Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The Office for National Statistics has published Oct-Dec 2023 labour market stats.

The headline that I was interested in was that of 18 to 24 year olds in full-time education, about a third had a job, and just over 10 per cent were looking for one – figures that haven’t changed significantly for a decade.

There’s a significant sampling problem with the Labour Force Survey – it doesn’t directly include people in non-private accommodation, which includes those in NHS accommodation and students in halls of residence.

Students in halls are only included through the parental home – but it’s not as if international students’ parents are being sampled, and there’s a real question over whether a lot of parents would even know that their offspring are in work, so when the bulking back up is done it’s a real possibility that that third is a major underestimate.

That would explain why all the other polling I’ve read suggests that the number is much higher. So while we wait for more detailed/accurate figures to become available on employment rates, I thought I’d at least look to see if there’s been any changes in the hours that students are doing.

If we look in detail at the figures that are available, and look just at undergraduates on full-time, first degree programmes with a job, we can see up to Q1 2023 – and the figures are really quite astonishing:

You’ll see I’ve not included 2021 or 2020 given the pandemic noise in the data, although I’ve put a couple of decade numbers in for five years ago and ten years ago. And as you can see, the percentage that appear to be working full time or more (defined here as 35 hours plus) is growing. We might well assume that once we get the data for right now, that big red bar will have grown again.

Pretty much every international study ever says that working more than 15 hours during term time means that health and educational outcomes start to suffer for full-time students. Even if universities intensify timetables to accommodate, what kind of state will students be in when they’re not on campus? And what are the chances of these double full-timers picking up the participation and networking they need to excel in the labour market?

We can have a fair guess at why this happening, of course – cost of living and statutory support not catching up with it. There may not be a major impact on getting in showing up in UCAS stats, but the danger is that there’s a major impact on getting on.

Fair play to the University of Manchester – this blog on “finding a balance” when working as a student has some good advice in it. But the story of the student whose Tuesday consists of getting up at 2:30am, getting on a bus at 3:00, getting to the airport at 4:00 and then frying chicken until the afternoon is bleak enough – until the next para has working more hours as an events steward for a security company. Was being a full-time student really supposed to be like this?

A key plank of any government’s policy on HE and students should be to seek to get the red and orange bars down. The question is whose job will it be to do it.

Getting on with it

Despite advocates of there being no controls on undergraduate student numbers still extolling that policy’s opportunity expansionist virtues, and pretty much the whole of the England sector delighted that it saw off proposals for a minimum entry threshold for similar reasons, it’s now becoming clear that alternatives are proving to be much more chaotic, and potentially much worse for the participation end of A&P.

A Treasury no longer able to issue endless loans behind a “fiscal illusion” was always going to seek to control its costs and exposure somehow – and it’s doing it by reducing both the real-terms unit of resource (both for tuition and maintenance), and reducing the long-run cost of issuing those loans through punitive changes to terms that will hit the least successful half of graduates the most.

That universities have retained autonomy over how many students to admit and the entry criteria to admit them is still painted as some kind of win over meddling mandarins to protect opportunity. But it’s a pyrrhic victory for those without the resources to succeed, on programmes either so large as to slash the support to students that is available, or so small that the constant threat of downsizing or abolition hangs over them like a sword.

And yet there are still plenty of people taking out a mortgage on a new mansion in cloud cuckoo land, defaulting to “fees need to go up” as a solution to the emergent funding crisis, pretending that it isn’t obvious that maintenance will need to increase before fees do. And they’re also pretending that getting both back even halfway to where the sector was pre the perma-crises of the past few years is anything other than now nigh-on impossible.

Can students succeed?

All of that leaves universities – especially those in England preparing their Access and Participation plans – in an exceptionally difficult position.

Nobody says out loud that students should be on courses that they don’t have the attainment or ability to succeed on, and nobody says that they should be on them even if they don’t want to be on them. But it feels to students and the public like they are and they are.

With the cap off, the unit of resource dwindling and the annual “scramble” focussed on recruitment rather than selection, the sector is still suggesting that the attainment, ability and desire trifecta is better judged by universities when nobody else believes them.

And yet the more that universities compete for a smaller unit of resource, the more that universities will look like they are admitting and trapping students (either home or international) without one of those sides of the autonomous admissions triangle being true.

Over the years, I’ve been the first to rail against the idea that gaps in getting in, on and out are always someone else’s fault. There’s always been more that universities can do, and there probably still is.

But once the system is structurally designed such that all the responsibility is landed on universities, and the external environmental bits that the state is responsible for get worse and worse, my case is destroyed. Everyone will have an excuse – and it’s students who won’t get in or won’t do well that are caught in the crossfire.

Preparedness and ability

Attendees at last year’s Secret Life of Students event will recall that John Blake, OfS’ director for fair access and participation, accepted that universities should not recruit students if they are not prepared or able to support them adequately.

Let’s take that reasonable “don’t set them up to fail” argument, and take it closer to its logical conclusion. On the one hand, it’s possible (and almost certainly true) that a better understanding of what works, better targeting, better designed interventions, upstream interventions in schools and better partnerships (both with charities and students) might increase the chances of a university closing its gaps.

On the other, when there’s less money around per student (both in premium funding and the core unit of resource), the needs are growing in depth and complexity and the external financial, health and housing environment is getting worse, it’s possible (and almost certainly true) that the external environment is increasing the chances of a university widening its gaps.

Couple that with the competition thing, and it means that universities are less likely to be admitting those who are qualified by attainment for its programmes, less likely to admit those who are qualified by ability to do well on its programmes (and overcome the numerous other challenges), and more likely to overdo the desire thing, both to get them in and to get them to hang on in there.

Whatever the developments in teaching and support practice, anyone that thinks that “standards” and “outcomes” can both meaningfully survive all of that has moved in next door to the “increase fees” mob mentioned earlier.

Taken at face value and all things being equal, universities sticking to the Robbins principle would be establishing minimum maintenance income thresholds under which they would refuse to admit. They would be establishing tests for mental fitness and resilience on entry, and advising more Disabled students that the adjustments required to enable their success are not reasonable in the funding and environmental conditions that are present.

They would be advising that anyone needing to work over 20 hours a week is likely to fail, would be refusing to admit those without the cultural capital to succeed, and would be raising entry tariffs rather than lowering them. But they neither should, can nor will – and the more that they can’t and won’t, the more that regulators, ministers and public will blame them for it.

A limit to what can be done

On the topline, every university in England should probably write to John Blake and say “mate, can’t be done”, or “can’t be done without more resource”, or at least “can’t be done without massive rewiring that we don’t have the capacity to do on our own”.

Instead, the danger is that a game will play out where universities pretend that it can be done, and Blake’s team signs off on plans that reflect the pretence – and he’ll be long gone by the time it becomes obvious that it was all nonsense.

Alternatives are available. An honest dialogue between Blake, the sector and the Treasury over what can be afforded, on what basis, and how many (and which sort) of students it can be afforded for is now surely long overdue.

That should involve a clear compact between the state and autonomous universities over both ends playing their part to widen access and reduce student success gaps. If anything, we need an access regulator to be able to critique the Department for Education’s own APP – along with one for other government departments that have a bearing on the student experience – as much as we do universities’. Health, housing, the DWP and so on – they all have a part to play.

Student finance reform should almost certainly enable 180 credits to be completed over four years, not three – reducing the rush that forces standards to slip, the relationship of credits to hours to become meaningless, mental health to worsen and support having to be piled onto those that just need to reduce their pace to do well.

There are bigger questions over the structure of mass higher education, what we give credit for, and the nature of learning, assessment and subject that are more urgent than ever to resolve if a solution is to be proposed that will hang together financially.

And student numbers planning and distribution – planned expansion, if you will – with a proper look at the relationship between provider regulation, opportunity, subject and place (anticipating rather than resisting tertiary integration), is now almost certainly more attractive than the damaging erosion of the Robbins triangle.

Not only is it essential to reducing the UK’s dated obsession with leaving home to attend higher education only to have to return to it for another fifteen years, it’s also the only prospect that higher education has of securing additional resource if it ever becomes available.

Leave a Reply