New transparency duties: an evolution, not a revolution

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Back in January the Prime Minister bemoaned the lack of progress in tackling social inequality arguing that a young black man is more likely to be in prison than studying at a ‘top’ university. The White Paper has set out how the government aim to tackle the issue of fair access.

The chosen tool is the “transparency condition”. Providers will “publish data on the backgrounds of their applicants to shine a light on their admissions processes. This will help make transparent individual institutions’ admissions records and spur action by institutions in areas where it is needed.”

All well and good, you might think. That’s until you look back to what the government published last November on some of the worst offences of the higher education system. The Green Paper noted that particular ethnic and socio-economic groups are not only less likely to attend university, and less likely to attend a selective institution, they are also less likely to succeed when they get there and after they leave. A HEFCE analysis of students starting their courses in 2007 showed, damningly, whilst accounting for other differences by gender and school type, that “72% of white students who entered HE with BBB at A level gained a first or upper second. This compares with 56% for Asian students, and 53% for black students entering with the same A-level grades.” However, a transparency obligation on attainment and success is a glaring omission from both the White Paper and the Bill.

It’s entirely possible that universities might themselves publish data on academic success by gender, socio-economic group and race. It may be a parallel spur to action that accompanies the fair access transparency obligation. However, the access data requirement is enshrined within the Bill, whilst attainment and success data is not. This will be hard to alter once the Bill is on the statute book. The Secretary of State has reserved the right to assign the categories of providers to which the duty will apply, so why not reserve the right to assign the categories of data that will be required too?

It is entirely possible for data on academic success to be misinterpreted or misunderstood. When institutions have the power to define their own standards, and where those outcome standards drive external measures of prestige (such as the proportion of first and 2.i degrees in league tables), then there is also the capacity for abuse. But it should be possible – I would argue it should be a requirement – for higher education providers to publish the likely success of any student relative to their peers. Taking entry standards into account, does every student have an equal chance of getting a first?

What problem is the transparency requirement trying to solve?

The Green Paper stated that one of the key aims of the new regulatory architecture in higher education was to “require transparency from providers so that students, employers and taxpayers have the information to hold providers accountable.” Aside from the transparency condition relating to access, the primary tool for increased transparency in the new regime is the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and its extensive list of metrics and publication requirements. The TEF integrates equality and access measures with student satisfaction and success measures, but when high-level summary reports are published it’s not immediately evident that all of the detail will be available for scrutiny.

The most significant innovation in transparency is the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset that will be embedded within the TEF. LEO links students’ earnings to place and subject of study. The government intends “to shine a light on the employability outcomes of courses and institutions for students to evaluate alongside other considerations.”

This is serious stuff. Big data can transform the granularity with which it is possible to assess (in crude financial terms) degree outcomes, but as we saw in the recent Institute of Fiscal Studies research, it is probably naive to look at the data dispassionately. The complex web of personal choices, individual, social, and cultural capital and exogenous economic factors play a significant role in employment success. It is also essential that LEO data has a non-HE comparator to ensure that the debate isn’t contained within a narrow sector perspective: we need to know what influences earnings for non-graduates too.

In other, less headline-grabbing parts of the White Paper, we find that the government also intends to extract data from UCAS to facilitate research into access and social mobility. When added to what is available from HESA and LEO there will be some interesting datasets to keep social scientists happy for a while. UCAS will preempt this obligation and release data this week on the success-rates of applicants by institution. This data will move the transparency agenda on with some significant speed. Expect there to be some rude awakenings for individual providers.

Nudges all the way to the bank

If the government’s aim is that hyper-informed, savvy students will be empowered and emboldened by the transparency revolution so that they optimise their education choices for maximum personal gain, then there might be more than a little gap between intention and reality. On the one hand, the government is trying to solve some pretty knotty policy issues that the sector hasn’t yet got to grips with. Transparency in access is good thing, and if academic attainment and success were also published, all the better. This is a nudge in the right direction.

Yet I don’t see the TEF data, including access and LEO, overturning the league tables just yet. There are deep-rooted – often rather arbitrary – perceptions of institutions and of courses of study which won’t be overturned by the cold hard numbers. Some of our most prestigious institutions have eye-wateringly bad NSS scores, but this does not appear to deter applicants or to harm graduates’ earnings. We should also be cautious about the gaming of the numbers that will inevitably take place.

Data publication in itself is not the point. It is not nearly as important as the actions taken by the sector and within individual institutions that result. Transparency might be one of the means to achieve reform in higher education, but it shouldn’t be seen as just an end in itself.

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