Signals for some or benefit for all: grade inflation in context

Originally published on

Those in the sector hoping for an easing off when it comes to the bad news stories will doubtless be disappointed to see today’s coverage of centre-right think tank Reform’s report on grade inflation. For fans of the genre it’s a special bit of work — it’s the same old stats, an enormously cynical narrative, and a set of recommendations so daft as to be laughable.

A history lesson

First, we’re transported back to the heady days of britpop, free education and no restriction on taking another degree — “In the mid-1990s there was no detectable ‘grade inflation’ at all”. We’re then yanked into the low fees noughties, where “from 1997 to 2009 the proportion of Firsts almost doubled from 7 to 13 per cent”. And what happened once we stiffed them with £50k graduation debt? “In just seven years since 2010 the proportion of firsts has doubled again from 13 to 26 per cent”. Scandalous!

“Establishing causality is problematic, yet the correlational evidence suggests that when tuition fees rise, so does the proportion of top degree outcomes”. Maybe that big investment means they’re working harder. Maybe more students are working hard to achieve the standard. Maybe teaching has improved, and assessment has become more diverse. Maybe more students are taking resists. After all, “inflation itself must be driven by factors that directly translate into universities awarding higher marks”.

Trouble is, the report then goes on to look at all the other reasons that the sector has cooked up for the miracle. A pro-VC from UEA is mocked for citing improved entry qualifications, though without mentioning the student to staff ratio shift from 18:1 to 13:1 in the rest of his quote. Degree algorithm fiddling is cited, recycling a debunked quote. And without any reference to hard work or student support or assessment techniques, it then finds a handful of academics’ anecdotes to say they’ve been pressured to lower standards. Cue the A-levels chorus of “we worked harder and so did students” from the sector, falling on deaf ears in the press and the think tanks.

Premium mint wafers for all!

The row over grade inflation tell us something about massification. It is probably true that expansion means that more people are better educated than ever before. But it’s probably simultaneously true that that a “first” isn’t as robust a signaller or sorter of standards as it was, either within an HEI or across the sector. It’s like selling After Eights in Poundland — it’s an accepted good that more of society gets to experience that treat, but the elite will bemoan that its signalling power is now diminished, and the press will notice when the box is smaller.

Central to this set of sector growing pains is the use and abuse of metrics. “Grade inflation” is posited in the Reform report (and in TEF) as evidence of gaming — a sign that standards are slipping as providers scramble to climb the tables that have included the percentage of “good honours” as a generator of points for years. Meanwhile a reduction in “drop out” (or “non continuation”) is posited in TEF as a good thing — a sign of increased effort from students and improved performance from providers helping students achieve their objectives.

The trouble is that you can play both of these metrics the opposite way. An improvement in success rates can easily be justified (and in some cases evidenced) through enhanced support and assessment innovation, particularly when targeted at those on the wrong end of achievement gaps in a more diverse study body. And an improvement in drop-out rates can be framed as a sign of slipping standards as providers do all they can to cling on to the funding units they need to get through the demographic dip set to continue into the 2020s.

Almost any outcome metric is susceptible to a cynical suspicion of gaming — fiddling with the inputs or the thresholds instead of working to actually improve performance. If we’re being honest, in any institution it’s almost certainly simultaneously both an unfair accusation and a bit of a truism. And in some cases, what some would regard as gaming is actually the intention of the metric in the first place. Does DfE want providers running humanities courses with poor LEO numbers to improve links with employers, or inject skills content, or ditch the provision in favour of technical and vocational? Or all three?

Without condition

The danger is that we sleepwalk into crisis after crisis. Take tariff discounts. Doing so through results day sleights has long been a practice, but risky — so unconditional offers are now rife throughout the sector. With posh school sixth form tutors now reporting that a critical mass of their seventeen year olds are now holding unconditionals and exhibiting behavioural issues as a result, it’s only a matter of time before this becomes a scandal with a metric in the TEF too. How can selective universities defend selection in theory, with all the inequalities that it’s a proxy for, if they’re abandoning it in practice?

When it comes to wonks, it’s all too easy to argue that the debate about metrics gaming looks at issues through the wrong end of the telescope. Moans about TEF argue that it’s an arbitrary classification that uses a weird algorithm where the right background can get you bumped up if you’re on the border. It doesn’t measure the things that matter, doesn’t compare like with like, and it’s a pretty useless signalling mechanism. I’ve lost count of the critiques of TEF from indignant sector types who rubbish the excellence framework while clinging to the UK’s baffling degree classification system with no hint of irony. Now you know how students feel.

But the reality is that the thrust of government policy of any stripe — that more of us can have what was once the preserve of a few — is unlikely to change, especially when Bob Burgess’ review of the system over a decade ago recognised that the “honours degree… is the core product of the UK higher education system”. Delivering that “product” en masse will always involve economies of scale that cause the actions of competitive actors to be playable both ways. The question in the mess is what — or indeed who — can act as the counterbalance to the cynicism, and that has to mean more than just telling the optimistic side of the story. Someone has to spot that Audi is fiddling the emissions numbers before it happens. DfE often argues that it’s for providers and the sector to show care or restraint, yet the one bit of the Reform report that does resonate is that it’s not at all clear that any of OfS, QAA, Advance HE or UUK are set up, ready or willing to spot, call out and prevent gaming when it’s happening.

A case for quality enhancement

To avoid falling into one of the twin traps of resisting measuring things at all or being caught out by another scandal, we should talk more about innovation in teaching learning and assessment, seek as a sector to understand institutional behaviour and be more open when we’re doing good. One of the miserable things about TEF talk is how much focus there is on the system and the game — but hardly anyone talks about how important, for example, decent assessment and feedback is to learning to students. And this is about more than PR — the culture of competitive secrecy we’ve ended up with (resulting in one provider last year refusing my FOI request for their mental health strategy on the basis of commercial confidentiality) means that it’s genuinely difficult to find out what other providers are doing to shift the needle on their bit of the sector’s continued NSS achilles heel. Reframing this kind of information as “public” — enforcing the expectation buried in E2 of the regulatory framework that “decisions are taken in public” and allowing the collective sector to tell a different tale on metrics and what they tell us about the student experience — will become crucial in the years ahead.

If we were bold enough to recognise that you can cause positive shifts in institutional behaviour without having to fling revealing but faulty metrics data at loan voucher holding applicants, we might get somewhere. Imagine a TEF where the metrics deliberately change every year. Imagine an annual process where ministers, sector leaders and students agree on a set of benchmarked metrics to be judged four years out and there was collective, open, innovation and effort at sector improvement. Imagine if this process were to be repeated at institutional level, where regulators would require corporate and academic governance to set some metric targets locally in response to contexts and distinctive missions. Medals and awards — which will still be prized — might just start to look like rewards for effective leadership, additional student effort and innovation in delivery in the student interest, which is probably what we wanted all along.

What is clear is that the report’s central proposal to fix all of this, a “Designated Assessment Body” for “each subject” that will include “a single, national assessment lasting approximately 3–4 hours for each degree course” is not one that is likely to be adopted any time soon. But without rapidity, humility, subtlety and smarts, the eventual outcome might be much much worse for UK HE.


It might be an ‘own goal’, but what’s the score?

With the UK HE pensions dispute set to enter a post-Easter phase, calls from students (and their parents) for refunds and compensation will now doubtless intensify beyond the odd Tab article or petition. It’s likely that Vice Chancellors were banking on the whole thing being over by now, which at least would have enabled some rescheduled or alternative teaching to be put in place before pre-written exams are delivered on content not yet covered. But a post-Easter dispute could scupper those plans- and as the days tick on, my prediction has been that we’ll start to see efforts- some subtle, some not so subtle- to dissuade students from deploying their new found rights.

Take the messaging delivered so far. Having spent the best part of a decade reacting incredulously that some students thought they were paying for an academic outcome rather than a set of services, most Universities are now busy persuading students that it’s outcomes that matter after all. “We are doing all we can to ensure your academic outcomes are not affected”, says Exeter. “Please be assured that your academic outcomes will be safeguarded”, opines Bristol. “We’re working hard to ensure that your academic outcomes are not adversely affected”, says Warwick. You might not have been able to access the equipment in the gym for six weeks, but don’t worry- we’ll be recalibrating the scales to show how fit you were beforehand. How very reassuring.

But as the holidays kick in, watch as the ideological shapeshifting intensifies. Vice Chancellors hardly say anything in public these days, but this past week up popped Cambridge’s Stephen Toope to deliver some academic leadership on the purpose of HE. “For too long the damaging idea that students are ‘consumers’ has been only weakly resisted”, he says in his blog syndicated to the Times letter page. “Our students get it. That is why so many of them are worried that their own experience is being devalued”. Translation? Don’t make consumer law complaints, students. You’re better than that. That’s what they do in the polytechnics.

It may be that Toope et al have been inspired by the strike and have only now started to understand that the wider processes of marketisation are damaging to HE. But this might all be about something else. Universities will know by now that deploying the get-out-of-jail-free card of their Force Majeure clausesdepends on the steps they took to prevent and then limit the impact of the action. As the case on the employers’ side has unravelled, subcontracting the former to UUK is starting to look not like a defence in that situation, but an abdication. And they know that rescheduling teaching, extending deadlines and pushing back graduation ceremonies is costly and hard- not least when a chunk of your international students have a flight home booked already. Better that they don’t think of themselves as customers at all, they’ll all be mumbling in the Athenaeum.

Meanwhile the boneheaded debate on students as consumers rumbles on. “Being a ‘consumer’ implies that students are nothing more than passive recipients of ideas delivered by lecturers” blogs Toope, much to the delight of the ideologues who believe that the death of neoliberalism is one more strike day away from being secured. But striking staff reading these warm words ought to be cautious. Aside from the odd minister, hardly anyone believes that students should be reduced to ‘mere’ consumers as Troope suggests. Even market regulator OfS got this when it revised its view in the regulatory framework outcome to recognise students as partners. Of course students aren’t just consumers paying for a degree, and the value of HE isn’t just economic- participation in it signals a healthy culture and a better society. But people buying books is productive of a healthier culture and a better society too, and people buying books are also consumers. As former UUK staffer Alex Leonhardt always points out, if my copy of War and Peace is missing 240 pages I want my £12.99 back. This doesn’t mean that the ‘value’ of War and Peace is reduced ‘merely’ to £12.99. It just means that students are capable of being both learners/partners, and consumers/customers, with the right to a level of service as promised, delivered with skill and care.

As to precisely what students’ rights are in this circumstance, who knows. Minister Sam Gyimah tours the studios to suggest that students have legal rights, and hints at refunds and compensation with almost no real clarity. Alternative dispute resolution traditionalists OIA are silent, waiting in Reading for exhausted, dogged students to submit completion of procedures letters in the Autumn once HEIs have given them the runaround. CMA say nothing- they’re busy with rail franchises and Sky takeovers. And despite promises to regulate in students’ interests, OfS say nothing either- referring students back to CMA and OIA in a never ending game of regulatory merry-go-round. I suspect overworked officials in CABs or Trading Standards offices will be baffled. And both VCs sector ‘experts’ at every level keep mumbling that fee refunds would only go back to the SLC, when even the most rudimentary exposure to the legalities exposes that as guff. In fact probably the only people in the UK who are aware of students’ rights are the registrars and VCs, spending students’ money on identikit, commercially confidential advice from Pincent’s designed to limit their exposure in the event of a claim.

There are proper pinch points in all this. Universities busy shoving back deadlines without moving exams or graduations are about to plunge thousands of students into an even bigger mental health crisis than exists already, when they know their services can’t cope now. International students are terrified that visas will run out, or that expensive flights will have to be rebooked. Disabled students that need time and support certainly don’t need a month long crush of deadlines and exams. And as the Easter is spent scrabbling about making emergency changes to programmes, services and regulations, what do we think are the chances that those changes will be communicated properly to students, let alone agreed with them as the law requires?

Maybe it’s all nonsense. Maybe students should poke up as partners and just accept that their ‘experience’, of tuition fee debt and maintenance debt and mental health problems and accommodation costs and lost opportunities, should also include a University sector ballsing up a pension negotiation and a term full of lost teaching. “They talk as if our students, smart and energetic people, are in need of protection”, says Toope. “This is an own goal”. I’m sure it is for you, Stephen, salary £365k pa. But for me the own goal isn’t in student protections- it would be students abandoning their rights to redress at the altar of the status quo.

Harsh but fair Analysis

First published on

After a couple of years of poisonous narrative for HE – which in Mark Leach’s words has seen article after article where universities have been in the dock for “intergenerational unfairness and scarring our society”, sector types might have been forgiven for being trepidatious at the prospect of a Sonia Sodha-led documentary on higher education, aimed squarely at opinion formers.

Sodha – chief leader writer at the Observer – has been an outspoken critic of HE complacency on everything from value for money to VC pay, and her contributions have often been met with outrage from the academy. Why would someone regularly writing for the left be appropriating the right’s tropes of “fat cat” bosses, “shambolic” governance, and promoting student number caps?

Challenging thinking

Helpfully, her BBC Radio 4 Analysis piece last night (What are Universities for?) was no hatchet job. Rattling through what the sector would consider to be familiar arguments about massification, mission diversity, and the associated problems with justifications for it all remaining lodged unhelpfully in Newman’s “Idea of a University”, the show is much more likely to have left listeners outside of the HE bubble discombobulated than disgusted. Powerful exposition on the value of vocational HE, via a partnership between Coventry and Unipart, won’t have fitted the frame either of the lazy liberal left with their harks back to Newman, or the unpleasant right that believe that anything done with hands can’t possibly be done in a “university”.

The case against massification – at least the UK’s type of it – is put neatly by talking heads that highlight dissatisfaction that we shouldn’t ignore. US economist Bryan Caplan provides a detailed version of the expensive sorting-hat problem; “if college were less accessible fewer people would go, but also you’d be less likely to need it”. Alison Wolf is wheeled out to bemoan England’s obsession with universities, “almost everybody has a more varied system than we do”. And Blair’s 50% target only really gets properly backed up by modern versions of the Newman trope, with Chicago’s Martha Nussbaum arguing “we urgently need critical thinking, reflection, respectful debate with one another” (true) “in a good undergraduate education” (really?).

Opportunity costs

But having gathered material that challenges both the left and the right’s traditional tropes about HE, it’s Sodha’s closing arguments that ought to cause us to sit up and take notice. She’s right to point out that selectivity signalling is problematic, “most of us are schooled to think it’s the most selective universities that are the Aston Martins of this world”, while then pointing out that given the inputs, the learning and social gain may not be as impressive as it looks. And her closing conundrum, that regardless of the way in which HE is funded, “all that time and money young people spend on university could be spent doing something else”, is important.

The tendency to measure “worth” and “value” through blunt graduate premium numbers gets plenty of challenge in the piece, and rightly so. But regardless of the headline undergraduate fee level, both society and students are investing more time and money into higher education than ever before. Of course, there are debates about debt and maintenance and costs and fees and cross-subsidies. But Sodha’s point, driven home in her writing but left helpfully hanging here, is that whoever is paying, as a sector we ought to be able to better justify that investment of time, money and lost opportunity – in ways that avoid falling back on Newman idealism or blunt graduate financialisation.

Both of them prop up governance models, marketing campaigns, and management approaches sat firmly in other eras. Both are under serious challenge – however technically accurate – from populist politics that is raging against the elites. And students are yearning for other frames, justifications, and self-reassurances – that the costs of higher education really are “worth it”.

Taken together, it’s easy to see Mark Leach’s internal call to arms and Sodha’s external analysis as exhortations on us to develop new meanings of “worth” and “value” in a HE system that accepts a mass system requires involvement in, consent from, and accountability to, students and the public. They require institutions both corporately and collectively to behave as we would wish graduates to behave, to be active in communities, collaborative, self-critical, assertive, and honest.

Above all, they require bravery on the part of all of us – academics, administrators, managers, student leaders and even government departments – to respond to public and student anguish instead of deflecting it and to experiment as boldly as our best researchers do when doing that responding.

The office a bit more for students

Originally published on

One of the more stark differences between HEFCE and the OfS is the latters’ ostensible bias towards the interests of students, rather than providers. But students could be forgiven for not noticing so far.

The OfS has already been caught up in debates about marketisation. And the news that Downing Street SpAds actively blocked anyone that had been near a students’ union or NUS from being on its board, now looks like an own goal — especially given Nicola Dandridge spent the autumn touring students’ unions, and the minister launched the OfS with the NUS President. But setting aside the last few months, what will really matter is what the OfS does (or doesn’t do), and things have moved on significantly since the regulatory framework consultation was published last year.

Participation goals

There’s an old trade union theory about the goals they pursue for their members — there are participation goals, which are focussed on representation rights, and money goals, which seek to improve workers’ living and working conditions. On the former, there’s some good news in the framework. Several students’ unions argued in their responses that well-designed governance “in the public interest” should start by identifying the principle beneficiaries of an organisation, and then seek to give them a voice in decision making.

The result is that “student engagement” has been added to the list of principles, with the governing body having to ensure that “all students have opportunities to engage with the governance of the provider, and that this allows for a range of perspectives to have influence”. It suggests this as an indicative behaviour (an “expectation”), with the requirement stopping just short of requiring student membership of boards (unlike in Further Education, where corporations have to have two or three student members). However, it’s difficult to imagine meaningful compliance with the principle without it — and enthusiastic compliance should see students involved in sub-committees and informal discussions previously conducted in closed session.

Given the character of UK HE and the recognition that outcomes for students are co-produced individually and collectively, many students’ unions argue that student engagement and representation within the student academic experience should be seen as an outcome, rather than a process in any baseline regime, expectations, code or standards that are developed. Providers with degree-awarding powers are already required to demonstrate that academic governance (including all aspects of the control and oversight of its higher education provision), is “conducted in partnership with its students”.

But there’s been an ongoing discussion about the quality code, and its suitability to the OfS as a way of assessing quality and standards conditions for all providers. In the draft code, student engagement was controversially reduced to; “views and feedback from students are regularly sought and acted on and providers offer feedback in return”. The good news is that “OfS has decided to adopt the expectations and core practices in the revised version of the … quality code”, and the agreed wording of one of the core practices relates to student engagement; ‘the provider actively engages students, individually and collectively, in the quality of their educational experience.’ It seems that staff-student liaison committees will live to fight another day.

Money goals

When it comes to money goals, the picture is also more positive. Students will be pleased that when it comes to student protection plans, it’s not just institutional failure that providers have to think about — course closures, “material components” of one or more courses, and modes of study, will all have to be risk-assessed and proposed mitigation steps demonstrated. Providers running content with single “star” lecturers are warned in the documents about the risks if they leave.

But there are still problems here — there’s no talk of arrangements for/compensation for students having to move to study in a new location, nothing on comparability of student outcomes when securing alternative provision, silence on ongoing progression opportunities that might have been offered (especially where these lead to employment), and nothing on ongoing monitoring of “teach-out” arrangements once they kick in. Overall it will be little comfort to students that providers will have a say in what they’ll do in the event of an exit, but won’t be monitored on arrangements for preventing it.

On student contracts, we get a glimpse of how the regulator will seek to enforce the law.

Firstly although OfS’ second objective remains focussed on the academic experience, the objectives as a whole will be interpreted to enable sector level work on things like mental health and support services- and the contracts provision will mean that providers have to be clearer on their promises in these wider areas so that students can ensure those promises are met. As with the freedom of speech duty, the OfS will ask providers to actively demonstrate legal compliance — and contracts are to cover academic services “and other contracts … part of the higher education experience, including but not limited to contracts governing the provision of accommodation, disability support packages, scholarships, sports facilities and additional course costs”.

Questions remain here too — on which students consumer law covers (work-based learners — especially those on degree apprenticeships — might not count), which elements of the student experience are the “product”, and how student Davids would access support in the event of claims against provider Goliaths (and how they would know about their rights, to begin with). Helpfully, the OfS seems to have taken seriously arguments about the “imbalance of power and information”, and the need to “ensure that students have access to impartial advocacy and advice” — and although the response palms fixing this off on to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) and its good practice framework, there’s scope to explore complainant confidence in the future — with a focus on dispute resolution rather than ambulance chasers.

VFM goals

On value for money, the framework itself is almost as thin as the consultation suggested it would be. Efficiency studies and benchmarking remain the tools OfS intends to use to reduce the risks, and the framework goes no further than the consultation in making clear that a provider must publish “clear information about its arrangements for securing value for money”, including “data about the sources of its income and the way that this is used”.

But again there are questions here that students will want answers to — whether all of their financial transactions are covered, whether anything can be done about unanticipated costs, and whether the data they’ll get might be meaningfully compared both across institutions and across providers. But this is a developing agenda — and direct levers might have been hasty. The need to publish a “transparency statement” survives the consultation, and the OfS is “committing to ongoing reflection on the various issues raised by providers and student bodies in relation to value for money as a concept”, as well as using the research I’ve been involved with on student perceptions about VFM “as a platform for further research and exploration”.

Overall, there are of course some that disagree with a “market” regulator at all, and others that will have been turned off by its difficult birth. And there are elements which the OfS obviously needs more time to get right. But playing the ball where it lies, students and students’ unions ought to be pleased with these outcomes. It may be turning into an Office for Students after all.

We’re all special snowflakes now

If you hang around (student) politics for long enough, you come to know the features of a particular kind of cult. There’s a belief system with core ideas constantly rehashed, and a tight inner circle of activists, with a larger network along for the ride. Their key players pretend to not know each other. They spend their time not growing a movement, but influencing the “average”- through relentless reframing of eye catching incidents to fit a narrative. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Meet the Revolutionary Communist Party. Not your father’s commies, the RCP was an offshoot of the Revolutionary Communist Group, which had itself split from the International Socialists in the 1970s. Always media savvy, throughout the 70s and 80s it was interested in moral panics like Child Pornography and the AIDS epidemic, finding ways to reframe ideas and events into hardened concepts and tropes. By 1997 it was no longer cool to run a “party”, so it chose to propagate its ideas through a magazine called “Living Marxism”- a kind of Now! Album collection of familiar frames to true believers- along with an exotic collection of front groups. The “Manifesto Club”. “Parents with Attitude”. “”. The “Institute of Ideas”.

If you fancy spending a few weeks through the looking glass, it’s all there. Free speech, “not me speech” and a hatred of “PC” culture. Condemnation of ‘greenthink’ and accusations of climate conspiracy. Constant railing against “meddling policymakers” that interfere in our lives. Campaigns against everything from gun control to the banning of tobacco advertising and, most infamous of all, against the banning even of child porn. The alignment of the interests of the “white working class” with issues like this is where the ‘communism’ comes from, and it’s a remarkably prescient set of frames and techniques now in use by populists seizing control of governments and referenda around the world.

LM closed in the early 00s when, following an article that accused ITN of falsifying reports of Bosnian Muslims being held in Serbian concentration camps, the news organisation sued, won £1 million in damages and bankrupted the magazine and its publishers. But- media savvy as ever- the key players reappeared under the guise of “online magazine” Spiked!- and they continued to provide (click)bait to a media whose political economy had replaced a yearning to explain facts with a need to find facts that fit templates, and talking heads with opinions the public were already familiar with.

Today it retains its tight inner circle. Frank Furedi (now an academic at Derby) rails against emotional intelligence and awareness in education. Joanna Williams (a Kent Uni academic) has spent decades arguing against responding to student input. Brendan O Neill, who along with a student-ish deputy called Tom Slater specialises in Free Speech ranks and rants, runs Spiked! And then there’s Claire Fox- the moral maze regular famous for importing and then popularising the phrase “snowflake” into the UK, who mainlines on arguments about “offence” and “discomfort”.

There’s an outer circle too. Peter Tatchell pops up regularly to talk about being “No Platformed”. Columnist Julie Bindel repeatedly bemoans an NUS ban that never was. Munira Mirza- appointed by Boris Johnson as London’s Director of Policy for culture- was a “Manifesto Club” leading light and a regular rentagob when a panel needs someone to say that “Diversity if Divisive”.

There’s not many of them but they are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. Like that photo of graduates used in 50% of HE press stories online, once you spot them you spot them everywhere, writing op-eds about consent classes, or online censorship, or snowflakes. And they even appear on panels without making clear they know eachother- most recently appearing before the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ Evidence to give “evidence” on Freedom of Speech. There’s Furedi, Williams and Slater- spouting out the same set of ‘freedom of speech’ anecdotes to lawmakers that we read all summer- deliberately conflating issues of academic freedom of speech with all sorts of other things (behaviour codes, “PC” culture) to manufacture their outrage.

The Freedom of Speech Debate

The debate on Freedom of Speech is as old as debate itself, and I’ve written about the modern history of the debate over “No Platforming” and Universities before. It reappears every so often, cheered on by a press permanently fascinated by the young that might want to challenge the behaviours and values of the old. In the 70s and 80s the debate centred on race- with students concerned about the National Front, the BNP and the pro-apartheid attitudes of backbenchers choosing to protest and uninvite rather than sit back- resulting in an unnecessary amendment to the Education Act in 1986 (now being endlessly rehashed as new and decisive action).

But for the odd skirmish about evangelical Christianity, the BNP or abortion, the 90s and 00s saw the pressure off- largely because it was student leaders and students’ unions that were being proactive about the anti-semitism and outright racism of Hizb-ut-tahir flooding campuses with pretend societies and inciteful speakers long before the Government told them to under the damaging guise of “Prevent”. Work developed at the time by NUS, UUK and student groups like FOSIS and UJS exemplifies sensible, nuanced policy making- a salient commitment to freedom of speech, but delivered in way that doesn’t harm and guarantees access.

Presumably miffed by this type of liberal logic- and seeking revenge for their own student activists being mocked within SUs and NUS for decades, Spiked! then launched their masterstroke in 2015. Rampant marketisation had caused a proliferation of league tables and rankings that would fill electronic inches, and so the Spiked! Free Speech rankings were born- aimed initially squarely at Students’ Unions. In this world racist “banter” wasn’t oppression- it was merely something the new authoritarians found “offensive”. Choosing not to stock something or invite someone wasn’t a proud display or collective democratic decision making- it was a “Ban”. Sexual Harassment policies aren’t an escape from oppression, they are oppression. “We don’t need these people to keep us safe”, suggests Brendan at the Oxford Union. ‘We are strong’, suggests O Neill. ‘They are weak’.

The year that ensued was a particularly tricky one for Students’ Unions- and we felt pretty lonely as University Press Offices tried to stress that SUs were separate and VCs went to ground, hiding under some coats until it all went away. Never mind that there was almost no evidence of any SU actually banning anyone. The political economy of the news, the populism of Trump and Brexit and Claire Fox’s #1 Hit ‘Special Snowflakes’ kept it all going- to the point where our own HE Minister this year felt compelled to launch (and then regularly relaunch) a regulator for HE not through the optic of teaching, or value or money, or empowering complainants- but by announcing a crackdown on “Student Snowflakes”.

The choice of “Snowflake” as the term de jour for student activists is particularly interesting. Back in the 70s and 80s, the student activists and leaders were branded as aggressive thugs. But the rise of women and LGBT+ students involved in student activism and students’ unions- along with LM’s hatred of “PC” and its obsession with white, working class men meant a new frame was necessary. Women? LGBT+? This generation can’t be strong thugs- they must fit the gender and sexuality tropes necessary. They’re weak. They’re emotional. They’re hysterical. Their “mental health problems” are always in parentheses. Their weakness leads to “trigger warnings” and their “intolerance” leads to called “no-platforming”. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Free Speech- From rankings to regulation

Given the geopolitical factors, it’s not a particular surprise that the clock still hasn’t moved on. But what is a surprise is the enthusiasm with which Ministers, Parliamentarians and now even the chair of the supposed arm’s length regular- a man promoted as focussed on data on evidence- have bought this hoary old LM twaddle driven by a handful of anecdotes about Sombreros and Jazz Hands.

“We will stand for the widest possible definition of freedom of speech- anything within the law”, says Michael Barber in his piece in the THE. He recalls a time when he read “The Theory of Possessive Individualism” and felt uncomfortable, as if at some stage NUS was trying to ban C. B. Macpherson. “Admittedly, this had nothing to do with my identity” (you don’t say) [but] “my Pakistani friend… enrolled in a comparative religion class and suddenly found himself faced with questions that challenged his religion, culture, upbringing and, yes, identity. Uncomfortable for sure. And life-changing”. There it is- the LM right to be “offended”- via a crack down on people like the student activist he met. “A well-informed student I spoke to agreed that freedom of speech was important but added that it might need to be limited in relation to questions of identity because otherwise it might make some people feel uncomfortable”.

I’ve worked with student activists and leaders and sabbatical officers for over 20 years- in small colleges and large Universities, in institutions, SUs and in NUS. The truth is, I’ve barely ever met a single one with a real desire to censor ideas, or stifle debate, or police speech- more a desperation to avoid hurting other people’s feelings by displaying inadvertent prejudice, and a real bravery and determination to tackle the world around them.

  • There’s the students who weren’t prepared to put up with being groped in nightclubs any more- and had the temerity and bravery to launch social norming campaigns and behaviour codes amongst students long before Universities were shamed into joining in.
  • There’s the students who, when running their own shop, didn’t want to profit from selling The Sun. Note not wanting to profit from the sales- not banning it, or geoblocking the URL on eduroam, or confiscating copies from the local Tesco. They just got together and decided through open debate what they wanted to sell to eachother.
  • There’s the students who wanted us to ask other students not to “black up” at social events, or to parade around at fancy dress events mocking people of colour or people that are poor. There’s the student who wanted to know what to do about her “handsy” lecturer who women had developed ways to avoid over 20 years. There’s the students campaigning to have some reading from talented people and thinkers that aren’t white.
  • There’s the Jewish students who spent much of the 00s sick of having Hizb ut-Tahrir organising front societies to spread vile messages of anti-Semitism. There’s the LGBT+ students who weren’t happy that the Hockey Team thought it was just “bants” to play Gay Chicken on their way to fixtures. There’s the students who wanted to get through a night out without a DJ playing “Blurred Lines”, slurring down the mic that it was time for the “lads” to go “blur the lines with the ladies”, with obvious consequences.
  • And then there’s the students- not studying politics or philosophy or religion- who just wanted to get through the day without having to justify their own identity or existence. And the students who just wanted a heads up if their class was about to discuss something they’ll find traumatic, which without warning would prevent their active participation.

In the Students’ Union sector, there tend to be two cliched type models for student leadership. The first is the “head boy or girl” type- polite, constructive characters that dress up smart for University meetings, appear in prospectus photos, and run awareness campaigns. They are concerned for “ordinary” students. They trust power. In my world they’re called “the right”- but here let’s call them “passive”.

Then there’s the activist type- scruffier, louder, more “rebellious”; where demonstrations and occupations are the go-to tactics of any campaign. If they do turn up to University meetings they’re unlikely to have dressed up, and are more likely to disrupt an open day than contribute to it. They are concerned that some students- especially Women, LGBT+, BaME and Disabled- are not seen as “ordinary” whilst others are. They distrust power. In my world they’re called “the left”, but here we’ll call them “aggressive”.

The tendency is for both of the archetypes to accuse the other camp of the extremes of the cliché- not least on the floor of the NUS Conference, where the bifurcation of a stream of “Yes/No” votes on resolutions forces delegates to choose sides. And I’ve met hundreds of University leaders over the years who are frustrated at the tactics of the “left” only to be disappointed (or worse, thrilled) when they’re apparently replaced by the emptiness of the “right”.

But day to day, most student activists and leaders embody neither of the clichés. They’re just plain old assertive. They challenge authority. They point out elephants in the room and raise uncomfortable things at uncomfortable times in uncomfortable ways. They do appear in prospectus photos and they do go on protests, but they also present evidence and make arguments and provoke the powerful. They tackle each other’s behaviour. And they’re genuinely brave. Any glance at social media demonstrates this. Almost uniquely in the UK, we have built a powerful set of organisations and processes and people within our HE sector capable of delivering more local accountability, transparency and bravery within a University than any Office for Students ever will- and we should be proud of it.

Instead, it’s under threat- and some in the sector don’t help. I know- I’ve seen it with my own eyes- that HE types (especially in management positions) can get frustrated with the concerns and behaviours of so-called snowflakes when what they want is “student” input. It’s true that some students are louder than others. It’s true that some lose their temper. Some take up leadership positions. Some are more “extreme”.

Students above the parapet

But to imagine that the people putting their head above the parapet are unrepresentative or dismissable is dangerous. Remember that HEPI research– 76% of students express some support for No Platform. 68% of students support trigger warnings. 51% of students think universities should sometimes or always get rid of memorials to controversial historical figures and 55% think universities should be safe spaces where debate takes place within specific guidelines.

For the faux outrage of the RCP mob and intergenerationally irritated baby boomer HE leaders, this lack of faith in freedom, democracy and debate is baffling. But can you blame them? For students, the “Free Speech” revolution created through endless streams of internet enabled communication is cripplingly exhausting- especially for women, LGBT+ and BaME students. And when we tell them that free and fair debate will win out- only to find that a lie on the side of a bus can pull us into economic suicide and an incoherent, narcissistic predator can lose debates but end up as the leader of the free world- we ought to realise that our exhortations will sound empty.

Yet despite all of this, they do believe in Freedom of Speech- passionately. They just want everyone to be able to access it. They are sometimes inconsistent and hypocritical. They can look unrepresentative, but they represent something deeper. They are beacons for disclosure and carry astonishing burdens from students inspired by them. They are brave, not weak. And their emotional intelligence and focus shames most of us.

Of course they can tend to use baffling and exclusionary language, creating rarified environments that seem hard to access. How do you think they feel in University committees? Or watching Parliament? And they can be dogmatic, and difficult, and occasionally just daft. But the yebbutism of parts of HE in that year they came for SUs (exemplified in the Cardiff VC evidence to the JCHR) — full of dismissal like “where’s your evidence”, or “you’re inconsistent”, or “what about the university’s reputation” didn’t help- and now look at the mess we’re in.

Because the whole of HE is one big special snowflake snowstorm right now. There is no freedom of speech problem in UK Universities. But there is an endless, coordinated campaign of tropey stories where the facts are secondary to the frame — a runaway train that left the Spiked! station some time ago but is now firmly out of control. There’s a ministerial crack down, and a concerned regulator and a cross party enquiry.

Over the years, my real concern for the snowflakes has been their inability to persuade others. There is a comfort in shared language and frames that can lead to laziness about growing, or bursting, the social bubble. Like there was in the “remain” campaign. Like there was in Clinton’s campaign. Like there is right now in HE.

I’m not sure whether this pseudo-intellectual version of populism, being propagated by the likes of Johnson, Gove, Timothy, Adonis, the RCP and now Barber is being coordinated- or just memetically transferred as people cast around to capture the anger of the oppressed without looking like a Nazi or Trump. But I am sure that right now HE is on the wrong side of it. We need our own frames- crafted, tested and relentlessly promoted- and we need to get out of our bubbles and into theirs.

Ultimately, for the “snowflakes”, the intergenerational injustice is real. The lack of faith in democracy and freedom of speech is understandable. The understanding of mental health, behaviour and emotion is inspiring. They are who we wished we were then, and who we wish we could be now.

They’re not kids that want our help, nor are they always right or fit to lead Higher Education. But they are our colleagues, partners, comrades, customers, members, clients- our equals. And in the battle of ideas ahead, we’ll need them.

What do students want when it comes to Value for Money?

One of the areas that is remarkably undercooked in OfS’ regulatory framework consultation is the section on Value for Money- and without the wedged in response to Adonis’ one man war on VC Pay, it would be impossibly thin. Given VFM is one of the four big risks that the proposals are designed to mitigate against, this is disappointing- but given the wide variation in interpretation of what it means, not altogether surprising.

One of the oft used arguments against this agenda centres on deferred benefits and impacts. “Value is created when students realised their potential”, goes the argument- or it’s created when students “benefit from their education in later life”, or even “when they earn more”- all of which apparently render the measurement of VFM meaningless.

But the argument misses the point. Of course I only get “value” from a TV if I watch it, or “value” from a gym membership if I bother to go. But that doesn’t change the fact that unlike a gym or a TV purchase, University is a public endeavour jointly funded by the taxpayer and the student. Both groups have the right to demand standards in the service being offered. Both groups also have the right to ask that regulation ensures that their money isn’t being wasted.

And the truth is, it’s the classic public policy goal of efficiency that “VFM” is really code for in the consultation. Indeed, buried in the proposals is the prospect of OfS carrying out an “efficiency study” on a provider if there are substantial concerns. As any Health or Education Minister will tell you, efficiency is a funny old goal- people love it in principle, but not if you’re closing their local hospital, or restructuring their counselling provision. Trouble is, once you move to vouchers as a way to pay for public services, you sort of lose the ability to drive efficiency. And cutting fees a bit isn’t the answer. The puzzle for policymakers is really “how can we get them to spend more of what they have on teaching” but it’s not clear that an “efficiency study” is the answer to that question.

Cross subsidies and transparency are in the debate, with the theory that “shining a light on provider activities” will ensure “they are held to account”. The current stab at this involves “a statement to allow students to see how their money is spent, following examples from other sectors, such as Local Authorities publishing breakdowns of how Council Tax is spent”. But a bespoke statement designed by an individual provider will only justify and explain- how are students to know if £Xm on estates admin is too high or low? Transparency is only useful when it comes with comparability. A statement that student representatives can compare with others, using a set of definitions and agreed with HESA, would empower students to intervene in debates on how providers spend their money.

There’s also the issue of commitments. The proposal here is that asking providers to follow guidance from CMA on consumer rights will help students get the things they were promised. But CMA’s guidance focusses fatally on the course itself- which misses the academic services offer (advising, assessment and feedback, libraries) and the wider services offer (like Sport, Welfare and Social Space). If a University policy sets out standards for assessment return times that aren’t met, why isn’t this a commitment in the contract? OfS could require, for example, that any service or facility not explicitly mentioned in a contract may not be funded by student fee income. In any event OfS should ensure a proper link between the policies and standards agreed in meetings, the promises made on Open Days and the commitments made in agreements that students sign.

There are other aspects. Much of the material arising from the research into students’ perceptions of VFM has been aimed squarely at overcomplicating student concerns about contact hours. It’s true that intensity and quality matter just as much as the number of hours, and it’s also true that providing resources and support for independent study is a key component too. But students do feel that they’ve been sold some actual contact with actual people. And both them and their parents are consistently amazed at the lack of it. If the answer is a mix of metrics- quality, quantity and intensity- then so be it. And OfS should probably act to ensure that when it comes to “optional” pathways or modules, the option is for the student- not the institution who will often declare students’ first choices as “full”.

But the real issue that consistently vexes students is extra fees and charges. If a University encourages people to live on campus in their first year, students are amazed that they’re allowed to profit substantially from that- it’s a hidden top up fee. Where a module leader designs a programme whose core text was written by them, students are baffled that they’re allowed to sell them a copy. Where keeping fit or eating healthily is beyond the financial reach of large swathes of the student community because Sports or Catering’s an income stream, students are telling Nicola Dandridge that they want OfS to act.

And it’s not so much that other charges are hidden- CMA fixed that- it’s that students are amazed that so much that they thought would be included costs extra. Whether that’s printing, books, “optional” field trips, translation costs for a doctor’s note or student clubs and societies- the current incentives encourage charges to multiply and hide when students need the opposite. If Michael Barber is right that higher education experiences go beyond the course “and include art, drama, music, sport, volunteering, political activity and, not least, enduring friendships”, he might need to think about how students’ unions can be supported to get the cost of these things included or down- rather than obsessing about the VFM of students’ unions themselves.

And it’s perhaps this area of costs where OfS might make a real difference when it comes to VFM. It should definitely investigate participation costs and be concerned with all charges to students. It might require Universities to become just as strategically aware of the financial situation of its own students as they are of institutional finances- with encouragement to keep student costs under control. It might usefully require research into the total costs of participation in a course where curriculum design might help reduce the costs of books or equipment.

And given the focus on competition, an OfS framework which encouraged Universities to compete on what was included in their fee would make a real difference.

(Not) securing student success?

Originally published on

On first reading of the thrillingly titled “Securing student success: risk-based regulation for teaching excellence, social mobility and informed choice in higher education”, you’ve got to wonder how DfE officials spent their youth. “The document is aimed at students”, opines the four page guide to navigating the 177 pages; “we are especially interested in the views of students (prospective, current, and former), on whose behalf OfS will regulate, and providers, who will be subject to its regulation”.

They may well be interested in the student view — but in the unlikely event that any actual student gets through the turgid text, I doubt they’ll find much in there that accords with their own perceptions of value for money, power imbalances and educational improvement.

The dead cat

In headline terms, the freedom of speech focus has been effectively deployed in the press as a dead cat on the table of fees and funding. I’ve written before here about both the history of this moral panic, and the pointlessness of proposals to this end. Of interest to us in the consultation is the actual proposal, and it’s not surprising to learn that there doesn’t really appear to be one.

Presumably mindful that a document like this can’t actually lie, a wedge of text marked “Box D” is forced to reference that it has been the duty of HEIs since 1986 to secure freedom of speech. “Going further” merely ensures that private providers will now have to spend their shareholders’ cash on demonstrating that a visit by Milo Yiannopoulos would pose a public order problem.

It then uses a neat trick- conflating HERA with the ’86 act into a generic “our legislation” frame to rehearse the same old free speech stuff we’ve heard before. The text makes it clear that there’s “no place” for “extremist” views, without really setting out who gets to define “extreme.” Bizarrely, this is reinforced by a quote from Orwell on liberty.

In setting out how OfS will enforce what will be converted from ’86 act to “public interest governance condition”, the document suggests that OfS will use something called “indicative behaviours” to assess compliance. “With regard to free speech”, it suggests, “one behaviour that would indicate compliance would be to have a freedom of speech code of practice… setting out the procedures which members, students and employees should follow in relation to meetings or activities, and the conduct which is expected of those individuals”.

That’s good news for both HEIs and SUs- the ’86 act has required a Code of Practice for over thirty years, and almost all SUs have one already — given their responsibilities under charity law, and guidance from NUS and UUK. Of course, none of this will stop an SU declining to invite a racist to an SU meeting if students democratically decide that this is what they want to do.

Reasons to be miserable

From a student perspective, it is entirely possible to be quite miserable about the other provisions in the framework on offer. Take data. “The OfS will work … to coordinate, collect and disseminate information for students to help them make the choices that are right for them, to drive competition around student outcomes, such as graduate employability, and to support and raise the profile of mechanisms that allow student transfer”. Note the obsessive focus on the use of data for student as chooser rather than user of HE- using exit rather than voice as power. Data that might aid a student representative in arguing for better facilities or programme improvements is curiously missing.

Or take contracts. Back in September Jo Johnson appeared to be promising to put content meat on the bones of contracts with students — to include things like facilities and contact hours- but the consultation appears to have watered this down significantly, offering only to ensure providers “have given due regard to relevant guidance as to how to comply with consumer law”. The text rightly recognises that “there is not an equal power balance in relationships between students and providers”, but then offers little to redress the imbalance and no sense of how a student might be supported to enforce these legal rights if let down.

There’s material on “Value for Money” which also doesn’t address student concerns — what is and isn’t included in the fee — and instead addresses Andrew Adonis’ concern about VC pay. There’s a paucity of material on access — rehearsing what we already know about access agreements changing their name and focussing on achievement and progression. And when it comes to the baffling patchwork of regulation that students will need to navigate when they experience an issue, it just says that “getting the right relationship between the CMA, the OIA and the OfS will also be important to ensure that, in the area of consumer law, students understand and are able to exercise their rights”.

You don’t say- although what they don’t say is that without a decent Students’ Union, students in FE and “alternative” providers haven’t got a hope of independent advocacy if something goes wrong.

Washed up

But perhaps the most revealing and dispiriting bit of the consultation is where it attempts to look at the HE market and identify where choosing an undergraduate course is different to buying a washing machine. “There are almost never repeat ‘purchases’ of the same type of higher educational courses by an individual student … many of the primary benefits to the student… are not received immediately; they are spread out over their lifetime…. [this] exposes the market to distortions such as time inconsistency… and temporal discounting”.

This is all true, and it’s why an “Office for Students” ought to be important. It could use Barber’s “Collective Choice and Voice” model to empower current students — giving power to individuals and their representatives to get redress when treated badly, and giving data and access to fuel improvements. It could drive a culture of representation and voice — at individual level right through to ministerial level — in recognition of the clear difference between white goods and degree courses. But while it nails the problems, it falls significantly short of any decent solutions — and couldn’t feel more distant from students’ day to day concerns if it tried.