Academic freedom is holding back fair access to the professions

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Those of us advocating for users in the public policy space will be familiar with the concept of “provider capture”. It describes the way in which the interests of providers – and those that run them – come to be embodied in policy at the expense of users.

It’s a concept that will be hauntingly familiar to Sir Michael Barber, as he wrestles with an Office for Students that, despite its title, will be formed by legislation and a minister which barely seems to talk about students anymore. And it will also be familiar to Director for Fair Access Les Ebdon, whose organisation will soon be merged into the new OfS.

Having yanked money away from access initiatives in the last parliament, one of the things it’s possible to give the current government some credit for is its focus on social mobility, particularly in the Higher Education and Research Bill. OFFA will get powers to intervene beyond access and into student retention, achievement and employment. There’s a new statutory duty to publish application, offer, acceptance and completion rates by gender, ethnic background and socio-economic background.

And now Jo Johnson has announced further changes, tabling an amendment which will also require universities to publish attainment data broken down by these characteristics. If you believe (as I do) that the publication of this sort of data can help to drive change, it’s happy days.

Change is needed because the harsh reality is that a degree does not have the same value for all graduates. Even when institution and subject are accounted for, students from higher income families earn around 10% more than the average. Black African qualifiers are 14% less likely than their white peers to be in professional work six months after graduation. And there is a high social mobility penalty; those who make it from working class backgrounds into the professions are likely to be paid around £150 a week less than their counterparts who grew up in professional families. 80% of medical students come from households containing professionals or those in higher managerial roles, and more than a quarter from private schools.

The staff rooms of the UK’s big firms and professions remain stubbornly unrepresentative. In some law firms around 40% of staff were educated at fee-paying or selective schools, and as many as 70% in some elite accountancy firms, compared to 7% in the wider population. Their recruitment practices don’t help. Research conducted for the Social Mobility Commission in 2015 found that notions of talent at some top firms rely on class characteristics as much as objective measures of how good someone might be at a job.

Given this national disgrace, the man on the Clapham omnibus might be forgiven for assuming that the UK’s higher education access regulator is doing something about all of this, particularly when it comes to medicine, law, dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary studies and accountancy courses. Surely Les Ebdon looks at the stats and ensures that access agreements ensure improvements can be made in widening access to the professions through professional university courses?

Sadly not. Last summer I put this question to our access regulator at a conference, and he made clear that the law prevents him from analysing or regulating universities at a subject level on the grounds of ‘academic freedom’.

When OFFA was created in 2004, Universities UK successfully argued that lines should be written into legislation to stop government meddling in course choice, and this is now used to bat off any attempts to diversify the intake of subjects that lead into the top professions. Jo Johnson’s announcement that he’s backing Lord Stevenson’s amendment on institutional autonomy will compound the problem. Is this another abuse of the sector’s cherished ‘autonomy and freedom’?

It’s not just the professions where this is problematic for fairer and wider access. Wide disparities beneath institution’ averages hide all sorts of differences between subjects. Any higher education institution in the top end of the sector that holds its region’s nursing contract can prop up failures in widening participation elsewhere. Take those students away, and a whole chunk of their progress on poor postcodes, mature, and BME access disappears.

It is dispiriting that ‘autonomy’ clauses strengthened in the Bill might further prevent any real action here. The whole affair does give us clues as to why subject-level TEF is being skilfully talked down and long-grassed by sector representatives. Whole-institutional averages on all sorts of issues – including access, attainment, satisfaction, retention and graduate destinations – are pointless information for students if they hide pockets of poor performance at subject level. It’s a classic ‘category error‘. Yet Johnson has put back full implementation of subject-level TEF to 2019-20, with mutterings that this is the pre-cursor to a quiet dropping of subject-level interventions altogether.

The result is as familiar as it is miserable. At the behest of a legislature captured by the socially exclusive, the minister trying to save his Bill has backed down and guaranteed that those universities which supply the UK’s doctors, dentists, lawyers and accountants are never held accountable for the poor job that they do at recruiting disadvantaged students to those courses.

And so the cycle of capture continues.

3 thoughts on “Academic freedom is holding back fair access to the professions”

  1. Nell says:

    The main argument of this piece rests on the assumption that education equals social mobility for disadvantage social groups. For example, more BME students enrolled in university medical degress equals more BME doctors. But what evidence is there to support this assumption? A recent report by a group of researchers suggests during the period of expansion of access to HE (1990’s onwards) social mobility has stalled. So may be politicians and policy makers are barking up the wrong tree? May be the issue is with employers not educators? And maybe, as a society we want universities to concentrate on generating new knowledge and new ways of doing stuff rather than creating ’employees’.

  2. “More BME students enrolled in university medical degrees equals more BME doctors. But what evidence is there to support this assumption?”. I’m going to assume that this is satire.

  3. AndyR says:

    I’m not sure that sector opposition to subject-level TEF is necessarily a conspiracy to hide pockets of weak performance in relation to widening participation. I think it might be because subject-level TEF will either be (a) an expensive bureaucratic nightmare which operates at a broad, rather than programme, level and which therefore doesn’t accurately provide students with real subject-specific information on student happiness, employability and the relative essay-writing ability of an institution’s administrative staff; or (b) a very, very expensive bureaucratic nightmare.

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