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The Social Mobility agenda in the UK - Who counts the beans?

When it comes to the merger and governance of the many Higher Education Agencies responsible for promoting and measuring the Social Mobility agenda in the UK. Who counts the beans – the producer or the consumer?

If we are to get to grips with the 'Social Mobility' problem, and access and success at universities, we must rely upon, and fully trust, the associated data. The governance of this activity must not only be independent of the institutions, it must be seen to be independent and not reliant upon them in any way.

Merger mania.

This week sees the further consolidation of agencies tasked with a range of important functions of Higher Education in the UK. To this end, AdvanceHE was formed on 21st March this year [1]. It formalised ongoing plans to merge the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) [2], the Higher Education Academy (HEA) [3] and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) [4] under one umbrella. On the face of it, this seems to be a sensible move to consolidate many important functions. These include very important things such as promoting leadership, governance, teaching and learning, equality, diversity and inclusion, including Athena Swan. One would expect these to be overseen by an independent body and perhaps even the subject of direct regulation. However, the actual structure highlights a niggling doubt about how independent it is and the move might to some observers look instead like a consolidation of control over organisations that are tasked with challenging the universities themselves.

This move also confirmed the position of Alison Johns as the chief executive that was first announced back in 2017. To herald the formal work to merge these bodies, she issued a statement on Friday 13th April. To allay any fears about important existing functions she states: “From our early soundings we anticipate retaining many of our flagship programmes such as Top Management Programme, HEA Fellowship, governance-effectiveness, Athena Swan and Race Equality Charters and Aurora”. A transitional period, stretching well into Autumn of 2018, is envisaged with universities being consulted along the way.

But what is AdvanceHE and what are the objectives?

It is essentially a member-based organisation comprising the higher education institutions across the UK. To achieve this, it is a limited company also registered as a charity and therefore comes under the requisite legislation [6]. According to Alison Johns, its key objective is: “winning recognition that having a core membership offering will secure the sustainability of that collective resource for the sector in the future”. Its existence is thus wholly dependent upon input from its owners that are effectively Universities UK (UUK) and GuildHE. There is no apparent high level input from students or staff representatives in its functions or governance. Instead, to achieve its key objective, according to Alison Johns: “We think that one way we can do that is by providing a strong membership offering – a core of support which can be supplemented by optional, additional “pay as you go” products and services.” The ‘pay as you go’ aspect implies it is in a market place; but one in which the institute as sole customer controls the product and the direction of innovation.

Alison Johns is, of course, very experienced in many aspects of the management of universities, having transferred from her position as chief executive of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education [4] and a past president of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) [7]; the latter of which is not involved in the merger. She is therefore well versed in the ways of senior management in universities and well known to those that ultimately pay her salary.

It might be expected that the integration of AdvanceHE with the aims of Social Mobility would be important. The HEA [3] had student retention and employability as one of its key objectives in supporting universities. Indeed the HEA to date has been a vital part of a strategy to improve the professionalism of teaching in our universities. It is hoped that in its current form and governance AdvanceHE would focus more on the fate of students.  However, there is no apparent inclusion at this stage. Searching for ‘ Social Mobility’ on their site displayed; “Your search yielded no results”. Not a great start. Future interaction with the Office for Students will be interesting to observe.

Where does all of this come from?

A review of all of the Higher education sectors in 2016 laid the foundations for the consolidation. Known as the Bell review [8], after Sir David Bell, Vice Chancellor of Reading University, it is worth another visit.

Recommendation 1 stated that: “The core functions of the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) should be merged into a single body to create a new, more responsive and holistic sector agency. This new body will support institutions to meet strategic challenges as they relate to equality and diversity, learning and teaching, and leadership and governance.”

One might expect that supporting students with respect to 'Social Mobility' would be a very important function and a crucial, forward looking aim. However, no mention was made of it.

Instead its states: “The move to a more market-orientated higher education sector with a broader range of providers, new relationships with members, and new relationships between universities and students, have all altered the needs of institutions and other stakeholders”.

It seems that cost cutting for the institutions in a market place is the real need:
“There are widely held concerns over the rising cost of agencies to institutions” with a need for “subscriptions focused on a smaller set of core activities and other services available on a paid-for, optional basis.”

This puts massive pressure upon AdvanceHE and its staff and one can presume that some will ‘buy into’ services that others deem unimportant. What these might be in time should be a big concern for the Office for Students (OfS).

Supporting data and who counts the beans.

Whilst outside observers might assume that the key functions of AdvanceHE should be totally independent, this may have come as a surprise; but not entirely unexpected by some sceptics.

Indeed the gathering of data about universities and students would certainly be expected to be entirely independent of the institutions. Most people know about and trust the Office for National Statistics (ONS) [9] since it updates all of us, and government, on inflation, population and the state of our nation. It is the central plank upon which government makes decisions on our behalf. Its independence and trustworthiness is vital. Formed in 1996 by merging various statistical agencies, by 2006 it was a non-ministerial body that had become entirely independent of government. By this account it can be assumed that any data feeding into any measure of 'Social Mobility' would be their concern. Indeed, this is the case for much of the key data. However, it is also tacitly understood by most people that the progress of students through Higher and Further education is a key component of ‘Social Mobility’.

A recent Freedom of Information request to the ONS about “Higher and further education UK statistics” yielded the following reply:

“Thank you for your request. Unfortunately we do not hold the information necessary to answer your questions. Your request may be best placed with the Department for Education, or the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Please note that HESA are not subject to Freedom of Information, but may be able to help with your request.”

Yes you read it correctly: The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), unlike ONS, is not subject to Freedom of Information. How could this be?

Maybe the answer lies in another recommendation of the Bell Review [8 ]

Recommendation 3: HECSU, HESA, Jisc and UCAS should form a strategic delivery partnership with a focus on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of data-related functions and services. The partnership should aim to better coordinate data- and innovation-led activities, with a focus on reducing the administrative burden on institutions and enhancing the overall impact and effectiveness of the system. The HESA Data Futures project may form an important part of the partnership’s future programme of work.”

Again, cost cutting seems to be the main objective. Like AdvanceHE, HESA [11] is a ‘not-for-profit’ private limited company owned by its members. Yet again its members are Universities UK and GuildHE and it is funded by subscriptions from higher education providers throughout the UK. Therefore the collection of key data and performance indicators is carried out by a limited company whose future is determined by the very sector under surveillance. Changes in how data is collected have included the way social inclusion is recorded via the use of POLAR geographical data and not that of individuals students (see earlier blog: Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening. Friday, 6 April 2018 [11]). 

An ongoing ‘initiative’ of HESA worth highlighting is its ‘Data Futures Programme’ [12]. Data Futures: “will deliver the vision for a modernised and more efficient approach to collecting data”.

A big surprise is that this is being carried out in partnership with a private sector ‘for profit’ company called Civica that provides data services for many government agencies and the private sector [13]. At the moment HESA relies upon single annual returns from universities but this is “under transition” at present; with a plan to gather data for a single return for academic year 2019/20 before moving to a so called “in-year” mode of collection from August 2020. This is a significant change that will be a major challenge. Included in this is centralising the ‘Graduate Outcomes’ data gathering. This shifts the burden of acquiring this data from the universities themselves onto HESA, who will conduct their own survey of graduates from December this year. This will effectively control and standardise the mechanism and outputs and no doubt also please the OfS, who will no doubt generate a league table.

Naturally, there are core questions about employment planned such as: “Which of the following best describes the basis on which you were employed?” However, others include: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be TRUSTED, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” or: “Overall, how HAPPY did you feel yesterday?”
There are no questions noted that relate to past attainment and time available for study. Surely it would be worth asking students these important questions? They would perhaps indicate how  ‘happy’ they were with their degree at least. This is surely a key factor in determining any student’s ‘outcome’. Universities generally do not gather information from students regarding their part-time work or commuter travelling time in relation to attainment. Yet these can be major burdens for those who are from low income backgrounds and trying to conserve what little they have. These impact directly on the time they have available for study and on their attainment and final degree (see Blog One casualty is one too many 24th October 2017 [14]). Some universities have some information when surveying their graduates, but this is somewhat patchy.


Graduate outcomes is therefore a vital measure of Social Mobility and the data is key to measuring the success of any initiative. An opportunity has been lost to gather key data regarding degree outcome related to the widely different time burdens put upon individual students.

In the middle of all this, the involvement of private enterprise, in any form, in this process could be seen by many as a potential conflict of interest. Especially when government itself has already distanced itself from the gathering of vital statistical data through the ONS. In the past, the release of data from HESA has been very rich and its subsequent analysis embarrassing to some institutions. It does have the unfortunate effect of generating league tables but, on balance, it is also crucial in holding institutions to account.

If we are to get to grips with the 'Social Mobility' problem, including access and success at universities, we must rely upon, and fully trust, the associated data. The governance and oversight of this function must not only be independent of the institutions, it must be seen to be independent and not reliant upon them in any way.

The question is therefore: Who counts the beans – the producer or the consumer?
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. 


[1] Advance HE Advance HE.

[2] Equality Challenge Unit (ECU).

[3] Higher Education Academy (HEA).

[4] The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE).

[6] AdvanceHE is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales no. 04931031. Registered charity, England and Wales 1101607. Registered charity, Scotland SC043946. VAT Registered number GB 152 1219 50. Advance HE, Innovation Way, York Science Park, Heslington, York, YO10 5BR, United Kingdom.

[7] Association of University Administrators.

[9] Office for National Statistics.

[11] TEFS Blog. Flying over the UK on a POLAR expedition. The distant cracks in university access are widening. Friday 6th April 2018.

[14] TEFS Blog.  One casualty is one too many. 24th October 2017.


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