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Let’s hear it for the VC! Why we must start listening to vice-chancellors on the big policy questions

  • 5 April 2018
  • By Nick Hillman

We are today publishing an important new analysis of widening participation data by the Vice-Chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University. The paper, and accompanying press notice, speak for themselves. But, for people unfamiliar with higher education statistics, there are two important things to understand.

First, the analysis is based on POLAR data, which divides the country into small areas which are then placed in one of five groups according to the proportion of young people making it to higher education. So, an area that sends very few of its young people to higher education is in ‘quintile 1’ and an area that sends a lot is in ‘quintile 5’. The other areas are split between groups 2, 3 and 4 depending on how they do.

HEPI is an Oxford-based institution. So, to give an Oxford example, much of prosperous north Oxford, where lots of local people make it to university, is in quintile 5. Conversely, parts of Blackbird Leys, which is a more deprived part of the city, is in quintile 1 as far fewer local residents reach university.

The second thing to understand is the Gini coefficient, which is an old tool used by social scientists to show how equal any society is using a single number. In a society where one person has all the money and no one else has any, the number would be 1. In a society where everyone has the same amount of money, the number would be 0.

When countries are ranked like this, Brazil does badly because income is unevenly distributed while Sweden does well because income is much more even.

Professor Martin’s research takes these two tools to invent a new measure that resembles the Gini coefficient but which shows how equal universities are in terms of their student intake.

So a university that recruits equally from all five quintiles would have a score of 0 and a university that only recruits from areas where lots of people go to higher education would score 1.

  • Because the University of Hull has almost exactly 20 per cent of its students from each quintile, it comes top. In other words, it recruits almost equally from places that resemble Blackbird Leys in terms of how likely people are to reach university and from places that resemble north Oxford on this measure.
  • The University of Cambridge is at the other end of the scale because it recruits very few students from areas that resemble Blackbird Leys but more than half of its students from areas that more closely resemble north Oxford.

Here are a small number of the actual results, showing the scale of the range:

  1. University of Hull 0.03
  2. University of Portsmouth 0.18
  3. Cardiff University 0.25
  4. Oxford Brookes University 0.36
  5. University of Edinburgh 0.45
  6. University of Cambridge 0.48

A second notable feature of today’s publication, at least for me, is how well placed individual vice-chancellors are to contribute to policy debates. The recent media furore over higher education, which has been boosted by issues like the current strike over pensions, has put university leaders in the spotlight like never before – and in a generally negative way.

Yet senior leaders combine three attributes which are incredibly valuable when setting policy: experience in running a large institution; expertise in an academic discipline; and knowledge of the wider policy environment.

It is no coincidence that many of HEPI’s most important recent publications have been written for us by serving heads of institutions. They include:

We have also run recent blog posts from Nick Petford on social value for money, Andrew Wathey on fees and funding and John Last on the importance of evidence-based policymaking, as well as Peter Horrocks’s piece on the decline in part-time learning and how to tackle it.

We would be doing the whole of our higher education sector a disservice if we were to let current rows about pay, pensions or everything else – however important they are – swamp the important arguments that the sector’s leaders are currently doing their best to promote.

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