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The Society for Research into Higher Education

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Sneering at ‘low quality’ universities and their students is not the way to equalise educational opportunities

by Rob Cuthbert

Jamie Doward reported for The Observer on 26 January 2020 on recent research by Stuart Campbell, Lindsey Macmillan, Richard Murphy and Gill Wyness of UCL’s Centre for Economic Performance (CEP Discussion Paper No 1647 August 2019 Inequalities in Student to Course Match: Evidence from Linked Administrative Data). Their report said: “We find sizeable socio-economic gaps in academic and earnings match across the attainment distribution, with low SES [socioeconomic status] students consistently undermatching, attending courses with lower attaining peers and lower expected earnings than their richer counterparts.” So far, so good, and no surprise. The paper is largely careful in using factual or objective descriptions, but then it explains its methods thus: “Calculate course quality: we rank each university-course combination in a distribution of course quality, based on either (i) The median of the best three age 18 exam results of students on the course (academic-based), or (ii) The median earnings outcomes of an earlier cohort of students on the subject 5 years after graduation (earnings-based).” So quality is deliberately aligned with difficulty of entry or future earnings potential – both of which are more likely to be associated with the prestige of the course and location of the university, and may have nothing to do with the educational or academic quality of the course. The argument is circular: “People with good A levels do high-quality courses. How do we know they’re high-quality? Because people with good A levels take them[1].” Worse, Gill Wyness is quoted in The Observer article as saying: “You’re much more likely to go to your local university if you are from a poorer background. But if you look at all the students who go to a university that is near them, the disadvantaged kids will still go to a lower-quality university than the advantaged kids.” She has no compunction in generalising from supposed ‘low quality’ courses to whole supposed ‘low quality’ universities.

The ‘low quality’ narrative is up and running, reinforced by right wing commentators like Iain Mansfield, a prolific tweeter now at the Policy Exchange think tank, previously a special adviser to Jo Johnson as Minister for Higher Education. He was quoted in Times Higher Education on 27 January 2020 as saying an Ofsted for universities regime could “come to be seen as needed if the major issue of low-quality provision isn’t tackled … I think it would be a last resort and it would be quite undesirable for our sector.” Mansfield, who developed the teaching excellence framework as a senior civil servant in the Department for Education, also said that “…’poor quality provision’ can already be identified via existing measures: dropout rates, the TEF and graduate employment data, as well as figures on grade inflation and unconditional offers”, as John Morgan reported. It is alarming that a recent senior DfE civil servant so readily accepts these as ‘measures’ of ‘quality’, when each is riddled with ambiguity. If DfE civil servants were drawn more from the ranks of people with actual teaching experience, they might have a better appreciation of what these ‘measures’ actually signify.

Drop-out rates: are higher for disadvantaged students, but many such students leave for non-academic reasons.If ‘course quality’ means high standards we might expect it to be correlated with comparatively high drop-out rates. Did you mean low drop-out rates imply lower quality? No, we thought not.

TEF: TEF has little to do with teaching or excellence: as SRHE Fellow Rosemary Deem (Royal Holloway) and Jo-Anne Baird (Oxford) argued in the Journal of Educational Change  in 2019: “… the English TEF is not about improving teaching but rather an endeavour to pit universities against each other in a highly marketised competitive system …”. Universities, of course, do little to help by trumpeting TEF Gold awards, bearing out the Deem/Baird argument.

Graduate employment data: can often be a function of postcode: the data “could be telling us that a public school dropout working at an upmarket estate agent in Kensington earns as much as a recent graduate working part-time in Bolton”, according to David Willetts, the Minister who commissioned the longitudinal educational outcomes project. He warned that: “Graduate earnings rarely afford good policymaking”.

Grade inflation: for many years Russell Group universities have led the way in grade inflation. Is this a marker of low quality? Some, perhaps most, of what the OfS likes to call ‘unexplained’ improvement in grades might actually be accounted for by long-term improvements in teaching, teachers and school leaver attainment.

Unconditional offers: If government exhorts universities over many years to behave as if they are in a market, they can hardly be blamed for trying to induce their potential student-consumers to choose them over their competitors, by making unconditional or ‘conditional unconditional’ offers. The evidence on unconditional offers is mixed (see Ratcliffe v Dandridge in January 2020) in terms of their impact on students’ motivation for A-levels. At the least, an unconditional offer of any kind is an indication that the university is confident this student will succeed. Harrumphing by Government ministers and the OfS is disingenuous and may work against diversity in the student population.

The ‘low quality’ narrative protects and extends the current stratification of prestige in HE, by abusing the universities which cater for the majority of UK HE students, and abusing their students for choosing to attend them. While that may be no more than we expect from some parts of the political spectrum, we are entitled to expect more concern for evidence and rigour from academic researchers. Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness, two of the co-authors of the recent CEP paper, are respectively Director and Deputy Director of UCL’s Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities. ‘Impact’ seems to take precedence over rigour here, because this research has nothing to say about ‘course quality’. The message of their research is that high-achieving students from low SES backgrounds choose to attend universities other than those they might have considered and for which they were apparently qualified. Perhaps those students think the places they actually choose offer the best-quality education for them. What happened to informed student choice? Clearly, the UCL Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities thinks low SES students don’t know what’s best for them, and wants to change things by sneering at those students and the ‘low quality’ universities they persist in choosing. They think ‘student choice’ means forcing a larger number of disadvantaged students to go to ‘high-quality’ universities against their wishes. Is this what is meant by ‘high-quality’ research?  

Rob Cuthbert is editor of SRHE News and Blog. He has been a student, teacher, researcher and manager in a wide range of universities, chair of Aimhigher South West, a member of HEFCE’s Widening Participation Strategic Committee, adviser to the DES on the establishment of the Office for Fair Access, and a senior adviser at the Higher Education Academy.


[1] My thanks to Paul Temple for this observation.


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Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

by Juliette Torabian

Click on the title followed by ‘version française’ below to jump to the French language version of this post. We continue to encourage submissions such as the one below to include perspectives in languages other than English. Please send all contributions to the editor, rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk

l’UE: L’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente! (version française)

Minding the gender gaps in European higher education

Fostering equity and equality between men and women and reducing different forms of gendered discrimination has taken centre stage in the European policies of the past two decades, for example in the pact for gender equality (2011-2020).

Gender equality policies and legislation have also proliferated at national and institutional levels, in an attempt to reduce existing vertical and horizontal gender segregations which have traditionally favoured men. For example, 23 out of 28 European Member States have established a voluntary or legislative quota for political parties and their parliaments to ensure women representation. To tackle the gender pay gap – which is one of the most persistent horizontal gender inequalities – in the UK and in Germany, for instance, companies are now required to establish transparency in their salary and bonus systems.

Similar policies have been applied to academia and research. In Austria, for example, there is a 40% quota for all university committees and universities are awarded additional funds for appointing women professors. In the UK, the Equality Challenge Unit monitors and supports equity and equality among staff and students in higher education, and in Sweden extra support is provided to women approaching professorship. Such initiatives also exist, in different degrees and forms, in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, and Finland, according to the EIGE report.

Have these multiplying initiatives transformed gendered norms and stereotypes in higher education systems and helped creating equal opportunities for both men and women? The reality is not as promising as one might wish for.

One basic issue arises from the distorted interpretations of gender equality as a concept. Increasingly, it is used as an equivalent to women’s rights and empowerment in the so-called battle of the sexes.

Within this distorted perception, “the oppressed becomes the oppressor”- to use Freire’s words. Instead of rewarding institutions where outcomes for women practically equal those of men, the tendency is for near-parity or women outperforming men to be applauded – while in both cases the actual participation levels are hidden and/or ignored. In effect, this worldview harms men but harms women even more severely. It objectifies women in institutions’ tokenism while no actual shift in power relations has taken place.

This perplexing view has a direct impact on access and success in higher education. In many OECD countries, particularly those with higher income, boys are more likely to repeat a grade, dropout of high school, and opt for directly entering the labour market rather than higher education. This has led to a ‘feminisation’ of bachelor’s programmes (58% female graduates). The choice of fields and progress in the level of study remain gender segregated. Women are more likely to study undergraduate programmes considered feminine, including education, business, law, social science, health and welfare. Men, on the other hand, study in engineering and STEM fields and outnumber women at PhD levels – that is, if they opt to enter university.

Gender inequalities that still persist are indeed causing considerable economic loss of public and private investment in higher education. “Across the EU, women have better educational outcomes than men (44% of women aged 30-34 in the EU completed tertiary education, compared to 34% of men)”, yet receive an average of 16%  less hourly pay.  Around 10% of their wage difference remains “unexplained” according to the 2018 EU report on equality.

Likewise, according to Eurostat’s 2017 report, 22.4% of the European population are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. We know that men are increasingly shunning higher education. It is also clear that “those with only upper secondary education have earned around 50% less than those with a tertiary education between 2000-15 in OECD countries”. The prospects for the average European household poverty rate in the next decades sound worrying with less educated men and lower paid educated women. It may be, therefore, fair to say that gender equality policies- in their current forms- have not delivered equal opportunities and are not fit to create sustainable societies.

I have elsewhere expressed my concern on access policies that can be carrying a “Cinderella syndrome”, hence betraying the promise of higher education in bringing social change. I reiterate my argument here with regard to the current formulation and application of gender equality policies and quotas in European higher education.

Despite some progress, gender policies have systematically failed in ‘undoing’ gender stereotypes. They are – at least partially – responsible for : increasing inequality of access for men to a majority of undergraduate fields of studies; maintaining the proportions of men and women in fields traditionally assigned to their gendered roles; and not having completely reversed trends in salaries and representation of women at professorial and higher management levels in universities. Evidence from a recent study in France has also shown the failure of gender-related quotas. It argues that having more women on appointment committees has, in fact, had reverse impacts and dramatically cut the number of female academics getting hired.

It is time to mind and close the gender gaps that still persist and to redress the new ones we have fabricated by the inadequacy of our gender policies in higher education systems.  Or, We could confide it to AI, but that might make things worse!

Juliette Torabian is a senior international specialist in education and sustainable development. She holds a PhD in Education from the Institute of Education, University College, London and a Masters in Development from SciencesPo, Paris. Her research focuses primarily on comparative higher education policy and practice, social justice and gender equality.

l’UE: l’inégalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur toujours bien présente!

par Juliette Torabian

Au cours des deux dernières décennies, l’équité des genres et l’égalité entre hommes et femmes ainsi que la réduction des différentes formes de discrimination fondée sur le genre, ont été au centre des politiques européennes; par exemple, le pacte pour l’égalité des genres (2011-2020).

Les politiques et les législations dans ce domaine ont également proliféré aux niveaux national et institutionnel dans les États membres européens afin de réduire les ségrégations de natures verticales et horizontales entre hommes et femmes, favorisant traditionnellement les hommes. Par exemple, 23 États membres européens sur 28 ont établi un quota volontaire ou légal pour la représentation des femmes au sein des partis politiques et dans les parlements. Pour faire face à l’écart des rémunérations entre hommes et femmes – l’une des inégalités horizontales des plus persistantes – au Royaume-Uni et en Allemagne, par exemple, les entreprises sont désormais tenues d’instaurer une transparence dans leurs systèmes de rémunération et de primes.

Des politiques similaires en matière de genre ont été appliquées dans les universités et la recherche. En Autriche, par exemple, il existe un quota de 40% pour la composition des comités universitaires mais également une compensation financière pour chaque affectation de femme académique. Au Royaume-Uni, « Equality Challenge Unit » surveille et soutient l’équité et l’égalité au sein du personnel et des étudiants, tandis qu’en Suède, il existe un mécanisme de soutien supplémentaire aux femmes en phase d’accéder aux plus hauts niveaux académiques. Selon le rapport EIGE (Institut européen pour l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes), de telles initiatives existent également, à divers degrés et sous différentes formes, en Belgique, en France, aux Pays-Bas, en Allemagne, au Danemark et en Finlande.

Ces innombrables initiatives, ont-elles réussi à transformer les stéréotypes dans les systèmes d’enseignements supérieurs et par conséquent à créer des chances égales pour les hommes et les femmes ? La réalité n’est pas aussi prometteuse qu’on pourrait espérer.

Un problème fondamental découle de l’interprétation erronée du concept de l’égalité des genres. Il est de plus en plus utilisé comme synonyme des droits et de l’autonomisation des femmes dans la prétendue bataille des sexes.

Dans cette perception tordue, “les opprimés deviennent les oppresseurs”, selon Freire. Au lieu de valoriser les institutions où les mesures prises ont donné lieu à des résultats concrets assurant l’égalité des femmes et des hommes, la tendance serait davantage à applaudir la semi-parité ou bien les femmes qui surpassent les hommes ; alors que dans les deux cas le taux réel de participation en général demeure ignoré pour ne pas dire dissimulé. En effet, cette vision nuit aux hommes mais nuit encore plus gravement aux femmes. Les femmes sont ainsi stigmatisées à travers des mesures purement symboliques sans aucun changement à l’horizon dans les rapports de force.

Cette conception perplexe de l’égalité des hommes et des femmes dans l’enseignement supérieur a un impact direct sur l’accès à l’université et sur le succès dans les études. Dans de nombreux pays de l’OCDE, en particulier ceux où les revenus sont les plus élevés, les hommes sont plus en proie au redoublement, à l’abandon de leurs études secondaires et à opter pour le marché du travail plutôt que pour les études supérieures. Cela s’est traduit par une « féminisation » accrue au niveau des licences (58% de femmes diplômées). Le choix des filières et la progression du niveau des diplômes restent dominés par les stéréotypes de genre. Les étudiantes sont davantage enclines d’obtenir une licence dans les filières dites féminines : le droit, les sciences sociales, l’enseignement, le commerce et la santé. Alors que les étudiants choisissent davantage des filières d’ingénieur, des sciences et des technologies, dépassant en final, le nombre de femmes titulaires d’un doctorat, -si bien sûr ils poursuivent leurs études supérieures.

Les inégalités de genres qui persistent entraînent une perte économique considérable en termes d’investissements publics et privés dans l’enseignement supérieur. “Dans l’ensemble de l’UE, les femmes obtiennent de meilleurs résultats scolaires que les hommes (44% des femmes âgées de 30 à 34 ans dans l’UE ont achevé leurs études supérieures, contre 34% des hommes)”, mais perçoivent en moyenne 16% de moins en salaire horaire. Considérant que 10% de cette différence de salaire, reste « injustifiée » selon le rapport 2018 de l’UE sur l’égalité.

De même, selon le rapport d’Eurostat 2017, 22.4% de la population européenne est exposée au risque de pauvreté et d’exclusion sociale. Nous savons que les hommes s’éloignent de plus en plus des études supérieures. Il est avéré que « ceux qui n’ont suivi que le deuxième cycle de l’enseignement secondaire, ont gagné 50% de moins que ceux qui ont fait des études supérieures entre 2000 et 2015 dans les pays d’OCDE ». La prospective d’un taux moyen de pauvreté au cours des prochaines décennies dans les ménages européens comptant des hommes moins scolarisés et des femmes éduquées mais moins bien payées, est inquiétante. Il serait donc juste de dire que les politiques d’égalité de genre -dans leurs formes actuelles- ne sont pas susceptibles de créer des chances égales pour une meilleure cohésion sociale.

A d’autres occasions, j’ai exprimé ma préoccupation à propos des politiques d’accès pouvant entraîner un “syndrome de Cendrillon” trahissant ainsi la promesse de l’enseignement supérieur pour assurer un changement social. Je considère donc que le même raisonnement s’avère juste quant à la formulation et l’application actuelles des politiques et des quotas en matière d’égalité des genres dans l’enseignement supérieur européen.

En dépit de certains progrès, les politiques en faveur de l’égalité des sexes ont systématiquement échoué dans la « suppression » des stéréotypes sexistes. Ces politiques sont au moins partiellement responsables : des inégalités d’accès des hommes à une majorité des programmes de licence ; de maintenir le statu quo de la représentation des deux sexes dans les filières traditionnellement associées à leur rôle social respectif ; et enfin, de ne pas avoir complètement inversé les tendances des niveaux de salaires et la représentativité des femmes dans les hautes fonctions universitaires. Effectivement une étude récente en France fait écho de l’échec des quotas. Elle établit que le fait d’imposer des quotas pour la présence des femmes dans les comités de sélection, a eu de facto des répercussions inverses et a considérablement réduit le nombre d’enseignantes embauchées dans les universités.

Il serait peut-être temps de traiter une fois pour toutes, l’imbroglio des disparités persistantes entre les genres et de réparer nos politiques qui par leur inadéquation, fabriquent de nouvelles formes d’inégalités dans nos systèmes universitaires en Europe. Ou bien, confions cela à l’intelligence artificielle,… à nos risques et périls !

Juliette Torabian est une spécialiste internationale dans le domaine de l’éducation et du développement durable; PhD de Institute of Education, University College London; Diplômée de SciencesPo – Paris; ses recherches sont concentrées sur l’analyse comparative des politiques de l’enseignement supérieur, la justice sociale et l’égalité des genres.