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The Government’s emerging vision for universities: labour-market need at the heart of the system

  • 18 January 2021
  • By Graham Galbraith

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Graham Galbraith, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Portsmouth.

What should universities expect in 2021? Quietly, and piece-by-piece, significant changes are emerging. Together, they suggest that the Government might be determined to put short-term labour-market need at the heart of our higher education system. Increasingly, short-term labour-market needs will determine the subjects that people are encouraged to or able to study.

There is nothing illegitimate in this, but it does raise important societal questions. Is the primary purpose of higher education to fulfil short-term labour market needs? Is a labour-market focused higher education system consistent with the current student-funded regime? Over the next twelve months or so these questions will become more pressing.

The piece-by-piece changes that have emerged so far include the review of the National Student Survey (NSS); the Office for Students (OfS)-proposed ‘start to success’ metric’; and the OfS review into quality and standards. All are short reviews conducted in haste in the middle of a pandemic.

National Student Survey (NSS)

At the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) behest, the OfS is reviewing the NSS. The problem, it seems, is that the NSS is a ‘bureaucratic burden’. This was news to me and, having spoken to many other universities, it is news to them too.

There is disagreement within the university sector about the NSS, but its ‘burden’ is not the issue. An analogy with democracy helps. Democracy is bureaucratic: at its core, it is a process. Authoritarians and dictators usually find democracy burdensome, but not because it is bureaucratic. Democracy is burdensome (to them) because it brings no benefits (to them) and because they understand the risks it creates (for them).

The point is general: something is or is not burdensome depending on whether you think it is valuable. The University of Portsmouth thinks the student perspective is a necessary element of the value-for-money debate and we think the NSS does a good (albeit far from perfect) job of eliciting this. The DfE disagrees. They might be right, but the central issue is not whether the NSS is a burden but the importance of the student voice. This voice, it seems, is too loud. What, in the Government’s view is too quiet? Enter labour-market need.

Start to success

The OfS plans to publish a new ‘start to success’ metric. This will consist of multiplying completion data and professional-level employment data. The metric will give students information about the probability of success from the day they start university. Hence ‘[from] start to success’.

Start to success is a composite metric. Two courses (A and B) might both have a start to success metric of 71% but A might have a completion rate of 75%, and a professional-level employment rate of 95% while B the reverse. Start to success will hide these differences. It is not clear – at least to me – how this will help different students make informed decisions.

Start to success will not be benchmarked. So, while it can tell us what proportion of people who started a course were in professional-level employment fifteen months post-graduation, it cannot show how far each had to go to get there. Start to success will be of no use to disadvantaged students who want to know which course is a good investment for them.

Importantly, start to success is not the (descriptive) ‘probability of being in a professional-level job fifteen months after graduation’ metric; it is the (evaluative and rhetorically more powerful) start to success metric. Is being in a professional-level job fifteen months after graduation success? Very few graduates who judge their university experience a ‘success’ do so because of the job they held little more than a year after graduation. Equally, in a student-funded higher education system, isn’t it for the students themselves to decide what success is for them?

If the aim of start to success is to help students make more informed choices, it seems poorly-designed. If the aim is to encourage students to focus more on their short-term job prospects, start to success might be well-designed. Presumably, the OfS believes that students focus too little on their employment prospects. This belief would certainly explain a central element of the OfS consultation on quality and standards.

Quality and standards

The OfS is proposing five criteria that must be satisfied if a university’s courses are to meet minimum baseline requirements for quality and standards. Most of what is proposed is consistent with the OfS as a principles-based regulator but there is an important exception.

For student outcomes – which include continuation rates and progression to professional-level employment – whether the quality conditions of university courses are met will be assessed not against general principles but by a numerical baseline pass/fail rule. Importantly, the baseline will not be benchmarked by student characteristic or indeed anything else.

Putting aside the relative merits of the proposal, it is worth explaining its significance. Whether university courses meet baseline access and admissions requirements for quality will be established qualitatively with reasoned argument assessed against general principles.

For successful student outcomes there will be almost no room for judgement about whether a course meets minimum requirements. A pass/fail numerical baseline that takes no account of the social capital with which different students arrive at university will carry the weight.

What explains a narrower, more stringent rule for student outcomes relative to the other four criteria? A reasonable inference is that, for the OfS, student outcomes are far more important than other quality criteria.

Labour-market need trumps student choice

If enacted, these proposals will lead to (i) a weaker student voice, (ii) an un-benchmarked metric that equates professional-level employment fifteen months after graduation with success, and (iii) connecting university courses’ conditions of registration to a pass/fail rule about successful outcomes that takes no account of the social backgrounds of different students.

This would be a very significant change in how universities are held to account and, by implication, a philosophical shift on what the fundamental purpose of university is considered to be. Short-term labour-market need, not student choice, will be at the heart of the system.

The Government is perfectly entitled to do all this but it will have ripple effects. The current funding model puts primary responsibility on the individual graduate to pay for their education. Young people might wonder whether they should pay in a system that steers their choices in a direction someone else has judged appropriate.

The RAB charge – the portion of student loan graduates are not expected to repay – does give Government some legitimate say here but the Government already has tools to alter the RAB charge. It can lengthen the repayment period, or the salary level at which repayment starts and it can choose to reduce the fee cap. That they are looking at other alternatives suggests that there are deeper issues here than simply looking to reduce taxpayers’ liabilities.

Is the primary purpose of higher education to fulfil short-term labour market need? Is a labour-market need based regulatory system that gears students’ choices to certain courses consistent with a student-pays funding model? Or is it a fudge that uncomfortably welds two very different approaches together?

These are big questions that, I suspect, will attract increasing attention over the coming months. A good starting point might be for Robert Halfon’s Education Select Committee to ask the incoming Chair of the OfS – Lord Wharton – what his answers are.

1 comment

  1. Rob Cuthbert says:

    Brilliant and clear-sighted analysis. As you say, the student voice is already muted (no students on the OfS Board) and will become even more muffled, despite the best efforts of the NUS. It’s tempting to speculate that the reason the government doesn’t like the NSS is because it consistently reports high levels of student satisfaction.

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