Our quality drive is working (though it hasn’t started yet)

Michelle Donelan has declared victory on quality. David Kernohan feels this may be slightly premature.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Causality is a fairly straightforward concept to understand.

Time flies like an arrow (fruit flies like a banana, but that’s another story). You do something, and then something else happens. Stimulus. Response. Cause. Effect.

So my gast was well and truly flabbered when Minister of State for Further and Higher Education took to DfE’s Education Hub blog to welcome the 2019-20 drop in non-continuation.

Update: As of 7 March, the article in question was no longer available from the DfE blog. Happily you can still enjoy it on the Google cache.

As I went over on the site at the time, 82.1 per cent of young, full-time, first degree entrants in 2019-20 are projected to complete their degree at their current provider, with a further 9.4 per cent completing at a different provider having chosen to transfer. That adds up to 91.5 per cent of starters in 2019-20 predicted to get a degree – allowing Donelan to state that the projected non-continuation rate is below ten per cent, for the first time ever.

It feels like something nice that the minister could say about universities, after a fair amount of kicking for the sector in recent years. And the sector, having battled to support students through the pandemic, would take that praise – even though causality isn’t proven (for instance, a lack of available jobs and other opportunities during the early part of the pandemic may have kept more students on their courses).

Where we’re going we don’t need roads

But this isn’t quite the way it played out. The minister instead says that these figures are proof that the DfE/OfS “quality drive is working”. It is, it seems:

this very outcome we strived for when we announced that universities will have to hit hard targets to ensure the poorest students get into highly skilled jobs after they graduate

When we announced? This could refer to a number of things. For example:

The more astute of you will note that all of these announcements refer to things that are yet to happen – the development of new access and participation plans, a consultation on the idea of limiting student numbers on certain courses, a consultation on how outcomes measures are used in regulation. Even the idea that the announcements themselves have sparked a change in provider behaviour is problematised by the fact that the announcements where made after the students in question started their (possibly “low quality”) courses.

Michelle – with all the kindness and consideration in the world – that is not how causality works. As minister you are able to announce things that will happen in the future, but you are not going to convince anyone that these announcements caused things to improve in the past.


But the more you push at this argument the less substantial it gets. Even if we accept (as I’m sure Nadine Dorries does) that this government can selectively disapply the laws of physics (in the same way, I guess, as it can apparently disapply the laws of viral transmission), the figures referred to by HESA are projections.

The way Table T5 works is described with commendable clarity, and for massive nerds like me there is a technical document. The figures bandied about as a sign of pre-announcement policy success refer to the likelihood of entrants being in a qualifier “end state” fifteen years after study commences, based on historic graduate destinations.

Lower non-continuation proportions simply mean that based on the kinds of students (based on subject, provider, and personal characteristics) who previously went on to qualify are over-represented in the proportion of the population who made it through their first year. If anything, the fifteen year window makes this a measure of student perseverance rather than provider quality. Would you describe a course where all of those who started ended up transferring to a different course before qualifying many years after they anticipated as “high quality”?

Even the Minister herself had “never considered how much influence universities themselves have over a student’s decision to drop out” when she was an undergraduate at York. It does feel a little like seeing universities as acting on an otherwise passive student population, rather than students having agency (and goals, needs, life events…) of their own.

So to summarise

The projection that a larger than usual proportion of full-time, first degree, undergraduate students starting in 2019-20 will hold a degree fifteen years later is due to announcements made in 2021 and 2022 that will not be implemented before the majority of that cohort graduate. And if you believe that, Rishi Sunak has an NFT he’d like to sell you.

One response to “Our quality drive is working (though it hasn’t started yet)

  1. Aside from the “timing” issue, it is also worth looking at just how much projected completion rates have actually changed which is highlighted by Table NC4.

    HESA projected that 88.9% of the UK-domiciled full-time degree entrants of 2011/12 would complete a degree or an alternative award.

    HESA now project that 90.2% of the UK full-time degree entrants of 2019/20 will complete a degree or an alternative award.

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