Blog Discontinued

Please note that I’ve moved all ‘Missing 3,000’ content to my new blog: H.E. Watch

Thank you




2013: the year in HE

In 2012, following a near-trebling of student fees in England, recruitment fell by 9%.

However, 2013’s headline is that normal service has now been resumed. Indeed, entry levels are close to a record high.

This is good news for all. That HE brings both individual and societal gains is well established. Rumours persist that participation may even offer the odd cultural benefit, though ‘public good‘ remains a phrase conspicuously absent from most wider discussions of HE.

History will also record 2013 as the year in which the mature student began heading towards extinction. Application rates for those aged 21 or over have fallen 14% since the fees hike, and there’s little real hope of recovery. (Note that the graph below covers only 18-year-old applicants.) Prospects look similarly bleak for would-be UK postgraduates.


On a more positive note, the 2013 National Student Survey found undergraduates to be happier with their lot than ever before. A blunt instrument though the NSS is, it would be churlish to argue that the ‘student experience’ hasn’t improved since its launch in 2005. 85% of graduating students are satisfied with their degree programme.

With universities now all REF‘d out, the pendulum is likely to swing back towards teaching. For England’s 1.5 million £9k-a-year paying undergrads, this can only be good news.

Private universities continued to be welcomed into the English HE market, though the New College of the Humanities fell short of its very modest recruitment targets once again. Three-quarters of its £18k-a-year paying students attended an independent school.

Such was demand elsewhere, however, the government was left with a black hole in its budget. With plans to sell off the student loan books being likened to a Ponzi scheme, some wonder why we seem intent on following the US down the path of bubbling, unsustainable student debt at a time when Germany are abandoning their fees experiment altogether.


Sadly, 2013 saw the demise of the 1994 Group. Meanwhile, the University Alliance’s end-of-year message raised eyebrows by commending the government for courageously taking the “economic and moral high ground” (my italics). It also raised questions about what exactly HE mission groups and consortia are for.

Politically, Willetts and Cable continue to pull the strings, while Graduate Tax advocate Liam Byrne replaced Shabana Mahmood as Labour’s Shadow HE minister.

Universities UK got told off by Polly Toynbee for suggesting it’s okay to segregate female and male students, and Sussex Uni quickly reversed its decision to suspend five students for protesting peacefully.

In terms of WP, the proportion of poorer students applying for university held firm, though ‘top’ universities continue to recruit at much lower levels than other institutions.

According to a Sutton Trust report issued in November, at least one quarter of this “access gap” can’t be attributed to academic achievement, further evidence that there may be more to Russell Group under-representation than A-level performance.

And what to expect from 2014?

Well, English universities will soon be able to take as many students as they like. That’s good news for many, but it could increase the pressure on struggling institutions to maintain market share as their sought-after WP students are lured elsewhere.

Universities free from recruitment anxieties will continue to press for the £9k cap to rise.


Meanwhile, early applications figures for 2014 are down 3% on the same time last year.

Long-term, it may not be the headline £9,000 figure that’s most damaging to the HE sector.

Rather – as I’ve argued elsewhere this year – a bigger problem could be continued uncertainty about the security, fairness and expense of the student loan system itself.

Metaphors of HE Access: time to mind our language?

Like applying a bandage to lung cancer.”

That’s how Dr Martin Stephen last week described the idea of allowing disadvantaged students into top universities when they’re an A-level grade or two below the usual threshold.

Dr Martin Stephen is a former chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HHC) and ex high master of St Paul’s School in London. He was responding to Bahram Bekhradnia expressing dismay that, in his time as director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, the top universities had remained “as socially exclusive as ever.

Mr Bekhradnia suggested that the UK should follow US institutions’ lead in seeking to create cohorts that “represent wider society as far as possible,” obsessing less about academic attainment at the point of entry.


For Dr Stephens, such a move would let low-achieving schools ‘off the hook’. It’s social engineering gone made, or whatever.

Our schools are not helping disadvantaged children to achieve respectable grades and these things don’t do anything about that problem,” he complained.

There are several problems with this position. First, a good deal of one-way evidence tells us that state schools pupils actually outperform independent school students once they reach university. Second, we know that state school applicants are less likely to be offered a place at Russell Group universities than independent school applicants with the same grades, even when ‘facilitating subjects’ are controlled for. Third, it is questionable whether low-achieving schools are incentivised by their students’ progression rates to top universities in anything like the way Dr Stephens implies.

But more disturbing than the views being represented are the metaphors increasingly being traded by those with vested interests.

Is academic under-performance, and the schooling system responsible for it, really like lung cancer? Or are such schools actually working hard to raise attainment among young people with multiple disadvantages, social problems and often chaotic home lives? The latest PISA findings suggest that socioeconomic background is the key determinant of educational success, not school type.

Note the similarly belligerent response to a recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who found that England’s grammar schools were now four times more likely to admit private school children than those on free school meals. This time it was the turn of Robert McCartney, chairman of the National Grammar School Association (NGSA), to return fire:

“Many, many parents from deprived areas, including what is generally called the dependency classes, are essentially not particularly interested in any form of academic education,” said Mr McCartney. “Their interests are directed towards pop culture, sports.”


Naturally, the HHC, NGSA and other such organisation are bound to defend their market edge. Many independent and selective schools actively recruit on promises of entry to prestigious universities.

But should this defence spill over into unsubstantiated slurs against those from less advantaged communities? Poorer parents share the same aspirations for their children as their wealthier counterparts. It helps no-one to liken low-attainment schools to horrible diseases.

Let’s debate the evidence and leave the name-calling in the playground.

Revisiting Debates about the UCAS Personal Statement

Revisiting Debates about the UCAS Personal Statement

This post was first published on Oct 14th 2013 by “Manchester Policy Blogs“.

Revisiting debates about the UCAS personal statement

With the first UCAS deadline of the academic year looming, thousands of University hopefuls are putting the finishing touches to their personal statements. But growing evidence points towards the current process favouring some applicants more than others – and it may be time for a radical overhaul, according to Dr Steve Jones.

“The UCAS personal statement is academically irrelevant and biased against poorer students,” ran the headline of one Telegraph blog last month.

According to its author, paying a private company to write your statement now costs between £100 and £200, and the whole thing is little more than “an exercise in spin”. Meanwhile, The Times report that tutors “often ignore students’ personal statements,” describing the indicator as “worthless”.

Perhaps more significantly, last week saw the publication of a Pearson Think Tank report called “(Un)Informed Choices“. The executive summary was surprisingly frank in its recommendation: “the use of personal statements should be ended.”


The debate has interested me since I was commissioned by the Sutton Trust last year to collect new evidence about the personal statement.

My findings were stark. Basic writing errors (like misspelling and apostrophe misuse) were three times more common among applicants from state schools and sixth form colleges as those from independent schools. There were also big differences when it came to work experience: independent school applicants had lots more, and it tended to be high prestige.

All of the statements I looked at were written by students with the same A-level results, so I wondered whether the textual differences offered a partial explanation for the unfair outcomes reported in UK admissions processes more broadly.

For example, research at Durham University has shown that state school applicants are only 60% as likely to be made an offer by Russell Group universities as independent school applicants with the same grades in “facilitating” subjects.

So why hasn’t the personal statement been binned by UCAS already? In my experience, there are five main lines of defence:

1. “Admissions Tutors aren’t taken in by slick expensive personal statements”

This was the response of Cambridge University’s Prof. Mary Beard to my research, and I think it’s a very reasonable point. Any experienced reader of statements will have well-honed “crap detection” skills. Who’s to say our admissions tutors aren’t seeing right through the fancy work placements and LAMDA successes? The problem is, as a sector, we’re neither consistent nor transparent in how personal statements are read. Sometimes they’re given close, critical attention; sometimes not. Either way, we keep schtum about the criteria we use and the weight we attach to them.

2. “There’s never an excuse for spelling mistakes, is there?”

This point was made to me twice by a BBC TV newscaster. The answer is no, there’s never an excuse. However, if you have lots of people to proofread your statement and you’re repeatedly told it’s something you’ve got to get right, chances are you’ll take a bit more care. The sixth form college applicant who made twelve basic language errors in his statement wasn’t stupid – his attainment record proves that – he just didn’t understand how much those mistakes could count against him.

3. “We like to be holistic in the way we select our students”

It’s never easy to argue with the word ‘holistic‘, but there’s no advantage to using lots of indicators unless every one is bringing fairness to the selection process. Perhaps a small amount of appropriately contextualized attainment evidence is actually more equitable than a wide range of hazy non-academic indicators?

4. “We use the personal statement as a starting point for interview questions”

The Oxbridge colleges sometimes use this argument, but it isn’t a very strong one because most UK university applicants aren’t interviewed for any of the degree programmes to which they apply. And, for those that are, surely it’s not beyond interview panels to formulate their own questions? Besides, the most elite universities are often the sniffiest about statements: we don’t want “second-rate historians who happen to play the flute,” says Oxford’s head of admissions; “no tutor believes [the personal statement] to be the sole work of the applicant any more,” says his former counterpart at Cambridge.

5. “Actually, we know personal statements aren’t a reliable, and we don’t bother reading them”

This point is made regularly, but with half a million statements written every year, maybe it’s time someone mentioned it to the young people who stress and sweat over writing them?

There’s room for compromise, of course. In 2004, the Schwartz Report suggested redesigning the UCAS application form to include prompts that elicit more directly relevant information in a more concise fashion. Those applicants with the social and cultural capital to secure the best work experience and highest prestige extra-curricular experience would then have less opportunity to cash in on their good fortune.


But for the last word on the subject, here’s a member of admissions staff (quoted anonymously in the Pearson report) on just how much difference school type can make to the personal statement:

“I’ve spoken to heads of private schools about the question of how much help they give students in writing statements. They say ‘well, they’re paying £7,000 a term, of course we give them a lot of help, that’s what they’re paying for’. And yet you see statements from what [are] potentially good students from schools which have not got a lot of experience of sending their students to HE, and they’re not very good because no-one knows what to do, how to do it.”

University as a ‘public good’? Only for those who never went…

University as a ‘public good’? Only for those who never went…

This post, co-authored by Anna Mountford-Zimdars, was first published on Oct 4th 2013 by “British Politics and Policy at LSE“.


Using data from the last 30 years, Steven Jones and Anna Mountford-Zimdars examined public attitudes towards participation in higher education. Despite questions being framed in ways that increasingly constructed university as a public expense, they identified a persistent belief in the core values of Higher Education. Among some of the surprising results, they found that graduates were more than twice as likely to favour a reduction in participation as non-graduates.  

In an era of rising tuition fees, deepening student debt and the global commodification of learning, any remaining notion of Higher Education as a ‘public good’ may seem improbable. However, evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey shows that the broader, society-wide benefits of Higher Education are still prized, albeit not always by those you might expect.

Together with colleagues from Oxford and London University, we examined surveys from the last thirty years to chart how public attitudes towards participation have reflected changes in policy. Despite questions being framed in ways that increasingly constructed university as a public expense, we identified a persistent belief in the core values of Higher Education. For example, 43% of those surveyed in 2010 thought that over half of young people should go on to university, a finding at odds with popular perceptions of a labour market saturated by graduates of ‘Mickey Mouse’ degree programmes.

More surprising, Higher Education was cherished most highly by those from lower social classes. Only 10% of working class respondents thought opportunities should be reduced, compared to 26% among the professional and managerial classes. We also found gender and school type to be key predictors of attitude. Men were more likely than women to say that university isn’t worth the time and money, as were those educated privately. But the strongest predictor was whether respondents had themselves participated, with graduates more than twice as likely to favour a reduction as non-graduates. Those who profit most from Higher Education, it would seem, are those most inclined to pull up the ladder behind them.

Zimdars fig 1

Of course, such are the private benefits of Higher Education for many graduates that public funding for universities could be regarded as little more than a middle class subsidy. However, this frames debates within the narrow, individualistic terms of human capital, problematic not only because different degree programmes yield different income ‘premiums’, but because, for some students, the value of a degree isn’t solely economic – it’s also about personal growth and the chance to become part of a better-educated, fairer society.

Self-interest is increasingly assumed to be the main driver for Higher Education participation, with students constructed as savvy consumers and debt justified in terms of enhanced lifetime earnings (or repayment concessions for those less fortunate). But against this tide of marketisation, support for Higher Education as a public good lingers.

Full paper:  Anna Mountford-Zimdars, Steven Jones, Alice Sullivan & Anthony Heath (2013) “Framing higher education: questions and responses in the British Social Attitudes survey, 1983–2010”.  British Journal of Sociology of Education (34, 5-06), pp. 792-811.

Time to stop gambling on advantaged university applicants?

Coinciding with the publication of this summer’s exam results was a familiar spate of media pieces warning universities not to “patronise poor kids” by lowering offers to those who don’t get the grades.

As usual, such students are constructed as a “gamble”, universities as well-meaning but naïve institutions, and OFFA as meddling social engineers. The “real” problem always lies elsewhere.

But is it really an academic “gamble” to acknowledge that not all young people have the same schooling advantages?

No, says most of the evidence. Primarily because such students actually outperform those from the private sector once at university. In fact, to recruit on grades alone would be a far greater gamble – that’s why most universities now consider contextual data when choosing between similarly qualified candidates.

In this week’s TES, Tom Bennett argues that such approaches simply move the injustice elsewhere, “from lack of opportunity for some from birth, to lack of opportunity for some at the point of university admission”.

This is a quite a claim: that advantaged students, often brimming with social capital and coached to game the HE admissions system, could face a “lack of opportunity” at the Russell Group gates.

I’m not sure we need worry about that just yet.

Indeed, using a Freedom of Information request, The Guardian last week showed that private school applicants were 9% more likely to be admitted to Oxford than those from state schools with same grades. Long-term academic studies of UCAS data reach similar conclusions.

Put simply, applicants from the state sector must earn higher grades than their private school counterparts to have the same chance of entry.

This is generally lost on the authors of topical opinion pieces, where the approach tends towards “I know of one student…” anecdotes.

For Bennett, “universities are not places in which to unpick the stitches of historical injustice”.

But if those stitches need unpicking, where better to start?

Are degree awards inflating four times faster than GCSEs?

Earlier this week, under the headline “Universities fix results in ‘race for firsts‘”, the Telegraph reported on research by Prof John Thornes of Birmingham University suggesting that the rules according to which degree classifications are calculated were “often bent to boost numbers”.

In short, undergraduate students are now twice as likely to be awarded a first or an upper second than they were in 1997.

Interestingly, the odds of GCSE students achieving a top grade have only risen by about a quarter (from 54.4% to 69.4%) over the same period. From this, one could conclude that degree awards are inflating four times faster than GCSEs.

Here are some other alarming stats about ‘award inflation’:

  • In 1980, 13% of Cambridge Uni graduates were awarded a first; in 2010, the proportion was 23%;
  • In 1980, 3% of Warwick Uni graduates were awarded a first; in 2010, the proportion was 23%;
  • In 1980, 4% of Exeter Uni graduates were awarded a first; in 2010, the proportion was 19%;

In the UK, we’re all familiar with debates about grade inflation in pre-18 education. “They didn’t have dumbed-down exams like that in my day” is how some will respond to the graph below. For others, it’s simply evidence that teachers have got better at teaching and learners better at learning.

Naturally, the marketisation of HE puts pressure on universities to be more generous in their awards. “How many firsts were there last year?” parents ask at Open Days. League tables rank institutions on the proportions awarded.

A further problem is that universities have different ways of calculating degree classifications. I’ve attended (and chaired) dozens of Exam Boards, many as an External Examiner. Regulations differ, and grey areas can usually be found. Some Boards take performance across all years of study into account; others don’t. Some discount a student’s lowest score; others factor in ‘exit velocity’ for those who perform strongly in their final semester. Most have a system for identifying ‘borderline’ students; some even have a separate policy for ‘borderline borderlines’.

No academic wants to disadvantage their own students. It’s little wonder that awards creep higher each year.

Alternatives aren’t easy to find. University College London recently announced they would abandon traditional classifications for an American style “grade point average”. This is a far preferable solution than that proposed by Prof Alan Smithers of Buckingham University, who wants to introduce a “starred first” (to be followed, presumably, by a double-starred first, then a triple-starred first…).

So why does ‘award inflation’ receives less media attention than its naughty younger sister, ‘grade inflation’?

Cynics might suggest that if everyone does better in their GCSEs and A-levels, the established middle classes don’t like it because their educational edge is eroded. However, if everyone does better at university, this doesn’t matter so much (because by then most of the working classes have been filtered out the system anyway).

There’s a touch of conspiracy about that theory, but – whatever the explanation – I can guarantee that the next time you read about qualification inflation, the story is more likely to be about school children than university students.