Does the White Paper make Watson’s eight ‘category mistakes’?

Back in 2013, the late, great Sir David Watson wrote a paper for HEPI entitled Misunderstanding Modern Higher Education: eight category mistakes. Watson outlined eight frequent misapprehensions about UK HE that were often made in policy discussions and policy making. As the first in a series of pieces that will evaluate the White Paper against criteria for effective policy making, we ask, have these category mistakes been made or avoided?

Error 1 – Judging performance at the ‘institutional’ level

Watson pointed out that “courses, subjects and evolving inter- and multidisciplinary academic and professional fields, should count more than whole institutions” when evaluating both research and teaching quality. Right away, the proposals for the TEF are struggling to allow for this. The White Paper says that discipline-level assessments will not be made until at least year 4 (2018-19), and only then after a successful pilot scheme. With institutions holding onto their TEF levels for up to 3 years, we may not see many providers assessed at the discipline level until at least 2020-21. As such, a high TEF level may prove to be misleading for some students who enter lower performing departments who are ‘held up’ by higher performing departments within the same institution.

Error 2 – Confusing ‘widening participation’ and ‘fair access’

Watson argued that obsessing about disadvantaged students making it to the ‘top’ institutions for its own sake was errant way of understanding fair access and social mobility – Oxbridge isn’t for everybody. Instead, Watson wrote that focus needed to be on “getting more students qualified and to the starting-gate” with a fair shot – primarily through developments in schools policy. The White Paper has stopped short of giving the Director of Fair Access the power to set targets for individual institutions, which suggests that this error has been avoided. Nonetheless, the open publication of data might prove to put just as much pressure on individual institutions to aggressively seek applications from lower-participation backgrounds in order to avoid public ridicule.

Error 3 – Taking HE in isolation from tertiary education

“It is ‘tertiary’ (including higher education) rather than exclusively ‘higher’ education that matters to society at large”, argued Watson. In spite of overtures towards developing degree apprenticeships and the coming introduction of a Skills White Paper and Skills Bill, BIS at present appears to have very little coordination of tertiary education policy. The PM and several ministers have a declared aim of ‘university or apprenticeship’ for all 18 year olds, but it is unlikely that the current trajectory will lead to this. Area reviews of FE colleges have not included universities (with some exceptions), and lifelong and part-time learning in FE and HE has collapsed since 2010. Whilst the liberalising of degree awarding powers might bring some colleges into competition with universities, there is little in the White Paper that suggests a coordinated size and shape for tertiary education as a whole.

Error 4 – Research selectivity and concentration

Watson was fiercely sceptical of claims that ‘concentration’ produced better research outcomes, arguing that the cooperative and international nature of modern research made this irrelevant. Much will depend on the ongoing Stern Review of the REF with regards to this. The acceptance of the Nurse recommendations vis-a-vis the research councils intends “a greater focus on cross-cutting issues that are outside the core remits of the current funding bodies, such as multi- and inter-disciplinary research”, but it is doubtful whether this can go anyway to addressing the ‘two-tier’ system that Watson so decried.

Error 5 – Obsessing over international league tables

Watson was scathing when he wrote that “what governments say they want from higher education systems represents almost the opposite of what the international league tables they also exhort us to climb actually measure”. Jo Johnson appears to have fallen straight into this trap, outlining successive measures on teaching quality, widening participation, regulation, and market competition that will do absolutely nothing to improve the UK’s leading institutions in the world rankings, despite his stated aspiration in the foreword to sustain “our universities’ enviable global reputation and position at the top of the league tables”.

Error 6 – Distinguishing between ‘private’ and ‘public’ institutions

Watson’s noted that established institutions are already quite used to behaving like businesses, despite politicians regularly imploring universities to be more ‘business-like’. The White Paper’s push to expand market competition is a clear extension of this. How it is to be interpreted under Watson’s framework depends on your interpretation: either universities are already well prepared to adapt to the incoming competition, or the issue of ‘shaking up’ the sector with new institutions is entirely moot and will achieve little. Only time will tell.

Error 7 – Misunderstanding student choice

Watson’s observation that “what students want and need can confound the most sophisticated policy frameworks, where spokespersons react to what they regard as irrational choices by prescribing more and decreasingly plausible ‘information’” was wonderfully perceptive and has been borne out by subsequent HEFCE research. It is interesting that the TEF has been framed under the heading of ‘choice’, and not ‘quality’, and also that further work has been proposed to deliver supply-side solutions to STEM graduate employment. Watson would argue that there is already quite sufficient choice available for students, that it has already been significant in shaping our sector, and providing yet more data about graduate employment outcomes will do little to change how students behave.

Error 8 – Confusing reputation and quality

Watson pointed to a growing body of evidence, accepted anecdotally, that “you won’t necessarily learn more if you go to a posh place”. On the face of it, the use of the TEF to challenge arguably complacent institutions on the quality of provision was an attempt to disaggregate reputation and quality. However, as Watson pointed out, reputation is as much used as a proxy for quality by employers as well as students, and so the use of DLHE employment data in the TEF might just create a cycle where established prestige continues to trump small class sizes, effective teaching, and developing skillsets. Again, it remains to be seen.

Two systems

Watson argued that the UK HE system should aim to learn from the US, but not from the New England, privatised, competitive approach, rather the collaborative Californian model. Watson was a strong advocate of credit transfers and flexibility that are a hallmark of the Californian system, but appears to have envisaged it within a collaborative, rather than a competitive system. Today’s call for evidence on introducing course-switching is something that he may have found welcome, but as Ant Bagshaw has noted, it will require a willingness to collaborate and an revival in part-time delivery. Instead, fierce market competition looks set to make institutions more protective and individualist, and despite some friendly words there is little new or substantive on part-time study.

Sadly, the White Paper appears to have made many of the category errors that Watson worried were endemic in UK HE policy making.

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