Give change a chance

I have just read Alan Milburn’s latest report in to the social mobility ‘state of the nation’, published last week – particularly Chapter 6 which focuses on universities and the professions. And I’m depressed. Perhaps even worse than the report itself has been the unthinking acceptance of Milburn’s rhetoric that I’ve seen by much of the sector. Whilst I don’t question the report’s intent or message about the type of society we want, it is the shocking absence of any sense of reality and awareness of what is really happening that really grates.

From where I sit

I write as the Vice Chancellor of a university that has some of the highest participation rates from working class communities, a high proportion of mature and minority ethnic students, as well as having a major reputation for our work with the deaf community. Our progression and completion rates meet our benchmarks and despite being in an area of high unemployment and economic disadvantage, we have a graduate employment rate of 94%.

Previously I have worked on access to HE initiatives in the South Yorkshire coalfields during and after the miners’ strike and on similar issues in inner city Bradford during and after the riots in 2001. With this background, people would normally expect me to be supportive of moves to embrace social mobility. And I am. But Alan Milburn’s report simply regurgitates old ideas, proceeds in the wrong direction and demonstrates a fundamentally limited perception of what HE does.

The report and its recommendations will do absolutely nothing new for the social or economic regeneration needs of the Black Country. The rhetoric about universities needing ‘to do more’ and that they ‘need to work together’ with schools simply misses the point. We are all doing it, and we have done it for years. And it is probably one of the key reasons why the wider situation has generally improved in recent times.

A new lifecycle?

The report gives really positive support for a student lifecycle approach. I welcome this, but then I did 13 years ago when HEFCE first called upon universities to adopt it. This university, and many others, already use such an approach and that could be one of the reasons why as a sector we have relatively good retention rates compared to most international systems.

It is interesting that like much else, Alan Milburn welcomes the student lifecycle as if it is something new. Indeed, there is nothing really new here or even in the HEFCE/OFFA National Strategy on Access and Student Success. All of those ideas have been around for a long time. What is new is the detailed and evaluative approach HEFCE is adopting for its outcome framework and on degree attainment.

Postgraduates

Alan Milburn’s latest report calls for an extension of OFFA’s remit to include postgraduate education. OFFA is undoubtedly good at the detail and procedures for monitoring predicted spend on access activities for UG Home study and reporting on that. But if we really think that extending a bureaucratic regime to a dynamic, international student-dominated mode of provision is a way forward then we are in a sorry mess.

Relaxing regulation on the undergraduate full-time student market whilst simultaneously introducing regulation to a previously unregulated market is a recipe for disaster.

Input, output and evidence

There is a need to enhance social mobility and yes, we can all do more. But the simplistic adoption of input measures used as the way to change society without understanding the complexity of cause and effect does not help. I note that the Commission comes out with recommendations about targeting without looking at all the evidence. When I first drafted the guidance for Aim Higher the then Minister for HE asked me when we would see change. I replied probably not in the length of office of the next two ministers to hold that position. Change takes time.

Could we for once in higher education have some analysis of the pilots already in place and see what they do when they have had time to work through? Could we look at the evidence base of what happens before we jump again into the great unknown? Could we just accept that we were wrong to wind up Aim Higher and bring it back? Could we please avoid assuming that an agency that knows little about postgraduate provision can be parachuted in and cure all its ills?

And finally we need to move away from the middle class concept that one size fits all and allow institutions and communities to work together to deliver change. And measure the impact of that change, rather simply input to the system.

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