How sexist are universities?


Is Higher Education a country for (old) men?

At first glance, you might think that universities, as spaces for promoting critical thinking and (often) social justice, are more immune from sexism than, say, the film industry. You might expect them to less homophobic than professional football, and less racist than the Metropolitan Police, and so on. A hunch says that they might be, but sadly the truth is less positive in terms of our record and culture of gender in-/equality, for one.

Academia: The Big Hope?

There’s a long (right wing) tradition of criticising academia as dressing towards the political left, favouring politics and policies that promote social equality. Universities are, not coincidentally, significant (but not the only) places where the perspectives of marginalised groups are investigated and highlighted through feminism, queer theory, and critical race theory. This leftish orientation is unsurprising given that a great deal of university activity is geared around trying to understand the word we live in – and that we are, as a result, by and large Brexit Remoaners, too. We’re a veritable hotbed of Political Correctness Gone Mad (PCGM). To add to this, there are now more female students in UK universities than male – 57% to 43%, to be precise. This bodes well for higher education, right? The reality of the situation, though, is far from rosy.

Degree ‘Choice’ and Gender

In terms of study options, there are long-standing differences in the gender balance on degree courses. In spite of there being more women than men at university, there are far more men in engineering, computing, physics and chemistry, and maths. In computing and engineering, it’s about 85% men. Then there are more women in health sciences, biology, social sciences, languages, education, and creative arts. In education, the ratio of women to men is 9:1. The only subject with an equal balance is, interestingly, business. There are also far fewer women taking postgraduate research degrees than men across the UK (except Northern Ireland, for some reason).

We might casually discount these figures as representing students’ natural ability and free choice: some subjects are simply more ‘girly’ or ‘boyish. But the figures indicate that degree choice is anything but free, and sociology helps us to understand that what is or isn’t girly/boyish is socially dictated. There is no biological reason for gender differences on any degrees – i.e. no evidence to support any real differences in ability or preference by gender (or race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or social background, for that matter). This means that people’s choices are being steered by culture – that people from either gender are subtly or even explicitly encouraged towards (or discouraged from) certain subjects. The knock-on effect then spills into the labour market around jobs that are supposedly appropriate (or inappropriate) to particular genders. The numbers themselves also play a role here: imagine walking into a lecture theatre, careers fair, meeting, or training event, where nearly 90% of the people there are the other gender to you.

University Jobs and Gender

The gender differences in postgraduate research students, often the ticket into academic posts, provide an inkling as to how things pan out in the academic life for men and women. Of all academic staff in the UK, 55% are men. This is ‘better’ than some of the figures above, but still strange when you consider that there are more female than male students. What stops women staying on beyond their Bachelor or Master’s degree? When it comes to part-time staff, the balance is the other way around – more female academics than male. Maybe they’ve got childcare responsibilities, so don’t want to work full time – but why shouldn’t the men be doing that? I’ve written before that the funding for students in higher education favours those that don’t have family commitments, and this is one reason why mature students essentially vanished the last time tuition fees went up in 2012.

What you see when you get to the top end of academia is that only a quarter of all senior academic posts are held by women. This comes about in part because men are more likely to want/be able to forgo family commitments to further their careers, women are more likely to act collegially (rather than selfishly in their work), There is even evidence of a clear gender bias towards men in student assessments of teaching. The deck is therefore stacked in men’s advantage. It’s worth remembering here the national pay gap figures – last week marked the point in the calendar when women effectively started working for free for the rest of the year.


We can see that the gender imbalances in society are also present in higher education; universities don’t operate in a social vacuum, and the problems you see in society therefore crop up there, too. This is in spite of their PCGM and socially critical credentials. Why is the overall picture so bad?

A useful window into understanding this has come in the aftermath of the Weinstein case, which seems to have marked a shocking but significant step in the battle towards gender equality. Among the discussions and revelations around sexual harassment and discrimination in the media and social media, two hashtags have been particularly powerful in bringing issues to light: #notallmen and #metoo. #notallmen refers to the common refrain, from both men and women, that not all men are Harvey Weinsteins in practice (or in waiting). They’re not, but the problem is that sexual (and other) discriminations are built into everyday life, and are so pervasive that people don’t even know they’re there (or doing them). #metoo was used by Twitter users who’ve been subject to some kind of sexual harassment. Basically, it’s every woman you know (and some men) and this means that you really can generalise – i.e. it’s all men.

For example, academics sometimes have relationships or ‘liaisons’ with their students. Is this adults making free choices? Actually it’s incredibly problematic as the power – and therefore consent – dimension is in the academic’s favour, and there is a real opportunity to abuse that power. It’s this same power that can help them (and the wider community) silence any complaints of inappropriate behaviour. At what might seem the more banal level, men are more likely to be considered authoritative and/or knowledgeable, to agitate for pay raises, to be assertive on grant and promotion applications, to have a stronger physical presence, and (be allowed to) dominate conversations. Once we realise and accept this, then beyond the sledgehammer cases that shock most people, it’s more often a case of harassment and discrimination by a thousand cuts for women everywhere.

I’m struck in all of this by something I read recently, which claimed that most white people are racist, most heterosexuals are homophobic, and most men are sexist. The initial reaction to this is to disagree (#notallmen, right?), but as painful as it is to admit it, it’s true. The problem is that even the most well-meaning of us – academics as much as anyone – often don’t realise that we’re being this way. We need to wake up.

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New Academic Year’s Resolutions: 2017-18 is the year of more ruth!



I’m feeling positively autumnal!

I love autumn. In one way it’s a sad sign of nature slowing the whole show down, but it’s the season with the best light, the most interesting colours, and is also the start of the new academic year. When I was working in the private sector I missed that sense of starting afresh every September/October, the nostalgic and exciting feeling of a new school year as the summer draws to a close. The excitement is, I admit, tinged with a sense of trepidation around the more hectic rhythms and requirements of term time. That trepidation, though, is part adrenalin rush as we step again into the partial unknown of new and updated courses, fresh faces, un-/expected internal and governmental edicts, and so on.

I find the start of the new academic year is also a good time to clarify where I’m going. Reflecting on previous year/-s (like here and here), always highlights room for improvement, and while I’m not interested in thinking about marginal gains, here are the five simple things that I’m hoping will make a difference this year:

  1. Have a Plan

It might sound like having a meeting to plan the next meeting, but I discovered at the end of last year that I was a little short of direction in my research. I do have a sense of where I’m going and what I’m trying to find out/contribute to knowledge, but I need to make better sense of what it is. This will give me a clearer idea of what to read (and what not to), the kinds of projects that I want to be doing/involved with, and a more cohesive overall purpose (and academic identity). This should be helped by the next few resolutions, as well as improve my career prospects, see number 5!

  1. Be ruthless.

I’ve written before about the tricky balance between collegiality and being overloaded. I’m going to try a new approach this year where I try much harder to turn work down. This isn’t a blanket policy, as there are some things I’ll have to do, and colleagues/students who need help aren’t going to be left in the lurch. But I’m going to be more discerning (or cautious) about saying yes to additional tasks. Part of this involves trying to prepare all of my teaching materials before the year really starts, something a colleague of mine does. There may be the odd class that’s added as the year goes on, but in the main I know in advance what I’ll be teaching. Getting this done beforehand will free up huge amounts of space for better thinking about – and doing – my teaching, research, and other activities. 

  1. Switch off my email.

Email is a boon as well as a curse. You can be in touch with multiple people quickly, and it serves as a record of past conversations – particularly helpful as a list of things to do, to chase up people you’ve asked for something, or equally to double check when you’re accused of saying/doing (or not saying/doing) something! But at the same time the speed of it means that much more is expected of us, and more quickly. Emails are never urgent, but I’ve tended to have my emails open and pick away at them as they come in. It’s great for people who ask me to do things, but inefficient and distracting for me. I noticed over the summer that I was more productive as email goes much quieter. I’m aiming to only email in bursts at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. If someone needs something quickly, they can call.

  1. Read the news once a day (only).

A bit like email, the 24-hour news stream has its pros and cons. I got into the habit last year of checking the news on my phone a few times a day, as well as reading ‘the paper’ (i.e. online) in my lunch break. I’m not alone in my slightly pessimistic view of national and global politics right now, and my job as a social scientist doesn’t help – life is pretty shit for a lot of people. But I found that my stress levels while on holiday dropped hugely as I stayed away from the news entirely. I want/need to know what’s going on in the world, both professionally and personally, but I don’t need to be constantly plugged into it. In the same vein, I need to be a bit more organised around my social media interactions – I’ve switched of push notifications on Twitter, and ‘check’ Facebook less.

  1. Apply for another job.

I’m not unhappy where I am, but I found that applying for a job at another university was, in the words of a friend, ‘like a career MOT’. It provided a useful measure of how far I’ve come since I completed my PhD and started looking for full-time work in earnest. It highlighted a few things (like a the lack of a plan) that I can work on, too. Getting shortlisted shows that I’m in the right kind of place, and not being offered a job is not necessarily down to you. However, the feedback if you are interviewed and don’t get it can give you useful things to work on. If I do get an offer I can’t refuse, then great, but equally I know that the grass isn’t necessarily greener elsewhere. Applications and interviews are a useful way of getting a feel for what the grass is actually like in other places and whether or not someone else might want you to eat it!

I suppose, in a nutshell, the plan for this year is to try and cut out (or down on) the dross and focus much better on the important stuff. I’m still committed to helping my students as much as before and being a valued colleague, but I’m also hoping that I can make more space for myself.

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Confessions of a new lecturer, Volume 3: The downside of being a ‘Yes Man’

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Have I inadvertently tied my shoelaces together?

When I started as a new lecturer, I found it impossible to turn calls for assistance down, partly in the interests of making a good impression and partly because there’s a power dynamic when senior colleagues ask you to contribute to something. Adding further activities to the new job, new courses, new people, and so on left me lurching from one week to the next. I noticed a few comments on the THES version that my teaching load was excessively light; in response – it was on paper when I started, but additional classes were added throughout the year, making the workload unpredictable.

Any road, how are things different, two academic years later? In some ways, easier. I’m doing the same amount of teaching; I deliver just over 100 classes across the year, varying from one-hour tutorials or lectures to three-hour seminars or workshops. I’ve also supervised nearly 50 – mostly undergraduate – dissertations. Our teaching allocation is considered to be 500 hours of preparation and classroom/lecture theatre time (plus supervisions), with one hour of prep for every hour taught. This works out if you’re marginally tweaking your own established materials, but a new lecture can take days to research and write. I lead two courses now, and these have both required rewriting and then amending after a year to cater for changes elsewhere in the course.

Overall, I have a much better sense of the ebb and flow of the year, when the manic and quieter patches are, and this makes planning ahead easier. I always feel, though, that the promised land of a genuine lull is permanently elusive. In practice it’s never much of one – something always crops up. I do have my teaching qualification and HEA fellowship behind me. In hindsight, and this seems to be common, I’d have liked much more time to dedicate to it and benefit from it. The assignments had to be squeezed in and written last-minute and slightly unreflectively – basically all those things we tell our students not to do.

Research-wise, as of last week I’ve got four publications under my belt, two of which will be submitted as part of my external review in a few years from now, two of which won’t be. I’ve also had one rejected (with snide feedback, it’s a rite of passage, right?), and there’s one I’ve co-written with a doctoral student that went in last week. There are two more pieces from my doctorate which are in various stages of undress, and I did some work with my former supervisor which fell by the wayside. We’re in the process of (metaphorically) resuscitating the patient, and I’m leading on a project which is trundling along, albeit very slowly. I’m not sitting still, but I’m not exactly motoring either, because…

…I’m not any better at saying no. Well, maybe a little, but not by much! I really buy into this idea of the university, that it’s about being part of a collective and greater good. I’m also interested in a lot of things within university life (in part because higher education is my area of research) and I like seeing how it all works. Also, if nobody volunteers for stuff, it simply doesn’t get done. You add this interest and collegiality together, and I’m no longer volunteering to ingratiate myself, but because that’s how it works. I’m beginning to realise though, that I’ve overcooked it in the commitment stakes. We have to log our research time, and I’m well short of the 500 hours I’m supposed to spend on it, even in spite of also having some research leave this year. I accept that my occasional poor time management and the incessant stream of emails get in the way, but I still have more on my plate than is helpful. Helpful to me, at least. I simply have too little time to read and reflect; I’m not joking when I say that my best ideas come when I’m staring out of the window. I don’t get to spend enough time gazing into space, letting the grey cells make those insightful connections that help fuse the reading and writing together.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a job interview for a pre-92, and that I didn’t get it. They were right not to offer me the job – in addition to the person who got it (a good friend of mine, as it happens!) being far further ahead in research terms than me – I’m just ‘not there’ yet. The preparation, interview/presentation and feedback were useful and interesting, and I now have a good sense of what I need to do/where I need to go next. Also, I’m not quite ready to go: I’ve got unfinished business where I am. The research centre that I co-run with a colleague is on a solid footing and is going places, and I want to see that the courses I’m responsible for be successful.

The interview question that struck me the most, because it threw me, was about where I see my contribution to knowledge being over my career. In a sense I can’t know because I’m not long out of my doctorate and some of your research trajectory comes about by chance. At the same time, as they say, you make your own luck, and you fit your own longer-term interests into bigger projects. If I’d thought – and known – about this question, I’d be better off, not only in the interview, but overall, in terms of having a master plan. As it turns out, I do have an answer, but I haven’t had the space to stare into to develop and articulate it. Have I been too much of a ‘yes man’? I’m all for being collegial, and (university) life relies on it, but am I being over-collegial? There’s always a balance between selfishness and altruism, and perhaps I need to be a bit more of a no-man. The ideal situation is where you help yourself and others at the same time, but this isn’t always possible.

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What we need is a new ranking – for journals.

Maybe not what you were expecting from me – the last thing we need is another ranking in higher education, right? As I’ve written before, they’re based on proxy measures and therefore rarely, if ever, capture what they claim to. For universities, we have national and international league tables, rankings for the best party atmosphere, green credentials, student satisfaction – one for just about everything except social justice. Maybe that’s the one we really do need. Perhaps another is a – new – ranking of academic journals. There’s already a scoring system for what’s called ‘impact factor’, which is how often you get cited, but this isn’t necessarily a sign of quality: it varies hugely between disciplines, and people cite rubbish as examples of bad work!

Much has been written about the dysfunctional nature of the academic publishing industry. A summary of how it works goes something like this:

  • Academics write up and submit articles (for free), having spent months/years doing the research;
  • An editor – a senior academic (paid a nominal fee) – looks at their list of experts on that topic, and sends it out with requests to review;
  • The article is reviewed by at least two academics (for free);
  • The reviews go back, through the editor, who informs the writer (with the feedback) if it’s accepted, accepted with amendments, or rejected.
  • Accepted/amended articles are then sent by the publisher to the writer for proof reading and error corrections (usually minor discrepancies in referencing);
  • The finished article (excuse the pun) is published, and sold back to universities.
  • The upshot is that publishing houses make huge profits for doing relatively little. Genius!

Academics have to publish, our careers depend on it. Universities are partly measured – and ranked – based on the volume of their publications, and we therefore have annual targets of x number of articles per year. This all means that publishing academic journals is not unlike dealing drugs except that your customers aren’t just addicted to consuming your merchandise, they’re addicted to growing it, and the refining process is free! Seriously, though, publication serves a central purpose in academia – it’s about sharing your work with your peers, and the review process makes sure it’s as good as it can be. You’re building a pool of knowledge that has a strong quality control, which is a good thing.

The publishing game is particularly tricky for new academics. It’s a key external marker of quality, and it can take ages to get published. First up, it’s difficult to do – it is supposed to be, of course – but consensus is that takes upwards of a month to write an article, and this is after the research and analysis is complete. That time has to be found in between teaching, research, and ‘stuff’. Often you write with colleagues, you’re both/all busy, and this extends the writing process immeasurably. Then you have to submit it and wait for your reviews. This usually takes a few months; a friend of mine waited over a year for his, just to hear back. Assuming you get accepted with amendments, you have to go off and sort them out, which again might take a while. If the paper’s rejected, you can rework it and send it to another journal, but you might even have to bin it altogether. I’m sure senior academics have folders full of work that has never made it into daylight.


Has your article reviewer just wiped the floor with you?

I’ve had three things published, have several in the pipeline, and submitted another one three months ago (no news yet). I also had one (co-written with a professor) rejected last year. The feedback from one of the reviewers pointed out some shortcomings and indicated room for improvement, all of which I had no truck with – they were right. The other review was brief, its highlight being ‘this is about the standard of a Master’s degree’. Ouch – and here’s the kicker – some reviewers seem to get off on giving bitchy comments. They can do it because both the article and reviews are submitted anonymously. I guess it’s a form of academic trolling. For a selection of these kinds of review, see here. In a way they’re are quite funny – insulting people politely is, after all, something of an art form.

The unfunny side of the equation is that this is a piece of work that someone has probably spent months working on, and their career depends on it. In the name of both karma and decency, you should review the way that you want to get feedback – constructively. Even if the paper is to be rejected, there’s always a way of fixing it, it’s just that sometimes that fixing requires quite a lot of work. I’ve had some really good reviews, giving me advice on aspects I’ve been struggling with, and/or suggesting useful authors or specific readings to help with that. Simply writing ‘There is so much that is wrong with this paper that it is difficult to know where to start’ just marks you out as a wanker.

So here’s where the ranking comes in. Why don’t we rate journals based on:

  1. How long they take to get back to you, and;
  2. How good the feedback is?

There is a caveat on each. For the length of time, you somehow need to factor in that the sheer volume of journal submissions nowadays makes the editor’s job hard, and they can sometimes spend months just trying to find reviewers. Perhaps they should let you know if it’s being delayed. For your feedback on the feedback, as it were, you need to be honest and not simply slate journals for rejecting your work. You could qualify your poor rating with by pasting offending sections into the ranking, like the feedback on other kinds of reviews.

You could argue that you don’t need a ranking, more a collection of comments, but you do need a good volume of data to build a representative picture. You could go up the scale for sensible turnarounds and constructive reviews, and down for being ignored for months and/or harsh feedback. As with all forms of quantification, you have to be careful with what weights you assign to different criteria, but you never know, if this took off, maybe the unkindness would begin to be sanctioned by the journals. There is a shortage of reviewers, and this might shrink the pool a bit, but those nasty bastards really aren’t helping.

Posted in Early Career Academia, International Students, Rankings | Leave a comment

Universities are the (spluttering) engines of social progress.


Universities change the world, right? Well, sort of, but maybe not as much as they could or should…


Is there more silver or grey in the clouds of higher education?


Researching for the Greater Good

Through their research, academics learn new things about the world, and this drives scientific and social progress. This is sort of true, but comes with a few qualifications (excuse the pun).

Firstly, a certain amount of research has little direct use, and some of it that does never sees the light of day. This can be because it’s not made widely available (journals aren’t universally accessible), it isn’t publicised, or it gets smothered by funders – governments who don’t agree with the findings, or other sponsors who’d rather keep the goodies for their own use. Research can also be suppressed by other academics. Public research is about producing knowledge and then sharing it for critique and discussion to assess and improve it, but science (well, scientists), can be quite conservative. As ‘schools of thought’ emerge and establish themselves, their adherents/acolytes may spend their entire careers vigorously defending this (potentially flawed) work and belittling alternative (potentially better) perspectives. Economics at the moment offers a case in point. After conventional economists, to some extent, failed to predict and explain the 2008 economic crash, there has been pressure to broaden the taught curriculum, moving away from what some see as overly abstract and unrealistic models. There has, though, been resistance to change within the discipline because this undermines some of the well-established concepts on which many careers have been built.

Secondly, as I’ve written elsewhere, politicians or organisations in general may not be very interested in acknowledging evidence if it contradicts their position. Michael Gove famously labelled academics opposed to his education reforms as ideologically-driven ‘enemies of promise’. Of course Gove has an ideology, too, and while much of the critique of his views may have been based on an alternative  political position, it was one founded on a great deal of data.

This inability for research to ‘get out‘ is to do with power, the sociology of science, and the dynamics and politics of policy making, which are all fascinating. But it all means that there may be less of a connection between research and (positive) revolution than there should be.

Graduates: moving up in the world?

A second area where universities aren’t having being as beneficial as they could is through their limited contributions of social mobility. Higher education and education more generally, so the argument goes, open the doors to better opportunities through more mentally and financially rewarding jobs. Well, this is true, but it’s not equally true for all. This is another topic I’ve blogged about a fair bit, but we can see overall that the children of people who went to university do better at school, and are in turn more likely to go to uni and get the same kind of (middle class) jobs as their parents. They’re not brighter than the other kids, but they are more likely to look as if they are. So what we see, by and large, is history repeating itself – and a lack of diversity within universities means that get less varied perspectives within the student body, which also doesn’t help.

There has, though, been a massive increase in the numbers of people going to uni from the mid-90s onwards. Maybe we could argue that because there are more working class people going to university, social mobility has improved. Well, it has, but not by that much. The growth of higher education has been accompanied by unfounded accusations of ‘dumbing down’ in some ‘lower’ parts of the system. Evidence shows that it’s the wealthier students who tend to populate the so-called better universities. They have more of an advantage on the labour market, partly due to the status of their university, and partly because it’s easier for them to do unpaid internships and the other things that improve their CVs. The production of more degree holders has also created some graduate underemployment and – you guessed it – it’s the working class kids at ‘weaker’ universities who are more likely to be un- or underemployed (and highly in debt). This all muddies the waters even more on tuition fees as the costs of all degrees are the same but the outcomes are not.

Is there any good news here? Of course, but it has to be tempered with the (sad) realities. There is a lot of university research which does make it into the public sphere, and academics and universities are getting better at sharing their work with the public in general. This, in one sense, is what this blog is what this blog is all about. Also, there is social mobility for graduates, but for better and fairer outcomes all round, the ‘whole thing’ requires major changes in the school system, university admissions, fees, salaries, and the labour market in general. Most of the responsibility here falls squarely on the government’s lap…

Winning Hearts and Minds

What this blog originally going to be about, but which has (characteristically) taken me a long time to get to, is where I see the greatest change from universities: through their teaching. We’re more or less at the end of the academic year, and this allows me space for a little retrospection. Because of the teaching model where I work, I see the same group of first year students twice a week (all year), and mark nearly all of their work. This means that I can see what they were like when they arrived, how they’ve developed over the year, and what kind of assignments they’re handing in at the end. I also supervise a lot of final year research projects, and you get to compare their initial research ideas with the finished product.

The difference, overall, has been huge, and it’s clear that some of those students have been absolutely transformed. A few haven’t, and this is often related to their willingness/ability to engage, and maybe at times there are holes in my teaching. It’s important to note, though, that the greatest agents of change are the students themselves. The majority of the effort is theirs; my job is to give them some new knowledge, but it’s mostly about providing useful pointers and feedback on the way. My first years, as a group, scored really well on their final assignments, taking advice on board, assembling solid, interdisciplinary discussions based on what was sometimes unexpectedly broad reading. I’m due to mark the dissertations over the coming weeks, but I have high hopes for most of them based on previous experience and the discussions we’ve been having over the year.

The caveats (there are always some) is that is some bad teaching or poorly constructed courses don’t really enable student development, and there are some students who don’t engage with their degrees and therefore get less out of it. I’d argue, though, that even they change a great deal but just less than some of the others. Even if they do the minimum, handing in passing assignments during their degree, they’ll be working at a level that they certainly weren’t at when they started.  I did, though, have a bit of a golden moment with some final year students a few weeks ago. We went (slightly) off piste during an in-class discussion, and the conversation veered towards how they felt they’d changed over their degree. Many of the students in the class were mature, working class parents, with relatively unspectacular educational histories, and initially low intellectual opinions of themselves. But they lit up the room with their enthusiasm through statements (in their own words) like this:

  • ‘I’m incredibly proud of myself. I have grown in confidence and feel that I am more respected and valued in my job role. I feel like I have grown as a person since the course began.’
  • ‘I’ve discovered how to be a critical thinker. I accept less of what I am told to believe and form my own opinions based on the evidence I am now able to seek. I now think I can work at a higher level after graduating than I first aspired to and am looking for where I might fit in and what my next steps should be. It’s all rather exciting!’

This is probably the ‘silverest’ lining in the cloud of higher education, and this is why I teach.


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Is this the beginning of the end for tuition fees (as we know them)?


The Higher Education Bill – currently passing through the hoops of parliamentary deliberation and approval – involves, for the first time, generating systematic data on graduates’ tax returns. The government sees this as leading one way, but I’m imagining (hoping) that something else might happen…


R.I.P. Tuition Fees, 1998-2018?

The data they’re going to collect means that we’ll be able to track clearly, for the first time, how graduates from different universities, having studied different subjects, fare financially over their working lives. The rationale behind this is an economic one – to establish, with greater precision, what ‘graduate premiums’ are – how much graduates earn based on what and where they study. This, the government hopes, will offer a stronger argument for universities to charge different rates for their degrees, something they’ve been trying to encourage for some time. The idea, you see, is that higher education is a market, and differences in quality should be reflected in differences in price. There are a lot of arguments as to why education isn’t/shouldn’t be a market, but I’ll save that conundrum for another day.

Plan A: The Price Range

The logic of matching tax returns and degrees works like this. Let’s say, for example, that a graduate from an elite university, over their working lifetime, earns an average of £60,000 a year, and one from a non-elite university £40,000. This provides a bona fide reason, they’ll argue, for elite universities to charge more because the degree is ‘worth more’. You can also drill down a little deeper and see that a degree in Finance leads to better earnings than a degree in Art History, so the Finance option should cost more. In short, highly-ranked universities should charge more (some of them are already pushing for this), and more lucrative degrees should be more expensive. The problem is, this doesn’t wash.

Firstly, there is no clear indication that an English degree from ‘Top University X’ is better than an English degree from ‘Mediocre University Y’. We have all sorts of comparisons and rankings that include differences in admission standards, student satisfaction, retention rates, research income and capacity, and so on. They’re also looking to measure teaching quality (which they can’t). As I’ve ranted regularly about rankings, these figures are based on proxies. In other words, they measure something ‘next to’ what they want to capture, and then pretend that they’ve actually captured it. The linking of tax records is essentially going to be doing the same thing, but from a different angle, as it will equate quality with with earnings.

Secondly, as I’ve written elsewhere, calculating the ‘price’ of a degree is problematic. UK universities currently all charge the same, at least for undergraduate (Bachelor) courses. There are several reasons for this:

  • The government has capped what you can charge for an undergraduate degree, currently £9000;
  • Universities are worried that charging a lower rate might make them look as if they’re lower quality (the same logic as luxury goods, interestingly);
  • Not all subjects cost the same to deliver. Currently the excess cash from cost-effective degrees (in humanities and social sciences) is used to support cost-intensive courses (in sciences);
  • Degrees in the same subject but at different universities, cost about the same to deliver;
  • More expensive courses/universities could become (even more) socially exclusive as poorer students feel forced to choose cheaper/less prestigious ones, not the ones they like/want to go to;

Plan B: The Demise of Fees?

We already know a little bit about what the future looks like for graduates. At the aggregate level, they are more likely to be employed, and to earn more over their lifetimes, than non-graduates. This is the main rationale for tuition fees, that you invest in your future earnings by going to university. The problem is that what you do – and how much you earn – after graduating can vary hugely. Overall, it is down a range of things, key of which are:

  • What you study;
  • Which university you go to;
  • Who you are;
  • How long you work for;
  • Luck (e.g. the state of the economy/labour market).

If you take a ‘perfect’ case, you’d be a posh, white, able-bodied male studying Engineering at Oxbridge. You get hoovered up by a City finance firm before you’ve even graduated, in part due to the status of your university, your numeric literacy and problem-solving skills, and how you talk/dress etc. It will also help that you rowed for your college, hiked up Kilimanjaro and rescued turtles in Indonesia on a gap year, and did a summer internship at an investment bank, courtesy of an uncle who works there. Your future will be almost immune how the economy is doing, you make big bucks and your tax returns for the next forty odd years are impressive – assuming you pay tax, of course!

This, of course, doesn’t represent many people at all. There is a great deal of unfairness here, particularly as women, the disabled, ethnic minorities, and those from more disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to study certain subjects and/or attend certain kinds of (i.e. ‘top’) universities. They then also pay a penalty on the labour market for having babies, being sick, working collegially rather than competitively, being the ‘wrong’ colour, having the ‘wrong’ kind of name, speaking with a regional accent, and/or simply living/graduating during an economic recession. The problem here is that most of this is known, but the evidence is piecemeal.

What the tax return data may do is definitively take the wool off our eyes, proving that the current numbers behind degrees simply don’t add up for most people. There are already indications of this because the rate of repayments for student loans is lower than predicted. The cynical among us might think that they knew this would happen and were overly optimistic to get the policy approved… Either way, we might be on the edge of blowing the lid off the whole thing, exposing the unfair and partially invisible financial and status divides that permeate our university system and job market. Maybe they’ll have to charge higher fees for wealthier students, although I can’t see that one washing through an election!

In the longer run, it’ll take years, even decades, to really understand what’s going on in relation to degrees and earnings, and there’s no guarantee that whoever is in government won’t cherry-pick the data to show what they want it to. But if the data was publicly available, and we can see dimensions such as gender, ethnicity, social background, dis-/ability, and the state of the economy, this could be a powerful resource for positive change. Wishful thinking? Watch this space!

Posted in Access to Uni, Employability, Rankings, Student Loans, Tuition Fees | 1 Comment

Who gets hurt the most by BrHExit – Brexit and Higher Education?

The UK’s uneasy divorce from the European Union rumbles on, complex, messy, partisan and accusatory, and from different perspectives unwilling or overdue. What are the implications of Brexit for higher education (HE) or, as it’s been termed. ‘BrHExit’?


‘Sorry, we can’t work with you two…and you back there? Seeya!’

The headlines to this are that ‘we’ stand to lose out on three different levels:

  • Our ability to attract EU research funding;
  • Fewer students from across the EU;
  • Inability to recruit or retain academics from other EU countries.

We still don’t know what the overall outcomes will be, and the long-term effects will still be unravelling decades from now, while the architects of the whole sorry mess are publishing lucrative memoirs from the comfort of their country piles. We could get back in, stay out under more or less favourable conditions, or be out and excluded entirely, and so on. The shorter term sees a vacuum of detail filled with uncertainty and conjecture, creating angst and hysteria across the political spectrum. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re worried.

In UK HE in the nearer future, it is the universities at the top of the pile, those best-ranked (for what that tells us), who look to have the most to lose. They have, for some time, done the most/best research and garnered the most UK and international research money. This is a chicken-and-egg situation, as you need the money to do the work, and you can’t get it unless you’re good. If they lose access to that – and are in turn less able to attract the brightest scholars/researchers from overseas – then their stars begin to wane. This may also mean that they lose a great deal of prestige in international rankings and their potential future international students increasingly head elsewhere. (It makes it harder for British citizens to work/study elsewhere, too.)

This could then have a further negative impact on our image as a country because the strength/quality of ‘top’ universities is seen as crucial for the international marketing of ‘Brand UK’. The knock-on effect of lesser status (and potentially unfriendly student and work visas) could hit UK HE really hard. Much of the focus has been about the loss of (literally) billions of pounds of research and tuition fees and what foreign students spend while studying here. This is all undeniably true, but detracts from the greater social and academic loss in that we do less research, mixing with less people and sharing ideas less. Why did nobody mention culture, solidarity and collaboration in the referendum campaign?!!!

Not all universities are as invested in (or reliant on) international funds or students, but it’s more pressing the further up the league tables you go. This doesn’t mean, though, that ‘lesser’ institutions are insulated from the joys of BrHExit. It could mean that the top dogs focus even more of their appetites and capacities on the domestic market. One of the features of research funding in the UK is that there is an oligopoly, of a few major players dominating the scene: the ‘Golden Triangle’ (London, Oxford, Cambridge) gobbles up a huge proportion of the funding available. This is partly, as I’ve mentioned before, because they’re good at doing research, but also the biggest universities have teams of people who are expert at writing winning bids. This puts them at a double advantage, and the rest – elite or otherwise – might end up scrabbling over ever smaller crumbs.

In terms of students, one of the features of the past few years is that universities in the UK have been able to expand their admissions as much as they like, and the presence of high tuition fees has made this a more attractive option. Whether they have the capacity to house and effectively teach those students is one thing, but if they do increase that capacity and then quickly lose large chunks of their international students(20% or more), who’s going to fill those classrooms, labs and fancy new student flats? Are those big players simply going to cut their losses and offload talented staff and new facilities (that they took out long term loans on)? Maybe, but maybe not.

The ‘better’ universities are also more attractive to employers, and this in turn makes them more attractive to students who nowadays have to think about the best ways of paying off their enormous student loans. Employability is one measure of rankings, and self-fulfils as I’ve written about before. Compounding this issue further, there are signs that the number of people going to university might be shrinking. This is then exacerbated by the fact that there is due to be a growing presence of private, for-profit universities. They are looking to muscle in, maybe with shorter courses and lower fees, and will largely focus on professional courses where the costs are low and returns on fees for students are more obvious. The universities at the bottom find themselves in a bind, particularly in less obviously employable subjects such as Humanities and Social Sciences. Do they reduce the ‘prices’ of their degrees (which may not necessarily cost less to provide) to attract students, and/or relax access just to get enough bums on seats?

What may happen is that we start to see some universities ‘failing’ – closing down. This is unheard of in UK higher education, although the current government sees this as a ‘natural and healthy’ feature of markets. It may mean, though, that some areas lose what can be big local employers and access to certain (or even all) kinds of degree for their working class communities. If these are in the most disenfranchised areas – and populated by those who largely voted Leave – then social mobility in those areas may fall even further unless something is done to provide them with better opportunities.




Posted in Employability, International Students, Rankings, Student Loans | Leave a comment

New University Ranking – The Alpha Beta


Is your university due a name change? Aardvark University, anyone?

The most recent addition to the panoply of UK university rankings, the Alpha Beta Ranking, was launched today. Aberdeen is ranked 1st, while Cambridge and Oxford, who usually fight tooth and nail for the top spot, languish in 30th and 105th respectively – previously unknown territory for them. For the full ranking, see below.

The author of the ranking, Dr Richard Budd from Liverpool Hope University (ranked 82nd), said, ‘we monitor virtually everything in universities nowadays, from publications to toilet breaks and paper – not toilet paper – usage, even how often students access their Virtual Learning Environments. This information is used to guide decision-making by senior management. Ranking universities alphabetically, as we have done here, is perhaps the last unmined source of ranking data available once the TEF is implemented, and it raises some interesting questions. For example, York St John languishes in last place (163rd) only one place away from its closest neighbour, the University of York. This reflects a geographical clustering of universities in the data that might require further analysis.’

The effect of this new ranking on the sector remains to be seen. We may see a flurry in universities, towns and cities being renamed, or even entire universities relocated. The University of Surrey could move to the nearby Aaron’s Hill and change its name accordingly, which would instantly move it to first place. It may have to do so quickly as there is another Aaron’s Hill in Somerset which the University of Bath could lay claim to. Any changes would, of course, incur significant costs in rebranding, new website URLs and so on, and the requirements in terms of internal paperwork alone are staggering. This new method of ranking could be incorporated by others and may even be copied internationally. This would no doubt result in a rise in the visibility of Abilene Christian University in the US, while the prestigious Zhejiang University in China experiences some status slippage.


Okay, so there is clearly a generous portion of The Onion in all of this. However, if we accept that university rankings are somewhat arbitrary, and also that they have a powerful effect on the way that universities are run (and therefore how students and academics behave), then there is an important point here. I know I’ve written about this before, but this I daren’t leave my spoof article up there without a disclaimer – someone might take it (or me) seriously!

On the point of arbitrariness, rankings are based on a particular model of university. If you start with what people think the best universities are and use them as the ideal, then you are automatically disadvantaging everyone else. The ‘top’ universities tend to be old, wealthy, large, and very hard to get into (for both students and staff). Age is simply a question of chance – the longer a university has been in operation, the longer it has had to make mistakes, to develop and grow. There is a ranking for ‘younger’ (‘under 50’) universities, but this fudges the point that newer starters are instantly and often permanently disadvantaged. Similarly, money isn’t everything, older universities have endowments, and different subjects require more or less money to teach and research. This means that the subject profile of an institution grossly distorts the numbers without any reflection how good it may be. At the same time, being small and inclusive can carry significant advantages that don’t come across in rankings, not least in terms of developing a sense of a shared community or the social justice aspect of providing a university education for people who may not have done well at school. As I’ve written about before, ‘ability’ is a tricky thing to capture, and there are all sorts of reasons why people don’t leave school with the grades they are potentially capable of, and do and don’t study

Secondly, rankings change how universities behave, in that doing well – better – on the league table can become more important than what it is trying to capture. It becomes about gaming the system, not improving practice, and the emphasis in competition (which is what rankings foster) is on speed, which can engender haste. If your ranking criteria include the proportion of students who get high grades, this is useful if it genuinely reflects the quality of teaching. It could mean that universities improve their teaching and assessment to ensure that students develop as much as possible and score highly. However, this can be a long-term project, and the shorter term solutions are to make assessments easier and/or to inflate grades on an institution-wide basis. I wrote recently about the problems of using retention or drop-out as a measure of teaching quality. To add to this, in the UK the drop-out numbers only count from the 1st of December each academic year, which strikes me as an altogether random date, and might encourage universities to identify and jettison struggling students before that point. The better option is to look at ways of ensuring students have the best opportunity to thrive, and if they drop out through no fault of their own (or of the university), then so be it. Not every university or subject is everyone’s cup of tea, and you can only get so much sense of what uni will be like before you really start. Measures of research quality are equally problematic. The volume of research publications, for example, can encourage ‘salami slicing’, where academics publish a set of similar papers rather than one or two really good ones. There are measures of publication quality, but these are, again, problematic. Every measure you look at has the opportunity to be ‘gamed’, and because rankings can be seen as so important – every university cherry-picks the figures from whichever ranking suits them – this gaming is inevitable.

Having said all of this, rankings are an interesting academic exercise, and the data (and discussions) they generate are certainly useful in many ways. The data, when used judiciously, can be used to identify genuine problems that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. There are also non-academic rankings, such as sustainability, or another one for the social life of the campus. Overall, though, rankings are based on flawed measures and, if we misread them, or accept them uncritically, then any associated changes in practice may be for the worse. The attractiveness of using the easily measurable is that the data collection is straightforward. The big problem is that the validity of the measure may not be good, and this gets forgotten. You can make them more and more complex, and more and more nuanced – which is good – but we always have to have disclaimers on them.


Anyway, for those of you who are still reading/interested, here’s the the Alpha Beta University Ranking in full. It  includes all ‘recognised bodies’ – organisations in the UK entitled to award their own degrees.

Ranking University
1 University of Aberdeen
2 Abertay University (formerly University of Abertay Dundee)
3 Aberystwyth University (Prifysgol Aberystwyth)
4 Anglia Ruskin University
5 Anglo-European College of Chiropractic
6 Archbishop of Canterbury, The
7 Arden University (formerly known as Resource Development International)
8 Ashridge Business School
9 Aston University
10 Bangor University (Prifysgol Bangor)
11 University of Bath
12 Bath Spa University
13 University of Bedfordshire
14 Birkbeck, University of London
15 University of Birmingham
16 Birmingham City University
17 University College Birmingham
18 Bishop Grossteste University
19 University of Bolton
20 Arts University Bournemouth
21 Bournemouth University
22 BPP University
23 University of Bradford
24 University of Brighton
25 University of Bristol
26 British School of Osteopathy, The
27 Brunel University London
28 University of Buckingham
29 Buckinghamshire New University
30 University of Cambridge
31 Canterbury Christ Church University
32 Cardiff Metropolitan University (Prifysgol Metropolitan Caerdydd)
33 Cardiff University (Prifysgol Caerdydd)
34 University of Chester
35 University of Chichester
36 City University London
37 Coventry University
38 Cranfield University
39 University for the Creative Arts
40 University of Cumbria
41 De Montfort University
42 University of Derby
43 University of Dundee
44 Durham University
45 University of East Anglia
46 University of East London
47 Edge Hill University
48 University of Edinburgh, The
49 Edinburgh Napier University
50 University of Essex
51 University of Exeter
52 Falmouth University
53 University of Glasgow
54 Glasgow Caledonian University
55 University of Gloucestershire
56 Glyndŵr University (Prifysgol Glyndŵr)
57 Goldsmiths, University of London
58 University of Greenwich
59 Guildhall School of Music and Drama
60 Harper Adams University
61 Heriot-Watt University
62 University of Hertfordshire
63 Heythrop College, University of London
64 University of the Highlands and Islands
65 University of Huddersfield
66 University of Hull
67 Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (also known as Imperial College London)
68 Institute of Education, University of London
69 Keele University
70 University of Kent
71 King’s College London
72 Kingston University
73 University of Central Lancashire
74 Lancaster University
75 University of Leeds
76 Leeds Beckett University (formerly Leeds Metropolitan University)
77 Leeds College of Art
78 Leeds Trinity University
79 University of Leicester
80 University of Lincoln
81 University of Liverpool
82 Liverpool Hope University
83 Liverpool John Moores University
84 University of London
85 London Business School
86 London Institute of Banking and Finance, The
87 London Metropolitan University
88 London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
89 London School of Economics and Political Science, The (LSE)
90 London South Bank University
91 University College London
92 Loughborough University
93 University of Manchester
94 Manchester Metropolitan University
95 Middlesex University
96 NCG
97 Newcastle University
98 Newman University, Birmingham
99 University of Northampton, The
100 Northumbria University Newcastle
101 Norwich University of the Arts
102 University of Nottingham
103 Nottingham Trent University
104 Open University, The
105 University of Oxford
106 Oxford Brookes University
107 Plymouth University
108 University of Portsmouth
109 Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh
110 Queen Mary, University of London
111 Queen’s University Belfast
112 University of Reading
113 Regent’s University London
114 Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen
115 University of Roehampton
116 Royal Academy of Music
117 Royal Agricultural University
118 Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (University of London)
119 Royal College of Art
120 Royal College of Music
121 Royal College of Nursing
122 Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
123 Royal Holloway, University of London
124 Royal Northern College of Music
125 Royal Veterinary College, The
126 University of Salford
127 School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
128 University of Sheffield
129 Sheffield Hallam University
130 University of South Wales (Prifysgol De Cymru)
131 University of Southampton
132 Southampton Solent University
133 University of St Andrews
134 St George’s, University of London
135 University of St Mark and St John, Plymouth
136 St Mary’s University, Twickenham
137 Staffordshire University
138 University of Stirling
139 University of Strathclyde
140 University Campus Suffolk
141 University of Sunderland
142 University of Surrey
143 University of Sussex
144 Swansea University (Prifysgol Abertawe)
145 Teesside University
146 Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
147 University of the Arts, London
148 University College of Estate Management
149 University of Ulster
150 University of Law, The
151 University of Wales (Prifysgol Cymru)
152 University of Wales Trinity Saint David (Prifysgol Cymru Y Drindod Dewi Sant
153 University of Warwick
154 University of the West of England, Bristol
155 University of West London
156 University of the West of Scotland
157 University of Westminster
158 University of Winchester, The
159 University of Wolverhampton
160 University of Worcester
161 Writtle University College
162 University of York
163 York St John University
Posted in Access to Uni, Rankings | 1 Comment

An educational test which is immune to education? They must be joking…except they’re not.


They’re looking for a pot, except the pot’s a crock.

Let’s start with a general knowledge quiz:

How many secretaries of state for education (i.e. Ministers for Education) in the UK in the last fifteen years have professional (and not just personal) experience of school? One. The rest have been, prior to entering parliament, an accountant, a lawyer, a journalist, a political scientist, a trade unionist, an economist, and a local government councillor. I’m not saying that they’re clueless by any stretch of the imagination, but none of them are educational experts. Yes, I know, experts are not really the ‘in thing’ in our supposed post-truth society, but I’m still partial to People That Actually Know Things About Stuff. We have a situation where People Making Big Decisions about actually teaching pupils/students almost invariably don’t have much/any experience of what the job really entails. Genius. We might see these ministers, then, as People Who Pretend They Know About Stuff But Don’t.

One of those who seems to a pretending type is a slightly more junior education minister – like his boss, he’s an accountant. He was in the papers recently saying that we really need a test that you can’t train people to pass. He’s digging himself a hole here. The background to this is that the government is seeking to resuscitate a more or less dead donkey known as the ‘grammar school’. Grammar schools were supposed to offer a more rigorous, university-oriented, education. You had to take a test called an ’11+’, and those who did well got superiority complexes and places in grammars, went to top universities, and ruled the country/world alongside (or slightly below) those who’d been to private schools. The rest were sent off to ‘comprehensive schools’, with inferiority complexes, in time to be ruled by their ‘betters’. The idea was that children, regardless of background, had an equal opportunity to better themselves as the brightest rose to the top of the churn.

What actually transpired was that middle class parents were very good at playing the 11+ game, and rather than grammar schools selecting the brightest, they selected the best prepared. The figures show that the people who went to these schools almost invariably came from more affluent backgrounds. Unless you live in the Middle Ages and think that people are successful through the simple alchemy of natural ability and application, this grammar school thing doesn’t make sense. There is also a powerful but – strangely unpopular – argument that combining pupils of differing attainment in the same class helps everyone. This is because the pupils who understand something might be able to explain it to their peers and would clarify their own thoughts in the process.

Anyway, apart from a handful of bastions to inequality, grammar schools were closed or converted to regular schools some time ago. Why the current government want to bring it back from the (almost) dead is beyond me. One argument is that they’re trying to restore The Good Old Days, when actually it’s widely accepted that those days were pretty crap. Perhaps, as someone wittily pointed out in the Twittersphere recently, this policy is largely supported by those who are struggling to afford private fees.


So this is where we come back to the tutor-free test. It may look like I’ve gone on a bit of a meander, but you can see that the background is important. Just about everyone who knows anything about grammar schools has pointed out that they’re socially regressive. Really, I’ve not seen a single sensible expert being in support of this policy. Every way you crunch the numbers, it’s a dead end. So the Minister is looking for an 11+ that identifies the brightest, regardless of background – they’re dreaming up an escape clause that justifies their idiocy. Nothing out there supports our policy? Really, nothing? Okay, let’s invent something. The problem is, they’re trying to invent something which can’t exist.

What he’s basically looking for is a test of education that is immune to any form of education. When you put it like that, it looks silly, right? People thought they’d ‘found’ this when they first devised IQ tests, and within a short space of time they’d identified (or so they thought) that Afro-Caribbeans were less intelligent than whites. In fact they were just being racist and/or socially blind – it’s just that whites were more likely to have had the kinds and/or levels of education that enabled them to negotiate IQ tests.

This all  connects  with one of the most problematic words in education – ability. The problem is, there is so much that gets in the way of identifying what someone’s ‘true ability’ might be, that we can’t be sure that there is such a thing. Who you’re taught by and how, what individual school cultures are like, your home environment, your neighbourhood, how you’re seen/treated by others, what you eat, the state of the economy, and so on – all of this adds ‘noise’ to the signal of what our natural ability might be. We might be able to accept that some have mental talents in the same way as physical ones, but at the same time, for anyone to reach the top takes time and the right support. A lot of people try and don’t make it for all sorts of reasons, and a lot of people out there simply aren’t given the chance. Some people aren’t very good but are still successful, so the whole ability thing is a bit of a mess, really!

So they want a test which you can’t game. It makes sense at first glance, but not at all beyond that. As soon as you devise any test, people will pull it apart and see how it works. You need to do this to look for faults and improvements – that’s the nature of testing. Unless there is some kind of biological measure of ability (like midochlorians), any form of testing is always going to be something you can train for – or cheat. As we’ve seen over the last few years, even the most stringent tests can be sidestepped, as Volkswagen or the Russian Ministry of Sport, among others, have proven time and time again. You can’t take society out of education (or education out of society), and you can’t take education out of an educational test. What we really need is appropriate investment in education that gives people more equal opportunities. In order to do this, you need people making educational policy who know what they’re talking about. Even if the policy-makers aren’t experts themselves, they should at least be listening to (and incorporating) the views of People That Actually Know Things About Stuff, rather than forging ahead blindly with ideas that have little relationship with the reality. Controversial, I know…

Posted in Access to Uni | 2 Comments

Are high student drop-out rates a sign of high or low quality?

My absence from the blogosphere has been enforced by the start of the new academic year: courses to run, classes to teach, new names to learn, bureaucratic kinks to iron out. It’s been a breathless few weeks.


Someone’s heading home. But why?

Today I’m turning my pen/keyboard to student drop-out rates, or from the other side of the coin, retention or ‘degree completion’ – those who start uni and don’t finish it. It may seem like an odd topic to write about at the beginning of the year, but I’ve been mulling this one over for several months. It comes up at conferences, contributes to some rankings, and universities talk about it internally. It’s becoming a hot topic, not least because it may feature in some way on the impending Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that will ‘measure’ the standards of teaching in every university in the UK.

I’m continually struck by the fact that, in the UK, drop-out is seen almost universally as a Very Bad Thing. Of course, in our era of vanishing state funding for students and rising tuition fees, universities take a hit on the bottom line whenever a student fails to finish their degree. Those students are also saddled with a debt and no qualification. However, what concerns me here is that high drop-out/low retention rates are often taken as a reflection of poor teaching quality – that students only drop out if you’re not engaging them and supporting them in their studies, an assumption that is a huge, often unjustified, leap.

Anecdotally, two of my tutorial students last year were enjoying the course, were enthusiastic in class and scoring well, but came to realise that they wanted to study something else and/or live closer to home. There was no sense that they were unhappy with the teaching or university more broadly, or that we’d misled them about the course in any way. It just hadn’t worked out, and I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, have tried to persuade them to stay. After a frank discussion of the pros and cons of leaving us and going ahead with what they were planning, I agreed that they were probably better off trying something else, and wished them well. There’s nothing wrong with going to university, giving it a go, and deciding that the course, university, lifestyle, or city are simply not your thing.

On the national level, there is some evidence that retention is better at high status universities. We might think that this is because their teaching is better, but there’s no evidence for this unless we take that blind leap of faith. It may be more connected with the observation that students at high status universities tend to come from middle class backgrounds. They are therefore, as a group, more culturally prepared for university at home and school, would almost certainly have taken an academic rather than vocational entry route, and experience less of a shock at the change in teaching culture. They are also better off, so financial concerns are less prevalent. Universities in the middle to bottom half of rankings tend to recruit more students from less affluent backgrounds who are more likely to have financial concerns and be less culturally and academically prepared for university. They will also have lower grades, on the whole, so might lack in intellectual confidence but not necessarily ability. What we might see in the TEF, though, if it is heavily weighted towards retention rates, is that the highly ranked universities will look better simply by dint of who they recruit. This would suit those already at the top on other measures, of course, but it would be a travesty that unfairly widened the status divides.

It is illustrative to compare retention in the UK with the way that it is seen in countries like Belgium and Germany. There, high drop-outs rates are a mark of a high quality, of strong academic rigour. Courses are set up to be very difficult and those who make the cut and complete it earn a cachet. The countries that apply this ‘alternative’ logic have open admissions systems, so almost anyone can study any subject provided they have reasonable upper secondary qualifications. Courses are often hugely oversubscribed at the beginning, and relatively low levels of support and hard exams are a way of winnowing down the numbers, perhaps inequitably in some cases. In the UK, admission numbers are controlled, we admit those who we think can cope with the course intellectually, and there is usually a good deal of academic support. The comparison in some ways is therefore not altogether fair, but it is interesting to see how the principle is applied ‘in reverse’ in some countries. We should not be making courses easy in the interests of retaining students, but at the same time not set most of them up for a fall, either. Studying for a degree is very much about developing, and struggling with the course material forms a foundation stone of that development. There must be a balance between support, standards, and rigour, but how that balance is established clearly varies between countries.

It may be true that teaching has taken a back seat to research in the UK status game, and in some senses a renewed focus on it can only benefit students and the sector more generally. But it should be remembered that most academics in the UK are qualified to teach in HE and are committed to teaching well. There are also internal mechanisms such as staff-student liaison committees which can raise issues in provision that departments can then address. In the event that teaching is poor and it causes people to leave, then this is clearly an issue, but at the moment we don’t know the extent of the problem, or whether there is even a problem at all. There is an argument that TEF is an expensive and pointless exercise, but the suspicion is that it is more about trying to enforce more of a market culture into UK HE than genuinely trying to drive standards up.

Either way, what is missing at the moment is detailed information – sectorally or within universities – as to why students drop out. Unless we collect this data, raw retention rates run the risk of falling into the same category as most other numerical measures of relative status – a weak proxy. The problem is though, over time, people tend to forget that these are crude measures, and retention will become – wrongly – synonymous in public perception as an accurate reflection of teaching quality.

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