Thursday 29 January 2015

Class action

The Department for Education released this week data on the destinations of key stage 4 and 5 school leavers in England, in 2012-13. The BBC picked up this story in relation to the proportion of schools which send few (or zero) pupils to Oxbridge, but there’s more to the data than that.

Included in the data was an analysis broken down by parliamentary constituency. I added to this data on the political party which currently holds the seats, and the resulting data set shows some interesting patterns.

Before the excitement of seeing the patterns, some caveats. Firstly, the data relate to England only: education is a devolved matter. Secondly, remember that this isn’t about the voting of the student themselves, or their families: it is simply the party which won in 2010 (or at a subsequent by-election) in the constituency in which schools are based. Thirdly, a few constituencies are omitted: either because they have an MP of a different stripe (Green, Respect, UKIP) or because there are no schools with Key Stage 5 leavers in them.

Just to show a modicum of thoroughness, the sample is 519 seats, of which 293 elected a Conservative MP; 184 a Labour MP and 42 a Liberal Democrat MP.

Who goes to university? School leavers in Labour seats are more likely to do so: 51.7% compared to 48.7% in Conservative seats and 46.6% in Lib Dem seats. But the population demographics are the other way round: the average Lib Dem seat saw 413 go to university, as compared to 362 in Conservative seats and 333 in Labour seats. Labour seats have fewer young people in key stage 5.

The data also tell us what sort of university they went to. DfE identify three groups here: the top third most selective, based on entry tariff (this is pretty much Russell Group plus old 1994 Group plus a few odd others); the Russell Group; and Oxbridge. Did the same pattern hold here? Hint: No!

20.1% of school leavers in English Conservative seats went to the top-third most selective universities. Slightly fewer (19.7%) from Lib Dem seats; and noticeably fewer – 15.5% - from Labour seats.

For Russell Group entry, Lib Dem constituencies nose ahead to first place: 14.6% of school leavers from Lib Dem constituencies go to a Russell Group university; 13.9% of school leavers from Conservative seats; and 11.5% of school leavers from Labour seats. 

And this patterns seems more extreme, when looking at Oxbridge. 1.4% of school leavers from Lib Dem constituencies went to Oxbridge; 1.2% from Conservative seats, and 0.8% from Labour seats.

What conclusions to draw? I think a couple of big points can be argued from the data. 

Firstly, in relation to HE policy and manifestoes: all MPs have constituents with offspring at university; and at all types of university, But for Labour MPs, the non-elite universities are more prominent; for Conservatives and (especially) Lib Dems, more elite universities are more of a concern. But for all MPs, most of the young people in their constituency who go to university go to non-elite universities.

This is the opposite of what one might expect from reading THES. University culture continues to be defined by the research elite. This is an important point for universities when lobbying MPs. The concerns of research intensive, elite, universities, will not be the most common issue raised about higher education by constituents.

Secondly, there’s a story to be read here about fair access. If the politics of the constituency MP can be taken as a proxy for economic and social wellbeing of an area (which is a defensible assumption), then it is clear that access to universities is not fair. And it isn’t only Oxbridge and the Russell Group that need to take action: the top third most selective don’t do too well here.

Food for thought, I think.

Thursday 22 January 2015

The Student Experience

An overheard conversation earlier this week – on the topic of their own frugality when a student (many years previously) and the spendthriftery of today's students – gives me pause for thought. 

It seems it was ever thus. The picture is Undergraduates training pointers in a college room by Sir David Wilkie RA, which dates from the early years of the nineteenth century, and clearly does not show students hard at work amidst scenes of poverty.

It’s easy (and fun) to get moralistic about this, but there’s a serious point for universities. In a market, factors other than the programme of study will become relevant. Some, such as employment prospects, are understandable, particularly with higher fees and a tough economy. Others are perhaps less laudable – see, for example, Paul Greatrix's post on the campus facilities arms race.

This creates genuine problems for universities.  Firstly, campus facilities all come with costs, and universities will need to recoup these. This means fees for usage (and noting that the competition authorities will not necessarily always recognise the difference between a tuition fee and a fee for an ancillary service provided as part of the same 'student experience' package) and immediately there are questions of equity between students on campus.

Secondly, the investment has an opportunity cost. A 3G sports pitch can’t occupy the same space as a teaching building; bigger rooms in a hall will give you fewer students, per square metre, who can live in it. I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point.

Thirdly, and this might in the long run be the really big issue, is the financing itself. Many universities have gone into partnership for the provision of halls, with a third party providing capital in return for revenue over the years. There's no question that this can help provide good hall places. But if quality/price/location of halls are seen by students as being an integral part of the academic experience, should universities really be surrendering control?

It all comes back to the question of what the student experience is. For some students the 'traditional' model of leaving home at 18 and spending three years full time in study will continue to be the norm; for others, part-time study, or study after a few years in work, or study at a lower-cost alternative provider, will make sense.

This is fine for individuals, but this is also a social justice question. Is going to university really about intelligence and capability, or is it about the transmission of common culture and wealth from one generation to the next? If you need money (and more than comes through SLC funding alone) to get the most out of the best universities, isn't this necessarily regressive? As long as universities feel obliged to up the ante on facilities, we'll be locked into a model of which confuses the academic and non-academic student experiences. And I'm not sure that this is a good thing.

Thursday 8 January 2015

Carry on doctor!

Medicine – alongside other health professions - is one of the few subjects in UK higher education where workforce planning is a significant part of the equation. Medical Schools are capped on how many students - home and overseas - they can admit. This makes the opening of the UK’s first privately funded medical qualifying degree (since the 1940’s) – at the University of Buckingham – a significant occasion.

The Guardian reports that 500 people applied for its 67 places, and that 60% of its students in this first cohort come from the UK. Fees of £35,000 per year (which is within the range for overseas fees at other UK medical schools) did not deter. (The fee may seem eye-watering, but it doesn’t look to me like profiteering: it does cost a lot to train a doctor, and publicly funded medical education continues, for the time being, to attract a significant subsidy in addition to fee income.)

The critical component of a medical degree is clinical experience, and in this instance the University has agreed with the Milton Keynes NHS Trust that students can undertake clinical placements within the hospital. This benefits the hospital too – there’s prestige and money associated with it.

Finding these clinical placements will have been one of the limiting factors in developing the degree programme. Students spend time with qualified clinicians in every different medical specialty: observing procedures, learning from what they see and practising clinical skills. It’s this that ensures that graduate medics don’t only know about the human body, what ails it and how to cure it; they have some actual experience. But there are only so many clinicians to observe, and only so many patients, so the availability of ‘firms’ (the placement possibility for a group of students) is everything. The negotiations here will have been high stake for the University.

Once students graduate with their degree there’s still a while to go before they are fully licensed: two further years of Foundation Study take place, where they work in clinical settings under the continued supervision of senior doctors. (This is what used to be called the Pre-Registration years.) The University of Buckingham website has a telling phrase:
We expect that our graduates will be eligible to apply for UK Foundation Training posts. (My emphasis.)
Should students worry about being able to continue as doctors? I doubt it: it’s five years until it becomes a live issue, so discussions will still be taking place and contracts not yet signed. My guess is that the NHS Trust will be as keen to have foundation doctors as it was to have undergraduates.

So is this all a good thing? On the positive side, it does get the country more doctors, and that is a good thing. It also shows that alternative models for HE provision can work, and that is arguably a good thing. But in the absence of funding available to all, there’s no doubt that the opportunities available are available, like the Ritz, only for those who can afford it. The Charity Commissioners may be as interested in this degree as they are in the charitable status of public schools...

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Learning from the Bank

Two news stories (I use the word in its loosest sense) prompt thoughts about university governance. Don’t be surprised by the first one: as Perry Mason so often said, I’ll show relevance.

The first is the publication, by the Bank of England, of the minutes of its Court (governing body) from just before the financial crisis of 2007. The BBC runs this story today: the gist of it is that the reports to the governors seem to have flagged difficulties with liquidity in the financial sector, but no action was taken. The BBC report is worth reading in full, but here are some of the most relevant parts:

Firstly, quoting Andrew Tyrie MP, chair of the Treasury Select Committee:
"Even when questions were asked by individual non-executive directors, the executive usually presented a unified front to the Court, apparently rendering it of little or no use as a forum for creative discussion and constructive challenge," he said.
"The non-executive directors appear to have done little thinking of their own about financial stability and to have added little or no substantive value to the Bank's work on it," Mr Tyrie added.

And here’s Lord John McFall, the chair of the Treasury Select Committee at the time:
"They all missed wider picture. They missed the interconnectedness of the whole financial system...when Lehman went down it was a real catastrophe."
Double ouch. And it gets worse: here’s Andrew Tyrie again:
"The minutes show that during the crisis the Bank of England did not have a board worthy of the name. This mattered. And it still matters"
So what’s the second story? Well, it isn’t news today, but at the end of last year the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) published the long-awaited new version of its Higher Education Code of Governance. This has regulatory force for universities, via the funding councils (Scotland has a different document to the other home nations, but the principal is the same.) The Code of Governance sets out the expectations about what a university’s governing body must do, should do and could do:
“its purpose is to identify the key values and practices on which the effective governance of UK HEIs is based, in order to help deliver institutional mission and success.” (Page 4, Preface)
The Code then goes on to say:
“it sets out principles and practices which any organisation operating within the sector will need to apply in order to show that it conducts its business with due respect for the public interest.” (Page 5, Using the Code)
Which firmly places the delivery of a university’s mission, and its success, as matters of public interest.

This is more significant than it might seem. The code also identifies:
“Autonomy as the best guarantee of quality and international reputation.” (Page 8, Core Values)
And it is in the tension between these two values: public interest and institutional autonomy – that the challenge lies.

A papal bull - from Glasgow University
The public has always had an interest in universities: early universities received royal charters, or Papal Bulls, to enable them to operate within a system of law where power was very clearly in the hands of the monarch, or the church. The charters typically provided for the universities to be self-governing (that is, to have autonomy), but when push came to shove the charters and bulls made clear the source of the power.
A non-papal bull

Often – certainly in relation to UK chartered universities - the charters also established a court, comprising representatives of trades, professions, or areas, which (using a more modern vocabulary) had a scrutiny function. This is a good medieval approach to governance, conceptually based upon an ordered, hierarchical society.

The modern university governing body derives from this: lay members, without a vested interest in the university, comprise the majority. This gives a check on the actions of the university, in theory.

And now let’s revisit the BBC story that I started with: the criticism of the Bank of England’s governors. The criticism of the governors is that they did not challenge the executive sufficiently (especially when the executive presented a united front); that they did not understand the system in which the Bank of England played a part; and they did not demonstrate independent thinking.

The Higher Education Code of Governance seeks to help avoid this kind of problem, but there’s still important work to be done. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education does important work in providing resources and training for governors; and the CUC itself provides a forum for chairs of governors to learn from one another. This should help to ensure that governors can be sufficiently knowledgeable (but note also that Roger Brown, writing in Perspectives, argued that all university governing bodies should include a former Vice-Chancellor.)

And challenge? In my experience a united front by a senior management team has a powerful effect on a governing body. This is to be expected: executive teams do have a lot of expertise, experience and competence. Challenge is therefore difficult. It may feel like the governors attempting to be executive (for example, replicating the discussions around a business case which have been gone through by the executive). It may involve the governors articulating more fundamental questions about strategy and vision which may be undermining, and certainly can be a distraction when a strategy has been set in place. Neither will feel comfortable for the executive, nor probably for the governors.

So universities are faced with a dilemma. The right degree of challenge requires a degree of distance between governors and executive, to help overcome normal inhibitions about undermining your own team; and yet closeness is needed to help understand the sector and the organisation.

There’s no simple answer to this, but there’s a simple question: Who’d be a governor?