Skip to main content

From POLAR to TUNDRA and why individuals matter

Recent data gathering, surveys and testimonies from individual students have led to a gathering sense that there is a wide chasm in a two-tier Higher Education (HE) education system in the UK. The Office for Students (OfS) is trialling a new way to measure widening access, with TUNDRA proposed as a possible replacement for the much maligned POLAR methodology. Yet it still masks the experiences of many individuals tempted from poorer backgrounds into HE. This week has also revealed worrying individual observations about the stresses many students endure because of working hours, commuting, student loan miscalculations and accommodation. It seems that many of the problems of the past persist today and, as ever, the rich stay one jump ahead.

TUNDRA replaces the thawing POLAR regions

The Office for Students is putting a new measure of participation in Higher Education in England on trial. Called TUNDRA (Tracking underrepresentation by area), it follows individual 16 year olds in state schools and the proportion who make it to Higher Education by the age of 18 or 19. This is the first glimmer of hope that ‘individuals’ matter in the cavernous data system. The idea is that it might eventually replace the much criticised POLAR (Participation of local areas) as a measure to benchmark improving widening access. TUNDRA is more sophisticated in many ways but reaches a similar conclusion based upon classifying geographical areas into quintile areas of underrepresentation. POLAR is on its fourth version and simply calculates the proportion of young people who enter higher education aged 18 or 19 in the whole young population in a given geographical area. The current POLAR4 version is based upon students starting HE between 2009 and 2014 and covers the whole of the UK. A major change is that TUNDRA limits its consideration to students in the “state-funded mainstream” schools and only applies to England. This is due to use of the National Pupil Database covering England. Unlike POLAR, it tracks them from their GCSEs between 2010 and 2014 to when they reach the age of 18 or 19 and their HE entrance data between 2012 and 2018. The idea is to target more effectively areas of the UK that are underrepresented whilst excluding those from independent schools. The main criticisms of POLAR revolved around the use of sizeable geographical areas approximating council wards. By using the same geographical boundaries, TUNDRA will attract similar criticism. However, a move to TUNDRA methodology should shift the emphasis and focus of university access programmes to a significant degree. But the proliferation of more types of measure is compounding the confusion. There are different schemes dominating across the UK jurisdictions (particularly in Scotland) and UCAS is moving away from POLAR by using a multiple equality measure (MEM) that adds data on sex, ethnic group, state or private school and free school meals to the POLAR area quintile classification. This ultimately clashes with the OfS approach and will confound universities looking for a simple measure to benchmark against.

The geographical effects of moving from POLAR to TUNDRA are considerable in some areas and these are well set out by WONKHE this week with ‘A cold spot on the TUNDRA Data’. Because TUNDRA merges the national pupil database for England with POLAR, WONKHE comes up with a simple solution.

“If we have access to the National Pupil Database why not have the data follow the pupil, and look at university participation rates based on the individuals that are recruited, not one of five buckets based on where they happen to live.”

Why not indeed? After all the product is a singular unit, the skilled individual that an employer seeks to hire. The individual doesn’t bring everyone from the same post-code along with them to the interview.

More surveys to confound us.

One more survey just out is the ‘Upper Sixths and Higher Education 2019 Survey’. It was produced by the combined Universities Committee of the Headmasters' & Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) and the Girls School Association (GSA). These organisations cover the leading independent schools in the UK. The survey looked at the expectations their students have of university and covered 2815 upper sixth form respondents across the Independent Schools Council (ISC) schools. This is important to them as most of their students (84%) apply to university and the vast majority come from POLAR quintiles 4 and 5 (80%) and the higher income homes of managerial and professional socioeconomic groups (83%). However, a troubling conclusion is reached that reveals a lack of understanding. Whilst acknowledging that “The independent sector provides a (perhaps disappointingly) traditionally-minded cohort, overwhelmingly destined for ‘traditional’ courses at ‘top’ universities”. It goes onto to note that, “our conclusions are valid for all students”. This is astounding when based upon their other observation: “More than one in seven (16%) school students aged 17+ attends an independent school. Students from independent schools are more likely to go to university than those from the state sector, with over-representation in the Russell Group”

The report acknowledges an earlier survey carried out by UNITE Students in 2017 ‘REALITY CHECK: A report on university applicants’ attitudes and perceptions’. Indeed, this was a wider and more balanced survey of 2,021 applicants to UK universities. It included those from Non-fee paying state schools (84%) and fee-paying independent schools (16%). However, on the whole, most students seem to have greater expectations about university being somewhat harder with more lectures, more ‘contact time’ and group studying than is possible for a university to deliver. The shift from a demanding school regime to university life is a big one. The deficit between expectation and reality is considerable and should be addressed earlier.

The reality for individuals: Accommodating a blast from the past.

‘Commuting students – enhancing a different student experience’, was posted on the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) blog site last week by Sal Jarvis, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Education and Student Experience at the University of Hertfordshire. It offered a valuable insight into the efforts of one university in enhancing the experience of students who commute to study. With 40% of their students commuting, it seems that for the University of Hertfordshire there is indeed a challenge. However, whilst many live at home, many others are living away from home and commuting into the university each day. But this is certainly not new.

The expansion of student numbers in the 1970s led to a considerable
accommodation shortfall; especially for those with less money at hand. Hatfield Polytechnic, as it was called in 1974, was no exception as the newspaper clips show. By October 1974, a cut in government funds and a new rent act combined
to fuel a crisis in student accommodation. Landlords often left flats empty rather than offer accommodation under the new rent act. Students were by then commuting considerable distances and tolerating very poor accommodation. I know this because I was one of them commuting from very cheap digs that turned out to be dangerous (another story here). Hatfield Polytechnic had at least 200 students sleeping on sports hall floors. Direct action by students led to organised squats and turmoil at the time before the situation eased a bit. However, by 1981 the situation worsened as the new Conservative government slashed support for student accommodation. Even now the BBC reports problems with completion of student flats on time by the private sector (‘Portsmouth University student accommodation not ready’). However, there is generally more accommodation now. The problem is rapidly rising rents and many students find it hard to find the funds and they are staying at home or commuting from less expensive areas. What is also new is the number of students employed in the term time. This was not an option for me or others in 1974. With 32 hours contact time per week and around 25 hours added for assignments, it would have been impossible. However, Sal Jarvis fails to mention this additional burden. An earlier report from HEPI in 2018, ‘Homeward Bound: Defining, understanding and aiding ‘commuter students’, is referenced and it does state that “Commuter students can find the cost, time and unpredictability of commuting affects their ability to study and engage, often exacerbated by a higher probability that they will work part-time, or have family or carer responsibilities.” But this assertion is made without showing the evidence. With ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’, TEFS has recently analysed data from the AdvanceHE / Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Student Academic Experience Survey that clearly shows this to be a real scenario for many students today.

Individual stories that define our time.

It seems that numerous challenges, associated with a lack of resources or family support, persist for many students. Writing for the Guardian this week, Chitra Ramaswamy describes in detail what she saw when ‘I returned to uni for freshers’ week 20 years after leaving. Here’s what has changed’. One big change upon returning to Glasgow University was the evidence of part-time working. Meeting with four ‘freshers’, she observed: “All four students have a part-time job or are looking for one.” One “works part-time in Ikea (16 hours a week, often jumping to 25) and is starting a shift at 5pm.” The angst about the idea of ‘student experience’ and ‘expectations’ might seem totally alien to such students.

Also in the Guardian last Friday was a disturbing view revealed by Samira Shackle, ‘The way universities are run is making us ill’: inside the student mental health crisis’. By citing an earlier report from 2014 that 45% of students have part-time work, she also cites a lecturer that has observed what I saw for many years, “We sometimes get students coming to lectures having just done a night shift, and we can see they’re tired and might not be in the best frame of mind to be learning”. The individual stories are very worrying and the importance of students disclosing their situation to the university is stressed. However, the conclusion by the same lecturer should be obvious to those that care to look, “If you’re tired, you haven’t had time to study, you have to make a long journey to university, it’s all cumulative.”

Earlier in the same week Daniella Adeluwoye, a student at Cambridge University, shared her experience last year with ‘I thought I’d made it when I got to Cambridge University. How wrong I was’. She observed that “my first year has exposed the significant wealth disparities between me and other students. While they are comforted by their parents’ financial cushions, I have to think about the risks I take career-wise.” This is indeed a common experience for many students at other universities. However, by describing the massive financial gulf that exists at Cambridge with such clarity, she opens the debate. Many will recognise the scenario of working in a bar, shop or restaurant and serving better-off fellow students. It does little for self-esteem. But working at the student ‘Winter Ball’ in Cambridge, which costs over £100 for fellow wealthy fellow students to attend, takes the biscuit.

The rich are always one jump ahead.

It is fair to assume that wealthy families will be using financial advisors to help plan for their children’s futures. It is unreasonable to condemn them for doing this. But we might expect a government to mitigate the widening differentials of equality that have emerged for students with less support. Yet there are two ends of the financial spectrum that define what is wrong. A good example of how the system fails was reported on the BBC last week with ‘Student Loans overpaid me: I'm struggling to pay it back. The pressure put upon one student who was forced to absorb a loan cut of over £2000 in the second and third years, because of an accidental overpayment in the first year, was immense. This puts my experience in 1974 when had to absorb a grant overpayment in the third term of my first year (see TEFS 27th April 2018 ‘Scum of the Earth Maybe – but Educated Scum Nevertheless!’). The consequences can mean the difference between success and failure. Yet the BBC discovered that a staggering 20,000 students were ‘overpaid’ by Student Finance England between 2017 and 2018. The Student Loans Company (SLC) claimed back £25 million in overpayments across the same period. This averages at around £1,250 per student. A big problem for those affected.

However, at the other end of the spectrum, there are the students who receive family support to the extent that they have no loans to repay. This naturally excludes them from the punishing interest rates currently at 6.3% (RPI+3%). They assume from the outset that they will end up in well-paid jobs and would have to repay most of a loan in time. Not to worry though, their well-prepared parents can supply the finance from their capital assets as part of a plan to release their inheritance early to offset inheritance tax. This are not a very small number of students. In January of this year, the Intergenerational Foundation released the results of a study, ‘Escape of the wealthy: The unfairness of the English student finance system’. Bearing in mind that interest payments start at the outset (an average of owed £5,800 before graduation), many families will see this as a waste of money. Therefore, the observation that around 10% of students studying at English universities have fees paid upfront comes as little surprise. That most of these lucky students also attend the elite Russell Group of universities should also come as little surprise. It seems that the rich have stayed one jump ahead regardless.

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


  1. I am happy to find your distinguished way of writing the post. Now you make it easy for me to understand and implement the concept. Thank you for the post...Get for more information share a flat in barcelona


Post a Comment

Constructive comments please.
Did you have a free Higher Education?

Popular posts from this blog

Ofqual holding back information

Ofqual has responded to an FOI request from TEFS this week. They held a staggering twenty-nine board meetings since March. Despite promising the Parliamentary Education Committee over a month ago they would publish the minutes “shortly” after their meeting on 16th September, they are still not able to do so. They cite “exemption for information that is intended to be published in the future” for minutes that are in the “process of being approved for publication” . More concerning is they are also citing exemption under the “Public Interest Test”. This means they might not be published, and Ofqual will open themselves up to legal challenges. If both the Department for Education and Ofqual are prevented from being more open, then public interest will lie shattered on the floor and lessons will not be learned.  Ofqual finally responded to the TEFS Freedom of Information (FOI) request to publish the minutes of its board meetings on Tuesday. It should have been replied to by 17th Septembe

COVID-19, SAGE and the universities ‘document dump’

The recent release of several documents by SAGE all at once was described by one observer as a “dump of docs”. They relate to returning to education this autumn and are somewhat confusing as they illustrate the complexities of the challenges still to be tackled. But there is much not fully addressed. Outbreaks of COVID-19 at universities spilling into local communities might also trigger city-wide lock-downs and a bad reaction from the locals. The mass migration of students to their hometowns will spread the chaos wider afield as there seems to be little evidence of planning for this inevitability. Less advantaged students in poor accommodation or crowded homes will be at greater risk along with their vulnerable peers coping with health conditions. While students may be asked to ‘segment’ or form ‘bubbles’ staff might not have the same protection. Asking vulnerable lecturers and other staff with ongoing health conditions to move from classroom to classroom, contacting differen