Expansion of university places – who benefits

This is a hypothesis, which I hope will be shown to be wrong, but I worry about it.

The movement from an ‘elite’ to a ‘mass’ higher education system was observed by Martin Trow.  Looking at growth in institutions and numbers of students at them during the twentieth century there are obvious waves of growth, punctuated by some declines (neither the world wars or the depressed economic situations of the 1920s and 1930s were good for growth in HE).  After 1950 there was been a period of continual growth, surviving even the best attempts of governments to muck this up.

The period of growth in the 1950s is important, as the conditions then set up many of the systems that we have now in the UK.  The civic universities had struggled before and during the war, but in the 1950s the UGC cemented its role in planning for growth.  University Colleges were finally given their own charters, and the UGC funded growth at all the universities on its list.  Pressure to get in was, however, unprecedented.  To use the contemporary notion, Universities moved from ‘recruiting’ to ‘selecting’ for courses.  In order to get their students into universities, schools taught more to university entrance requirements across more of their sixth form students.  Universities demanded higher entrance requirements. It was this era of university expansion that Kingsley Amis took objection to in both his novel Lucky Jim and his article for Encounter where he claimed more will mean worse.

The pressure on government was clear; students had completed their school education and could not get places at universities of their choice.  Although there were other avenues to higher education, the 1930s had cemented the view that the residential university life was the best option.   While the UGC paid for new universities to be built, the Robbins Committee was a response to the pressures of expansion, also looking at higher education in colleges of education and technology.

In a way, the period of reform, with tuition fees providing the bulk of university teaching funding, and culminating in the removal of the numbers cap, is another attempt to cope with expansion.  Although numbers in higher education had expanded, there was a large number leaving the UCAS system each year without a place – this appeared to be students who were well qualified, and the supposition was that they had not found a place at a university of their choice.  Government attempts to expand numbers at the top-end met with limited success (the AAB+ and ABB+ years) and only now does it appear that universities at the top end of the reputational range are expanding to meet demand.


Analysis by the Times Higher Education shows broad movements in student numbers but at the same time there are other data that show that the proportion of poor students at ‘leading’ universities has fallen.  Just possibly, what is happening could be that the mobile middle classes are moving to take up the new places at ‘better’ universities.  If that is happening, then the diversity of individual institutions will change.  Just as with schools; if the better-prepared students all go off to some universities, there will be a change in overall performance (handy for the TEF if your retention, good completion and graduate outcomes all go up).  Although the ABB+ scheme has stopped, universities are still running ‘excellence’ scholarships to attract the best-prepared students (while grants are removed from the poorest).

We could see more of a divide; mobile and well-prepared students continuing to choose from a national pool of universities, perhaps attracted by competitive behaviour in terms of scholarships and the facilities race, and less mobile students having less choice.  Some of the universities seeing falling numbers have traditionally been stronger in recruiting local students and at the same time reflecting the diversity of their communities.  If those universities struggle (including ‘market exit’?) then the government will have achieved the most extraordinary unintended policy consequence ever – the reduction of opportunity for the very students they are exhorting the sector to support.

We’ve not seen much in terms of impact assessment from government on its changes to HE – but I would hope that BIS are actively working on this one.




Is our admissions debate too narrow?

We should redefine how we debate university admissions – we focus on an intractable problem rather than the opportunities that exist.

The .gov.uk site brings together government announcements – and you’ll find 31 January 2016 had three interesting press releases :

Kids’ education and employment opportunities ranked by area
SMCP Commission
PM: Time to tear down the barriers at elite universities
BIS and Number 10
Review of racial bias and BAME representation in Criminal Justice System announced
MOJ and Number 10

Interestingly the links were made at first between the university ‘barriers’ and the racial bias in the courts – perhaps because of the link made by the PM noting that a young black man has a greater chance to going to prison than an ‘elite’ university.  Of course, the links should have been made with the findings of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which maps disadvantage.  It’s a surprise that the No10 press people didn’t link them, but there’s not much point worrying about media management…

The ‘debate’ proceeds…  ‘Elite’ universities can only admit those who apply.  ‘Elite’ universities can only admit those who merit a place.   On their own terms, these notions are justifiable.  Our problem is that the debate over admission to English Universities has become too narrow – in a number of ways.

Oxford and Cambridge and other ‘Leading’ universities

We have a sector of higher education, but we are focused on our ‘leading’ universities. They dominate the debate: arguably the English system is uniquely focused on a very small number of universities (nominally 24, but often just 2 of them).  A key performance indicator of our schools is how many kids get into these sub-sets of a sector – as if that was all that mattered.  As Howard Newby was wont to observe, “the English have a genius for turning diversity into hierarchy”.  In case you think this is over-stated – the report of the meeting on 1 February to discuss the issue named only the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and King’s College London as being present.

Curriculum choice

The English have a peculiar approach to curriculum which has led to a series of unhelpful iterations which have made our curriculum unusually narrow.   There’s enough for a PhD on this (I know) but just look at how in the 1950s when university places were scarce, schools drove their pupils to specialise to meet entrance requirements, in turn universities reflected the change in preparation by specialising their courses at first year. Schools specialised, so universities specialised, so schools specialised until both sixth form and first year university study were transformed.  This left us with ‘elite’ universities looking for achievement in preparatory study more than ever.

Rationing of places

Scarcity of places in universities, especially scarcity in high reputation universities, means that more people apply than can be accommodated.   Although the admissions system is designed to match students to courses, it inevitably rations places.  Rationing has become rational: places at the ‘best’ universities are awarded to those with the best scores.  Even if a student with three B grades could benefit from the higher education on offer at a ‘leading’ university, they won’t get in because of the rationing.   To an extent, universities have outsourced their admissions decisions to the school exam system (which is ironic, as it was the university entrance exams which became the school exam system).

With narrow courses and a narrow sense of what is preparation and a narrow sense of rationing, then the logic of our admissions discussion becomes rather narrow.   If we look at another hierarchical system, we find different questions and different answers.

The Shape of the River

In short, the situation in the US is different.  Affirmative action is allowed, having been tested through to the Supreme Court.  But the difference runs deeper, as this book by former presidents of Princeton and Harvard explains.

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They describe universities who draw their objectives in selecting students rather wider than in the UK.  They see a public purpose in their universities helping to create a better society through their education.  This means, among many other issues, that in addition to selection on ability to benefit, Bowen and Bok identify other considerations; including assembling a class of students with a wide variety of backgrounds – as students learn from each other.  They stress that they are looking for students who will make a valuable or distinctive contribution.  They also note that there are ‘long-term institutional loyalties and traditions’ – in the UK, alumni ‘legacies’ won’t pass anymore, but this group also includes serving a particular geographical area.

Bowen and Bok advance the case for affirmative action with evidence particularly focused on the long-term societal value of a diverse graduate population.  For them this trumps the argument about limiting admission solely on merit (as measured by preparation for college).  The difference in context between the US and the UK limit the transferability of many of their arguments, but it is that difference that I find interesting.  Whatever the flaws in the systems, the difference in breadth of the admissions debate is marked.

I would like the UK debate to be widened: to more than just ‘leading’ universities and to more than just admission solely on preparation.

Reference: Bowen W & Bok D, 1998, The Shape of the River… Princeton, Princeton University Press