Level playing fields are better than handicaps

When I was younger, I used to do a lot of cross-country races. Generally, I would come in, tired and muddy, somewhere in the middle of the pack. But once a year, my running club would run the Club Handicap. The handicappers would assess the likely finish time of each runner and give the slower runners a head-start. The idea was that everyone should have an equal chance of winning. On one occasion, I was the first to cross the finish line and was presented with a shiny tankard.  It was nice – but no-one thought I was the best runner.

The recent Green Paper includes a laudable promise from the Government which plans to continue to push for better access, retention and progression for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and under-represented groups in higher education. It is not an uncontroversial statement for a Conservative government – there are many in their party that think too many people go to university.

However the big question is whether the policies developed to support this ambition will do enough to turn the rhetoric into reality.

Last week, the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission published the latest in its series of reports which attacked Oxbridge colleges in particular for not recruiting more students from state schools.

But Oxford and Cambridge are not the only offenders. The Sutton Trust frequently criticises universities for not trying hard enough to recruit disadvantaged students. Some universities, including University Alliance members (who on average recruit 40% of their intake from widening participation backgrounds) would find that criticism very unfair. But it is not surprising to learn that the whole sector is not putting its weight behind this agenda. There are significant disincentives to do so.

Most universities are very concerned about their position in league tables. Position affects prestige and, in turn, ability to recruit students. As nearly all university finance now follows students, recruitment is fundamental to success.

League tables primarily take account of how difficult it is to get onto a course – measured by how many UCAS points the course requires. As middle-class children often benefit from excellent private (or the best of state) schooling, a university that fishes in this pool will be able to demand a higher tariff and therefore go up in the league tables. It will then in turn be be more attractive to potential students and so tariffs can be raised further still. The same dynamic works when attracting international students. Many foreign governments will only support their students going to universities in the top 50 of their national league table. 

Middle-class students help universities’ position in the league tables in other ways too; they are more likely to enter university with the social capital and resilience to stay the course and, because they have financial support, access to networks and confidence, they are more likely to get a high paying job afterwards.

Conversely, students from disadvantaged backgrounds require additional support from universities if they are to succeed. When HEFCE last looked at this (admittedly a while ago), they found that widening participation students cost 31% more to attract and retain than their peers.

Consequently, successive governments have sought to provide incentives to ‘counter-balance’ the response to league table positioning. Under the current regime, a university may only charge £9,000 (rather than £6,000) in annual fees if it agrees to use some of the additional income to recruit and provide additional support to disadvantaged students. Alongside this, universities that take large numbers of students from disadvantaged or under-represented groups were given money by HEFCE to help them with the additional costs. Although largely working, the Green Paper proposes to shake up these measures.

It proposes a new Teaching Excellence Framework-cumfees-regime which will reward measures of satisfaction, retention and graduate destination. At first glance, this looks like a strong signal that universities should fight as hard as they can to get their middle-class students stay the course and go on to get great jobs without too much extra effort from the university.  

The Government will require the input metrics to be broken down by types of students at the institution and benchmarked to recognise that there are factors outside the university’s control that influence the success of its students (a mechanism also known as a handicap).

However, with less extra money for additional support to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds to settle in, these activities will have to be funded from tuition fee income. The more students from disadvantaged backgrounds there are in a university, the more fee income will be diverted into this kind of activity, rather than into other enhancements to teaching excellence. While it is certainly better for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study alongside middle-class students (and indeed better for middle-class students to work alongside people from disadvantaged backgrounds), the new regime might inadvertently encourage even greater segregation within different kinds of universities.

The final risk is to do with the link to fees. If a university does badly in TEF and is not able to increase its fees, it will have even less money available to improve teaching and may end up in a cycle of decline. As widening participation students often have to study at their local university, they may be also stuck going to a university on the wrong side of that cycle. 

It will be challenging enough to create a TEF that recognises the different kinds of excellence required for medicine, engineering, history and performing arts without becoming too “big, bossy and bureaucratic”. Ideally, policies to encourage widening participation should be separate from the TEF. The obvious way to do this is by retaining as much student opportunity funding as possible and targeting it at those universities that both do the heavy lifting and do it well. In this way, they will be competing on a level playing field when they enter the TEF.

But if the Government stays wedded to a handicap system, it must make sure the handicap is properly weighted. Given the wider disincentives for universities to recruit widening participation students, the weighting cannot just make up the difference between likely outcomes for different kinds of students, it must provide an additional reward to those universities that help the Government meet its ambitious targets and share in the opportunity to prosper.

5 responses to “Level playing fields are better than handicaps

  1. The whole point of the TEF is to enable a fee differential to open up. That is why the metrics that will eventually go into it will benefit Russell Group institutions (staff:student ratios; proportion of staff with doctorates; number of postgrads etc). The government are not trying to devise a system that rewards retention of people from working class and other underrepresented groups of students, if it did then Coventry and Sheffield Hallam etc will be allowed to charge higher fees than Oxbridge (like that is going to happen). The whole benchmarking thing is a chimera. The really key things in the Green Paper are about making it easier to get University Title and Degree Awarding Powers so that new cheaper institutions (sorry, service providers) come into the market to undercut places that don’t attract a lot of applicants with highest entry grades. Economics 101

  2. Brilliant analysis. Sadly, we have seen this happening in schools and the result has been a form of privatisation by the back door. The same will happen to universities. I fear this is basically the plan.

  3. The Green Paper is a classic example of what, in magic and con artist circles, is called ‘misdirection’. While we focus on and obsess about the TEF (guilty) and level playing fields (guilty) the real ‘game’ is the dismantling and privatisation of the sector as we know it and the preparing of the ground for the wonderfully euphemistic ‘market exit’ of various institutions. The TEF certainly won’t measure teaching…but that’s is not what it’s for.

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