Elephant trap. Noun. From the practice of herding and catching elephants, largely in India, first coined in the nineteenth century. Has migrated to now figuratively mean a trap that only the unwary or the foolish should now fall in, and the competent should avoid (presumably because it’s so blinking big).
I don’t think the announcements on “low value courses” and “rip off degrees” are an elephant trap. Over inflated rhetoric notwithstanding, I think the government genuinely believes it (and a decent chunk of voters do too).
But the sector is in danger of making it an elephant trap, by falling headlong into a series of responses which are overly defensive. I worry that the responses show a soldier mindset not a scout mindset – determined to pick holes in the argument (or what we’d like the argument to be), rather than engage with it. At its worst, I worry that the reflexive anti-government mindset of too many in the sector has led us to some frankly unbelievable and incredible positioning.
Let’s take some of the most sensible – but also least helpful – objections first. Yes, a simple wage premium model does unfairly disadvantage creative subjects, those who work in the public sector, and those who graduate into labour markets not in London and the South East. Polly Mackenzie gives this general discourse a good shoeing, rightly, here. But this argument against yesterday’s announcement is playing the game on easy mode. The government isn’t suggesting a simple wage premium model.
Second, action in this area does risk having a socioeconomic skew to it. Tony Moss covers this really well in his recent research which shows the link between TEF ratings and student outcomes and socioeconomic status. An intervention which didn’t take account of that, and simply capped institutions with large numbers of poorer students, would indeed be a poor one.
But the responses to yesterday’s announcement haven’t actually really focused on what I read the government is proposing to do – which is to use a slight extension of OfS’ existing powers, and some investigatory action, to explore courses – not whole “Mickey Mouse” degrees, nor whole institutions – and look at instances of poor quality provision, measured not just in terms of simple wage premia but against all the existing B3 thresholds, and using some wider human judgment too.
Instead we have had “misleading, politically motivated and offensive” from UUK, and “berating the sector… which will be disastrous” from University Alliance. We have also had “a false promise….slammed in the door of students” from London Higher, and, slightly more restrained, “wage premia are reductive and unhelpful” from Million Plus.
The only references – literally the only references I can find, from the slew of quotes out from the sector – that accept that the issue is even legitimate to be raised comes from Universities UK saying that the sector supports the idea of having a “robust” backstop so that “if courses aren’t performing well there’s something there to make sure that that doesn’t just get left to continue” (before it segues into calling it misleading etc), and Million Plus saying it and its members “wholly support a fair, robust and transparent quality system, and are absolutely committed to maintaining excellent standards.”
I mean, come on.
The struggle is real
It’s easy to laugh at ministers who can’t name a specific course on TV that falls below the thresholds – most likely to the relief of government and OfS lawyers working on quality investigations. And yes, they should have been prepared for that. But we know that there are some, because DK has modelled them. And we know there might be an issue, because OfS already has powers to investigate these and is doing so. We used to at least acknowledge that there might have been an issue. Whatever happened to UUKs quality charter, and why isn’t that leading discussions today?
Are we really seemingly now saying as a sector – really, truly – that there’s no instance of provision among that offered in the more than 400 institutions registered with the OfS, to over two million students, that is anything less than stellar? Even in the midst of mass expansion of provision, at high speed, over the last decade or two? Because if so, I have a bridge to sell you (which will lead you safely over the elephant trap, honest).
To characterise the whole sector as delivering good provision, and to say that when courses are below benchmarks, it must be because they are teaching creative subjects not suited to being benchmarked, or simply battling ingrained socioeconomic disadvantage, strains credulity beyond that which it can bear.
Again, we’ve seen this highlighted on Wonkhe earlier. Courses where continuation rates are low. Where there are, shall we say, interesting recruitment tactics. Where students are given promises around future jobs with big wages which don’t manifest in the end – not because they’re going to be nurses, or social workers, or Jonny Ive, but because they have not been given qualifications or skills through their degree which deliver what the labour market needs.
So we do need to work on the outcome metrics to get this right. For me, B3 – all of B3, not just salaries – plus some human intelligence from OfS, seems a pretty good place to start a discussion. But conflating genuine concern around the metrics and process, with reflexive anti-government hatred, is an own goal.
See no evil
Schools used to have a similar argument with government (including Labour administrations). It used to be common to go to education events and hear people swear blind that there was no such thing as a failing school. No such thing as a bad teacher. There was just context, and poverty, and know-nothing Westminster politicians in search of a cheap political headline should shut up and go away.
But they didn’t. Successive administrations – mainly driven by Tony Blair and Michael Gove – said, yes we need to understand context, but we also need to set minimum expectations for taxpayers and for the pupils in those schools. And saying “yes there is bad provision, and no it won’t be accepted,” isn’t because ministers wanted everyone to be like Eton, but the opposite – that they didn’t want to write off another generation of precisely the children who would never go to the schools who did well under the traditional metrics but who frankly deserved a better standard than they were getting in their state-funded schools at present.
This is what the HE sector is completely missing. And if the lesson from schools is anything, it’s that sooner or later a government of either particular colour will get fed up with this excuse-making and turn to action.
You know what? It turned out there were some failing schools, after all. And government took action on them, and made them better.
Those who opposed these reforms dressed up their campaigns to make them look like they were protecting the schools most attended by poorer kids. But they weren’t. They were betraying those kids’ futures.
And if we as an university sector don’t want to see a sweep through of government action that demands far greater consistency of provision and far greater regulatory activism as the cost of improving standards, then we need to be prepared to have a much more honest conversation between ourselves, and to students, and to government.
This may strain sector solidarity. But so be it. We’re in this for students. Insisting that everything in HE is as good for them as it possibly can be, and that there is no case to answer (or even question to be asked) on quality, is not realistic.