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..

#HEWhitePaper The University of Castlebeck? Risk management in the new model.

You know what would be a superb model to follow for the regulation of university teaching quality? The regulation of care homes. A model of low intervention, arms length review and risk management has seen the care sector transform from a statist behemoth to an efficient, effective and competitive

OK, you guessed I’m bluffing on that one. I’m not sure for the very obvious evidence-based reason alluded to above that lowering regulatory engagement at the same time as raising costs to students (or consumers *shudder*) and specifically encouraging new entrants to the sector is such a great idea. But, it’s what on offer.

3.19 We propose a genuinely risk-based approach, focusing QAA effort where it will have most impact and giving students power to hold universities to account. All providers must continue to be part of a single assurance framework. But we would explore options in which the frequency – and perhaps need – for a full, scheduled institutional review will depend on an objective assessment of a basket of data, monitored continually but at arms length. For new providers, with an inevitably shorter track record of quality, a more regular and in-depth review is appropriate than has previously been applied. Conversely, for those providers with a sustained, demonstrable track record of high-quality provision, we would expect to see significantly less use of full institutional reviews.

So, assumption-based risk management then. Universities that have been around for ages are clearly very good, so no need to bother assessing them. Let’s just wait until some students complain – because it’s difficult to imagine what else would be in this basket of data. Number of meetings of the Departmental Quality Assurance Group? Some derivative of HESA data on completions?

3.20 We will ask HEFCE to consult on the criteria against which overall risk should be assessed and the frequency of review, with a view to achieving very substantial deregulatory change for institutions that can demonstrate low risk.

So the consultation already has a view, and deregulation it is! – but thought we’d ask you anyway. This government are rubbish at consultations aren’t they?

3.21 In our consultation on a new regulatory framework we will ask whether HEFCE, as part of its changing role in the new system, would need additional legislative powers to introduce or to operate a risk based quality assurance system.

So, the consultation definitely has a view. We will have a risk based quality assurance system, we just need to understand the legislation a bit better and rather than paying for legal advice, or asking HEFCE whether they need extra powers, we figured we’d crowd-source it.

Anyway, the other “risks” they need to keep an eye on are financial risks. If an institution went bust, surely that would be a decrease in the choice offered to students. Because this is all about student choice:

6.8b Currently, HEFCE can take action in the public interest where an institution is at risk of getting into financial difficulties. Providers that perform poorly under the new funding arrangements will primarily be those that fail to recruit enough students. Like its predecessors, the Government does not guarantee to underwrite universities and colleges. They are independent, and it is not Government’s role to protect an unviable institution.

Note the use of “unviable”. By this, BIS mean, unable to function in this insane market that has been created. Not “unviable” as in not providing a service of value to the nation. But hell, HEFCE will be keeping an eye on the data, so we’re unlikely to get to this stage:

6.21 In the short term, we will work with the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to reduce the size of data collections through the periodical review process.

Ah, OK. We’re not going to bother collecting the data we need to manage risk. Maybe just imagine it. That’s how it’s generally done in the “too big to fail” bits of the private sector I suppose. Except that whereas it is the government’s role to protect a greedy, careless bank it clearly isn’t the government’s role to protect, say, an arts college.

There’s one other interesting point around risk. A while back I wrote about some of the “conditions of grant” obligations that needed to be maintained under the new system. Stuff like paying for HESA and the QAA, those doing all the work that I’ve been talking about above. Well, they put a plaster on that:

6.28 For existing institutions, the main difference (within the new regulatory model) will be that many conditions previously attached to the core grant from HEFCE will, in future, attach to designation for student support. 

So, whereas once, you had to pay for the QAA, HESA and such to get any money at all from HEFCE, now you need to pay for them (I assume, nothing in writing) so your students can get fee loans. Of course, if your students don’t get fee loans, you wouldn’t need to meet these conditions – which means that the institutions liable to need most monitoring (the new, pile-em-high, private entrants) would be getting more services from the QAA, but paying less than an established university who gets their (reduced) HESA data glanced over twice a decade.  Kind of like taxing the rich to pay for the poor – that well known Tory principle.

This light-touch regulation would be bad policy even if a similar model hadn’t gone pear-shaped last month. The fact that the coalition is incapable of learning from a significant market failure does not fill me with confidence.

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.

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.