It is a fashionable time to call for a much smaller higher education system. Martin Hall finds this “defence of academic elitism” fails to consider the complexity of A-level achievement and ignores the Unistats data at the academic programme level from so-called second-tier universities. A-levels are important, but they are less than half of a richly diverse system of managing access to universities.
“Clearing” – the misnomer for the complex process of finalising admissions for the coming academic year – involves a lot of people working very hard to meet the aspirations of stressed and anxious applicants and their families. By and large, the press coverage this year was superficial and depressing. One of the most reactionary prescriptions for Higher Education came from a national standard-bearer for progressive ideas.
In its leader of August 10th, the Observer proclaimed: “it is time to ditch expansionary social mobility policies and pursue a more aggressive strategy: opening up the finite number of places at the most selective universities to a broader group of young people. The starting point should be a defence of academic elitism. It is right to abhor academic selection at age 11, but it is also right to defend selection at age 18. The best young people should be creamed off to study in our top institutions”.
Of course the long-known scandal of differential access to a small number of highly selective universities should be addressed. It’s well established that, at the cohort level, A-level performance is correlated with socio-economic status, geographical region and type of school. Assuming that universities alone can fix the problem is another matter; the origin of the malaise is in accelerating inequality rather than due to the neglect of a handful of admissions tutors. But that’s for others to worry about, and not a problem for Salford, since we’re one of the top ten in the country for widening participation. The Observer’s surprising swing to the right is in its editorial derision for an inclusive higher education system:
The agenda has been one of the massification of higher education, predominantly through creating places at newer universities, rather than radically opening up access to top institutions … The flaw at the heart of social mobility by expansion is its assumption that all degrees are equal. The reality is far from the truth. On the one hand, a degree from a top university is almost a prerequisite for a job in professions such as medicine, the law, the civil service and the media. On the other, there is huge variation in the employment prospects of graduates of newer institutions.
The Observer, then, along with a broad swathe of other opinion, wants a much smaller higher education system. How much smaller? Part of the laziness of this argument is a failure to define what a “top university” is, or what it’s “top” at. The implication is that a “top” university is a Russell Group university (of which there are now twenty four). An Observer-style “aggressive” reform on this criterion would be a retreat to the 1950s, with only about 20 per cent of present universities retaining their status. Perhaps, more realistically, the Observer’s editorial writer was thinking of a system restricted to applicants achieving better-than-reasonably at A-levels. Today, only about half of all students in British higher education have A-levels and a large minority have Level 3 vocational qualifications such a BTECs. This “other half” is the beneficiary of the social mobility policies and “massification”, to which the Observer has taken exception.
The Observer believes that “the flaw at the heart of social mobility by expansion is its assumption that all degrees are equal”. No one should assume that university degrees are “equal”. Unlike A levels, there is no national accrediting body or national examination papers. But university qualifications are certainly benchmarked, which is why the external examination system is so important and why the Quality Assurance Agency keeps a very careful eye on it. I read every external examiner’s report at our university, and we particularly check for evidence of equivalence in standards, at the detailed subject level, with other universities. And, of course, a significant proportion of university qualifications are accredited with external standards bodies, from Accountants to Physiotherapists. While there will always be some variation, a graduate satisfying the requirements of an external accrediting board will know their business equally well, whichever university they studied at.
The reason why a qualification from “a top university is almost a prerequisite” is not because of the capabilities of the graduate or the quality of learning and teaching. It’s rather because of the status that comes with the badge; the branding on the merchandise rather than the material qualities of the product. The pre-eminent sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote about this in his book, The State Nobility, in what he called “the academic cursus”, “that strange racecourse in which everyone classifies and everyone is classified, and where the best classified become the best classifiers of those who will next enter the race”.
The sterility of the new-found “defence of academic elitism” is evident through a little time spent with Unistats, the government’s new, and excellent, public information resource for prospective students (and editorial writers). In Britain, prospective students are obliged to apply primarily for a programme of study; a university is a federation of a hundred or more small businesses, each of them offering a set of qualifications in a defined field and seeking a specific number of new students each year. Unistats allows sweeping generalisations about “top” universities to be tested on a programme-by-programme basis.
For example, Unistats tells you that there are 251 programmes available in England for Accounting and Finance (or near equivalent). A comparison between Salford and Exeter (one of the new recruits to the Russell Group) shows that 98 per cent of final year students at Salford were satisfied with their course of study, while 89 per cent of their peers at Exeter had found their time at university satisfactory. If your calling is rather to Physiotherapy, Unistats offers 33 programmes in England. 95 per cent of our third year students in Physiotherapy had a great experience, as did 98% per cent of students at the University of Birmingham, a Russell Group stalwart.
What is different, and is clear from the Unistats data, is that a student’s experience immediately after graduation can be different. An Exeter graduate in Accounting and Finance or a Birmingham qualifier in Physiotherapy is more likely to be in employment or further study by the end of the year in which she or he graduated than is a Salford student. However, this differential is small (a difference of about one in ten) and is only measured for circumstances six months after graduation. We have no systematic evidence of equivalent performance differences at more meaningful points of comparison; at, say, three and five years after degree completion. And these comparisons take no account of regional differences in job availability; young adult unemployment is significantly higher here in the north-west than it is in the south.
At the level of higher education as a whole, the evidence for the “graduate premium” remains strong, as David Willetts has pointed out, also in the Observer: “male graduates can expect to boost their lifetime earnings by £165,000, and for female graduates it is an even more striking £250,000. The supply of graduates has been increasing but so has the demand for them so the rewards for being a graduate do not appear to have fallen. These rewards are not just for individuals: the latest estimate is that 20 per cent of our economic growth and over a third of our productivity growth are directly attributable to increased numbers of graduates entering the labour force”.
In the face of the evidence, arguments for academic elitism and a radically smaller university sector make little economic sense and don’t stand up to scrutiny at the level of the academic programme, where quality is ensured, enhanced, or lost. A levels are important, but they are less than half of a richly diverse system of managing access to universities. Consigning those with vocational qualifications at Level 3 – half of all of today’s university students – to a poorly understood mix of apprenticeship and small-scale direct employment projects is hardly intelligent planning.
Perhaps this point has been appreciated at Kings Place. On August 16th, the Guardian’s editorial took a different tack:
There is a perception that Britain has in practice a two-tier university system: the Russell Group of 24 older universities – and all the rest. No one disputes that some universities rightly strive to win and keep a world-class reputation in research and will recruit the very ablest students. What is less often said is that if Britain is to maximise its chances of having a well-educated and highly skilled workforce, as well as giving most people the best opportunities, there also need to be many other universities that are world class at teaching. It is not two tiers that matters. It is the existence of a broad range of different possibilities.
That’s better (although still not quite right).
This was originally posted on Martin Hall’s personal blog and is reposted with permission.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our Comments Policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.
Professor Martin Hall is a historical archaeologist and strategic leader. He took up his present role of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Salford in August 2009. Professor Hall joined Salford from the University of Cape Town where he was Deputy Vice-Chancellor for six years. He has a career that has spanned both political change and transformation in South Africa and new directions in archaeology over the past four decades. He has written extensively on South African history, culture and higher education policy. Professor Hall’s current areas of focus include open access and innovation, inequality and its consequences and post-conflict mitigation and mediation. He writes weekly on these and other issues on his blog.