Today’s HEPI Occasional Paper on ‘The Comprehensive University’ is an important addition to the growing debate around meaningful change within a system that continues to favour the socially privileged and the well tutored.
The paper is to be commended for its courage in advocating a fundamental shift in how the system operates. The author, Tim Blackman (Vice Chancellor at Middlesex University) is not for working within the system; he is for making it anew.
Whilst the controversy in secondary education about the relative merits of comprehensive versus selective schools is alive and kicking, no analogous debate exists within higher education. The significant benefits to students and to wider society of a diverse learning environment are evidenced persuasively in this paper. Many who work in higher education are strongly in favour of non-selective education until young people reach eighteen, yet work within a system where selection is routinely assumed to be appropriate thereafter; this paper should give all of us pause for thought.
Blackman is asking us to reconsider a system where solutions to widening access are centred on ameliorating the effects of disadvantage on the individual, be they in bursaries or support in progression and attainment. Rather, the paper asks us to see selection as the key problem within the English higher education system.
Of course, all of us view the sector from the perspective of our own organisation. As far as I am concerned, I am the vice chancellor of a comprehensive university. In 2015-16, 25% of our students whose household income is available to Student Finance England came from backgrounds where £15,000 or less was going into their home each year. Over 8% – and in all likelihood many more – came from households with a combined income of £50,000 or more. Around 1 in 6 of our undergraduate intake had three A grades at A level or equivalent at level three in 2016. This summer just under 75% of our graduates received a 1st or 2:1, and 75% of the undergraduate class of 2016 had a graduate level job or was in graduate level training six months after leaving us. In more ways than one, we are pretty comprehensive.
The point here is that what Professor Blackman envisages for the future is already happening today in a number of our larger civic universities, such as Nottingham Trent. In order to make further progress, what these institutions need is in one way straightforward: a change in the rhetoric from politicians and commentators about what constitutes a top university. We also need a change in the league tables to stop the perpetuation of irrelevant data to inform rankings. This is why TEF is so important; teaching excellence is not defined by students’ tariff on entry or scale of research activities. Maybe it will encourage many more students from socially privileged and well tutored backgrounds to consider coming to institutions like NTU.
However, the weakness of Blackman’s paper may lie in the very courage I referred to earlier. As Matthew Taylor acknowledges in the foreword, due to “the deep resistance to change in parts of our higher education system … and the current difficulty with politicians making bold decisions [this paper] may not have much joy influencing policy in the short term”.
Furthermore, if the solutions suggested in the paper were to be imposed they would constitute a complicated and centralised measure which would continue the unwelcome habit of governments dictating means not ends. At the same time, a large number of institutions would rush to claim the suggested “specially designated research status” and thus exclude themselves from the new regime.
An alternative way forward would be to make existing regulatory structures more effective. OFFA does not “consider a major breach [of the Access Agreement] to have occurred solely on the basis of a university… not meeting the targets or milestones in its access agreement”. With the regulator focusing on outputs rather than outcomes, HEIs are able to celebrate their expenditure rather than really consider what real impact their initiatives have. Frankly, there is neither much incentive to widen participation nor much sanction for not doing so.
However, OFFA does have significant powers. It “may impose a financial penalty and may additionally refuse to renew [an] access agreement for a period”. The new Office For Students should use both incentives and sanctions on HEIs which do not meet some or all of their own Access Agreement targets over a prolonged period of time. Furthermore, the TEF – and other rankings of universities – should be developed to include metrics that reflect the benefits of diversity in all its many forms.
This might not be quite so revolutionary as what Blackman suggests, but it is a way forward. I suspect this alternative approach will generate enough opposition; however, he and I agree that we have to do something beyond the incremental to move this agenda forward.