Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Agenda setting

Not a minister
Not a Scottish footballer
Jo Johnson, Universities minister, gave a speech to UUK today.

When his appointment was announced back in May, I misread and thought they’d appointed Mo Johnston, former Scotland striker. Instead they went for a slightly blonder minister, whose speech shows that the government has an agenda for higher education.

The speech name-checked the government’s manifesto pledges, so it’s worth reminding ourselves about what they were:

We will ensure that if you want to go to university, you can
This year, for the first time, over half a million people have been admitted to our universities, including a record proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. From September, we will go even further, abolishing the cap on higher education student numbers and removing an arbitrary ceiling on ambition. Our reforms to university funding mean you do not have to pay anything towards tuition while studying, and only start paying back if you earn over £21,000 per year. We will ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms, so that the interests of both students and taxpayers are fairly represented. We will also introduce a national postgraduate loan system for taught masters and PhD courses. We will ensure that universities deliver the best possible value for money to students: we will introduce a framework to recognise universities offering the highest teaching quality; encourage universities to offer more two-year courses; and require more data to be openly available to potential students so that they can make decisions informed by the career paths of past graduates.
Conservative manifesto 2015, p35
Like every good to-do list, it includes two things which have already been done – removing the cap on places at English universities and introducing postgraduate loans (again in England only – HE is a devolved matter). That leaves four pledges:

1. Ensuring the continuing success and stability of the student loan system
2. Introducing a framework for teaching quality
3. Encourage university to offer more two-year courses
4. Require more data to be available to students

‘Value for money’ is the catch all for the last three of these.

And then the speech itself:
… my focus will be on implementing 3 key manifesto pledges, so that we consolidate and build on these achievements:
Firstly, lifting the cap on student numbers and widening participation, so that we remove barriers to ambition and meet the PM’s commitment to double the proportion of disadvantaged young people entering higher education by 2020 from 2009 levels.
Secondly, delivering a teaching excellence framework that creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect.
Thirdly, driving value for money both for students investing in their education, and taxpayers underwriting the system, so that we ensure the continuing success and stability of these reforms.
Teaching at the heart of the system, speech by Jo Johnson to UUK, 1 July 2015

And he had a lot to say about this, highlighting:


  • Data that shows students are less happy about choices they have made (but see my post on the ComRes data)
  • The possibility of assembling data showing student engagement and specific salaries from different universities, and the need for greater transparency about how fees are spent
  • The government’s commitment to support an increase in the number of high quality universities
  • His worry that the graduate premium has reduced, and the need to find out why and do something about it
  • The need for partnership with business to influence curriculum design
  • Plans for a Teaching Excellence Framework: 

"I expect the TEF to include a clear set of outcome-focused criteria and metrics. This should be underpinned by an external assessment process undertaken by an independent quality body from within the existing landscape."

  • A green paper to be published in the autumn
  • The need to tackle degree class inflation
  • The need to use continual assessment (ie the GPA system) to push students harder throughout their programmes (with a dig at contact hours in the meantime)
  • His intention to focus on WP in the more selective institutions (by means of two year programmes, apparently)

Four thoughts on this.

Firstly, who’ll run TEF? QAA looks like the obvious candidate, but let’s not forget the other “independent quality bod[ies] from within the existing landscape” –

HEA – they know about teaching
HESA – they have data on student progress
OFFA – they know about student success
OIA – they know what makes students cross
Ipsos Mori – they know about student opinion through the NSS

Secondly, how do you do a light-touch TEF? You can use data on student achievement and value-added, which is about outcomes not about teaching; you can survey the taught, which is about perceptions not about outcomes; or you can inspect the teaching, which won’t be light touch. Answers on a postcard to Jo Johnson, please, before he has to sign off the green paper.

Thirdly, this stuff about the GPA. I’ll need to think about this but it seems to me that the argument goes that moving from degree classification to a 13 point scale will help student motivation because students currently don’t work hard because degree classes are an inexact measure of achievement. I’m not sure that this is an entirely flawless argument.

Fourthly, the graduate premium. The minister acknowledges that a university education is about more than salary, but argues that the decline in the graduate premium is a cause for concern, and promotes data that enable students to see what previous graduates have earned. Is this an argument that paves the way for raising the cap on fees, when the evidence, or sector action, supports the conclusion that it’s worth it? Or an argument for not raising the fee cap, as there’s work yet to be done?

There’s more to think about, and enough material for seminars and conferences, let alone some more blog posts. Interesting times.

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