With a student number cap now in place, the Westminster government is amplifying the “I love 2008” vibe by offering additional student numbers (ASNs) via two competitions.
However, an unexpected use of minimum absolute TEF metrics for one of these excludes a bewildering array of providers with a strong track record in supporting students from non-traditional backgrounds, including the entirety of the Million Plus mission group. And it is hard to believe that this has not been done by design.
What the data says
The ability to bid for a total of 5,000 places in architecture, sciences, maths, social work, engineering (and engineering geology), and veterinary science is linked not to TEF itself – but to the data underlying two TEF metrics as absolute values. Additional places are only available if your continuation rate is over 90 per cent, and your graduate highly skilled employment or further study rate is above 75 per cent.
The main plot shows the average percentage of graduates in high skilled employment or further study (between 2014-15 and 2016-17) against the average continuation rate (between 2013-14 and 2015-16). I’ve coloured the eligible providers orange, and have filtered out those who are not in the “Approved (fee cap)” registration category and those with B category conditions of registration. You can filter by group, region, and current TEF – and find providers using the highlight function.
These metrics do not influence eligibility for teacher training (ITT) or health care and related subjects, where there are no constraints. Providers from devolved nations can bid if they have a continuation rate over 90 per cent – assuming the most recent (2017-18) figures are representative this would exclude Napier and UHI in Scotland, and Cardiff Met and Glyndwr in Wales.
Why has this been done?
This is a peculiarly specific set of metrics to use. (We’ll leave aside for the moment the wisdom of basing 2020-21 student numbers partially on 2012-13 continuation data – the use of wildly inapplicable historic data is pretty much expected in English HE regulation these days). Our starting assumption has to be that this is an attempt to expand provision only at “elite” providers – the criteria uses absolute values rather than difference from the benchmark as TEF does.
Absolute values for continuation and graduate employment have a strong correlation with the background of the student intake. It’s the reason TEF initially used only the difference from the benchmarks (those flags we all grew to know and love) rather than absolute values – in the bluntest possible terms this prevented universities who recruited a bunch of posh kids turning out on top.
So we have eligibility criteria that actively encourage the growth of providers that recruit students overwhelmingly from well-to-do backgrounds. And this is a deliberate choice.
Whisper it, but it would have been more equitable just to use TEF. You could have excluded providers with TEF Bronze from applying. It wouldn’t have been great, but it would have been better than this. Although, incidentally 25 providers with current TEF Gold are not eligible to bid, and two providers with TEF Bronze are – suggesting that DfE don’t think the overall TEF package tells us very much about teaching quality.
If you’d not guessed, every member of the Russell Group is eligible to bid.
“Good quality provision”
These carefully selected subject areas and carefully selected providers give us an insight into the inverse of a popular question in higher education policy. We’re still not able to identify the near-mythical “poor quality courses” from the data, but we get a glimpse of what a “good quality course” might look like.
Let’s meet some of them.
- The BSc (Hons) Animal Behavior and Welfare (top-up) at Abingdon and Whitney College is a “good quality course”. Discover Uni tells me a foundation year is compulsory (though this requirement could be removed), and that nearly a third of 15 graduates were “business and public service associate professionals” 6 months after the course, earning £18,000 on average. It is (as far as I can tell) eligible for additional student numbers as a veterinary science subject.
- BSc (Hons) Geology at Keele is ranked 25th in the CUG league table for 2020. It is eligible for additional student numbers, whereas BSc (Hons) Geology at Plymouth (ranked 24th) is not.
- Loughborough College runs a number of well-regarded HNDs in Engineering. If it chose to offer Engineering as a BSc (Hons) next year, perhaps in partnership with another provider who is not eligible for additional student numbers – this course would be eligible for additional student numbers. There’s no need to demonstrate a track record of delivery for these ASNs, just capacity.
Now – all of those courses mentioned above are likely to be great courses for some students. But it is difficult to argue that they would be better for all students, or the nation, than business at Bath (not eligible, no business provision is), computer science at Warwick (again, no computer science is eligible), biochemistry at Reading (Reading isn’t eligible to bid), or social work at South Bank (South Bank isn’t eligible to bid).
This is the problem with these arbitrary rules. They’re arbitrary. When it comes down to individual cases, the rules are indefensible.
Back in the day
In 2005 HEFCE moved away from bidding competitions for ASNs to a purely strategic approach. The former regulator worked with providers regionally to come up with a sensible plan for expansion that improved student choice and addressed defined local needs. Individual providers planning strategic growth would see these plans assessed before any required financial support and a student number allocation was granted. There was extensive HEFCE support all through each process.
This was a very different world. The aim was to encourage growth where it was needed, not to pick winners or allow popular providers to grow at the expense of strategically or locally important providers. There were no value judgements about subjects or universities – just about likely student demand (based on surveys, not the market) and provider capacity.
A regulator or department that knew and understood the sector could easily act in a similar way in 2020. It is perhaps more important than ever that local and strategic needs are met – the “levelling up” agenda of the Westminster government suggests place will be an important consideration, and Covid-19 has thrown our need for graduates in all kinds of unexpected subjects (how could we have coped in lockdown without art, television, music, radio, literature, journalism, and theatre?) into sharp relief.
Instead we have an emergency growth policy that primarily supports well-off applicants attending established universities. And we deserve better.