It’s time to challenge university league tables
April 10, 2012
The world of information, advice and guidance for prospective students entering higher education is a complex one. Some students are born into environments where access to both information and, crucially, to advice and guidance is abundant. Others are fortunate to have schools or supporters to guide them through. However, many are still left to navigate an often unfamiliar environment alone and without crucial context to help inform and shape their decision making. Many of those students may well end up making decisions they could later regret, with an accompanying price tag that won’t exactly cushion the blow. The axing of AimHigher and the hands-off approach from the Department of Education towards career guidance in schools is only likely to make the problem worse.
Photo by Procsilas Moscas
Central to the information landscape are league tables. Yet, as I see it, very little is done to challenge their obviously gaping flaws. Practically all of the broadsheet newspapers turn their hand to league tables at some point in the calendar year, with universities quick to pounce on the table which places them highest as the “most authoritative”. Yet I’d argue that for many students, perhaps even the majority, all newspaper league tables are largely redundant, and frankly don’t give any indication of many of the crucial elements that students are really interested in; such as the quality of teaching, access to work experience and curriculum content.
Of course the simplicity of league tables, the fact that universities can be boiled down to a single digit, then placed in a rank order, is on the surface at least quite appealing. Prospective students can be duped into thinking that the university ranked 43rd is somehow better than the university ranked 51st, but in reality of course there is a very good chance that the ‘lower’ ranked university may well be more suitable for huge swathes of students.
So my major problem with university league tables boils down to two central arguments. The first is that the methodology which underpins most league tables is horridly out of sync with what undergraduate students in particular care about. The second is that whilst university league tables continue to be published with a simple rank order the ability for students to determine which factors are most important to them (e.g. employability scores, staff-student ratios etc.) are usually overlooked, which means that students are forced to judge universities on the factors which The Guardian or Sunday Times considers to be important, and not what the student her/himself cares about.
At the heart of the concerns about methodology, I am of the opinion that most league table compilers feel restrained by pulling together a methodology which ensures the same universities finish in roughly the same positions every year. The prospect that Cambridge or Oxford Universities wouldn’t finish in the top 2 positions is too horrific a thought for league table compilers to contemplate, so the metrics end up being heavily weighted toward ensuring this just ends up happening year after year. Convention suggests that they are the top two universities, and the Russell Group (24 of the most research intensive universities) are somehow the best universities, so rather than worry about having their own methodology questioned, it seems to me that newspapers retreat to a convenient set of metrics which mean that Oxbridge occupy the top 2 spots, and most of the Russell Groups universities are somewhere in the top 35. Employers also fuel the vicious cycle by largely focussing their recruitment efforts on the same narrow group of universities, whilst simultaneously complaining that many graduates don’t arrive with the skills they want. But whilst many of the big employers still confine themselves to a narrow group of universities it will continue to mean those are the universities which will continue to benefit from inflated employment scores. Employers might actually find that there are graduates from other universities which are just as adept, perhaps even more so given the more business-focussed curriculum that often exists in those institutions. But whilst many employers continue to screen out graduates from outside certain universities, they won’t ever know whether they are better or worse than what they are getting at present.
But in my criticism of the methodology of league tables I want to question why such a weighting is placed on the research output of universities. The role of research in universities is crucial, but frankly it doesn’t have the disproportionate bearing on the undergraduate experience that most league tables lend it in their weightings. In fact you could argue that the more research intensive a university, the less emphasis is placed on the undergraduate experience and teaching. However, could it simply be that newspapers know that by playing the research funding game, the 24 Russell Group universities who scoop around 75% of the total research income will comfortably take slots in the top 30? Our newspapers can then breathe a sigh of relief, knowing their rank order ‘looks about right’. It surely can’t be because these institutions provide the best teaching, the most work experience opportunities, the opportunities to participate in a range of assessment methods or add most educational value to their students – because in the main these are not the universities that do that.
So do most undergraduate students really agree that Oxbridge, or indeed the Russell Group more generally, are really the best universities? According to lots of measures that exist, the majority of students actually have concerns about our so-called ‘top ranking’ universities. From student satisfaction (many Russell Group universities are ranked in the bottom quartile on this measure) to value added (the extent to which a university adds to your educational performance during your years of study) these universities actually perform very poorly.
So rather than newspapers seeking to dictate what they consider to be the most important facets of a university, I’d like to see more effort placed into providing personalised advice and guidance to individual applicants to work out which university is best for them. There is nothing wrong with saying that a post-92 university is better for some students, and a research intensive environment better for others – but let’s get comfortable with that, and stop the pretence that we should be judging all universities along the same lines. For those actively wishing to benefit from a research environment it may well be Oxbridge or the Russell Group, but for a more employer-focussed curriculum or educational value added it is likely to be somewhere else, and I don’t think that summing up a university as a simple digit does anyone any favours!
University admissions need to look beyond grades
March, 13, 2012
We’ve all heard the headlines; over 100,000 qualified applicants have missed out on university places in the summers of 2010 and 2011, that pupils from private and selective schools still dominate the most selective universities and perhaps most shockingly that there are more Afro-Caribbean male students at London Metropolitan University compared with the entirety of all Russell Group universities put together.
Whilst few would dispute that universities perform a vital role in changing lives and stimulating social mobility, I want to argue that many of our most selective universities haven’t done enough to get students from non-traditional backgrounds through their doors. But crucially it means they are also missing out on students who have the potential to out-perform counterparts from more traditional backgrounds.
I want to stress that prior academic attainment should still be seen as central to the university application process. The ability of a student to perform in assessment is critical to giving any university an assurance that they will also be able to perform at university too. But without taking into account the context of the performance of a student, our universities are missing out on talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
At the moment, the overwhelming majority of universities only consider previous grades, predicted A levels (or equivalent) and a personal statement when deciding who to offer a place. Some universities also include an interview, and done in the right way this can be helpful, but for many it also acts as a barrier to many prospective students. So an applicant with AAB generally stands a better chance of getting offered a place at the most selective universities compared to someone holding just ABB, and at face value that just seems common sense.
However take a not so hypothetical situation. Is it really more of an achievement to attain AAB in a private school, with a staff-student ratio of 15:1 and a private tutor outside of school in the run up to A levels compared with another pupil securing ABB in a difficult comprehensive where the average in the school in CCC and the staff student ratio is 30:1? It’s surely at least arguable that the second is more of an achievement, and certainly an indication of greater potential in the second case. But more importantly put both those pupils in the same university and then think who might end up performing best after 3 years?
A study attempting to look at this very issue demonstrated that taking university applicants with the same grades but one from an independent school and the other from state schools in the bottom quartile, showed that if you then put those same pupils into the same university course the student from a state school would on average out-perform their previously independent schooled counterpart by as many as 7 degree points. Therefore you could quite easily make the case that students from particularly disadvantaged background could actually be offered a place with 1 or 2 lower A level grades (BBB instead of AAB for instance), and they would still on average at least match the performance of an independently schooled equivalent.
Now critics will scream that this is unfair social engineering and an affront to university admissions. But I would argue that this is the only way universities will actually get the very best students at the point of exit from university, and not simply at the point of admissions. Context matters, and the circumstances in which an applicant has secured their previous attainment should be taken into consideration.
I don’t doubt that there are huge complexities, but universities must start seriously considering how they can consider the context of their applicants to better judge what they are capable of achieving. Perhaps then we might start to see a more diverse range of students fortunate enough to study at the most selective universities who undoubtedly play such a crucial role in changing lives and setting graduates up for the world beyond formal education.
Guardian HE Network, 15 December 2011
Universities helping the economy and insular British graduates: first or fail?
Two reports – the first highlights British universities’ economic worth, the second warns about the lack of internationalism
Universities are driving economic growth says a report by Universities UK/ Photograph: Keith Leighton / Alamy/Alamy
Heading for a first … universities driving economic growth
With news this week that unemployment has increased yet again, and the eurozone crisis cutting the prospects for growth any time soon, a recent publication from Universities UK, Driving Economic Growth, sets out a series of compelling evidence on how UK universities play a critical role in driving the UK economy.
At a time of record teaching budget cuts, it reminds us of quite how big a gamble it was 12 months ago for the coalition to pass its higher education funding reforms, by what is still the closest vote margin it has faced to date.
The UUK report makes a forceful case for our universities, one which we can only hope the government will sit up and take notice of. Particularly striking is a map of the UK that shows the clear correlation between the number of people in a region with high level skills and the economic prosperity of that same region.
It also shows that whie the UK has indeed seen a sizeable growth in students over the last decade, we still lag behind the US, Canada and Norway in the percentage of people with a degree, coming 10th out of the OECD countries.
If the recent reforms to higher education do indeed lead to less people going to university, it won’t just be our universities that are worse off, but it will be our economy and society as a whole that lose out too.
Heading for a fail … British graduates’ international perspective
This week a report from the British Council and Think Global, Next Generation UK, painted a fairly bleak picture of the value that British graduates place on an international outlook and the benefit this could have on their work prospects. Business leaders in the UK feel that British business will fall behind unless young people are encouraged to think more globally.
Sadly, the timing of David Cameron’s European snub couldn’t have come at a worse time given the findings of this report.
There are worrying signs that the anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric coming from government could well have a damaging impact on education in this country. It is well documented that international students are significant net contributors to the British economy, so the short-sightedness of Theresa May and David Cameron in scaring them off is counter productive.
If we are to seriously realise the ambitions of the Next Generation UK report, it will require a more open-minded approach to wanting to study abroad from British students and further integration of international students here in the UK.
Guardian HE Network, 8 December 2011
Futuretrack and UCL’s Malcolm Grant: first or fail?
A first for the timing of the latest graduate destinations survey, but a fail for the president and provost – although does he deserve one?
Members of UCL’s staff and student unions voted for a motion of no confidence in UCL’s Malcolm Grant – but, Aaron Porter asks, does he deserve it? Photograph: Dan Chung/The Guardian
Heading for a first … tracking the destinations of graduates from 2009
At a time when there is so much focus on identifying the benefits of higher education, and increasingly the destinations of graduates, it’s timely that the latest Futuretrack survey has been launched, this time tracking students who applied through Ucas in 2005/06 and therefore likely to have graduated in 2009 (or 2010 if they were on a four-year programme).
The Futuretrack survey is probably the most comprehensive cradle-to-grave (or rather from application to post-graduation) study looking at cohorts of students through their journey in higher education. At a time when there are increasing questions about what is actually happening to students after they graduate, how many are getting jobs, at what level, how many are going on to further study, the findings will be of real interest to the sector.
The survey itself is independently conducted by a research team at Warwick University on behalf of the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), but the results will be of interest to prospective students, parents, institutions and government.
Heading for a fail … Malcolm Grant
This week an extraordinary members meeting of UCL Union, the student union at UCL, passed a motion of no confidence in Malcolm Grant as president and provost of University College London.
A motion entitled “Hands off the NHS, hands off our education: Malcolm Grant has got to go”, set out its objection to Grant accepting the role as chair of the NHS commissioning board, which he will undertake part-time alongside his role as provost and president. The objections were that he has been complicit in the coalition’s NHS reforms, lobbied for the cap on tuition fees to be increased and claimed that a living wage at UCL was a “luxury that could not be afforded”.
The motion did not hold back in its criticism of Grant, was one-sided, and had the fingerprints of the Socialist Workers’ Party all over it. It failed to to mention that: Grant has brought unprecedented success to UCL and bolstered its international standing and reputation; a living wage is indeed being introduced subsequent to his comments; he’d agreed to take a 10% paycut and he publicly criticised Lansley’s reforms as “unintelligible, very messy and not clear”. And although the motion mentions that Grant is the most highly paid university leader in the UK, it failed to say that he intends to donate his salary from the part-time role as chair of the NHS commissioning board to UCL.
While the NHS reforms continue to be deeply unpopular, if Andrew Lansley is going to appoint someone to chair the commissioning board, I feel confident in Malcolm Grant to at least deliver results with objectivity and impartiality. Although a lawyer by background rather than an administrator, Grant is a man who delivers results and has an impressive track record at UCL.
Due to capacity issues in the room, more than 250 students were allowed to vote. Of those present, a healthy 160 backed the motion of no confidence with 86 against and 28 abstaining. But with a total student population of well over 20,000 at UCL it’s hard to say with any confidence whether this reflects the views of the student body as a whole, or just a vocal minority. That question should soon be answered as there is about to be a referendum on the issue, giving all UCL students the chance to have their say.
Whether the motion is backed or overturned by the UCL student body, it will undoubtedly generate a significant debate. But for critics of Grant and his decision to accept the role, I would say that if anyone is going to knock some sense into the NHS reforms, I’d be prepared to say that he is one of the few people I can imagine doing it.
Times Higher Education, 24 November 2011
Listen to the heart
Aaron Porter says that in a high-fees world, the sector must do more to involve an increasingly diverse student body in decision-making
Today, it seems, there is barely a consultation paper or university strategy that does not refer to the importance of “student engagement”. But for all the talk, how effectively does the academy engage with students? Has it merely become adept at paying lip service to the idea?
It is often observed that since the introduction of tuition fees, students increasingly have asked what they will get for their money. The Labour government’s response was to introduce numerous initiatives for student engagement, including student juries, a national forum and even a minister for students. The usefulness of each, however, was questionable – and all were axed by the coalition when it came to power.
The emphasis on student engagement has grown for other reasons, too. One imperative has been the move from an elite to a mass higher education system and the consequent need for universities to involve students other than full-time, 18-21-year-old undergraduates. This has led to an important shift in activity by the National Union of Students.
I know from my time as NUS president that its emphasis on student engagement – built on a sound evidence base – has played a considerable role in ensuring a credible and more mature student contribution to national debate. It has also supported students’ unions to do much the same at the institutional level.
When universities are asked how they engage with students, they are quick to point to committees with student representation, and to students’ unions that have been consulted in their decision-making.
But whether these structures genuinely reach beyond traditional full-time students is questionable. And for all the consultation that takes place, do students really have a greater influence than they did decades ago?
I am not convinced. There has undoubtedly been progress, but it has been too slow and too constrained. Far too many universities are still content to have a handful of students on their committees and a staff-student liaison meeting once a month.
Relying on committees does not cut the mustard. Often the students who attend these meetings have the time to do so because they do not need part-time jobs and don’t have caring responsibilities. How are part-time students or distance learners being involved? The overwhelming majority of student representatives are still drawn from a narrow pool.
Nationally, the same accusations can be made. The political parties and the higher education sector waxed lyrical about the importance of student engagement when the groundwork was being laid to increase tuition fees. But there was more than a whiff of double standards when formal student representation was left off the terms of reference for the Browne Review.
And while sector bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency and the UK funding councils have made huge strides in recent years – many adding student members to their boards – the documents and reports they produce remain impenetrable to those who are not higher education policy experts.
Will the changes being introduced next autumn really lead to a more “student-focused” higher education system? The answer here is perhaps the most dispiriting. I do not believe for one second that the title of the higher education White Paper means what it says – unless you think that being at the “heart of the system” means giving students a bit more information (not provided by the government, of course, but left to others) while demanding a hugely increased financial contribution from them.
Universities must do more to open up their books and to involve students in decision-making and strategic planning. It is great to see that the University of Exeter has created a budget scrutiny committee jointly chaired by the university’s registrar and its Students’ Guild president. This committee will oversee where Exeter’s additional tuition-fee money will be spent. It actually grants real decision-making power to students, rather than giving them leave to offer views that may or may not be taken on board.
After all, the only way we can make the reformed system work – and truly place students at the heart of the system – is if universities and students’ unions work together. The responsibility lies at the door of both organisations to ensure that students’ diverse voices are heard. Excuses to ignore them are wearing thin.
Thursday 24th November, Guardian HE Network
Lord Browne and UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi: first or fail?
Lord Browne redeems himself with a new prize for engineering, but the chancellor at University of California, Davis comes under fire
A petition is calling for the resignation of Linda Katehi, chancellor, University of California, Davis. Photograph: Paul Sakuma/AP
Heading for a first: Lord Browne
Almost exactly one year after his much contested review into higher education was published, Lord Browne of Madingley returned into the spotlight this week as the chair of trustees for the foundation overseeing the new Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Unlike his funding review, this announcement was greeted with fanfare and the even rarer sight of cross-party support as David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all got behind the new initiative.
Since the industrial revolution, the UK has arguably the richest history of any country when it comes to engineering, and while the United States, China and India have probably soared past us in recent years, the establishing of a new £1m prize here in the UK to reward the very best global engineering feats has undoubtedly set engineering hearts racing in this country, and further afield too.
Remarkably this is the first prize that the queen has put her name to, and given the interest it has sparked in the global engineering community it is already being talked about as a rival to the Nobel prize. If ways can be found to start exciting the imagination of the pupils in our schools too, as well as the engineers in our universities and in industry, then its contribution will be worth several times more than the £1m prize fund that will be awarded to the winners every two years.
Heading for a fail: University of California Davis
This week UC Davis was plunged into disarray as its chancellor Linda Katehi allowed riot police to disperse a rather modest gathering of students occupying a part of the campus. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, emulated this side of the pond with a similar gathering outside St Paul’s cathedral in London, a number of tented protests have sprung up on university campuses in the US. Although US authorities tend to be rather less tolerant of occupations, few expected the show of force that was thrust on protesters at Davis.
After getting the green light from Katehi, riot police wasted no time in trying to clear the small gathering of students. As students chose to hold their ground, what happened next was truly dreadful. Within minutes police moved from persuasion to forceful removal, but most shocking of all was the repeated use of pepper spray directly in the faces and mouths of non-resisting students. The whole farce was caught on film and has spread like wildfire on the internet.
Faced with the video evidence, Davis has been forced into acting decisively. The chief of campus police, Annette Spicuzza has been suspended while an investigation attempts to get to the bottom of exactly what happened and who it was authorised by. But as it was Katehi herself who sanctioned the police actions, and although she instructed them to do so peacefully, thousands of people have signed a petition calling for her resignation – no doubt fuelled with the anger of seeing students unceremoniously subjected to pepper spray.
Whatever your opinions on occupation as a tactic, there can surely be no justification for the use of such outrageous police actions to disperse a group of students who are peacefully trying to make a point – whether you agree with them or not.
Thursday 10th November, Guardian HE Network
Birmingham universities revive AimHigher and core and margin: first or fail?
At a time when universities are being coerced by the coalition toward competition, it’s great to see that the spirit of collaboration lives on in Birmingham, says Aaron Porter
Selfridges at the Bullring, Birmingham city centre: universities in the second city have come together to continue the AimHigher widening participation programme. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Heading for a First … Birmingham Aimhigher
Definitely worthy of a first is news that AimHigher has been reborn in Birmingham as a joint venture between Aston, Birmingham City, University College Birmingham and the University of Birmingham. To date, one of the most counter-productive coalition cuts has been to the AimHigher programme, a dedicated activity with schools to encourage young people to consider higher education. At a time of trebled fees, difficult graduate employment and the removal of the education maintenance allowance, there couldn’t be a more important time to salvage such activity, particularly as we learnt just last week that the initial figures for 2012 university applications give cause for concern.
When AimHigher funding was withdrawn, it was such a blow. But news from the second city that the universities had come together to salvage the activity is a rare piece of good news. It’s also worth noting that a number of other cities have also managed to bring their higher education institutions together to set up similar arrangements, such as AccessHE in London. At the last count, this brings together 20 institutions. But in truth, aside from a handful of cities, it appears that many institutions have not been able to retain a collaborative AimHigher-style programme. And it’s great to see that in Birmingham the four universities have managed to retain the AimHigher brand.
At a time when universities are being coerced by the coalition toward competition, it’s great to see that the spirit of collaboration can still live on. And when it comes to widening access and promoting participation, there can be more no greater issue worthy of institutions coming together.
Heading for a Fail … Core and margin
News this week that 27 higher education inistiutions have applied to lower their prices is hardly surprising given the dogs dinner the government has made of setting out their higher education strategy. While at first glance it may seem like good news for prospective students, on further analysis it raises some more concerning questions.
As a consequence of the government getting its higher education sums badly wrong, the core and margin model has been introduced in a desperate attempt to force some universities to lower their prices. But, depressingly for me, the courses or institutions lowering their prices are doing so not necessarily because what they are providing isn’t up to scratch, but rather because their perceived reputation may not be high. Worse still, these are decisions not based on what it actually costs to teach a particular course, but manipulated to suit the Treasury finances.
Then consider the socio-economic backgrounds of the students likely to be forced into courses on £7,500 or less, and the backgrounds of students still likely to proceed on to degrees at £9,000 per year. The idea that students from richer backgrounds will have more spent on them, while those from more deprived backgrounds are slung into economy class stands against what higher education has, up until now, played such an important role in countering.
Rather than improving social mobility, there is a real danger that government miscalculations and an ideological bent on the market through mechanisms like core and margin will see a widening of disadvantage, rather than a closing of the gap.
Heading for a First… Which?
At the start of this week the Observer reported that well-respected consumer rights magazine Which? will now publish a guide to British universities. Not that much more evidence was required, it was further proof that our university system is moving toward a more market based system. And in the same way Which? has helped generations of consumers purchase the right car or kitchen appliance, universities are now next in the queue for the Which? treatment.
At the surface, the prospect of an independent, well researched assessment of what is provided in our universities should be welcome, particularly by prospective students and their parents, there are some considerations that need to be thought through. When deciding to assess a car or a washing machine, there are some pretty indisputable factors where transparent information is helpful. Whether that’s reliability, price, dimensions or terms and conditions. But judging an education isn’t quite so easy. It’s not just difficult to decide which measures are the most important. Is academic progress more important than final degree outcomes? How important is the research environment for an undergraduate? How do you account for the distinctiveness of a small and specialist institution that may not benefit from the economies of scale, but more than compensate with a stronger sense of community. Talking of which, how do you begin to measure ‘a sense of community’?
As I see it, for Which? to simply move beyond a compilation of the greatest hits from the plethora of league tables that already exist, their real challenge will be to try and capture the essence of different institutions, their mission, strengths and weaknesses. Simple metrics don’t do justice to the broader importance and value of a higher education experience, so here’s hoping for something more sophisticated than that.
Heading for a Fail… University applications
It always looked likely given the confusion and anger with the government’s reforms to higher education funding, but this week we got the first signs of evidence that for the first year of higher tuition fees in 2012, university applications were indeed headed for decline.
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS) showed that the applications received by 15 October were 9% lower than this time last year. It’s important to note that the final deadline for applications is not until the middle of January 2012, so this is far from a definitive picture, but the early signs don’t look good.
Personally I don’t consider a small decline in applications overall to be a huge problem, there will still be more people applying for a place than there are places to go round. In fact even a 9% decline will mean that thousands of qualified applicants would still miss out on a university place. The analysis that is crucial is to determine which groups of students are applying in greater (or fewer) numbers than before. A fall in applications which hits 10% or more is politically damaging for the coalition. But if the decline is particularly concentrated amongst poorer applicants or certain ethnic groups, then it will be more damning.
At first glance, a 9% drop is fairly troubling though. But there are two important factors to bear in mind. The first is an issue of demographics, the numbers of 18 year olds eligible to apply in 2012 is actually fewer than 2011, as a consequence of a slowing of the birth rate in the early 1990s. This may account for as much as 5% of the fall. But countering that, a small amount of analysis of the early UCAS figures show that applications to Oxbridge, dentistry, medicine and veterinary science (which have an early deadline) fell by only 0.8%. This would therefore indicate that the fall everywhere else is actually closer to 20%, but it could also mean that applicants are actually taking more time to consider their options, but will still ultimately decide to apply.
Whilst it is important to monitor these figures closely, it’s also important not to lose sight of two crucial issues. Despite the rising cost to the individual the broader benefits of higher education need to continue to be articulated, probably louder than ever before. And when it comes to the financial information, government through initiatives like the Independent Student Finance Task Force which has organised a National Student Money Day on Monday 14th November, need to maintain a visible presence to ensure that prospective students understand the deal, whether they agree with it or not.
The last 12 months have seen a great deal of attention given to our higher education system. I was at the heart of much of the debate last year as President of the National Union of Students, in the midst of the unprecedented anger, media questions about value for money and the perennial debate about students as consumers or co-producers. But for all the focus on fees and funding, the importance of ensuring talented British students are given useful information and adequate advice and guidance to progress to study subjects that will be intellectually stimulating and a vitally important contribution to our economy, has been largely forgotten.
So I am delighted to announce that with the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE), I will be leading a new national campaign, Talent 2030, to ensure young people gain access to the information they need and be encouraged to progress to careers in manufacturing and engineering. It’s timely not just because there is so much emphasis on ensuring that universities and industry play their part in promoting future economic growth, but also because the university starters of 2030 are being born this year, and the people likely to recruit, train and employ them are at university right now.
By practically every measure the UK has one of the strongest higher education systems in the world, second only to the United States overall. But for all the positives, there is a looming problem. The support given to the brightest and the best school pupils to eventually progress onto careers in manufacturing and engineering remains fragile, with women progressing in particularly small numbers. Over the last few months, the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) has overseen a task force co-chaired by Professor Nigel Thrift (Vice-Chancellor, University of Warwick) and Richard Greenhalgh (former Chairman, Unilever UK) looking at what is required of schools, colleges, universities, business and government to ensure the UK can leverage its potential in order to maximise our international competitiveness, and there are a series of recommendations which the Talent 2030 campaign will now pick up.
The most pressing recommendations centre on improving information about the changing nature and importance of green technology across our industries, better information on academic choices and the subsequent earnings premium and encouraging more young women to pursue manufacturing and engineering challenging the increasingly flawed myth that it is a male-dominated profession.
Talent 2030 will flag up relevant information and guidance, including activity directly in schools and with 13 year old pupils in year 9 onwards. Combating the fact there are still too many university applicants that aren’t informed about specific degrees required for certain jobs, A levels needed for particular degrees or the GSCE subjects that will allow you to progress onto the relevant further study.
Every year there are thousands of 13 year olds who are either prevented or simply not given the right advice about choosing to study triple sciences at GSCE which shuts off a whole series of future career options. And the situation is often equally bad when it comes to A level choices for those who choose subjects that universities won’t count when it comes to degree applications, or fail to choose certain A levels that are essential for certain degree subjects like physics or mathematics for many degrees in engineering and the physical sciences.
It’s easy to start playing the blame game, pointing the finger at who needs to fix this; government, schools, careers services or universities. But the truth is, everyone has a responsibility to set about fixing it. Talent 2030 will bring together stakeholders from across education and industry to interact directly with students and their parents. Our website,
www.talent2030.org will be a hub of information, facts and case studies with plans for a schools roadshow and resources for teachers and careers advice, as well as activity with universities and industry to open the doors to young people.
It goes without saying that there are of course careers beyond manufacturing and engineering which are just as important. But I am particularly struck at the black spot in information which affect so many young people in relation to careers in manufacturing and engineering, particularly as these are careers where subject choices particularly matter and the quality of support can be so woeful.
At a time when the eventual contribution that pupils currently in our schools and future graduates will make to society is so important, this is a vital campaign to ensure the brightest and the best teenagers are supported to make the decisions that are right for them, and to help the UK realise its potential.
Heading for a First… Reading University and Sir David Bell
This week Reading University announced the appointment of senior civil servant Sir David Bell as its new vice-chancellor. Bell’s career is almost the definition of ‘meteoric rise’. He started as a teacher in Glasgow, went on to become a headteacher, before rising to national prominence as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools and then into the civil service as the permanent secretary in the Department for Education.
Born in Glasgow, reading history and philosophy at his home city’s university, he then went onto obtain a PGCE at Jordanhill College of Education. His direct experience at schools in Glasgow and Essex and as assistant director of Education at Newcastle City Council clearly gives him in a genuine education background. Not to mention his subsequent experience as the chief inspector of schools and then in government.
As universities are increasingly grappling with the implications of the White Paper, and their link up with business, it’s vital that their core purpose as educational establishments is not lost. For those who have met him, Sir David is an impressive individual, with an obvious passion for what education can do to transform an individual’s life.
He strikes me as a man who can breathe new life into Reading University, ensure it is fit for purpose in the 21st century, but without losing sight of why the institution exists. I also can’t help but think, he’s chosen a very wise time to stop working for Michael Gove…
Heading for a Fail… Abdul Arain
Notable previous chancellors of Cambridge University have included Thomas Cromwell, Prince Albert, and Stanley Baldwin, and since 1976 the honour has been bestowed upon the Duke of Edinburgh. Of course while the role is largely ceremonial, cutting ribbons and shaking hands at degree congregations, there is a perception at least that this person is a figure head for the institution. And in some respects, a role model for prospective and current students.
So when an election was called to replace Prince Philip earlier this year, there was a faint hope that the result may deliver something other the usual line up of noble lords, dukes, or relatives of the monarch who generally hold the post. Who knows, perhaps the first woman may have been chosen to break the monotony of man after man since 1246. But given some of the rather ancient rules at Cambridge University, I’ve no idea whether a woman is even allowed to hold the role. Even if they are permitted, 800 years of history suggests the culture won’t permit it yet.
However the line up of candidates, although all men, was at least drawn from a variety of backgrounds. It was made pretty clear, that the preferred choice from the university hierarchy was Lord Sainsbury, the former chair of the supermarket giant and a significant donor to the institution. Up against him were the loud-mouthed actor Brian Blessed, high profile QC Michael Mansfield, and Nariobi-born grocer Abdul Arain. Running a classic protest vote campaign, Arain’s candidacy was two-fold; to show that Cambridge University really is open to people from non-traditional backgrounds, and perhaps more pertinently to him, to highlight the damage a new chain of Sainsburys in the city will do to local stores like his own.
Sadly Arain came last when the results were announced, but he secured a creditable 312 in the final tally. Despite some ill-feeling from a minority toward Lord Sainsbury, in truth he sailed through securing nearly 3000 of the 5888 votes that were cast. By weighing in with more than 50% of the vote in the first round, it didn’t even matter whether it was first past the post, or a more elaborate transferable voting system.
So Cambridge University may not have taken the chance to break with tradition of choosing someone outside the established hierarchy or heaven forbid a woman. But Arain’s candidacy did at least raise a valid debate, if only temporarily.
A fresh face on the Labour front bench makes a good impression – but it’s more bad news in Wales, says Aaron Porter
Heading for a First… Chuka Umunna
Almost as soon as conference season was over, Ed Miliband wasted no time in shuffling his pack, bringing some fresh faces to the Labour front bench. Perhaps the most meteoric rise was granted to the impressive Chuka Umunna, part of the 2010 intake and MP for Streatham, who replaced John Denham as the shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills. Given that jobs and economic growth are going to be vital between now and the next general election, this is a sizeable job to give to a relative novice. But Umunna has received notable plaudits both inside and out of the Labour party since his selection as the candidate to fight for Streatham in March 2008, and should provide added energy and vigour as Labour look to step up the competition with the coalition government.
While most of the political interest in his department will inevitably concentrate on economic growth and job creation, the role of higher education, also in his department, should not be overlooked. The OECD evidence is compelling; where there is state investment in a strong higher education system this more than pays itself back through growth, innovation and job creation. Given the absence of any obvious growth strategy from the coalition, Umunna would do well to look to the universities section of his shadow department when preparing to take the case to Cable, Osborne et al.
In the more medium term, he will also need to consider the broader position Labour will take on higher education funding before the next general election. The stopgap announcement just before party conference, for a fee level of £6,000, was met with a mixed reaction. Some party members, and the National Union of Students, are still holding out for a graduate tax – but the results of the Liam Byrne’s policyreview will be instrumental in determining whether the party will stick with the policy Ed Miliband pushed so hard on in his leadership campaign or not.
The job of helping to rebuild Labour’s reputation on the economy, and further exposing the government’s increasingly desperate recovery plan, is a considerable challengeand responsibility. My gut reaction is that Umunna has the essential ingredients to make a real success of it.
Heading for a Fail… University of Wales
No, it’s not just a repeat of last week, but sadly in the past seven days things appear to have become even more desperate for the University of the Wales. After the public concerns about their external degrees outside of Wales were aired just over a week ago, the past few days have seen yet more bad news.
Now, a European-funded scholarship programme, the Prince of Wales Innovation Scheme (Powis) has been withdrawn. According to the Welsh Assembly Enterprise Minister, Edwina Hart AM, a review into the programme found that it was not in fact eligible for EU funding. Although the overall budget for the programme was due to be £11m, with £5m coming from the European funding and the rest from universities and business, up to this point only £0.4m of the EU funding had been put in.
In separate news, it was also reported that the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC) was to change its name to distance itself from the University of Wales. The new name will be Cardiff Metropolitan University, and it will utilise its own awarding powers, rather than awarding degrees from the University of Wales.
So another tough seven days for the University of Wales. I sincerely hope I can write about something else next week.