The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) have published new research on degree performance according to the backgrounds of students.

It is incredibly important research and shows, for example:

  • large gaps in the performance of students from different ethnicities – almost three-quarters of white students with BBB in their A-Levels secure a First or Upper Second degree, but only around half of black students do so
  • women continue to pull away from men in higher education, as they outperform their male classmates with the same prior educational attainment
  • students from less well-off areas underperform against similarly-qualified students from better-off areas.

It is worth nothing that Hefce’s report is not (and does not claim to be) the full picture because it doesn’t, for example, explain what happens in the labour market after study. Degree classification is not the only material factor in determining a graduate’s journey through life. Those who got less than an Upper Second include David Dimbleby, Hugh Laurie and Louis de Bernières.

But the report is long-awaited and the findings will be digested very carefully in Whitehall, the Office for Fair Access and academia – not to mention Fleet Street. Institutions will compare their own performance to the average and look to see if they need to target resources more carefully at particular groups of students.

The findings that will inevitably get the most attention are those on schooling. Hefce says it is school type, rather than school performance, that is important. In essence, it matters less whether you went to a bog-standard or top-performing school but it does matter whether you went to a state or an independent one.

If someone wanted to caricature this, they might say it matters not a jot if you attended Dotheboys Hall or Llanabba rather than Eton or Harrow in terms of your eventual degree class. Given the diversity of the independent school sector, this seems counter-intuitive and the finding will be disliked by some of the various organisations that represent private schools. It is also out-of-kilter with many universities’ recruitment practices, which take account of individual school performance. However, it is in line with some (not all) previous studies and Hefce’s work is, as ever, rigorous. So anyone who chooses to pour cold water on the findings is likely to find it fruitless in the long-run, even if it gains them the odd headline.

There are three striking particularly findings on schooling.

  1. The figures suggest that independent schools are good at bringing out the maximum latent ability of their pupils in terms of exam performance – the schools could respond to the data by telling the world it proves that, all other things being equal, children can (albeit temporarily) outperform people of similar intelligence if they go to an independent school. (There is OECD PISA data that suggests the opposite may be true but let’s not go there now.)
  2. The gaps in performance are actually quite modest – at some top grades, such as AAA, they are indiscernible; at BCC they are a little over 10%. So for the overwhelming majority of students, school type makes no difference to their degree performance. (The research only looks at broad degree class, so it’s not clear if it would affect a student’s grade point average – or the chances of getting a high 1st or 2:i rather than scraping one.) This doesn’t mean it is unimportant but it does make it tricky for institutions to work out which applicants should have their schooling taken into account and which shouldn’t.
  3. Students who move from the independent sector to the state sector for their A-Levels continue to have much in common with their former independent school classmates. In other words, the group that is wholly state-educated do better in terms of degree performance than those who took their GCSEs in independent schools and then moved to a state-funded institution. I think of this as the ‘Will from The Inbetweeners’ issue: some of his characteristics do not change just because he moves schools for his A-Levels. For those who are wondering, it tells us nothing about the state-till-8 phenomenon either (look at Mumsnet…), as the research only looks at secondary schooling.

The independent school sector are now asking universities whether they are letting down their former pupils by allowing them to slip below other students with a similar prior academic attainment. It is a good question though, as with other groups that fall behind the average, the answer is not at all clear – and Hefce is not going to provide one.

Finally, while this research is an excellent addition to the evidence base in higher education, it comes at a less useful time than it might have done. The Coalition’s determination to remove the student number cap from institutions means they will be free to recruit as many students as they desire. So fine judgements between different candidates based upon their individual characteristics could become rarer. In the past, universities could be (and were) fined for accepting every applicant they wanted to. In the future, that won’t be the case.