The war on “low-value” students continues

Jim Dickinson looks back at FE reform and a drive to improve success rates in the 2000s for context over the fresh crackdown on "low value" courses

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

“It is absolutely clear that students get different returns from different courses… universities with unacceptably high drop-out rates will be asked to plan improvements.

Anyone assuming that an incoming Labour government will deliver on apparent revulsion to the latest crackdown on “low-value” courses in England probably ought to have a read of 2003’s “The future of higher education” white paper.

Back then, variable “returns” from graduate jobs were positioned as a justification for the introduction of £3,000 fees.

Then Secretary of State Charles Clarke also argued that fee income “must not be an incentive for recruiting students for whom higher education, or a particular course, is not suitable”, suggesting that universities were “exploiting their most vulnerable students by making up the numbers with students who cannot cope”.

He called on his new access regulator to develop a system of benchmarks, giving the Office for Fair Access the power to fine those institutions that persistently failed to meet their benchmarks.

On a level

But looking back at previous admissions’ higher education policy is only part of the story. It’s further education policy that arguably both sets the current drive to eradicate “low value” degrees in context, and gives us a sense of what may happen next.

Because arguably the key question is whether the latest crackdown will actually improve non continuation, completion and progression – or just cause universities to reduce choice and withdraw opportunities from the disadvantaged.

Around the same time that polytechnics became universities, general FE colleges in England were too allowed to break free from local authority control and incorporate. At the time they still encompassed both vocational and academic offerings, along with substantial adult learning offers.

I began my career supporting the students’ unions of colleges in the South West. The executive committees of these providers’ SUs were fascinating – students doing A Levels rubbed shoulders with vocational learners, bringing a diversity of perspective about both students and education unmatched by the SUs in the universities in the region.

By 2002, Margaret “mickey mouse courses” Hodge, then a junior minister in the Department for Education and Skills, lambasted the FE sector on the basis that one in five students were dropping out.

But two subsequent studies commissioned by the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA) found that completion was less influenced by finance or external factors than by students’ experiences at college – with appropriate course placement, help with career progression, timetabling, perceived quality of teaching and student-teacher relationships all a much bigger factor.

As we see in higher education, the FE sector responded defensively – high withdrawal rates were, they argued, more about the financial difficulties that their disadvantaged student body faced – and anyway, pass rates differed significantly between various subjects and awards.

Later that year, the government published a new strategy document, Success for All, which had as one of its four strands the introduction of a framework for quality and improvement.

Minimum Levels of Performance or “floor targets” were calculated in terms of student success rates. These proved to be a “powerful tool” for changing behaviour among college managements in terms of the courses they chose to offer and how they organised themselves:

They also led many to concentrate on work which most readily yielded good results, regardless of national priorities to enlarge provision in the most challenging subjects.

Success for all

By the end of the decade, a full-blown crackdown had been delivered. The Learning and Skills Council was charged with and over time refined a regime to get success rates up. Minimum levels of performance were set annually, and the LSC issued urgent “notices to improve” on the threat of the withdrawal of funding. It worked.

Colleges were supposedly autonomous and free to serve the needs of the people in their area. But at my first meeting of West Herts College’s board that I attended in 2009, faced with a set of outcomes for our A level students (who wanted to do something academic but had been failed by their school system), we were directed by the new principal to face down the loyal and talented staff teaching those courses and drop and teach-out the provision – because there were other courses that were “better” for these learners that had better outcomes.

We might not have been charging those learners tuition fees, but we were, we were told, selling those students dreams that neither we nor the local economy could fulfil.

It was a long meeting. Maybe it was the case that these students failed by the compulsory system with a passion for History and English and Economics were happier doing hairdressing, or found another college just outside of West Hertfordshire where they could pursue their dream. Maybe that dream was faulty and we were wasting their time.

The first and last vote at a board meeting happened that day – I lost, and we closed the A Level provision. Success rates nationally continued to improve. These days you will struggle to find a functioning SU in an FE college, and you’ll struggle to find A Levels in a college too – they’re all taught in schools and sixth form colleges.

In post-16 education, an autonomous sector was somehow cajoled into separating head from hand in the way that politicians of both parties have talked of since the dawn of time. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the esteem it gives those students was never on offer in the local general FE college, and maybe more students are now “successful”.

And maybe the choice was false anyway – had Blair not bottled implementing Mike Tomlinson’s recommendations over the post-16 curriculum, integrating vocational and academic routes rather than separating them, we might not have been forced to separate the students in the way that we did.

There was no let up. By 2011, Alison Wolf – who pops up again in the press release over the “mickey mouse courses” crackdown – was lamenting faulty equivalences between academic and vocational qualifications, and was upset that many FE qualifications were not leading to worthwhile qualifications or employment.

And make no mistake – if the success rates Wolf in HE clothing is successful, the ongoing eradication of the “academic” from universities in the bottom half of the tables will continue and intensify. You’ll leave home to go to the Russell Group, or you’ll get hands-on in your local vocational former poly. Maybe that’s a good thing. It certainly feels like that across Europe.

Take a chance on me

Every time a crackdown on “low value” courses comes, I think back to that board meeting. Maybe we were enrolling students onto those courses because they were comparatively cheaper to teach. Maybe the worst thing we could be doing was enrolling them only for them to drop-out, or fail. That’s certainly what the stats suggested.

But I also worried that, responding to the framework set in place by the government, we’d decided that we just weren’t prepared to take the risk – on students.

As I said back when OfS’ B3 regime started to emerge, who education systems decide to take a risk on, and who they decide to withdraw that sort of opportunity from, is one of the most profoundly political decisions that anyone can make. Who we decide students should spend time with, and where, is another.

They are decisions that always pretend to be about provision, but are really decisions about the students who try to enrol on it. How you shift away from a society that continues to place undue value on academic qualifications is an important question, and giving both value and esteem to those without them an ongoing political goal. But when we say “low value” courses, isn’t there a danger that we really mean “low value students”?

I worry a lot – that we’re rarely worried about those undertaking elite academic qualifications lacking the experience of and empathy with those that don’t. It’s always the “hand” people not being oversold, and needing information or regulation to know their place. It’s never the “head” people needing to accept that a fairer society might give everyone the networks and “escape” that the head people get.

I was accused in that meeting of being patronising – of wanting to impose my dream of academic routes onto those who would not thrive doing them.  Maybe they were right.

But for a brief period in our history, the conversion of polytechnics to universities was at least egalitarian in character – at least in theory, everyone got to be a “proper graduate”, and nursing students rubbed shoulders with those studying history. For some that was a solution. For others, it was and continues to be a problem. The others are still winning the argument.

2 responses to “The war on “low-value” students continues

  1. There has been an easy solution staring the sector in the face for decades: split every course into L4, 5 and 6 qualifications.

    Anyone who completes the first year of a degree would have an HNC in that subject
    Anyone who goes on to complete the second year would have an HND
    Anyone who goes on to complete years 3/4 (depending on sandwiches) gets a Degree.

    This would end drop-out rates overnight as someone uncomfortable committing to a whole 3-year degree could see out the remainder of the year and off-board with a qualification in hand. There would be no shame anymore in leaving a course as you would have something to show for it.

    When I studied for an HND we were on exactly the same modules as the degree students and had the exact same assignments. I don’t think this would be that hard to roll out nationwide.

  2. I’m also not a fan of the idea of ‘low value’ degrees. Many who study the arts might not work in that area full-time but still contribute to our wider culture as a hobbyist. Given how much these subject areas add to our economy that is not directly quantifiable I would say the idea of ‘low value’ courses is ridiculous.

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