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OpinionPanel – It’s time to challenge university league tables April 19, 2012

Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education.
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http://www.opinionpanel.co.uk/community/2012/04/10/its-time-to-challenge-university-league-tables/

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!

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You’re just a punch-bag for the Coalition! January 10, 2012

Posted by AaronPorter in Uncategorized.
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Aaron Porter, former NUS President and regular OpinionPanel blogger, asks whether savage cuts to young people’s services might be the result of young people failing to engage in politics.

http://www.opinionpanel.co.uk/panellists/2012/01/10/punch-bags-for-the-coalition-are-young-people-getting-beaten-up-for-not-engaging-in-politics/

Young people seem to be bearing the brunt of government cuts. Photo by asplosh

Over the last few years, young people could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve been the butt of a series of damaging government policies. The recent recession has seen youth unemployment soar to over 1 million, there are as many as 80 applicants for every graduate position, the Educational Maintenance Allowance has been scrapped, as has the Future Jobs Fund and the AimHigher programme. In the last 7 years we have seen tuition fees treble twice, first by Labour in 2005 and then more recently by the Coalition – despite an explicit promise by the Liberal Democrats that they would vote against any increase whatsoever.

The government will undoubtedly turn to the deficit as the explanation for their recent decisions to take the axe to many of the services young people have relied on. But cynics might claim that a lack of political engagement from young people could be the reason behind these particularly acute measures. If you consider the relatively small amounts of money that the government have saved in scrapping initiatives like the EMA and AimHigher, and compare that with similar amounts of money spent on schemes benefiting pensioners, such as free bus passes and the Winter Fuel allowance (both of which are not means tested), it poses the question why young people appear to have consistently taken the hit to the benefit of others in society.

So, are young people really doing enough to engage with politics? A quick analysis of voting statistics shows that when it comes to elections they clearly are not. In the 2005 general election, only 37% of 18 – 24 year olds turned out to vote. Whilst that figure rose to around 44% in the 2010 general election, in part due to a more focussed drive to register young voters, it still looks pretty paltry when you compare that to the 76% of over-65-year-olds who voted. Faced with difficult decisions on spending, the government appear to have made some crude political calculations and decided that spending cuts for pensioners would cost them more votes than spending cuts for young people. Politically speaking, they are probably right.

So why is it that young people are voting in such small numbers, and what can be done to rectify it? Firstly, it’s worth noting that this is an historic trend. It’s not just the under 25s of recent years that are voting in lower numbers; the under 25s have tended to turnout in much smaller numbers than their elder counterparts for decades.

As with many things, education clearly has to be at the heart of the solution. A number of commissions and studies looking at the issue of young people’s engagement with politics have flagged up how citizenship education could be improved in school to stress the importance of voting, and how it can help influence issues like employment, benefits, taxation and services. Interestingly, in the run-up to the 2010 election, research by YouGov and the Social Market Foundation into how people develop voting habits has found that those who are old enough to vote while still at school are far more likely to vote again than those who have to wait until their 20s for their first chance. In the 2001 election, for example, turnout among 27-year-olds was 49%, compared with 65% among 28-year-olds who had been old enough to vote in the 1992 election.

The campaign behind lowering the voting age to 16 has also gained momentum. There are some who feel that giving 16-year-olds the chance to vote will help to drive up youth participation overall by opening up the political process to them a little earlier. Particularly to combat the fact there are large numbers of 16 and 17 year olds who feel disenfranchised by being prevented from voting, especially when you consider they are old enough to pay taxes, get married, have sex and even die for their country. But others claim that 16 is too young, that they may not have had the time to properly form an opinion about voting and should therefore continue to wait until they are 18. At present, Austria is the only country in Europe that has introduced votes at 16.

At the end of 2011, analysis from credit information firm Experian found a worrying trend with the number of young people even registered to vote. According to their figures, only 520,000 who had turned 18 were registered, which is around 55% of those eligible. Yet this compares with an estimated 1.05m 18 year olds with Facebook accounts. It led to the understandably striking headlines that twice as many 18-year-olds had Facebook accounts, compared to being registered to vote.

So should voting be compulsory? In Australia this is the system they have, where all citizens above the age of 18 have to be registered to vote and fines are administered for those who do not vote. Whilst this unsurprisingly leads to higher voter turnout, I remain unconvinced that any compulsory system would really lead to greater genuine engagement.

There is proof that technology could provide the solution for encouraging greater numbers of young people to engage with politics, though. It is not that they aren’t interested in expressing an opinion, it’s just a feeling that the debate does not take place in a medium in which they feel it should. A lot is made of the fact that millions of people, huge numbers of them under the age of 25, are prepared not just to express an opinion but also to vote on a weekly basis for programmes like the X Factor and Big Brother. But in part this is because that vote can be made with the click of a button or a text message. Considering issues beyond reality TV talent contests, it was interesting to note that the Electoral Commission website www.aboutmyvote.co.uk had 1.8m visits around the last general election, nearly half of which came from 18 – 24-year-olds.

Whilst security and the ability to ensure that those eligible individuals are only able to vote once needs to be fundamental in any electoral system, surely it should not be beyond the realms of possibility for there to be proper consideration given to online voting for national ballots.

We shouldn’t ignore the fact that young people are simply not voting in great enough numbers. The real solution lies in education, technology and a change in culture: a huge shift in attitude toward voting and politics in general is needed to really start get young people punching above their weight, rather than consistently appearing to be the punch-bag for difficult political decisions.

Thu 10 Nov: Guardian HE Network – Birmingham revives Aimhigher and core and margin pricing: first or fail? November 10, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education.
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Birmingham revives Aimhigher and core and margin pricing: 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

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/nov/10/birmingham-aimhigher-core-margin-pricing

Bullring Birmingham

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.

Thur 1 Sep: Guardian HE: First or fail: Campaign for Financial Education and 2012 university applicants September 2, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
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First or fail: Campaign for Financial Education and 2012 university applicants

Deserving recognition this week: a campaign to add financial education to the school curriculum; falling from favour, the students who can’t afford higher tuition fees

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/sep/01/first-or-fail-campaign-for-financial-edcation

 

abacus

Money Saving Expert, Martin Lewis has launched a campaign to get compulsory financial education into the school curriculum. Photograph: Toru Hanai/REUTERS

Aaron’s verdict on who has had a good week (heading for a first) and who has had a bad week (heading for a fail).

Heading for a first: campaign for financial education

With all the furore surrounding tuition fees, debt, loans and interest rates, very little thought has been given to the support, and crucially the education given to school pupils about finance and money. So with higher education funding rarely out of the headlines, Martin Lewis of the Money Saving Expert website has launched a campaign to get compulsory financial education into the school curriculum.

While higher education funding may have been the catalyst for the campaign, it’s evident that financial education wouldn’t be limited to information about that, in fact the plan would be to cover the basics of personal finance and consumer rights. Launching a petition on the government’s new e-petition website, Martin Lewis describes the current state of affairs as “a national disgrace that in the 20 years since introducing student loans, we’ve educated our youth into debt when they go to university, but never about debt. We’re a financially illiterate nation.” Strong words, but then again a comprehensive understanding of basic finance is an important issue. A wrong decision, or unchallenged misinformation can cost thousands.

Since launching the campaign, the e-petition has quickly passed more than 50,000 signatures. And with parliament giving consideration to a full debate on any petition that passes 100,000 sign ups, it’s already over half-way there.

In an economy that already requires an increasingly sophisticated understanding as to how to make the right financial decisions, this seems like a no-brainer to me. To add your name to the petition, you can sign up here.

Heading for a fail: 2012 university applicants

The government likes to claim they don’t understand the system and perhaps the financial education they receive isn’t up to scratch, but it doesn’t take a degree to realise that lots of potential university applicants for 2012 are going to be deterred from applying due to the hike in fees. The big question for universities, but also the government, is how many? Up until now, it’s been almost impossible to say with any authority how many fewer applicants we could see for the 2012 intake. Lessons from history show us that after the previous tuition fee rise, from £1,000 a year to £3,000, we saw a 5% drop for the 2006 intake. But that was quite a different reform that met with quite a different reaction and crucially was done at a time when there was record investment in the outreach infrastructure such as AimHigher. With that infrastructure gone and a hostile reaction on the streets and in the press, initial predictions have been for a drop of anywhere between 5% to 20% through university doors come 2012.

Anything approaching a double digit fall would be catastrophic for the coalition, and for the Liberal Democrats in particular, who are desperately hoping that their tuition fee car crash won’t cause them any more political damage. If the decrease is negligible, they will at least claim it hasn’t had the damaging impact many feared it would. However, it will do little to allay the concerns of thousands of students and their parents who still feel betrayed after their very public pledge signing, and then discarding. Anything approaching a 10% fall or more, will simply give more ammunition to the long-standing critics of the tuition fee trebling.

So this week, findings from the first major study into the applicant intentions from the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER), which surveyed over 1,000 secondary school pupils aged between 14 an 17, will make uncomfortable reading for the coalition. NFER’s headline was that 15% of pupils in school years 10 to 12 in England who were originally planning to go to university have now decided not to, 19% of school pupils have decided to only apply to universities charging less than the £9000 a year, and 26% said they will only apply to universities where they can live at home. But perhaps most shocking of all, was that 79% of respondents said that the tuition fee increase was forcing them to change their plans about future study in some form or another. It’s going to take more than a Simon Hughes sized sticking plaster to remedy this.

So the clock is ticking to see whether the findings from this research project will be translated into the real decline many predicted when the government first announced their plans, but if this is anything to go by, it does not look encouraging.

Open letter to Simon Hughes following his appointment as the Government’s ‘access advocate’ January 4, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in Uncategorized.
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An open letter to Simon Hughes on University Access.

5th January 2010

Dear Simon,

Congratulations on your appointment to the role of “Advocate for Access to Education”. Given the serious access problem we have in many of our elite Universities and the proposals to treble tuition fees by the Coalition it will be a challenging role – especially if it is to go beyond the kind of “window dressing” that the role has already been accused of. NUS has long called for there to be a more serious debate and attention paid to access into continued education, particularly with better information, advice and guidance given to prospective students. Alongside our member students’ unions we are fully committed to improving and widening university access and are ready and willing to assist in your efforts to ensure that university is opened up to anyone with the talent to achieve. Our 16-18 members in FE Colleges are keen to work with you on your research into the barriers to access they face.

To begin with, we have six recommendations:

First, we would recommend that the Government urgently clarifies its “National Scholarship Scheme”. On the weekend before the fees vote, the Government was claiming that pupils on free school meals would get a free first year at University. Now the Government has dropped that commitment- arguing instead that the scheme should consist of different packages, bid for by universities. Whilst we appreciate that the free school meals measure is only a narrow pool, it was precisely this kind of “postcode lottery” on student financial assistance that your manifesto commitment on bursaries was designed to scrap- so to avoid misleading students, getting the Government to come clean on its “free first year” offer would be a good start, and being clear about which students are now eligible for this support is imperative.

Second, you could hold the Government to its promise on the fee cap. You will know that ministers have repeatedly claimed that the higher limit would only apply in “exceptional” circumstances– but we are finding it hard to get the Government to explain how it will ensure that £9k rather than £6k fees will be the “exception”. Your efforts here could mean ensuring the Government doesn’t break another promise- this time one made repeatedly on the floor of the house.

Third, you could insist that universities do much more to promote access. At present universities are only routinely judged on applications from the poorest; but it is acceptances and completions (as well as achievement) that matter more. Insisting that the monitoring of access achievements gets tougher, and that the HE sector gets its act together on measures such as Post Qualifications Admissions (where students apply once they have their results) and Contextual Admissions (where applicants are judged on academic potential), could make a massive difference.

Fourth, you could insist that the Government reinstates AimHigher. Up until now the debate on access has focussed heavily on 17 and 18 year olds, but research in this area suggests intervention earlier in school is crucial. This is exactly what the AimHigher programme ensured, by funding to ensure meaningful links were built up between universities and schools. The programme has made a massive difference to aspiration to apply to university across the country and the decision to scrap it will only harm our shared cause to improve access, particularly at a time when the Coalition have trebled tuition fees.

Fifth, you would do well to suggest that the Government listens and responds to voices in the Muslim community making clear how damaging the changes to loan interest rates will be to access for this group. FOSIS (the Federation of Islamic Student Societies) have repeatedly made clear why the changes will be a problem but so far have had no contact from ministers or officials.

But sixth and most importantly, you could demand that the EMA is reinstated. Everyone agrees that the biggest factor in determining university access is achievement at Level 3- or A Level. So for Gove to axe it (having promised to keep it) on the most threadbare of evidence is astonishing, and will do more to harm university access than your role could ever fix. Officially, you only have the power to recommend how a £50m replacement for a £450m scheme is spent. Unofficially, you could make abundantly clear just how devastating for the poorest families the removal of the EMA will be to retention and achievement- and get it reinstated before it’s too late.

I fear that measures the Government have taken so far in office have been utterly counter-productive for social mobility, I hope that your appointment will start to see this reversed, and look forward to hearing back from you in relation to the role NUS can play to help you achieve this, and the six recommendations I have made above as an important start point.

Best wishes,

Aaron Porter
National President