Scott Kelly lectures in British Politics at New York University in London and has worked for many years as a policy adviser to the Rt Hon. John Hayes MP, who was Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning (2010-12). He previously worked for the Learning and Skills Network and is author of The Myth of Mr Butskell: The Politics of British Economic Policy 1950–55 (Ashgate, 2002).
Although the aphorism, ‘not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts’ is often falsely attributed to Albert Einstein, it has the ring of truth, regardless of who first said it. Whatever the provenance of the quote, the sentiment seems particularly relevant to the recent lengthy consultations launched by the Office for Students (OfS) on teaching quality and outcomes. While a focus on quality is welcome, an emphasis on simple quantitative data may prove damaging to the Government’s wider strategic aims of ‘levelling up’ the economy, improving technical education and ‘building back better’. Faced with a crackdown on low completion rates and ‘dead-end’ courses, the logical response from the HE sector may well be to play it safe in the future.
The OfS is now consulting on new regulations that would mean HE providers face sanctions if fewer than 75% of students complete their degree. Providers could also be financially penalised by the OfS if fewer than 60% of their graduates progress to what they define as professional employment within 15 months of graduation.
No doubt, genuine low-quality provision will be pinpointed by the regulations but quantitative data cannot capture the differing challenges faced by higher education institutions and their students. This point was helpfully illustrated by the Daily Mail, which has provided a list of the 10 universities they describe as being ‘in the firing line’. Their list includes Birkbeck, which specialises in part-time evening courses, and nine institutions that have high proportions of students from low participation groups and neighbourhoods. Clearly, the challenges of these institutions are very different to those of Russell Group universities specialising in three- and four-year full-time degrees.
More specifically, the regulations may prove counterproductive to the Government’s key objectives, such as improving technical education through the roll-out of T levels at Key Stage 5. The Government has already been forced to back down from its plans to abolish BTECs by 2024, to clear the way for T levels. As I outlined in my 2017 report for HEPI, students who progress to HE with BTECs are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. In fact, nearly all the increases in students from the lowest participation neighbourhoods since 2008 can be accounted for by the increase in the number of students holding BTECs either exclusively, or in combination with, A-Levels. But as a recent report by the Nuffield Foundation confirms, BTEC students are twice as likely to drop out in their first year at HE than A level students. Given the dropout rate of students from vocational backgrounds, it is hardly surprising that HE institutions are reportedly wary of accepting students who have studied the new and untested T levels.
Creative industries have been identified by the Government’s Build Back Better Plan for Growth as a key sector to build sustainable long-term growth. Yet many creative HE courses are being deprioritised by the Department for Education, and this threatens the future talent pipeline. For example, the funding received by HE courses in art, design and communication, to support high costs of delivery, was cut by 50% earlier this year with the clear expectation that further cuts were to follow. The Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) and Graduate Outcomes (GO) survey data used to inform policy are flawed and do not sufficiently capture how degree courses translate to income and employment. The LEO data is constrained to employment over four to six months, which excludes fluctuating workers, common in creative roles. The data does not distinguish between full-, part-time and flexible employment, which means those working flexibly are perceived as earning less. The GO survey is conducted 15 months after a student first gains their qualification and therefore does not account for the lengthier progression pathways and longer salary trajectories common in the creative sector.
A broader look at creative graduate destination data shows good outcomes. Employment prospects are high, with 89% of creative graduates employed three-and-a-half years after graduating (compared with 87% for non-creative graduates.) There are high levels of matching between graduates of creative courses and creative jobs; for example, 82% of graduates in design subjects work in related industries. Overall, 73% of creative graduates took their job because it was the type of role they wanted to do, compared to only 66% of non-creative graduates.
To ensure good quality in practice, the data used by the OfS must reflect a broader view of outcomes; otherwise, there is a real danger of courses with good outcomes being defunded. This would particularly affect universities that play a key role in widening participation and feeding regional creative hubs, thus potentially undermining the Government growth strategy and efforts to level up the economy.