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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.