This blog was contributed by Professor Nishan Canagarajah, President and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leicester (@NCanagarajah)
I have been encouraged to see the focus on education and skills coming out of this year’s Conservative Party conference. The promise to invest in individuals’ skills to create a high pay, high productivity workforce – combined with a mission to level-up the country – offers hope for people in areas that have often felt neglected in the past.
The UK’s world-leading higher education sector is vital for the successful delivery of this skills and levelling up agenda. Many universities, in addition to the traditional degree programmes, are expanding their Degree Apprenticeship programmes, collaborating with further education colleges and industry to develop institutes of technology, and embracing their civic missions to support and improve their local areas. However, barriers exist before universities can offer more higher, technical and flexible education that the country needs.
League table compilers rank universities using a basket of metrics, creating incentives for institutions to perform as well as possible against them. Their use of the average entry tariff metric should be dropped.
The more selective by entry tariff a university decides to be, the higher they feature in national league tables. This is a perverse incentive and a barrier to levelling up. Average intake tariff is worth 11.1 per cent of a universities total score in a well-known league table. The use of this metric is curious, as it assesses the performance of universities on what has taken place before a student even steps through its doors. Would it be fair to judge the effectiveness of a hospital by the health of their patients before they enter the surgery or are we legitimately more concerned with health outcomes?
At their best, university league tables help students make informed decisions about where to study and incentivise universities to focus on delivering excellent teaching and research and supporting graduates into graduate-level employment. However, league tables also mask the diversity of the sector and assume a conventional model of what a university should look like. It is no wonder that so many universities focus primarily on 18-year-old school leavers and offering a three-year, residential model. The consequences of this are well known for mature and part-time learners.
In a post-pandemic world, with the Government pursuing a strategy to level up opportunity in the UK, we need to incentivise our best universities to focus on the skills needs of their local areas and apply contextual offers to students from widening participation groups. We know that students from widening participation backgrounds have talent in equal measure but – so often through unavoidable life circumstances – do not have perfect grades. Taking a risk to ‘level up opportunity’ offers no reward: there is a stark disincentive with league table positions being impacted by lower entry tariffs. Since a lower league table position directly impacts on a university’s ability to attract students and remain financial sustainable, not all universities are recognised or rewarded for the mission they fulfil.
There is a further reason for looking at entry tariffs in a different way: it would enable universities to identify potential in new ways and unlock opportunity for bright and gifted people who are disadvantaged by the current system.
The inclusion of tariff points as a league table metric perpetuates a vicious cycle of disadvantage and blocked opportunities. Universities who dare to make a difference to students of all backgrounds are often penalised with a lower league table ranking. Why would a high-ranking, top performing university – an institution supremely well-placed to make a difference to the lives of students from all backgrounds, particularly from their immediate locality – take the risk of admitting a broader range of applicants if their league table position could plummet as a consequence? As we look to levelling up our regions and provide the skills and opportunities that this country needs, we need to incentivise universities to look beyond school attainment.
The Higher Education Policy Institute published a Social Mobility Index in early 2021, ranking universities’ impact on social mobility. Our calculations suggest that a university that is currently ranked in the top 20 institutions in England could elect to forgo its social mobility mission in pursuit of a better league table position – and make significant gains as a result. If this university were to increase its average entry tariff by twenty points (going from an average BBB at A-level to ABB) it could result in a 45-place improvement in a national league table. Such an action would come at the detriment of exactly those students who are the most likely to benefit from a successful social mobility mission.
Other countries appear to be ahead of the UK in this regard. The Maclean’s University Rankings in Canada provides information about incoming students’ average high school grades, but these are not used in the ranking calculations. The most well-known university league table in the United States, compiled by USnews, includes a social mobility score, which offsets the entry tariff score for institutions that provide the best learning experience for low-income students. It is good to see that some league tables are looking to do something similar with their ‘value added’ score, which measures the extent to which a students’ academic performance improves at university.
Successive governments have tried to improve participation in our world-leading universities. Much progress has been made with laudable efforts from the Office for Students and the introduction of Access and Participation Plans. League table compilers may not listen to me alone. If they don’t, my advice for the new Director of Fair Access and Participation would be to do all in their power to persuade league table publishers to incentivise the best universities in the country to create the conditions for levelling up and offer opportunities to the most marginalised and disadvantaged communities in our country.