This is the text of a speech delivered by Nick Hillman, HEPI Director, to the Russell Group Admissions Forum at the University of Warwick yesterday afternoon.
It is wonderful to be back at an in-person meeting and it is wonderful to be back here at the University of Warwick. I first visited the institution in 1989, after applying to study here as an undergraduate. That was a different era for university admissions.
I had an interview with a History academic. It began with him telling me he knew the recently departed headteacher of my school, continued with him reminiscing about their friendship and ended with just one question: “what book would you want with you on a desert island?”’
He hadn’t heard of my rather obscure answer (a novel by Alec Waugh, Evelyn’s older brother), but I later received a decent offer – from memory, it was 3Bs, which is not only much lower than the 3As standard offer for History at Warwick today but lower even than the ABB contextual offer that Warwick gives people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I have been asked to discuss ‘current and upcoming admissions matters’ with you. This is faintly ridiculous when your group knows as much about university admissions as any other in existence and my job at HEPI is to range over the whole gamut of higher education issues. So I suspect I may learn more from you than you will from me.
However, let me make six points which I hope will stimulate a healthy debate. I fear they are particularly focused on England, despite the Russell Group’s UK-wide remit. Please forgive me for this, although many of the trade-offs I will discuss are evident throughout the four parts of the UK in some shape or form.
1. The risk of a new overall student number cap has passed
In my view, our sector made an error two summers ago by responding to COVID by lobbying for the return of student number caps in England (to complement those that still exist elsewhere, for example in Scotland).
It was dangerous because it had the effect of fertilising an idea that was already common within the Conservative Party: that universities had been given too much autonomy on admissions and that too many people attempt to get an honours degree these days.
So you can draw a direct line between our sector’s positioning in the summer of 2020 and the Westminster Government’s consultation in February 2022 which said:
Overall student numbers could be controlled at sector level, where individual providers are set the total number of students they can recruit, as their share of the aggregate total.
I was therefore delighted to hear the Rt Hon. Michelle Donelan MP, the Minister for Higher and Further Education, rule out sector-wide number caps in her speech to the HEPI Annual Conference last week. She was absolutely clear that this is now off the table:
I would like to be clear – no-one is talking about limiting the overall number of people who go to higher education.
Incidentally, COVID was not the first time that parts of the higher education sector made the mistake of calling for tight number controls. The removal of student number caps was announced by George Osborne on my last day as a Special Adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science on 5 December 2013. That very afternoon, the President and CEO of the Russell Group rang me up together to berate me about what an awful decision it was. It was one of the trickiest phone calls I have ever had.
Their fear was that institutions outside the Russell Group would use the new freedom to expand rapidly, which would in turn draw funding towards teaching and learning elsewhere in the sector, leaving less for research inside Russell Group institutions.
The reality of course has been rather different, with Russell Group institutions (outside Oxbridge) often being the biggest beneficiaries of the removal of student number caps and research spending growing alongside student numbers.
I only hope that these experiences of 2013 and 2020 will teach us to stop pleading with Ministers to over-regulate student numbers. Indeed, a key theme of the debate on university autonomy that we hosted at our Annual Conference last week was how often we forget the level of agency that we have as a sector.
2. Funding, regulation and the supply of places
My social media followers are probably fed up with me going on and on about the importance of keeping student number caps off. But helping to remove student number caps is the thing I am proudest to have done in my whole career, so I am not going to apologise for talking about it. In my view, maintaining the current liberal situation in England is key to ensuring people can meet their aspirations to better themselves through education, especially at a time when the number of 18-year olds is growing so fast.
Some well-respected experts disagree with this. For example, Peter Mandler’s otherwise brilliant book on the history of British education since the Second World War makes the odd claim that ‘there is no evidence that these [student] controls had much effect on access to higher education’. This seems to me to be plain wrong.
Surely there is plenty of evidence? My first job in higher education policy back in the noughties was calculating how many people were then applying to higher education each year and failing to find a place. The answer was comfortably above 100,000: according to the headline of one BBC news article from 2010, it was a quarter of a million. Even allowing for some exaggeration in such totals, the old number caps clearly blocked tens of thousands of people every year from benefiting from higher education.
Keeping student number caps off is also crucial for keeping admissions issues off the front pages of those newspapers that are sceptical of higher education expansion. Before number caps were removed, entry to higher education was a zero-sum game. Every extra student from an under-represented group or every new first-in-family student meant one less middle-class student from a family that had long benefited from higher education, causing considerable ire. Indeed, one of the oddest features of media coverage of UK higher education is that it is the middle-class readers of those outlets that back student number caps who arguably benefit the most from their absence.
This zero-sum problem is still a challenge in some places. Only this morning, the Scottish edition of The Times has an article headed ‘No places at Edinburgh University law course for top students’. It claims ‘all 150 places were given to less qualified pupils deemed to live in deprived areas.’ It is good that the 150 people with offers will get an opportunity they would otherwise not have had but it puts Edinburgh in the eye of a media storm, which would not be necessary with a more liberal regime.
Meanwhile at Oxbridge the colleges want to take more international students for financial reasons while satisfying regulators by taking more disadvantaged home students. Because they do not want to expand their undergraduate numbers much overall, the end result is significantly fewer UK middle-class pupils.
I know Oxford and Cambridge well as HEPI is based in the former and I stood at a general election in the latter, and I cannot help feeling both should be creating new colleges willing to accept UK undergraduate students. No higher education conversation should start with Oxbridge, so I won’t say more about them now – except to say that when the unit-of-resource for teaching home undergraduates does not keep up with the costs of teaching these students, it is not only Oxbridge that will face the same financial incentives to recruit more international students at the cost of home undergraduates rather than to accept more of both.
3. The chances of a wholly new admissions system are falling
I am afraid my third point is also focused on another error of our sector’s positioning regarding higher education admissions in recent years. In my view, we made an error in picking up and running with the idea of PQA (post-qualification applications / admissions) so seriously a year or two ago when it was floated by Ministers.
The view at the time in Whitehall and also in the sector was that such a broad consensus favoured the idea – including the NUS, the UCU and the Labour Party – that it was inevitable. The Secretary of State for Education (Gavin Williamson), the admissions clearing house (UCAS) and the sector’s main representative body (Universities UK) all left the clear impression it was about to happen and could be made to work.
But as you know, PQA is one of those ideas that seem positive or even inevitable to people new to higher education policy but also as a pretty big waste of time to those who with longer roots in the sector – and it was notable that over time Universities UK and UCAS both appeared to water down what they wanted.
I once went on this journey myself – as a former History teacher, I hated the huge weight put on my predicted grades. So as a special adviser I helped ensure a commitment to consider PQA was included in the 2011 higher education white paper. The subsequent UCAS review was unable to find a strong enough constituency in favour of a wholly new system to make the necessary changes.
Moreover, as a huge and growing proportion of applicants have been getting their first choice place, PQA has come to look like a solution searching for a problem rather than the other way around. Once the political winds changed last autumn, when Nadhim Zahawi replaced Gavin Williamson as the Secretary of State for Education, the sector’s lobbying for a new admissions system risked looking like outdated political manoeuvring.
To my mind, the number of applications is now so high that any one system, pre- or post-, will not suit all. Indeed, I rather like the direction of travel in recent years, such as destigmatising Clearing, more use of Adjustment and suchlike. An important question is whether this can survive as demand from home school leavers overtakes the supply of places at more institutions.
There has been an additional factor to note as well in the past couple of years in relation to PQA. The absence of traditional exams in 2020 and 2021 served to remind us that teachers are better at assessing the potential of their students than high-stakes external exams at the end of two years of study. In other words, predicted grades can provide a better assessment of someone’s potential, which is what higher education institutions care most about, than the actual grades achieved in the pressurised environment of an exam hall.
In the end, the most recent PQA episode is more evidence of a pretty good maxim in higher education policy: if both Mary Curnock Cook and Mark Corver (Founder of DataHE) urge you not to do something, then it is almost certainly time to pause.
4. One-in-four grades is wrong
While I am on exams, I also want to remind you of the killer fact that Ofqual’s own data suggests one-in-four exam grades at GCSE and A-Level is wrong.
When people hear this, they typically assume it is something to do with what proportion of appeals that succeed or else a comment about marking errors. (Marking errors are not uncommon, as I saw first-hand during my student job checking data entries for Mathematics A-Level at the old University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations.) But the one-in-four number is about something entirely different. It is the proportion of all results that would change by at least one grade if a senior examiner re-marked the papers.
Some people regard this one-in-four number as an inevitable consequence of examinations and assessment. Reasonable people, even reasonable experts, often differ in their views on the quality of a piece of work. Perfection is not possible.
But the reason I think it does matter, and matter to the university world as well as to the school and college world, is that we have an uber-hierarchical higher education system, with hundreds of thousands of very precise grade offers being made to applicants each year (many of whom are not yet adults).
The university sector, and especially Russell Group institutions, puts enormous store on grades that often cannot bear the weight put upon them. As each entry has an average one-in-four chance of being wrong, someone taking three A-Levels will, more often than not, receive at least one incorrect grade.
So to my mind, the fact that one-in-four grades is wrong is a killer fact but, oddly, it is a killer fact that hasn’t had much traction except on the HEPI website. That could be about to change, as Canbury Press are about to publish a book called Missing the Mark: Why So Many School Exam Grades are Wrong – and How to Get Results We Can Trust.
If it does get traction, I would argue that Russell Group university admissions offices will need to ensure they have a robust set of arguments for putting so much store on exam grades – or else think about alternatives to what happens now.
5. We need to prepare people better for higher education
It would be remiss of me not to mention at an admissions meeting that we need to prepare people for higher education better. We know from the Student Academic Experience Survey that we launched last week with Advance HE that only 11% of students – just one-in-nine – say their university experience is exactly as they expected it to be.
Other survey work we have undertaken with Unite Students suggests under half of applicants realise rent will be their biggest cost beside tuition fees. Nearly two-thirds think they will get more contact time than they have had at school, yet only one-in-five students do. This suggests that, as a society, we are woeful at preparing people for something that half the population is now expected to do before the age of 30.
Given the single most shocking finding in our survey from last week was the level of loneliness among students, with a quarter of students feeling lonely all or most of the time, we also need to make sure that applicants think properly about the consequences of different living arrangements.
Is the extra you will pay for a top-notch space worth it if the end result is you meet fewer people and have less money to spend on activities with others? I am looking forward to visiting a secondary school tomorrow to speak to over 200 Year 12 students about some of these tricky decisions.
6. Is getting in or getting on more important?
Michelle Donelan’s speech to last week’s HEPI Conference was the tightest argument I have heard yet for the Westminster Government’s approach. She spoke about closing off access to so-called ‘low-quality’ courses by blocking access to student support for those who wish to do them.
Getting in has been prioritised over getting on, and too many students, including disadvantaged students, have found themselves on low quality courses that fail to deliver them a good outcome.
You know better than me how uncomfortable some people in our sector are about these arguments. But to my mind, at a high level it is completely appropriate for the Government to want to raise standards in higher education given it is a very important one-off purchase that taxpayers heavily subsidise to the tune of billions of pounds each year.
Let’s park for now how hard it is to define what a low-quality course is in practice – see the HEPI website for more on that – and also the question of how universities can lower their non-continuation rates and raise their graduate employment rates with a rapidly declining unit-of-resource, which in practice may mean less good support services and a higher staff:student ratio. Let’s also park the inadvisability of having three separate concurrent quality regimes run by the Department for Education, the Office for Students and the Quality Assurance Agency.
I want to park these questions so that we can focus on another one: if neither the Government nor the English regulator are so keen to consider who gets in to higher education as they were, what does this mean for groups that are still significantly under-represented in entry to higher education? They include white working-class boys, care leavers and care givers. They also include two groups that will be the focus of future HEPI reports: Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, and homeless people. Are we happy to risk the slow progress we have been making with such groups that are still so under-represented in higher education by downgrading ‘getting in’?
I am going to end here except to note one more thing. This time next year, we will be closing in on the next general election assuming we have not already had one. At our Annual Conference last week, the political journalist and experienced university governor Michael Crick said we should not yet rule out Boris Johnson surviving as Prime Minister for eight years or so, envisaging that he could win the next election. He noted every Prime Minister goes through a period when they look assailable but they often come out the other side. He also argued that the Official Opposition are not far enough ahead in the polls to make victory at the next election likely.
Yet he also noted things can change and that the result of the next election remains far from inevitable. One part of the Opposition’s fightback will doubtless be fleshing out their policies, including on education, that remain a vacuum. As a sector, we need to do all we can to help shape these into something sensible.
Since losing office in 2010, Labour have had two different higher education funding policies: at the 2015 election, they wanted lower fees and some control of student places; in 2017 and 2019, they wanted no fees with, presumably, tight control over student places. Meanwhile, in the only bit of the UK that Labour runs, Wales, they have imposed £9,000 fees and a very different model from elsewhere for funding maintenance.
So my concluding thought is this: it is not only the current administration that we should be second guessing when it comes to matters of admission to higher education.
I wonder what percentage of grades in HE are wrong?