Level 3 results are a lightning rod for anxiety about the status of university

Debbie McVitty argues that doomful media stories about the state of universities reflect wider cultural angst

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

If you’ve seen a lot of level 3 results days then maybe it’s all looking very familiar – but this year’s batch of articles about school and college leavers making it to university feels especially laden with gloom.

In no particular order in the lead up to results day we’ve seen anxiety about international students crowding out home students, universities being unable to guarantee accommodation to first-year students, high profile reassurances/nudges that technical or apprenticeship routes could be just as rewarding as going to university, and concerns about students’ and young people’s mental health.

Read below the fold in most cases and you’ll find a bit more nuance – for example, universities explaining that until they have the actual results in hand and know what their likely incoming cohort is they can’t always make firm offers of courses or accommodation to UK students, but that picture will change as Clearing progresses.

And it’s rarely acknowledged that degree apprenticeships aren’t really an “alternative” to university. If anything they are merely a different way of gaining a university qualification – and tend to be much trickier for a school or college leaver to secure than a place on a traditional university course at that.

So in one sense it’s the usual thing where the nature of media reporting tends to boil a complex picture down to a single perspective, and getting wound up about it only makes the sector look a bit naive.

Doom spiral paradigm

But I was particularly struck by an opinion column from Social Market Foundation director James Kirkup. From universities’ perspective Kirkup reaches all the right conclusions – increase funding to universities (Kirkup favours fee increases and forced fee differentiation as the vehicle for achieving this) – but for all the wrong reasons: too much international recruitment, a badly-run sector delivering too little value for money.

Kirkup presents the situation as a doom spiral – underfunded universities are forced to recruit more international students, which means they value home students less and the less well-funded home student experience is worse (more remote provision, larger classes etc) – but the sector’s failure to admit that it’s not doing well means it won’t get the support it needs from government, which forces it to recruit more international students, and so on.

There’s always been a handful of concerns about whether international students might “replace” home students, particularly from those outlets focused on the recruitment practices of the most selective universities. The reality is of course that the bulk of international student growth occurs at taught postgraduate level – the overall proportion of non-UK undergraduates the system in 2017-18 was about 17 per cent, rising a whole percentage point for 2021-22 to about 18 per cent – hardly an epic takeover, though broader concerns about the over-reliance of the sector on international student income are pertinent.

But this shift in perspective is telling: from recruitment of international students as a success story of a thriving and internationally well-regarded sector to a desperate move from a beleaguered and under-funded sector.

There’s a psychological phenomenon we are all subject to where we take ostensibly the same set of facts and use them as evidence to confirm our view of how the world is – the facts themselves are not debated, but what they signify is. For example, “universities invest in wellbeing support for students” could equally be read as “we’re in the throes of a student mental health crisis” or “students will achieve more as universities respond to the emotional complexity of higher level study.”

This isn’t cynical media spin or “alternative facts” – these opinions are held in good faith, by sensible and smart people. So it’s not that observers of the sector are getting their facts wrong, it’s that for some reason these people’s guts are telling them that the higher education sector is in a bad way.

This phenomenon speaks to me of a wider public anxiety about the changing status of university education, and the tensions between inclusion and selection, student choice and employer demand, personal development/experience, and salary outcomes. I think it likely that the pandemic experience of online study wedged open the door to some of these questions about what higher education is when you really come down to it – and the rumblings of concern about returns on investment and value for money keep the fire fuelled.

But even if you accept that there are “pockets” – or even “periods” – of less than perfect provision, which I think most people do, why is that taken as evidence of widespread issues rather than a more rational response which says that this is true of all sectors and is broadly why regulation exists?

Existential angst

Perhaps it’s because as the world gets more complicated and less predictable, university study takes on an outsized (almost certainly overblown) significance in carrying the weight of future possibilities and opportunities. Even the pathways into specific professions via university aren’t guaranteed. When higher education is done at the complexity and scale that we’re currently seeing it’s just not possible to say with any degree of certainty whether going to university is the “right” choice – because there are no right choices, ultimately, there’s only what looks and feels right at the time.

But once it’s no longer easy to say that university education is always “good” – it may be often good, even most of the time, but not always – then the worry becomes that it might be “bad” – and if that’s the case, then one of the major sources of cultural meaning, education, is compromised. You can fill that gap with “alternatives to university” or “just get a job” or “students need better value for money” but when you boil it down I think there’s an element of being upset with universities for no longer being able to provide the kind of affable Establishment cultural reassurance that we would quite like them to – that effort is rewarded with success, and that what we know now will still be true ten years hence, and generally, that everything is in hand and all will be well.

Universities tend to respond to doom-mongers with a counter-narrative of how great they are doing, how internationally successful they are and – quite pertinently – how many jobs in the future will need graduate-level skills so whatever you think about how universities are doing right now it might be preferable, financially speaking, not to cut them off at the knees.

All this risks feeding the view that universities are wilfully blind to their “failures” – but I’m not sure what the alternative is. I’m not convinced that “admitting” there are problems would suddenly create goodwill towards the sector and additional funding. Nor that the sector suddenly emphasising the minority of examples of poor practice at the expense of the bulk of solid output would be an accurate depiction of the reality.

The key is that there’s no single “true” story about the HE sector. All stories have an element of truth and element of arranging facts to fit the narrative. HE is full of very committed and smart people (at every level) working hard and doing their best, often achieving startling things, and making about the usual number of screw ups given the complexity of the organisations involved, the external landscape, and the scale of the scope for basic human error. Civil servants tend to understand this because this is the water they, too, swim in. MPs, like the public they respond to, have only limited bandwidth and are a bit more likely to work off vibes.

So as the sector continues to battle the ostensibly perplexing view that it’s going to hell in a handcart, it’s probably worth remembering that in a lot of cases facts are only as powerful as the stories they illustrate. Where universities have the opportunity to bring the debate down to a more authentic, humdrum level, they might find it easier to start to build new stories to undermine the grand narratives of failure.

One response to “Level 3 results are a lightning rod for anxiety about the status of university

  1. Thanks for this. I like the line “there are no right choices, ultimately, there’s only what looks and feels right at the time” and I think this will be a very individual experience for each who goes to university. I would add that all narratives tend to ignore any aspect of personal responsibility: in other words, how two students on the same programme with the same level of award / result, could have very different futures based on their overall attitude and approach to navigating the workplace.

Leave a Reply