highly problematic; although to defers to a subject community, it aims to fix an element of each subject around a common core defined years in advance by a central committee appointed by the OfS.

Having held the right of the lower faculty to use reason, he goes onto helpfully show that it could help the higher faculties.  His own physiology examples may not have been that helpful (Kant had interesting views about digestion), but in the two centuries science has amply shown that it can help medicine.

We need to understand grade improvement, and we need to separate the many causes that are grounded in better teaching, better assessment and better student effort from any gaming from universities with an eye on a league table. There’s a process already looking at this, which OfS decided to gatecrash this week; it’s vital that national or external exams do not become the suggested solution to this issue.

Higher Education after the War

The scale of the impact of the First World War is hard for us to imagine.  For a higher education perspective, I do recommend a look at both Tomás Irish ‘The University at War, 1914-25, Britain, France and the United States’ and John Taylor ‘The Impact of the First World War on British Universities : Emerging from the Shadows’. Both explore both what happened during but also the impact after the war.

Taylor notes ‘It is no exaggeration to argue that the First World War contributed significantly in the development of the British public university’ (2018, 336) and this is surely right.

Experience of the War

Although it was the vacation when war was declared, universities started to mobilise their plans to support the war effort.  Taylor has retrieved extensive minutes of the plans going into action.

But both Irish and Taylor foreground the destruction of the University library of Louvain on 25 August 2014 as the moment that brought the war into sharp relief for higher education, as Irish says, ‘the images of the burnt-out shell of the university library demonstrated that universities were on the front line; knowledge was literally at war’ (2015: pp15-16)


The next key impact was the mobilisation of men in particular to join the forces.  Lord Haldane had been instrumental in setting up Officer Training Corps (OTC) in universities and alumni and students were therefore already in a large potential reserve force.  Military Studies had been included in the curriculum, Manchester noting it was ‘adapted to the requirements of officers and others interested in military history’ (Manchester 1908 p179)   In the Autumn of 1914, it was the declining numbers of students which showed the growing number participating joining the services.

The modern universities were comparatively small, Leeds reported 1596 members of the university had been active service (Leeds 1920 p46).  By contrast, the University of Oxford Roll of Honour contains the names of 14,561 members of the university who served in military or naval services during the war.


The editors note that the university made other contributions, through science and the use of university facilities, but the sombre volume records the enormity of the contribution made by members of the university.  Here are list their university details, their service and honours and, regularly through the pages, the names of those who lost their lives picked out in heavy type.  Those scant details have now been taken forward by many of the colleges who offer insights into the lives of those commemorated on the memorials, with webpages and social media highlighting that personal contribution.

It was the wider contribution that Morrell stresses, contrasting the famous case of Harry Moseley, the discoverer of atomic numbers, who was shot at Gallipoli, an act that Sir Ernest Rutherford thought was a shining example of the misuse of scientific talent (Morrell 1997 p 6) with the wider scientific contributions to the war.

Rutherford himself undertook scientific work for the government, alluded to in this extract from the University of Manchester’s annual report:

As in the previous year, the ordinary research work of the Scientific Departments has been abandoned, and they have devoted themselves to special service, both advisory and experimental, in connection with the War… In his capacity as a member of the Board on Inventions and Research for the Admiralty, Professor Sir Ernest Rutherford has made special investigations in the Physics laboratory on problems connected with that Board. (Manchester, 1917)

Amongst his other projects, Rutherford had worked out the principles for sonar.   Some of the tasks undertaken were as fundamental, but less high profile: W H Perkin, Waynflette Professor of Chemistry ‘led small teams working on making acetone from alcohol, on a non-inflammable rubber coating for airships and on mustard gas’ (Morrell, 1997 p8).  When the king visited the University of Leeds he was shown the chemistry laboratories, but also the textiles and leather departments working to enhance soldiers’ equipment.

Broader Impact

Taylor provides a full account of the minutes of a deputation to the government held two weeks after the armistice (I’ve previously written a shorter version).  It’s an extraordinary account of how universities say what they had contributed, and the opportunities that lay ahead. The education minister, HAL Fisher (who’d been a vice-chancellor until 1916) was among the members of government responding, and he was formative in chartering the passage towards regular state funding through the UGC.

As well as the funding towards universities Fisher, looking back in 1939, also highlighted the importance of funding for ex-Service men to take up places at university.

Yet I believe that, when the history of our English education comes to be written, no single step will be found to have contributed more effectively to the spread of the university idea through England than the decision of the Government in 1918 to allot eight millions to enable ex-Service men to enjoy the privileges of university education… I am in a position to affirm that this large body of students was drawn almost exclusively from families to whom the notion of a university career for one of their numbers would have seemed up to that time foreign, if not fantastic.   (Fisher, 1940, p114)

The effects were quickly felt at the universities, at Leeds full time students jumped from 778 in 1918/19 to 1389 in 1920, 640 having received awards from the government ranging from fees to fees and a maintenance allowance of £200 per annum for married men (Leeds, 1920, p53)

The war demonstrated the usefulness of science, and Morrell notes that this now carried the argument at Oxford towards more facilities and more distinct courses.  It also had demonstrated the need for more systematic higher training, and UK universities co-ordinated together to shape a new degree, the PhD, to deliver that.

Irish notes that the war also developed a more internationalist approach for universities; staff and student mobility increased.  It also drove the formation of the National Union of Students,  predicated on the need for international cooperation after the war.

Students the world over have a common bond in the great, universal asset – Knowledge. Of all Internationals, Knowledge in its widest sense is the greatest. Every gain in the field of Knowledge is a profit to Humanity. Success is achieved not at the expense of our neighbour, but to his advantage. Hitherto the intellect and learning in our Universities has held itself too much aloof from the everyday life of the nation. It is time that the spirit of Team-work, which permeates every phase of our University life, was introduced into the affairs of Nations. If the students are co-operating to-day, surely there is hope for to-morrow! (Macadam, 1922)

We have remembered the loss of life at the centenary of the armistice, but it is worth remembering that the impact on the universities was deep and long-lasting.  They committed themselves to the service of the country, and the country started to fund them for it.


Craig E & Gibson M (eds), 1920, University of Oxford Roll of Service, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Fisher, H A L, 1940, An Unfinished Autobiography, London, Oxford University Press
Irish, T, 2015,  ‘The University at War, 1914-25, Britain, France and the United States’ London, Palgrave Macmillan
Macadam, I, 1922, Youth in the Universities, National Union of Students
Morrell, J, 1997, Science at Oxford 1914-1939, Oxford, Oxford University Press
Taylor, J, 2018, The Impact of the First World War on British Universities : Emerging from the Shadows, London, Palgrave
University of Leeds, 1920, Fifteenth Report 1918-19, Leeds,
University of Manchester, 1908, Calendar, Manchester, Manchester University Press
University of Manchester, 1917, Calendar, Manchester, Manchester University Press

Another hole in the regulatory bucket

The key regulatory tool for English higher education will be the OfS Register of providers. The conditions that have to be met and maintained will be the core means for keeping HE providers in line. If you’re not on the register you can’t be a university, award degrees, have your UK/EU students get loans or have your international students get visas.

But if the Register is so important, then how it’s progressing is important to the sector too, as is a concern that it might not be as all-encompassing as might have been imagined.

Who’s on?

Fiona McIntyre noted that OfS had missed its latest deadline for getting ‘most’ providers on the register by the end of October. Of the 327 who had applied by May, only 204 had been approved, six of them with conditions.  by 18 September there had been 431 applications.  There are 123 to go from the first tranche, by my reckoning 5 of which are universities, and then another 104 how applied over the summer.  I’m interested in conditions; the latest batch includes two universities who have to demonstrate better plans in B3, concerning student persistence and outcomes.

Who’s not on

At the consultation stage, it was thought that in 2018/19 there would be 88 providers in the “approved” category and 390 in the “approved fee-cap” category (split 58 alternative providers, 204 further education colleges and 125 higher education institutions). At that point I was particularly worried about the providers missing from the approved categories – some being allowed into the dubious “registered basic” category (which was thankfully dropped). OfS have a spreadsheet of all those providers who were regulated either by HEFCE or who had specific course designation from DfE. There are 807 providers on that list. There’s also the matter of approval for Tier 4 licences from the Home Office. There are HE providers on that register who were running courses without funding but who needed visas for their students; both campuses of international universities but also UK-based providers – there’s no easy way to count how many of those holding Tier 4 (General) licences were offering HE programmes.

So, if last year there were at least 807 providers under regulation, there’s an issue with 431 applying to OfS. That’s fewer than DfE projected would join. What’s happened to the 376 – at least 45% of the HE providers in England last year?

Franchised HE

My hypothesis is that a lot of the provision has moved towards franchising.  One of the striking things about the OfS framework was the way it made a clear distinction between “validation” and “franchise”. In OfS terms there is now a clear difference: validation is where a provider A’s students get the award of provider B; franchise arrangements are where provider A teaches the students of provider B. In validation, provider A needs to be OfS approved for students to get fee or maintenance loans of visas. But in franchise deals, provider A is all but invisible to OfS.

Let’s imagine a case study. There’s a provider called Alpha College which operates multiple degree programmes franchised from Beta University. There’s not much publicly available information about Alpha College but its courses are on Unistats. Some of the courses seem to be having a rocky time, but that happens.  The data for some show a very low continuation rate, data on others shows low satisfaction linked to course management failings.

As a franchise, students apply through UCAS to Beta who are regulated accordingly. However, it’s hard to see how OfS will bring that to bear. There’s reference to Alpha College in Beta University’s Access and Participation Plan, but not the detail that covers students at the university. Unistats data can be complex for small alternative providers, and, course, doesn’t exist yet for postgraduate courses at all.   The Student Protection Plan at Beta might not be as concrete about students at Alpha.

These generates problems for OfS.  They don’t have a direct relationship with Alpha College, so any issue they do have has to be dealt with as a condition of registration for Beta.  Alpha will have some QAA interactions, depending on its status, which will feed information in.  Indirect oversight of colleges offering HNDs by Edexcel is one of the reasons that we have the OfS.  It would be a unintended consequence of the new framework if OfS now has less oversight than before.

Weirdly, following the precedent set by UA92, DfE can allow Alpha to be renamed Alpha University Campus and yet OfS have no direct oversight of something the local press will insist on calling a ‘university’ thereafter.

Worse may follow.  Remember that Jo Johnson accused universities of acting like bouncers, not letting colleges in to be the competition?  The ability to use franchise with more limited oversight by OfS might allow new providers into the system, but now all the risk falls on the university.  A risk averse university may now be more reluctant to franchise to a provider which might trigger a condition of approval, a QAA HE Review or some other sanction.  This might be the worst unintended consequence; a reluctance to support new providers.

The Office for Some Students

The forward schedule for OfS Board meetings has ‘validation’ on agendas for the next two meetings, so it’s a fair assumption that as well as the issue of how OfS will discharge its own validation powers, the issue of the number of providers operating under franchise will be getting attention. But with OfS stressing its role in protecting students, those being taught at providers not on the register might be surprised how little OfS offers them.

[This article first appeared on Wonkhe on 12 November 2018 – it has been updated to reflect the number of providers that applied by 18 September and those on the OfS Register on 22 November]


Which Ranking?

Rankings, of all sorts and all qualities, are here to stay. There are the mega-rankings with their spurious claims to objectivity with columns and columns of data (to measure how dissimilar a university is to Oxbridge). Then there are those which are shamelessly about plugging a product/service by running a bit of a survey to drum-up up a ranking.

But you have to admire Which?, who’ve previously stuck to the middle ground in their stuff, by striking out into an entirely numberless ranking.

Which? have a survey that’s supposed to get around the claims in prospectuses by going to the students for the truth. What they’ve done is another round of a Youthsight survey (I have issues with Youthsight – but let’s move on) adding up the data from previous years so now it has more than 10,745 participants. Students have been surveyed on nightlife or political scene etc.

The results are portrayed in an interesting way. Here’s the nightlife results:

So, a top 10 but without any ranking. Or any sense of which data means these ten, very fine universities, have a better nightlife than the other 117 universities.

For students union, we get a top 7.

But top for what? Advice services? Societies? Why a top 7 – was there a tie? There are 11 universities top for sports scene, with a 6 top for both creative scene and political scenes. There’s no clue as to how these arbitrary top groups have been chosen.

For the first time this year Which? have added an indicator on how much a university is helping students to be ‘job-ready’. This is a fairly contentious question, but worthy of proper study. This indicator is also drawn from 3 years survey data but only has 6103 participants. Here 38 universities are listed. That’s a third of the universities. But we’re not told what’s the substantive difference between 38 and 39.

Of course this is poor. It’s not as bad as some, but Which? Have been making an important point that students should get more accurate advice and guidance. Last month they said:

Now any university that said that it had a ‘top’ students’ union because Which? said so would be making an unverifiable claim.

It’s not complicated: they should publish their data, and no news outlet should re-publish any of this stuff until they do.

Conditions of Registration

How are the Office for Students (OfS) getting on with their registration of HE providers?  There was a report on 2 October over delays to the process and when some more universities were added to this list they contained another with a condition relating to A1 of the register.

With 122 providers on the register it’s still too early to know how the initial registration period has gone, but it was interesting that Iain Mansfield picked up that the three universities* with a condition all have this related to A1 – the Access and Participation Plan.   What about the other parts of the register?

OfS are dealing with the initial conditions of registration, and it’s possible to imagine that they are considering whether to set specific conditions here. Take condition B2:

The provider must provide all students, from admission through to completion, with the support that they need to succeed in and benefit from higher education

The OfS suggest that behaviours that would indicate this condition would be met are support for ‘all students to achieve successful academic and professional outcomes’ and  data suggesting that there’s a ‘reliable and fair admission system’ resulting in successful completion.

We know that some providers attracted attention in the boom years of for-profit college expansion, offering HNDs to students.  We have never really got a full account of how many learners took out loans and just how many completed their courses.  One of the things that the OfS has been charged to do is to bring together the system of course designation that BIS/DfE operated with the HEFCE system.  That’s a core reason we have the new regulatory framework, so we should expect this to be a key test of how it works in a diverse sector.

OfS will have access to data not in the public domain as part of its consideration of registration, but let’s look at some Unistats data for one provider which I spotted**.  This is the rather alarming continuation data for an HND in Health and Social Care Management.  According to the data no students continued or completed the course.

eeek 4

The entry qualifications data for that HND shows that 69% of the students had no or unknown prior qualifications, suggesting that there might not might much evidence of a reliable admissions system leading to successful student outcomes.

Eeek 5

The provider isn’t currently offering that named HND so it’s possible that the continuation data reflects some issue, say where the students have transferred to different course, but data from the five HNDs for that provider represented in Unistats (broken down into seven subject categories), seem to show a similar picture.

Continue at college Complete the course Complete different award Taking a break Left before completion
Business Studies 3 0 0 18 79
Business & Management 2 0 0 18 80
Health & Social Care Management 0 0 0 17.17 82.83
Hospitality Management 1 0 0 19 80
Information Systems 4 0 0 15 81
Computing 2 0 0 13.13 84.85
Network Engineering and Telecommunications 1.98 0 0 12.87 85.15

Data provided to the QAA at its latest monitoring visit put the retention and completion data at much higher points – at least 50% in 2015/16 and 93% in 2016/17, so there must be a big data issue somewhere.  Things can go wrong in the HESA record, but you’d expect something on this magnitude to be picked up.  Unistats data is supposed to be accurate so as to inform applicants about the course.

This provider is part of a group, another part of which has strategically moved out of offering designated courses, but assuming that this college has applied to be an Approved provider it will be an interesting test case to watch.  Hypothetically, if the performance shown on Unistats was really that for B2, would it be so poor that OfS will refuse to put it on the register, or would its risk profile still drive a set of specific conditions with a view to improve?

Excitingly, because the provider doesn’t have sufficient data, it has a provisional TEF ranking.  How long would that last?

The higher education provider meets rigorous national quality requirements for UK higher education, and is taking part in the TEF, but does not yet have sufficient data to be fully assessed. The provider may be fully assessed in future when it has sufficient data.

Since we had a change of minister, there’s been a lot less emphasis on the for-profit providers driving up quality and driving down prices in higher education.  There are many providers that were not funded by HEFCE which will thrive in the OfS registration categories, but a key test will be how OfS deals with those whose data shows performance that cannot been seen as acceptable.  An outcome must also be a proper look at the few Colleges who grew to offer thousands of places on HND courses.  The NAO has done some work on this, but this has the potential to be a major ongoing issue, with students having lifetime loans for courses they were unlikely to proceed into the second year of.


*having worked at two of these universities, I’m not going to comment on this.
** no names here.  I can confirm these data were on Unistats on 6 October 2018