There’s an app for [insert issue here]

Is choice really all it’s cracked up to be?

The universities minister certainly seems to think so. Speaking yesterday at the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) annual conference, Sam Gyimah mentioned choice seven times. First, he referenced the latest – highly sophisticated and 10-authors-strong – research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) for DfE, saying students’ choice of course “potentially matters most“ when it comes to achieving value for money (mentioned fourteen times).

Apparently, this is because a “clutch” of courses inexplicably result in lower earnings than others, even when accounting for factors such as student class, ethnicity or prior attainment. Sam made this point in his speech, but he didn’t really answer my query about regional variations, which was a bit worrying given the reliance on Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data, with its well-known limitations.

But more data and more transparency should be a good thing, providing it is used appropriately.

Appy times

Obviously, the solution to helping students make more informed choices is – rather than properly funded and impartial careers information, advice and guidance –  technology. The Minister announced (again) his open data app competition, with details to follow on 25th June. Software developers will be invited to bid for up to five £25k contracts to use publicly available data, such as LEO and other sources, to provide information about student outcomes via platforms “such as Snapchat or Instagram”.

The theory is that rather than use the glorified “spreadsheet” that is Unistats – which Gyimah compared unfavourably to insurance-comparison website MoneySuperMarket – developers will be able to provide information in new, accessible, and appealing ways. This will allow more people to “follow their passion” more cognisant of what that means for their future earning potential. And best of all, the market will apparently work out if this is effective or not. 

It’s superficially appealing, but, there are perhaps a few issues. First, it relies on the assumption that each student is a rational, self-interested homo economicus, clear about what their passion is, and carefully weighing up the different career and earning trajectories ahead of them. It also assumes that all students are equally aware of such information, equally capable of making informed choices, and in equal receipt of support. And, of course, it also assumes that software programmers will be able to communicate highly complex information from LEO and other public data sources in a way that is engaging, accurate, fair, ethical, and complies with data laws. Tricky.

The minister repeatedly referenced young people and boasted of meeting over 1,500 students as part of his #SamOnCampus tour (organised by his Parliamentary office) but I wonder what kinds of students he is meeting and whether they are giving him a representative experience? Perhaps the app competition could be better targeted at disadvantaged students, those in care, students who dropped out, part-time, or mature students.

New Universities Network (NUN)

One important way the minister believes students should have more choice is by encouraging new providers to join the HE game, and by putting them on a level playing field with the existing squad. To this end, Gyimah announced that a new DfE team would be working “alongside” OfS to help new universities to set up – a “New Universities Network” if you will. Long the dream of government advisors, and with the shining example of the school sector to follow, this will ensure innovative new providers are coached, kitted-out, then led out onto the freshly-laid turf of the new level playing field, ready to compete with the best of them. 

If the party politics are left aside, this could be a good long-term bet. But again there are some tensions. On the one hand, the minister suggests that it is innovative to teach data science via “bite-sized” short courses rather than at university, or to offer an engineering degree without the usual prerequisite A-levels. But on the other, he tells universities “to think very carefully about actions they are taking that look like a relaxation of standards”.

Another speaker at the conference, Peter “still New Labour to my fingertips” Mandelson, seemed to echo the minister’s call for greater leadership from universities. He said that they mustn’t fear new providers or “close ranks” to change, but instead choose to focus on the best teaching and research.

Choices, choices

But perhaps the choices that really matter are those of the government. It was promising to hear the minister say he “rejects the false dichotomy of vocational learning and HE”, but let’s see if the post-18 review will simply rob HE Peter to pay FE Paul. Adding new providers hasn’t revolutionised any public service in this country, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, so how can the whole HE system be encouraged to be more innovative? It’s worth looking at the NHS, which is about to receive another cash injection. Choice, new providers, and competition have all been tried there before by various governments, to little appreciable benefit. Rather than overestimating the power of tech, or data, or money alone – what can the government do to help humanise the future a little too?

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