Students at the heart of the system

This was, of course, the title of the 2011 White Paper which followed the changes to funding systems in England.  A major theme was that competition, a market, would result in students driving teaching excellence.  It said:

Better informed students will take their custom to the places offering good value for money. In this way, excellent teaching will be placed back at the heart of every student’s university experience (p32).

We now know (but, of course, we knew then) that this hasn’t exactly turned out as the coalition planned.  Given a hefty nudge in 2010/11, not much has changed.  So the government has been nudging ever since.

What if you could imagine a university that was really set up to meet students’ needs? Imagine the organisational structure was built around their fundamental concerns, and that the very regulations were ones that were written by students to ensure that they had an excellent experience?

Such a model exists, or at least existed.  Furthermore it was the first model of university organisation in Europe – the student universities of Italy.

‘Universitas’ meant a guild, the universality of people in a location who belonged to a group.  The first universities were those founded in Bologna to protect and organise students rights in the face of issues both with the scholars who taught them and the townspeople who provided services to them.  Bologna had grown organically as scholars and students gathered together, reaching a critical mass far greater than the normal pattern of a lone scholar who attracted students.  Students organised themselves into universities – two of them, one for students from Italy and one for those from outside, with elected rectors.  The rules they wrote for themselves were sparse, but included prohibitions against using weapons.  However, their rules for the scholars were quite extensive, show signs of issues they were facing, and which might still resonate today.  Rashdall described them:

The doctors were compelled, under pain of a ban which would have deprived them of pupils and income, to swear obedience to the students’ rector, and to obey any other regulations which the universities might think fit to impose on them…

A professor requiring leave of absence even for a single day was compelled to obtain it first from his own pupils…

The professor was obliged to begin his lecture when the bells of S.Peter’s began to ring for mass, under a penalty of 20 solidi for each offence … while he is forbidden to continue his lecture one minute after the bell has begun to ring for tierce…

The regulations included strictures about the curriculum; ensuring that the students were taught all the parts that they would be examined on.

This is not the model that northern European universities were founded on.  They were communities of masters and scholars and authority was differently vested. Over time the power of the students in Italy waned, a key factor being that they had too much control, particularly over the town.

If the university had a struggle with the town, it could (and often did) exercise its absolute market power and leave the town. Towns had got used to the revenues, and encouraged the universities back.  In time they evolved means to support the university so it would stay, and that resulted in powers accumulating to the commune.


A lecture by Henry the German by Laurentius de Voltolina

A key power of the students lay in their payment of fees to the masters. In order to encourage stability, the commune of Bologna moved to supplement the masters fees; binding them to the city. Kibre recounts the changes:

In the reform measures of the ‘Consiglio del popolo’, for January 1317, provision had been made for three lecturers who would give the extraordinary lectures in civil and canon law and on the practice of medicine. … Provision was also made for the increased salary of another master, the lecturer on Rhetoric… This money was to be derived from the tax on wine. …

By 1416 salaries were being paid from the tax on silk-worms (or if insufficient that on fish).  Slowly the powers of the students had been reduced so that by the fifteenth century the university was in fact being run by the doctors and professors.

So, imagine a university run on student fees, where the students’ rector held power over the staff, who controlled the teaching and even the appointment of the professors.  Just look back over 900 years ago, when the first universities were much more like students unions.


Kibre, P, 1961, Scholarly Privileges in the Middle Ages, London, Mediaeval Academy of America

Rashdall, H, 1936, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, Vol 1, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Who needs a degree anyway?

August is the cruellest month.  Once commentators would rush out to decry the qualifications that young people had taken.  This was obviously cruel. Now the game is to point at the next choices for the young people, and decry that.  A perfect time for the More Means Worse contingent.

So, before we even got underway we had the claim that ‘millions’ of graduates don’t get graduate jobs. This doesn’t stack up, of course, as I’ve recently said.  But then comes a helpful report published by CIPD that opens the opportunity to recycle this all over again.  This report looks at the skills of graduates, the occupations they have and calculates a gap.  Further work is needed, the authors conclude, as it is hard to tell whether graduates change the jobs that they are now doing by virtue of their skills.  It’s a careful report, looking for further work and a rebalancing of attention from that given to higher education to all pathways to employment.  They cite Alison Wolf, but they could as easily have cited Ed Milliband who wanted attention given to the other 50% not going to university.

But, careful reports on educational policy aren’t released on the sixth day after ‘A’ level results in order to get a careful debate, they’re released to get headlines.

At first, we had reports on the conclusion that “Most graduates ‘in non-graduate jobs’ “ but that was just a prelude to the columnists warming up.

First up Julia Hartley-Brewer who compiles a tremendous straw man argument in her University was never meant to be for everybody” piece for the Telegraph.  In order to distinguish her case from actual facts in the real world, she invents a ‘fairy story’ about the 50% going to university (actually having some higher education before 30) policy.  Then she moves straight into all degrees are not the same territory:

A third class degree from the London Metropolitan University in “Media Studies and Communication” is not, whatever your careers adviser might tell you, worth the same as a First in law from Cambridge.

Well, yes. The aims of those courses would be pretty different, but they are both degrees – and, actually, you’ve a good chance that you’ll find more people from Media and Communications (there’s no ‘studies’ in the London Met course title) getting jobs in Media than law graduates from Cambridge in the legal professions. A Law degree is not alone a qualification for practice – it’s a poor comparator to use.

Then we round off with an appeal to good old-fashioned elitism –

The answer is simple: limit the number of university places to, say, 25 or 30 per cent of young people, and to require all publicly funded degrees to have some intellectual or professional value…

We don’t need to worry why 25% would be a good number, or whether all degrees do indeed have intellectual or professional value (or both).  There’s clearly something in this elitism argument – is it’s pretty much the same as Jeremy Paxman’s one.

But, this CIPD report is too good an opportunity to waste on having just one More Means Worse column, so the Telegraph gives us another, this time from Martin Vander Weyer on Devalued degrees have let our country down.  Again, expansion is the target and the ‘soft degrees’ at former polytechnics.  Here the market is the problem: why are students not taking modern languages or computing degrees – it must be a market failure.  The market has also failed to close any of these ‘poor’ universities – and so we are exhorted to have a review, no doubt to push the market harder so it behaves in the pre-determined way its supposed to.

Naturally, this reaction to the CIPD could also wait for the weekend columnists to rehash it.  Peter Hitchins manages to assemble his non sequiturs so as to be entirely inconsistent, saying that elites have to be elite:

Last week we learned that the alleged universities which so many children strive to enter give them no benefits. Even the few genuinely elitist colleges cannot any longer guarantee a future for their products. Years later, many thousands of graduates are toiling away at jobs they could have got – and done – without spending three years getting into lifelong debt which will, in many cases, never be repaid.

But then complaining that we have to import professionals like nurses (who are being educated in those universities) and low-skilled workers.  So it’s not clear whether the problem is that we are educating too many people with higher skills or not enough. Where does it say that university has to be elite?

Both the Robbins and Dearing reports started their consideration of policy with the aims of higher education.  By the time of Browne, the fee reforms and the subsequent White Paper, we had assumed we knew what higher education is for – it’s to prepare students for employment.  But is higher education just for jobs? Certainly university marketing departments have hitched themselves to that aim (with taglines such as The Career University).  So we can’t expect not to be judged on that criteria.  The DLHE doesn’t do many favours for presenting data on the medium term gains for students in terms of life chances enabled by higher education, and as we travel this career path we must find ways to argue this better. Not least to avoid subsequent cruel months where the More Means Worse types can have their own go at devaluing higher education.


 (updated to include Peter Hitchins’ very similar take on this)

Millions of graduates not in professional jobs

One persistent line in the More Means Worse argument is that we don’t need all these graduates; many of them don’t go into graduate jobs.  This compounds two aspects of the broader argument – graduate skills/attributes aren’t needed in jobs that recruit graduates and that we are over-supplying such graduates anyway.

It makes an appearance at the end of this finance video for the Telegraph. We are told that “around half of students end up in a job that didn’t require a degree in the first place” and “this has left millions to question whether that degree was nothing but an expensive mistake”.

That would be shocking – but let’s look at that claim.

‘Millions’ that’s a big number. It’s an impressive number. It’s an unlikely number.

In the UK publicly funded universities are required to undertake an exercise to complete a Destination of Leavers in Higher Education (DLHE) survey.  That’s done six months after graduation. Universities collect the occupation (or otherwise) of the graduates and these are then collated nationally. A judgment is made as to whether this is a ‘professional’ ie graduate level job. Of course this is contentious. Different careers have different relationships with HE – some offer an education sufficient to take up the job (nursing is a good example), others provide exemption from professional exams, others do not have a direct professional link at all.  Six months is a complex date for many occupations – a better data solution is needed.

HESA published their latest collation on 23 July.  This makes it the easiest job in the world to dismiss the claim that ‘millions end up with non-graduate job’. There are 245650 graduates in it. There isn’t data about ‘millions’ of students.

There is data that 55865 of the 178930 who were in employment were doing so in a ‘non-professional’ role. So 68% of those in work were in a professional role – that’s a flat contradiction of this claim:

“around half of students end up in a job that didn’t require a degree in the first place”

Of course, you can debate whether these are ‘professional’ or not – but that’s what we have data on.  So with 55k in non-professional roles – you’ll need to aggregate some 20 years of graduates to get to one million.

So it’s tosh. My annoyance is that it is bundled at the back of some relatively factual information on student loans – a real sting in the tail (and tale). You can take out a loan; it might cost you more than you thought (especially if the government later changes the repayment terms), but apparently millions are questioning “whether that degree was nothing but an expensive mistake”.

No, they’re not.

Striking a balance: quality assurance for alternative providers

In 2015, the government faces some interesting contradictions in its approach to regulation of higher education.  Naturally drawn to the philosophy of reducing red tape, the conservative party has presided over several major increases in regulation of higher education.  It was a conservative government that ended the public sector of higher education, incorporating the polytechnics and colleges of higher education. In the new funding regime drawn up in 2010, the government has placed greater emphasis on ‘alternative providers’ – those who haven’t received public funding – to take forward an agenda of rising quality through market competition.

Of course, this hasn’t gone entirely to plan.  For a government obsessed with ‘bogus colleges’ the thought that some providers might not play by the rules seems to have entirely slipped their minds. It’s fallen to the Public Accounts Committee to take them to task.

Public Accounts conclusion: The Department has failed to protect the interests of legitimate students, the taxpayer and the reputation of those alternative providers who may be performing well.

Recommendation: The Department needs to ensure that it has a much firmer grip on the quality of teaching and the standard the students can expect in private sector higher education colleges. It needs to identify poor performers and take appropriate action to protect students and the sector as a whole.

As such we have now seen a raft of proposals to regulate the sector.  Fuller reviews, annual accountability to BIS, student data, access for students to the OIA.  Both Greg Clark and Jo Johnson have been much quieter about alternative providers than David Willetts had been.  There may be signs that they are confident that the measures they have in place are firmer as the Productivity Plan includes the following clauses:

4.9 Widening the range of high quality higher education providers can stimulate competition and innovation, increase choice for students, and deliver better value for money. The government will remove barriers preventing alternative providers from entering and growing in the market, and adopt a risk-based approach that safeguards quality.

4.10 To enable the best new providers to compete on a level playing field with established universities, the government will introduce a clearer and faster route to degree awarding powers for those assessed to offer the best quality education. As part of the review of validation arrangements, the government will explore options to allow the best providers to offer degrees independently of existing institutions before they obtain degree awarding powers.

4.11 The government will also free up student number controls for the best alternative providers by introducing a performance pool of places from 2016-17, which will allocate additional student places to the best providers. The government will continue to monitor the quality of courses offered by providers and will impose sanctions on those where quality is not high enough.

Following swiftly from this, BIS have now published a new document: Specific course designation: guidance for alternative higher education providers.

New Guidance

Call me cynical, but I always try to read all those HE documents issued on Fridays – they seem to be the most fascinating.  This is the answer to the concerns about under-regulation; there is plenty of regulation here.  Unfortunately, BIS has opted to make most of it commercially confidential.   BIS, as regulator, writes directly to the provider – often regarding judgements that it has made, but it is unlikely that this information will ever be made open.

For example, the productivity plan talked about a performance pool of student numbers, it is clear that BIS intend to use student numbers as a performance device. BIS have assessed providers retention and completion rates and they said:

We have written to those providers where we had concerns to inform them of our intention or decision to review their student number control for 2015/16.

BIS also say that they will not award more numbers to courses leading to Higher National awards and that there will be numbers available to those who have a majority of provision leading to other awards.  Recruitment to HND/C courses has been a particular concern.

The document confirms the approach to be taken to ‘best’ providers, with guidance (if not criteria) as to what makes a ‘best’ provider.

For 2016/17, performance will be determined by BIS reviewing quantitative and qualitative information. Providers that want to benefit from the 30% increase will be expected to provide evidence on: • student drop-out rates; • recruitment and attendance policies; and, • data relating to: enrolments, progression, course completion rates, and qualifications awarded.

It would be churlish to complain now that BIS are finally putting in place firm regulatory measures.  However, there are areas for concern – which will be a worry for both the alternative providers and the wider sector.  If the whole sector is to flourish, then we should be looking to maintain a controlled reputational range (David Watson’s very useful concept).  There is a concern that this will work against that.

The main problem is that regulation is mostly done by directly by BIS. As no HE bill came forward, HEFCE cannot be given these regulatory powers.  In the main, BIS will carry out these powers under a cloak of commercial confidentiality.  Even where you could infer what judgement BIS has taken (say by an increase or decrease of numbers) data will be hard to obtain.   Although HEFCE have guarded their financial judgements about the institutions they regulate, there are large amounts of data and judgements in the public domain about universities.    As we move to a steadier system of regulation, BIS will need to share more information about their judgements about alternative providers to reassure those directly affected (students and their families) but also the wider higher education sector.