The AAB Opportunity: Anti-competitive?

I’m way of my depth here, but I was wondering how “average qualification on entry” data relates to some of the other aspects that the amazing UniStats data let me look at. You’ll remember earlier this week I examined the numbers of entrants with 340 points across various subjects, institutions and groupings. This time, I’m going to try to work in similar ways as prospective students might in choosing the “best” place to study (and this excuses my #statsfail I guess too…) 

Just to give us a pool we can get our heads round, I decided to look at Social Sciences subjects only (Groups L and P in the JACS coding, so stuff like Economics, Politics, Sociology, Social Policy, Social Work, Anthropology, Social Geography, Media Studies, Publishing, Journalism). Social Sciences are interesting because they are mostly difficult to link to a specific job, but together constitute our understanding of the underpinning structures of western civilisation, and offer us ideas of what to do when it breaks.

Kids, study Social Sciences. The Social Sciences are way cool.

Anyway, based on the percentage of entrants on 340 UCAS points (AAB or equivalent), here are the top 10 places to do Social Sciences in the UK:

Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, UCL, St Andrews, Warwick, Bath, Edinburgh, Durham, KCL, Exeter.

Pretty much as you’d expect, I guess.

Other measures below do not have complete data, but it is important to remember that this is the data this is out there – this is what entrants are using (or are encouraged to use) to make their choices. If, say, KCL hasn’t returned destination data in this area, why should anyone just assume it will be good. Informed consumers and all that.

Let’s say a student was very keen to be actually working after they graduate, and wanted to choose an institution where many social sciences graduates actually reported that they were “working” after graduation. If we did that, the top 10 places to study Social Sciences in the UK are:

Bath, Hull, Lancaster, Stirling, Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sussex, Reading, Coventry, St Andrews.

Of note in that little lot: Coventry. Only 11% of entrants have 340pts or above. And they are only charging £7,500

Okay, getting more specific… let’s say you wanted to find work as a Public Service Professional. Sounds like a good thing to be, and according to UniStats is the modal job category destination of Social Science graduates. Your top 10 are:

Reading, Oxford Brookes, Strathclyde, Dundee, Royal Holloway, Bath, Birmingham, Stirling, Goldsmiths’, Lancaster, East Anglia.

So, the University of Bath has turned up in all three lists… otherwise this is pretty diverse recommendations for our student.

Final cut: what about teaching that really inspires?  National Student Survey Q3: “Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching.”. If I went to an open day, and met staff filled with passion and enthusiasm for “my” subject – that would sell an institution to me. The top 10 highest percentages of of graduates scoring this aspect as 5, “excellent”:

Winchester, Northumbria, Bath Spa, UC Plymouth, Goldsmiths’, KCL, Robert Gordon, Bournemouth, Royal Holloway, Loughborough, Buckinghamshire


So – four different criteria, four different lists of recommendations. And there are thousands upon thousands of other criteria we could have chosen. But only the first is recognised as valid in the university funding method. Students are supposed to aspire to study at institutions in that first list, despite other institutions being “better” depending on your choice of criteria.

This strikes me as anti-competitive. It rewards inputs, not outputs. Would you choose a garage based on the quality of cars they serviced? Or how those cars drove afterwards?

Here’s a summary of the source data to play with on Google Docs, the full deal is yours to mangle over on unistats.

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

The AAB opportunity: which courses and institutions stand to benefit? #hewhitepaper

One of the only real innovations within the recent BIS White Paper on Higher Education was a relaxation of the student number cap for entrants scoring AAB (340 UCAS tariff points) or above. “This should allow greater competition for places on the more selective courses and create the opportunity for more students to go to their first choice institution if that university wishes to take them”, according to paragraph 4.19. But this flat language tells us very little about the kind of courses and the kind of institutions this would affect.

To get a better understanding of this, I’ve been playing with Unistats data, and have identified “areas of study” where the median entry qualification (that’s the “middle” of an imaginary ordered list of all entrant qualifications, stats n00bs) is at 340 UCAS points or above.

This approach showed that 422 institutional offerings across 21 (top level) areas of study in 52 English HE institutions had a median student offer of 340 points (AAB at A level) or above last year. Of these, 25 are medical courses and thus subject to student number controls. The remaining 397 are those most likely to be in a position to take additional students with AAB grades in 2012-13.

222 of these 397 courses are based in Russell Group affiliated universities, 151 in the 1994 group.
The University of Liverpool has 17 areas of study likely to be able to grow if AAB numbers are unrestricted, Nottingham, Leeds and Birmingham all have 16. Despite this, courses making AAB median offers are overwhelmingly based in the South East of England (74), and London (63).

(note, the graph above includes medical course related data)

Law (34), Languages (30), Social Studies (29) and Biological Sciences (29) are the areas of study most likely to be able to expand via the increased intake of AAB students.


So what does this tell us? At the moment, no major surprises. It is, in fact, comforting to see Social Studies subjects likely to benefit from this policy, and pleasing to see a reasonable range of institutions in a position to recruit more students via this policy. But I’m sure there are more stories that can be told, and for that reason the data is available as a google spreadsheet for your analytical pleasure. (note, I only added coding regarding institutional affiliation and region to the courses I was interested in, so I have only shared that. The full data set (minus those two fields) is from Unistats. I used the year 1 figures to examine the most recent set of entrants)

Other interesting lines of enquiry may be:
(i) how satisfied are students with these courses? how does this satisfaction rate compare to all courses in these subject areas?
(ii) what jobs do graduates from these areas of study at these institutions go on to? Are these better or worse paid than jobs done by graduates from these areas of study in other institutions?
(iii) What fees are being charged by these institutions for courses in these areas of study?

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

Trial by fire for VCs? a response to ( @timeshighered )

Trial by fire will test our mettle, insist VCs. (The Times Higher, 30th June 2011) – We couldn’t read a headline like that without responding suitably, and with a respectful hat tip to Christopher Lee, Britt Ekland and Edward Woodward and all others involved in one of the greatest cult films ever.


[Final Scene: After days trying to track down data on the application rate amongst students with A-levels predicted at AAB or above, the VICE-CHANCELLOR enters the Great Hall, where the REGISTRAR is preparing for the graduation ceremony. University staff and students in bizarre costumes throng the Hall]

REGISTRAR: The game is over.  

VICE-CHANCELLOR: Game? What game?  

R: The game of the hunted leading the hunter.

You came here to find new students with AAB or above at A-level , but it is we who have found you and brought you here, and controlled your every thought and action since you were appointed.

Principally, we persuaded you to think that these students were being held as a sacrifice because applications failed last year.

VC: I know applications failed. I saw the matriculation photograph.

R: Oh, yes. They failed, all right, disastrously so… for the first time since we gained degree-awarding powers. The blossom came but the fruit withered and died on the bough. That must not happen again this year.

It is our most earnest belief that the best way of preventing this is to offer to our gods of HEFCE and to the goddess of our marketing strategy is to offer the most acceptable sacrifice that lies in our power.  

Post-graduate teaching assistants are fine, but their acceptability is limited.

An entire academic department is even better, but not nearly as effective as the right kind of manager.

VC: What do you mean, “right kind of manager”?

R: You, Vice Chancellor, are the right kind of manager as our painstaking REF-able researches have revealed. You, uniquely, were the one we needed.

A manager who would come here of his own free will.
A manager who has come here with the power of the Privy Council by representing Senior Management.
A man who would come here without experience.
A man who has come here as a fool.

VC: Get out of my way. 

R: You are the fool, Vice-Chancellor – Punch, one of the great fool-victims of history, for you have accepted the role of king for a day, and who but a fool would do that. But you will be revered and anointed as a king.

You will undergo death and rebirth – resurrection, if you like. The rebirth, sadly, will not be yours, but that of our Faculty of Humanities.

VC: I am a UUK member, and as a UUK member, I hope for the wisdom of the market. And even if you kill me now, it is I who will have been of value to society, not your damned Philosophy course. No matter what you do, you can’t change the fact that I believe in the market eternal, as promised to us by our Lord Browne. 

R: That is good. For believing what you do, we confer upon you a rare gift these days – a market consolidation.

You will not only have experience the market eternal, but you will sit with the bankers among the reviled.

Come. It is time to keep your appointment with The Wicker Man.

VC: (very agitated) Now, wait! Now, all of you, just wait and listen to me. And you can wrap it up any way you like. You are about to commit murder.

Can you not see? There is no public good. There is no education for it’s own sake. Your recruitment failed because your marketing failed. Humanities is not meant to be taught in this institution. It’s against market forces. Don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your Faculty?

Registrar, you know it won’t. Go on, man. Tell them. Tell them it won’t.

R: I know it will.

VC: Well, don’t you understand that if your recruitment fails this year, next year you’re going to have to have another blood sacrifice?

And next year, no one less than the Registrar himself will do. If the crops fail, Registrar, next year the University Congregation will kill you on Graduation Day.

R: They will not fail. The sacrifice will be accepted.

[The VICE-CHANCELLOR is led into a Wicker Man, constructed centre-stage and surrounded by garlands in university colours. As the construction is set alight, staff and students commence to sing “Sumer Is Icumen In”]

[Fade to black]

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post refers to copyright material for parodic purposes and this thus not available under an open license..

AAB or AARGH? A schoolboy funding error in the #HEWhitePaper

Okay, so much in the White Paper to process, probably the focus of many posts to come, but here's the glaring issue for me.

Paragraph 4.19:
“We propose to allow unrestrained recruitment of high achieving students, scoring the equivalent of AAB or above at A-Level. Core allocations [I assume this means allocated student numbers] for all institutions will be adjusted to remove these students. Institutions will then be free to recruit as many of these students as wish to come. Under the new funding arrangements, institutions may be eligible for HEFCE teaching grant for these students, for example those on high-cost courses, and the students will be able to access loans and grants. This should allow greater competition for places on the more selective courses and create the opportunity for more students to go to their first choice institution if that university wishes to take them. We estimate this will cover around 65,000 students in 2012/13.”

The key point here is if a University decides to recruit 50 extra AAB students to, say, a Pharmacy course this means HEFCE has to provide additional funding (you know, the one that used to be called “core funding”) for those 50 students. Don't believe that “may” nonsense, this is a requirement of the model, based around the assumption that lab and clinical sciences cost more to deliver and are of value to the nation. This grant availability could significantly affect the levels of funding that HEFCE would need to make available.
Imagine 50 extra medical students instead, and the exposure of HEFCE (and the NHS) rises further [EDIT: @amacgettigan and others have pointed me to footnote 49 which covers the limiting of medical student numbers] . Basically the extra AAB students only make sense in terms of government funding exposure for non-core funded subjects, not healthcare or lab stuff.

The “low cost” (under £7,500, so not “low cost” by any accepted meaning of the term) margin in para 4.21 at least has the opportunity for central targeting via “agreed critera” so would be able to avoid this issue. Many of us were expecting these two margins to be linked, thus driving down the prices of more popular courses. Apparently not. We've been over this issue before here and, though we applaud the reuse of policy that has actually been proven to work, sticking cost in here as a criteria only makes the whole thing dumber. 

Really, paragraph 4.19, and the suggestion that this margin could be expanded downwards, contains nothing to prevent the slow emergence of a system offering only lab and clinical sciences courses priced at £9,000 to 'A'-level holders, which in terms of revenue generation would be the clear winner for institutions. I'm not convinced that this is the shape the sector wants to be in.

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

“I want you to know it was I who discovered your secret -. R.A.B.”

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.
When a politician slips in to the dry, impenetrable terms of governmental accounting regulations, you know that he’s (and it is usually a guy, sorry chaps) trying to get something past you. Such was my reaction when I glanced over David Willetts’ article in the Times Higher a few weeks back. Specifically, this bit:

“This is just part of the Exchequer’s continuing support for higher education. This Exchequer subsidy for loans is known as the Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge – a forecast of the amount of money that will not be repaid – and it is going to be at the core of university financing for many years.

I expect that, in the future, as the data accrue [sic], the policy debate will be about the RAB charge for individual institutions”

So what does it mean?

If you’re like me the first thing you did was to google “resource accounting and budgeting” and struggle to find a definition. The phrase in quotes is pretty unique to UK government and most of the “introduction to RAB” stuff (like this) implies you already have a serious understanding of accountancy. 

Likierman (1988, Public Money and Management [needs shibboleth]) suggests that:

“Resource accounting is a set of accruals accounting techniques for reporting on the expenditure of central government and a framework for analysing expenditure by departmental aims and objectives, relating those to outputs wherever possible. Resource budgeting is planning and controlling public expenditure on a resource accounting basis”

(If that prompted the question “what is accrual?”, Wikipedia is there for you. But I bet you can tell me all about post-structualism…)

So, fundamentally, RAB takes into account the expenditure and related income over the total life of an investment, and is a superb way of thinking about the “total cost of ownership” of something like a loan. A RAB charge would be incurred where the total expenditure is less than total income – so when Willetts says that the RAB charge of the new student loan system will be 30%, he’s suggesting that 30% of loans will not be paid back – even taking into account the extra 3% above the rate of inflation that students will be paying post 2012 and the sneaky way that interest begins to accrue before they even graduate.

Why 30% – well, quite frankly, why not? It’s just a figure he’s pulled out of the air. Sure, there’s probably complex actuarial calculations behind it, but it’s possible to do those calculations in an almost infinite number of ways. HEPI worked out that at a RAB charge of anything over 47% meant that the government ends up losing money long term, and that merely by decreasing the estimate of ongoing annual salary growth from an almost laughable 4.7% to a still optimistic 3.5% (core salary growth in the UK was 2.1% in March 2011) the RAB would be pushed over that figure.

At this point you’re thinking “Yeah, we know, the new funding model makes bad financial sense for the government, the Followers of The Apocalypse have told us this again, and again, and again … but what’s new?”

Look at the last line of my quote. RAB charges for individual institutions. Rather than pulling a figure out of the air for the whole sector, in future Willetts wants to be pulling a figure out of the air for individual institutions. So the University of Poppleton might have a RAB charge of 40%, Christminster University may have a RAB charge of 10%, the University of Bums on Seats might have 70% – all based on historical graduate first destination salary data (both incomplete and affected by numerous variables), some very dodgy work that the QAA will hopefully not have to do, and the alignment of the planets in the constellation of Capricorn. 

This is scary, market-skewing and idiotic in itself – you may wonder why anyone would want to do something like that. But take a step back. Insurable risk against the non-payment of expected dividends from anticipated income. This is hedgeable. Not content with establishing a market in higher education, the government wants to start playing with derivatives.

Remember that come the new funding model universities are essentially private, and thus the government is no longer obliged to treat them equally. Instead it attempts to treat students equally (except of course where Mummy and Daddy are so rich that they don’t need a loan). So if you run, say, an Arts College the government would be less inclined to want to lend to your students as they would see them as riskier. But they can’t be seen to be ignoring arts tuition, so they open up the risk of funding such students to the private sector.

Enter a hedge fund manager. Sure, he’ll fund a risky loan, because he can insure against it (and because the government is involved so he’s unlikely to lose out). In fact, he could load the insurance so he could bet against the repayment of the loan – and would then have a financial interest in students failing to repay their loans. You can write the rest of this dystopian novel at your leisure…

Seriously, there are scary implications to calculating investment risk on an institutional basis. That Willetts floated this idea in the middle of a dense and eminently skippable paragraph about government budgetary regulation suggests that there is something distinctly “off” about it. Hopefully we won’t be dissecting it within the forthcoming White Paper.

UK HE funding fixed in 1,300 words (kinda)

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.
It seems that we still haven’t sorted this higher education funding nonsense out, and time is ticking away for the Rt Hon David Willetts to pull something out of his, er, hat. So before piling in with suggestions, here are some home truths:

1. The Browne-Willetts model is basically a graduate tax. No-one pays anything until after they graduate, payment is linked to actual earnings and is deducted at source via the tax system. That to me (and I’m the offspring of a love affair hatched within the Inland Revenue, so this stuff is in my very life force) pretty tax-ish. The difficulties are all caused by the decision to try really hard to make it not look like a graduate tax – firstly it is linked to a specific amount, which is generally perceived as “too much” by pretty much everyone, and secondly it is very narrow – I could be working next to a graduate of the new system at the same job at the same pay and they would be paying more “tax” than me. Which is clearly unfair.

2. The £9,000 maximum is pretty close to what it actually costs to teach a student currently. It’s a bit more, but this extra is scant compensation for the uncertain levels of investment, need for radical restructuring and a grossly extended marketing push. I think we’ve mostly all spotted this by now, but it’s worth restating.

3. Discounting the student “fees” for students coming from a disadvantaged background is not “progressive”. Meeting their living costs would be far more immediately helpful, and much more likely to support widening access. By the time they are earning enough to pay back fees they are earning at least as much as everyone else that is paying student fees. Tax is based entirely on an ability to pay at the point of payment, fee repayments are based on someone’s parents (or whatever) being able to pay for the “fees” 3+ years ago.

4. If you’ve got a system where fees are not coming in until graduates are earning a certain amount, you have a hole in your recurrent budget. This is the hole in the plan which costs the government billions each year. You’ve got a return (of only part of the initial loan) coming in at the very least four years after the spend (and trickling in for years after that). Which has the deliciously ironic impact of massively pushing up government borrowing, given that David Cameron and his team reel off the “labour’s excessive deficit” nonsense as a justification for this system.

5. A market with variable and uncompensated returns is not a good way to drive up quality in a system that needs sustained, long-term investment in infrastructure and staff. The smart thing to do in such a market is to lower ongoing costs (less full-time staff, less ongoing commitments) and bash unexpected surpluses into cheap shiny things that look impressive. It’s to cut choice by concentrating on renumerative areas of provision. We’ve seen the same thing happen in the privatisation of the rail network – to watch it happen again to another once-proud national system is pure stupidity. Pure markets don’t work. And David Willetts knows this, which is why he is intervening in pretty much every aspect of this planned new one.

6. Allowing systemic growth by letting the ultra-rich do whatever they want is obviously not a good idea. Didn’t do the economy much good either. It’s allowing expansion based on prestige rather than quality, disadvantaging students who can’t afford to pay the premium, and would only have led to elite institutions basically leaving the mainstream undergraduate market altogether. The fact that that an ex-member of the Bullingdon Club had to step in to point this out does not fill me with with confident that Willetts and BIS know what they are doing.

7. Students are not consumers. Education is work, and a student in any decent form of education is working on their own capacity. This is student as labourer-consumer and is basically a separate blog post.

OK, so that’s where we are. Students want an affordable education that meets their needs, universities want stable funding streams and the chance to invest in staff and infrastructure, academics would prefer to be valued and remunerated as skilled professionals if it’s all the same, employers need staff who can look beyond current assumptions and the government would like to be borrowing less. And with the current proposals, no-one is getting what they want.

To coin a phrase, “We can’t go on like this”.

Here’s the proposed Followers of the Apocalypse solution. Pragmatic, un-ideological and meeting the needs identified above:

(note this isn’t my – personal – dream solution. It’s just me exasperatedly trying to sort out all the problems identified above so that everyone is happy. So it’s not endorsed by anyone – even me)

A: Graduate tax, not fees. On all graduates, not just the new ones. This means that everyone is contributing to the cost of their university education (for those that have already paid fees – basically for 1998-99 and onward commencements – there could be a small lowering of the general rate) Such would be the additional take for this tax that the threshold of repayment commencement could be raised – a genuinely progressive move – or more of the living costs of non-traditional students could be covered.

B: Employer tax. Browne shied away from this, but I’m not going to. Employers getting the benefit of UK graduates should be contributing to the costs of producing them. Period. Whether this is through direct payment for the training of specific graduates (sponsorship), or indirectly through a small increase in corporation tax, should be left up to the employers in question.

C: Keep as much of the current model of HE funding distribution as can be kept. It’s mostly good, it mostly works, and offers the stability that institutions need. It supports a world-class system that actually runs a small profit, whilst educating a record number of students. There are tweaks that could be made around the edges, there could be a nicer method to sustainably support institutional growth and contraction for instance, but these are matters for the experts in HEFCE ASG who actually understand this stuff, rather than public policy.

D; Penalise institutions using large numbers of temporary teaching staff. PhD students should not be taking on large amounts of teaching, and bright graduates should be encouraged to consider academia as a career. It only works as a career (and such is the nature of academia you really need careers to build up the required level of knowledge) if the terms and conditions are such that you don’t need to take another job to make ends meet. For post-graduates and recent entrants to HE, this is very often not the case. The current model basically requires that you have private means to enter HE teaching or research, which cannot be a positive development.

E: Be up-front about what HE is. It’s hard work, with no guarantee of benefit. Rather than change HE to do something it isn’t designed to do, scale up alternatives (and there’s no reason HEIs couldn’t participate in these markets too if they have the resources and skills).

F: More central planning. It’s a truism that in Higher Education Conservative governments add constraints in the name of encouraging innovation, and Labour governments remove constraints in the name of system-wide efficiency. Work with this. Use additional student numbers more intelligently, with employers and analysts, to get what we need out of HE. Me, I’d be investing in paying for people to learn how to design and support a society with a vastly reduced energy availability and reduced levels of global economic activity – but your mileage may vary here.

Maybe this is a little tongue in cheek, but what I am trying to get at is that what is on the table at the moment is a bad deal (and in many cases the worst possible deal) for everyone. Pretty much *anything* would be better than the Browne-Willetts model.

The student as labourer-consumer

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.
One of the odder beliefs that our culture seems to have developed about markets is the idea of market efficiency. Specifically, the idea that – given the publicly available information presented at the time of action – the actions of any given player in a market are unable to offer greater efficiency than the average of the actions of all players within that market. Or, to stick this in non-economist language, if everyone has access to the same info then no-one has an advantage.

Prices are “imagined” (there really is no better word) to reflect the sum of relevant available information. So, if we know that over the past 10 years, graduates have earned x times more than non-graduates, we would make a choice of whether or not to invest in a university course based on that knowledge – thus the price of university education (in a free market) would reflect the availability of this knowledge.

You can already spot where this falls down. Firstly, as they used to say on the radio adverts, past performance does not indicative of future returns. Secondly, I (as an uber-HE geek) would be making my decision based on a substantially greater set of information, and more importantly a substantially greater understanding of the relative value of said information, than someone with no access to that level of geekery – so I get an advantage over someone like my 17-year-old self who was the first in their family to attend university.

Government action in England has so far attempted to address the second of these issues – committing to the provision of a “key information set” (KIS). This covers vital stuff such as reported student satisfaction with teaching, course contact hours, accommodation costs and the average graduate salary. Let’s leave aside the practicalities both of collecting and comparing this information – issues that are being worked on assiduously and carefully by staff within institutions, HEFCE and the government – and ask the fundamental question of whether this is good information to base an investment decision on.

There’s a whole (and scary) field of study around the idea of “human capital“, which suggests ways of making decisions concerning precisely this kind of personal investment. Broadly speaking, you can contrast the idea of potential labour (one’s ability to do something considered useful to a person who may want to give you money to do it) with actual labour (getting on and doing stuff to get paid). Education – within this model – is an investment in potential labour, giving one the ability to achieve greater benefit from actual labour. It’s vanishingly rare that I get to write a paragraph that both Adam Smith and Karl Marx would agree with, but there we are.

Where I would depart from both is to postulate that the accumulation of potential labour is in itself actual labour. Education, I would argue, is an active process, and one of the great tragedies of the contemporary marketisation of learning is that it is widely assumed that it is passive.

Passive accumulation of benefit is easy to price – it’s like restaurant food. A price is stated, I pay the price, and (usually) get the pizza as specified. If I pay more for my pizza I get a better experience, either better quality, larger quantities or more convenient delivery. Nothing I personally do (within reason) affects the experience I pay for, or the benefits I get from it. So I can make a decision based on my needs and requirements, taking cost and other relevant information into account, and I’m happy and pizza-filled. And the pizza restaurant owner can decide what to offer me, and at what price, drawing on similar historical information.

Active processes are more difficult to conceptualise, and they are problematic to assign value to in marketised systems. You could see exercise (to exercise off all this pizza) as a potential worked example. There are a whole range of gyms I could join, using everything from price to available equipment to the relative attractiveness of the clientele as criteria. Or I could not bother. The amount of my financial investment in exercise is markedly less relevant to my success than the amount of personal effort I put in. I could join the most expensive gym in Bristol and sit around drinking smoothies and ogling, or I could pay nothing and go for a brisk walk every morning. Gym owners can tell me all kinds of stuff about the historical success of their clients and the facilities available to me, but if I only use the juice bar I don’t get any of those expected benefits.

So the best I can hope for from university education is that it gives me the tools I need to actively get myself to the place I want to be. I can’t blame the university if I don’t get there … I can only blame myself for not putting the work in, or for not choosing to buy the tools and support I needed. But what information would I need to make an informed choice regarding which tools and what support I needed?

The information set I would need would be wide-ranging, and quite possibly unique to me. I’d want to put a lot of faith in my own aptitudes (and would be interested in ways of measuring these to gain a better understanding of what these really are), and ways in which the labour I would be undertaking is matched or not to these aptitudes. This is not to trivialise the aptitudes I would gain during the course, indeed these would be brought more closely into focus by my knowledge of any disparity between the two – I would also have a clearer insight into the support I would need to be offered to support these.

But labourer-consumer also works as a passive model. Within the late-capitalist conception of higher study students are indeed paying to work – to work after graduation in  a more renumerative (or, less often, a more satisfying) role. But this higher payment is a speculation – more simply, a gamble – in that a student will have no way of knowing whether such a role will be available to them at such salaries at the point of graduation. This is also seen in other careers where candidates are expected to pay for their own training, most notably with commercial pilots. New pilots are paying to be exploited by prospective employers (little info is available online, but £50,000 seems to be a frequently quoted figure on fora), without any personal growth that would be attractive within another field (a pilot’s license is pretty useless to a bus driver, though rates of pay are fairly similar.) This is the danger of seeing education as passive, it becomes the accumulation of competencies linked to actual (or perceived) employer needs.

I’m far from convinced that paying to work is a helpful development within the history of labour relations. Whether Higher Education can make it work will be linked to how far away they can move from a passive model of education and towards something that offers active personal benefits.

#stokescroft , #nhscuts and #unifees – who’s not listening?

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

Three important news stories were sneaked out under the Mooreist Royal Wedding smokescreen.

The first concerned continuing disturbances in the Stokes Croft region of Bristol. There have been  squat clearances over the past couple of weeks, coincidentally round about the time a shiny new Tesco opened in the area to the disgust of local residences. The campaign against the Tesco has been – in the Stokes Croft manner – creative, idiosyncratic and popularly supported across the city, based around a network of small shops, communities, artists and activists. And on the other side, a multinational supermarket known for railroading planning laws and with two other shops within 10 minutes walk.

Guess who the police and government are behind. Clue – it’s not the community.

So a longstanding, peaceful squat in an otherwise unused building is raided using “anti-terror” laws with the pretext that Molotov Cocktails were being made to attack Tesco (so basically they had fuel, clothes and bottles in the building – watch your doors people!). Today they came back for the remainder of the “activists” in the same large squat, Telepathic Heights. In a police helicopter. Ending in a 2hr rooftop stand-off. This localised incident can be seen in the light of many other squat clearances and activist arrests today and armed police with shoot-to-kill orders, all to safeguard the Royal Wedding.

Yeah, today the UK saw arrests without evidence or charge, mass evictions (squatting is, of course, legal) all supported by helicopters and police with orders to kill. ‘Scuse me while I don’t put the flags out and street party like it’s 1859.

Another blink-and-you’ll miss it story came from our increasingly beleaguered University sector, where it emerged that the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) will not be requiring any of the universities that have recently been trebling their student fees to moderate their charges, even if their “access agreements” turn out to be (as with Cambridge) the same or similar to those which are currently in place. For all the “exceptional circumstance” talk, for all the “predicted £7,500 average”, for all the “tough new access requirements”, what we have here is market red in tooth and claw, and institutions out for what they can get away with. There are no safeguards, there is no moderation, this skewed and phony market in the intangible and often immeasurable personal opportunity good of education is all we have.

The students that pointed this out were kettled, beaten, and patronised by the police and government. A failure in communication by the state apparently – not a total disconnect between what the coalition are trying to sell and what young people are trying to buy…

Also trickled out today was the news that the expected 4% cuts to NHS primary care budgets will in fact be 7%, these cuts (never before achieved in any health service in the world) to be made during another unnecessary governance reorganisation (itself a direct contradiction of a manifesto promise, that will cost billions to implement) and, somehow, without cutting frontline services. The NHS reforms are currently “on hold” for a listening exercise which seems, like about student fees, to be merely another chance for us to be told what is happening (and if we don’t buy it, to be told “calm down, dear“.)

For a government that has drastically cut public sector communications budgets, this is a beautifully ironic string of communication failures. And the sting comes, like in Stokes Croft, when the state conception of reality differs so profoundly from your own that you become a terrorist yourself. 

In the UK we have a government that cannot communicate, cannot consult and cannot deal with anything other than total agreement – carrying out wave after wave of the most destructive and poorly though out policy we have ever seen. And backing this up with an increasingly visible and violent police presence.  This is not hyperbole. This is happening.

[note: the sections on Stoke Croft have been updated on 30th April, following clarifications from “StokesCrofter”, below)

MarginCore and the dumb hand of the market.

This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of current or former employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.

So, the hints coming out of the HEFCE annual conference regarding university funding were, firstly, the immanent appearance of the much delayed White Paper (now a running joke within the HEFCE exec), and, secondly, further tweaks to the Willetts-Browne funding model to avoid the now universal embarrassment that this model costs substantially more (we’re now up to £1bn in the mainstream press, it’s more than that as we know) than the current one.

What we seem to be groping blindly towards is something called a core/margin model, and that I’m going to call MarginCore. This should come as no surprise to readers of this blog, as we called it back in December (see about 6 paras from the bottom). We also said it wouldn’t be a very good idea.

For those of you who don’t read links in blog posts, here’s a recap:

Each course, within each institution, has a set number of students it can recruit to it (the core allocation). Depending on how lucky they feel, institutions can then bid for Additional Student Numbers (ASNs) which are extra students they are allowed to recruit that year. If they do recruit them (and keep doing so, and meet various other requirements) their core is eventually reassessed.

You may be impressed that I’ve got a whole actual acronym in there already, but this is for a very good reason. HEFCE ALREADY DOES THIS. Seriously. No word of a lie, this is how we currently do student number controls.

As a Plan B goes, doing something we are already doing is fine with me, usually. But it doesn’t work in Browne-Willets land.

Their tweak is that we allocate extra numbers to cheaper courses. As criteria go, it’s a bit rubbish. Currently, we allocate ASNs according to strategic subject priorities, and assess ASN bids based on ways in which the institution supports widening participation, meets student retention targets and generally has an ability to manage extra students. So you can see why “x is cheaper than y, therefore x should have more student numbers” is a bit rubbish. We can allocate student numbers for more sensible reasons than that, with a greater chance of successful outcomes.

A MarginCore model based on price just accentuates the dumb effects of the markets – we are completely competing on price rather than any other metric. Welcome to Tesco Value U.

The other option on the table is the Big Scary Teaching Funding Clawback, viz. the nasty Treasury takes away some of the money allocated to central (HEFCE) teaching spend under the new model. That won’t work either, mainly because all the central funding under the new model goes to band A and B subjects… courses in lab-based sciences and medicine. So – as the headline writers will clearly spin it – these cuts hits our future healthcare professionals disproportionally.

Or I suppose you could claw back money already awarded to student numbers in the current model. That’s going to be popular with a student body that already seems to be the most active and the most politically engaged in a generation.

Basically, this model of funding isn’t going to work. If the coalition wants to come out of this whole sorry episode with any shred of credibility they need to pull out now, before academics lose jobs and courses close in some idiotic “market”-led rationalisation.

Second thoughts?

This post does not represent the views of my employer, or of programmes/projects I am responsible. It is available under a CC-BY license.
In his #jisc11 keynote address (will add a link to a transcript when available), Professor Eric Thomas (the Bristol Vice-Chancellor, and technically my boss) spoke intelligently and thoughtfully about the severe issues that UK institutions will face under the Browne-Willetts funding model. 

He cited a study at Harvard that suggested that students from lower-income backgrounds are likely to be more risk averse when it comes to taking out loans. (paper with $5 access fee, wider news story)

He made it clear that the rise in fees would not generate new funds for UK institutions, who would still be operating on the same narrow margins as currently.

He agreed with my analysis that the lack of predictable income streams mean that institutions will struggle to work to these margins without cutting activities and academic investment.

He argued well that we are moving to a chaotic environment, which no data on which to base sensible strategic decisions.

And he outlined the spectre of cuts in student numbers, widening participation premiums and research funding that may be needed to pay for the “market” (his inverted commas, not mine.)

I agree with him entirely, of course.

I just wish he could have mentioned these concerns at the time of the vote in parliament, rather than being one of 16 UUK board members who signed a politically influential letter describing the new fees regime as “reasonable” and as having”fundamentally important progressive elements”. And which suggested that the alternative to the higher fee model would mean a likely cut in student numbers “enormously damaging to social mobility”.

I wonder how many other VCs are currently having second thoughts?