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Different degree outcomes by background and the complicated issue of HE finance

  • 4 November 2014

On Tuesday, 4th November 2014, the Director of HEPI, Nick Hillman, took part in a panel discussion at the Nuffield Foundation on recent higher education research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. An extract from his remarks is below.

Thank you for inviting me. I head up the Higher Education Policy Institute, known as Hepi, a small think tank based in Oxford. When the IFS walked off with the Prospect Think Tank of the Year Awards recently, we won the One to Watch Award – which is a little like winning the Best Costume Oscar next to the Best Film one.

It is fantastic that the IFS has undertaken so much excellent work on higher education, sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation, in recent years and I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to it.

I’d like to make three points on each of the two papers we have heard about today.

Socio-economic differences in higher education participation and outcomes by Dr Claire Crawford

1. Claire’s full paper includes the fascinating, if somewhat intuitive, conclusion that we need to improve students’ attainment by raising ‘the attainment of those from the poorest families earlier on the school system.’ But we need to be a little careful about the policy implications of always looking to the previous educational stage to tackle such problems: universities blame secondary schools; secondary schools blame primary schools; and primary schools blame early years’ care. It can come across as a demand to shift resources from higher education to schools – in public spending terms, from the unprotected Business, Innovation and Skills budget to the (partially) protected Department for Education budget. The answer may lie instead in universities spending their income better on tackling the identified problems. As Lorraine hints in her slides, that means spending less on bursaries and more on other widening participation initiatives. Offa’s latest data suggest universities are seeking to engage more with students across the lifecycle – from pre-application to helping them find their way in the world – which is welcome.

2. I note Claire’s work relies heavily on the public tests undertaken in school at ages 11, 16 and 18. That is a sufficiently rich dataset for sophisticated modelling that reveals lessons for higher education institutions. So it seems a little odd that some selective institutions think it is not a sufficient basis on which to make their admission decisions, and lobby hard for modular AS-Levels to continue. There are challenges in designing school-age exams solely around the needs of the most selective universities – for example, one cost of retaining AS-Levels in their previous form would be the continued loss of teaching time in year 12. The new freedoms on student number controls may help tackle the problem because, if an institution really can’t decide between applicant A and applicant B, they will in future be able to accept them both.

3. Thirdly, I want to speak up for university staff who deal with admissions. Claire’s overall conclusion is that it is better for universities to take schooling into account than socio-economic factors when making decisions over whom to admit. But, despite this important insight, within institutions it remains unclear what they are meant to do. They are bombarded with research like Claire’s telling them that the type of school matters a great deal – and also with research that says the opposite. Claire’s research claim: ‘amongst students with a given set of characteristics and measures of prior attainment, those from poorly-performing state schools have, on average, higher “potential” than those from highly-performing state schools.’ But HEFCE says: ‘Degree outcomes are not affected by the average performance of the school that a student attended’. While we are on schooling, I also find the treatment of independent school pupils a little odd because the research carefully segments state schools and state school pupils whereas all independent-school pupils and all independent schools are treated identically. Moreover, while I am happy to be proved wrong, the paper’s claim that 65 per cent of private school pupils ‘attended a state primary school’ seems a little implausible.

The complicated issue of HE finance by Dr Lorraine Dearden

1. Lorraine’s first slide criticises higher education policymaking. As a former special adviser to the (former) Universities Minister, I would say this, wouldn’t I, but I think it is a little unfair. We have, arguably, been relatively well governed on higher education finance. In recent years, higher education policy has been set with reference to independent reports, such as those by Dearing and Browne, by political leaders prepared to take their arguments to their opponents. Let’s not forget that Blair was prepared to stake his leadership on getting his £3,000 fees through and Nick Clegg has spent even more of his political capital on higher education. You don’t have to agree with their policies to recognise that they were not simply opportunistic. The claim is partly that policy has been ‘rushed’ but it took nine years from the publication of the Dearing report to the implementation of something akin to its recommendation on income-contingent tuition fee loans. There were three years from the establishment of the Browne review and the introduction of £9,000 fees in autumn 2012.

2. I kept asking myself as I went through Lorraine’s slides whether she wanted higher education to resemble schooling, where we spend more on the most disadvantaged students through the pupil premium, or to be completely different to schooling, on the grounds that the brightest should have more spent on them (as with Oxford’s desire to have a higher fee cap). I was also left pondering whether Lorraine’s claim that HEFCE funding is ‘not logical’ because cheaper-to-teach subjects have lost their subsidy means she thinks we should have differential fees by subject. That is a debate we just haven’t really had here. I am not particularly in favour of the idea but Lorraine’s logic could take us there if followed to its natural end.

3. I accept that some tweaks to the student loan terms may be necessary in order to make the system more affordable. I even accept that this is likely to mean seeking more money back from middle-income graduates – and there is some interesting University Alliance work suggesting people may want to pay back their loans more quickly on a more aggressive repayment schedule: ‘By a margin of almost 2 to 1, undergraduates and parents would rather a student loan is paid back quicker, with higher monthly repayments, than longer, with smaller monthly repayments.’ But I think that some of the options the IFS have chosen to model seem unlikely to happen. For example, nailing higher earners for much more than the cost of their higher education has been shown to have its limits. Yale set up the world’s first modern income-contingent student loan system in the 1970s. It had to cancel the outstanding repayments in 2001 after an aeroplane salesman set up a campaign for those rich alumni who were fed up with overpaying for their education. Despite the loss of income, even Yale’s president was relieved, saying: ‘We’re all glad it’s come to an end’.

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