Not going to University

Clearly, not everyone needs to go to University.  But in espousing that More means Better, I hold that higher education is actually a pretty varied thing. The degrees and courses that are offered in universities and other providers are very diverse; they do not sit neatly on simple spectra of academic to vocational, or hard to easy, or useful to useless.  That 50% target, if actually about the population having some ‘higher’ education before they are 30, seems very unambitious for a knowledge economy.

But I’m relaxed about the notion that not everyone needs to go to University.  What is a pain is when the argument tips into having to stress the negatives of going to university in order to prove that not going to university is OK.  Which brings us the to the Times Magazine on Saturday and Is University Really Worth it? (paywall)



In order to balance the picture of going to university, we are treated to excellent stories of people going into glamorous jobs (at least the kind of jobs that are glamorous in weekend magazines).  Through different routes, people have escaped from university to become brand managers, photographers, costume designers (and trainee accountants).   We are treated to a standard line-up of celebrity non-university attenders:


Yes, of course, the list includes Sir Richard Branson.

In each of the case studies, the money of going to university is cited. For those who remain at university, the Times says:

Yet, for some, the investment does not pay off. A third of graduates took jobs as cleaners, office juniors and road sweepers six months after leaving university, according to recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). More than 60,000 students were in “nonprofessional” roles, working in areas such as administration and secretarial, service and caring industries and customer service.  The data also showed that almost 16,730 graduates were out of work six months after leaving university – employment rates not helped by young people graduating into a labour market still hit by the recession.

Now, we know how the first destination data is problematic – but look how the numbers shift before your eyes – you’ll not find any data that a third of graduates were cleaners, office juniors and road sweepers.

Then the article adds some university experts: Ted Tapper and David Palfreyman  and then Alan Smithers.  They play into the it was better in the past angle, with Smithers reinforcing the full more means worse vibe with the notion that clearly many of the students shouldn’t be there – entry requirements are not as ‘stiff’ as they used to be.

This is all fine but it completely fails to put the other side of the case in the article.  Going to university might be expensive (although the piece doesn’t really explain that you don’t pay up front or measure what ‘expensive’ means) and glamorous people haven’t gone (although glamorous people have  -let’s substitute Lily Cole for Carey Mulligan).  Of course people can become successful without going to university – but what about all the things they can’t do if they don’t go?  In case you don’t want to be a brand manager, but instead be a nurse, doctor, lawyer, engineer, architect,  or what if you want to study something intensely with people who are discovering new things about art or history or physics?

We should balance the argument with all the wonderful things about university – not to say that people must go to university – but to say that there’s a choice.  And that choice does not have to be made at 17 or 18.  It doesn’t have to mean full-time residential courses.  But, that an ambition that a majority of people should have some education of a level higher than they could have obtained at School, is no bad thing at all.




A Tale of Two Proxies

The Green Paper Fulfilling Our Potential (BIS 2005) invites English Higher Education to accept the notion of proxy measures for the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), but further dismantles the proxy measures that have been in place for the consideration of taught degree awarding powers and university title.    On the face of it, this is another contradiction  in English higher education policy.

The  principles of the TEF are described, the rationale is clear; to provide information on teaching excellence which will provide incentives for universities to rebalance their business towards teaching.  We are told;

There is evidence to suggest ‘strong orientations towards research often reveal a weak emphasis on teaching, and vice versa’

with a reference to the very well respected Graham Gibbs paper Dimensions of Quality for this evidence.  Gibbs’ paper has been much cited in the run-up to the TEF announcement as it addresses indicators that could be used to assess quality. The ‘evidence’ about orientations of research in his paper is cited to doubt:

that measures of research activity or performance in the environment students study within are not, on their own, valid indicators of educational quality (Gibbs 2010:29)

For the concern in the Green paper is

However, at present students and employers must rely on imperfect proxies rather than a robust assessment of teaching quality (BIS 2015:20)

This seems clear – we should avoid ‘imperfect proxies’ – much rather we should have a ‘robust assessment’.  But, when we get to the TEF panels, we learn they will use metrics which provide a “useable measure of or proxy for teaching quality”. The first ones proposed; Employment, Progression and Satisfaction are, as they acknowledge proxies.  So institutional evidence will also be considered as well.  But that doesn’t stop them being proxies.  All three were considered by Gibbs and he raises concerns about all of them.  So we must really hope that better proxies can be found for the TEF and fast.

I contrast the reliance on proxies for the TEF with the abandonment of proxies in degree awarding powers and university title.  When the criteria for these were first formulated in the post-binary world, it was clear that many of them were proxies for an assessment of stability and previous success.  We were then in a sector that had no appetite for institutional failure – HEFCE having to force mergers where institutions were failing (not all mergers were for failing places, of course).  In addition to criteria about being a self-critical academic institution, the size and length of time criteria were proxies for both financial and academic credibility.  If a place could manage to get to 5000 students, and work with a validating university for 5 years, it was likely to be sound.  it was also unlikely to fall over, and could hope with reductions in one or other of its markets (yes, there were markets before £9k fees). As it was stable, it would be less likely to do risky things that would damage its reputation, and therefore the proxy measures reinforced the criteria.  Now these are to be removed, such that a provider might apply for powers in its third year of operation.


If the provider was traditional about its business (the intention, of course, is that they won’t) students will still only be in their second year of study when they apply for degree awarding powers. The application could be assessed without a student having started a dissertation or sat a final exam, let alone be awarded a degree. The proxy measures of size and time would have made that impossible.

Government is asking us whether we think a risk-based approach to DAPs is a good one.  I will happily answer that I think we should retain the proxies here, just as I will answer that I do not think they will find satisfactory proxies for the TEF.  I’m happy with that contradiction, just as they are happy with its reverse….

The Vice-Chancellor’s apprentice

How easy should it be to open a university?  We have had several articles in the last few days espousing the logic that the whole sector would be better if the Government released new providers from the anti-competitive business of having to prove that they can run proper courses before being allowed to award degrees.  We’ve had AC Grayling telling us the regulatory regime is Byzantine and Jonathan Simons complaining about the lack of a level playing field.   Paul Greatrix does a great job in imagining how you can cut through this.

The aspect that is apparently the problem is the notion that before a body can award degrees, it must have a proven track record before it is given that right by the Privy Council.  This is an exercise of a piece of crown prerogative which pre-dates every other piece of university regulation, which, apart from a few select examples, has required an apprenticeship.

Looking at the history, the admission of people to degrees was something that was held to be vested in the Sovereign or the Papacy.  Medieval universities made sure by getting permission from both – Glasgow University has a great example of the Papal Bull with Pope Nicholas V’s fervent desire:

that the said city may be adorned with the gifts of the sciences, so that she may produce men distinguished for ripeness of judgement, crowned with the ornaments of virtue and erudite with the dignities of the various faculties and that there may be an overflowing fountain of the sciences, out of whose fullness all that desire to be imbued with the lessons of knowledge may drink.

Obviously, writing off to the Pope ceased to be an option for the English a while ago (although the Archbishop of Canterbury retains his own special degree awarding powers as a vestige of that authority).   For post re-formation Britain an apprenticeship, in some cases lasting over 50 years, become the dominant model.

From “Fantasia” and “Fantasia 2000.” Entitled:

This precedent was broken in 1948 when University College Staffordshire sought to have a new curriculum, which it couldn’t fit to London’s external degrees, and obtained the right to a new kind of sponsorship, supported by three other universities.  This paved the way for the ‘new universities’ who were given degree awarding powers from the outset supported by an academic advisory council.   After that we returned to apprenticeships – CNAA or validating universities.

If we are serious about the controlled reputational range of British Universities – then we need to ensure that our qualifications adhere to both to the valid assessment of standards and an appropriateness of curriculum.  That’s what the post-Dearing HE system has given us.  For all the references to Robbins, it is the academic infrastructure of Dearing that has seen us through expansion of the sector in a good state.    The Green Paper will, no doubt, pick away at many of the parts of that infrastructure – but a crucial part will be the way that new providers are brought into the reputational range of the whole sector.  Sadly there are too many providers who opted for the HND route who have failed to adhere to the standards we would want – certainly in comparison to those who have validated or franchised provision from universities.   And who was regulating those providers?  BIS itself.

Nearly all our universities have been through an apprenticeship and it has given us the diverse sector we have.  Naturally, all those universities chafed at the restrictions at sometime or other, but it has worked – maybe out of fear of the sorcerer (even if Vice Chancellors no longer look like that).  Let’s see what robust mechanisms the Government has in store…