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Break out the life vests: Save as many students and universities as you can.

This week has seen further angst in universities about the impending Augar Report due in February. On top of leaks about the likelihood of lower fees, there have been further reports of the numbers accessing loans being capped by setting a lower limit on A-level grades that are reported to be DDD. This has been accompanied by a call to expand the grammar school system further to help disadvantaged students.


The reaction to both leaks has been one of impending crisis with some universities predicting they will close or merge. The only time a university went bust in the past was in 1987 when University College Cardiff merged with (was effectively taken over by) a neighbouring university, The University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology. Now Cardiff is again reported as moving closer to serious financial difficulty. Mounting debts on loan repayments and lower income may once again sink it. But this time there is no better managed neighbour to merge with. The signs are not good.

The roots of this crisis.

These lie in the decision in 2010 to lift the long standing cap on student numbers and effectively throw money at universities through loans to students. Fees were set at a much higher maximum of £9,000 and inevitably all went for the maximum. This has been hailed as a triumph for access to university and social mobility in some quarters. But the logic behind this conclusion is somewhat hard to understand and the fall out will be serious. All of the evidence points to a large increase in student numbers from families with resources. There has only been a marginal increase in numbers from the lower Participation of Local Areas (POLAR) neighbourhoods. These are divided into quintiles with POLAR 1 and POLAR 2 areas being the least likely to produce university students. By inference these areas are considered to be  on average the least advantaged in terms of family resources. Increasing numbers per se is not logically linked to increasing fairness and equal opportunity or even social mobility. The most disadvantaged are not much more likely to succeed unless they are resourced equally. The perversity has been that students of lower attainment have accessed university because they and their families calculated they could afford it. Access to resources is always the key.

Limiting access through setting grade requirements.

Setting standards for access to loans is one way the government could seek to limit numbers. It goes back to the perversity of the 1970s when grade boundaries were 'rigged' so that a limited percentage attained the grades A to C needed to access universities and thus grants (see TEFS 12th August 2018 'A-Level Playing Field or not: Have things changed over time? '). With numbers also capped, this was a way to limit the fall out if too many students achieved suitable grades but found progress to university blocked. This is at one end of the devious scale in planning numbers against costs with little concession to ability.



The unfettered access allowed in recent years is  suddenly leading to a crisis as the bubble bursts. The government has simply failed to do its job and allowed the system to run out of control. Limiting access by setting a low grade limit is probably sensible as long as it doesn’t set percentages at each grade as a way to limit numbers.  However, the suspicion might be that this could happen as it did in the 1970s. Andrew McGettigan in his article this week ‘Trust, standards & the DDD tariff’ sets out clearly the various arguments that surfaced many years ago in the Browne report that stated,

“Entitlement to Student Finance will be determined by a minimum entry standard, based on aptitude. This will ensure that the system is responding to demand from those who are qualified to benefit from higher education.”


This sensible advice was ignored when fees were raised and it was a fatal trap for the current system to fall into.

Expansion of Grammar Schools called for.


‘Throw the drowning peasants a few life vests’ is a metaphor that comes to mind when reading a report this week from the Higher Education Policy Institute. The report ‘Grammar schools significantly increase the chances of disadvantaged pupils reaching highly-selective universities, especially Oxbridge’ is a fine example of the principle. The main argument is that the areas with selective secondary education and grammar schools improve the chances of students gaining entry to the most selective universities and Oxford and Cambridge. The casual way that its author disregards students from the poorest households, measured by the need for free school meals, is alarming. Yet Iain Mansfield has considerable experience in education and government as a former principal official at the Department for Education where he was responsible for the design of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (known as TEF). This can only mean that he is acting very deliberately in his support for expanding grammar schools. That approach is nowhere near good enough in an increasingly unequal and dangerously divided society. Instead the HEPI report is really an admission that the education system is broken and is sinking.  Indeed, the report has caveats and there is one startling admission,

“One potential confounder is the presence of independent schools, which have not been considered in our analysis. It is possible that there are some pupils who, in selective areas, attend grammar schools but who, were they to be in a nonselective area, would attend an independent school. This would result in the set of pupils in selective and non-selective areas not being so directly comparable, resulting in an apparent overperformance of selective areas.”

This is a serious flaw and the contorted logic subsequently used to get around this is astounding.

Another confounder should be the economic drivers for families. This is conveniently ignored. That many students opt for the local post 92 institutions rather than the more selective universities might be more easily explained by funding. Commuting costs, accommodation and access top part-time jobs are more important for many.

The grammar school solution is to save a few students. They are likely to be the ones better supported by their families, despite being from the lower participation areas. This approach denies too many students access to a better education and leaves them to ‘drown’ in the system. The government has already given extra funding to grammar schools and this will only exacerbate the divide. Add to this the cuts in provision in state schools, with many now reporting deficits, and the divide widens further. Better resources and provision in state schools is the only solution for fairness. Not selective provision.

Needless to say, the approach of the HEPI Report by Mansfield has been savaged already by some academics for its approach and use of statistics. Academics at the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath yesterday criticised it for its accuracy, completeness and inherent ‘naivety’ in ‘Grammar Schools and Access to Universities: HEPI report not an accurate or complete picture’. The counter arguments are more measured and highlight the tensions that exist over the idea of grammar schools. By concentrating on families below the median income, and the 85% not needing fee school meals, Mansfield has opened his assertions up to a ‘comprehensive’ mauling. The IPR response cites their own report from last year ‘Access to grammar schools by socio-economic status’ published in a peer reviewed academic journal. Their conclusion that “High attaining children from the most deprived backgrounds are significantly less likely to attend a grammar school compared to similarly high attaining children from the least deprived backgrounds” underscores the terrible inequalities that selective education brings.

Who is Iain Mansfied? 


His background is unclear in the media  but a political bias seems to surface. The report on grammar schools and his approach by implication infers that there is a likely political motivation. Grammar schools might yield conservative votes; particularly amongst the electorate most likely to benefit. But Iain Mansfield is no stranger to controversy. When a civil servant back in 2014 he won the Institute of Economic Affairs €100,000 ‘Brexit’ prize for the best policy blueprint for the UK ‘ A Blueprint for Britain: Openness not Isolation’ by Iain Mansfield 2014. He courted controversy because he was reported in the media as being banned by the government for commenting further. This was justified since his stance was hardly neutral. Indeed another output from him in December of last year looks more like the Conservative policy to come. With ‘£9,250 fees are bad for students, bad for society, and bad for the Conservatives’ at Conservativehome.com, he pushes for a contraction of the university system; and more importantly, fees. His views on academics is alone worth clicking the link for, "educational experts are, by their nature, overwhelmingly from a very narrow segment of society: university educated and from the top two, if not the top, quintile in terms of POLAR or income". However, more pertinent here is the statement,

“The current system, where 80 per cent of graduates will never repay, keeps alive opposition to fees for decades. Centre-right parties win when they offer low taxes and home ownership for the majority of the population.”

Writing as a Quintile 2 scientist and  academic I say that it betrays the crude motive behind government policy and the apparent neglect of those that simply don’t matter or those that they simply don't understand.

Urgent action to avoid sinking is needed.

The universities cannot be allowed to fail. That is a simple message. Contraction and mergers may be the only way out but that would be a tragedy for all those who lose their jobs in the process. All of this could have been avoided if the government had planned effectively. There is no link between equality and fairness and capping of numbers. The social mobility assertions are dubious. Whatever the numbers, access should be equally available for those with the ability. Attainment achieved from being better resourced is not a good measure. The government should set out a planned number of students that is relatively high and plan to finance it. This means equal resources available for students from poorer families through grants and maintenance funding. Diverting their efforts to commuting time and part-time jobs should not be assumed in any government policy.

Universities also need certainty in the future to plan sensibly. A-Level grade boundaries should not be manipulated to limit access to university. However, the arguments for a lower limit on A-level grades is sensible. Increasing numbers does not increase fairness. Grammar schools are not the answer simply because they offer  better resources and better education than the other schools. The child trudging on public transport for hours across the city from a poorer area to a grammar school miles away  may have a take on this. Throwing a few a life vests out to save them from the cruel peril of under-resourced education provision in their own area is a terrible cop out. Those few ‘saved’ will find few school friends in their own area. Exclusion from school activities and expensive social activities all takes its toll. I know that direct experience of this is a better guide than misguided assumptions. Students are the real casualties of the failure of the system and especially if universities fail.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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