Adult learning and the UK election (3): The Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats are conventionally seen as the UK’s third party, though they have far fewer seats than the Scottish National Party. On the basis of the current opinion polls, it is possible that the Lib Dems will have an influence on the next government, either as coalition partners or as holders of the balance of power. They also have a strong if regionally uneven presence in local government. So along with my earlier analyses of the Conservative and Labour proposals for lifelong learning, I thought I’d add my two-penn’orth on the Lib Dems’ manifesto.

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Like the two main parties, the Lib Dems favour an interventionist industrial strategy supporting innovation and skills. In respect of skills, the party’s industrial strategy will include a major expansion of high-quality apprenticeships, including advanced apprenticeships, backed with new sector-led national colleges, to be accompanied by a national skills strategy for key sectors. There is also a general commitment to build digital skills.

Demand for skills will presumably arise as a result of the industrial strategy, and it is accompanied by the idea of a ‘good employer kitemark’. But the skills section of this strategy is considerably less specific than the manifesto commitments of the other two parties, both of which set a numerical target for apprenticeships.

Like the Conservatives, the Lib Dems prefer to avoid the distinction between apprenticeship starts and completions. Other than renewables they do not specify what sectors will form the basis of the strategy. It is unclear whether ‘national colleges’ will be created in England only, or across the UK.

In fact, I cannot imagine why they favour new national colleges given that we have plenty of colleges in existence already, most of which are gasping for investment. And of the three main parties it is the Lib Dems who have the least to say about further education, with colleges meriting little more than a cursory mention in passing.

The Lib Dems reserve their principal proposals for education for a section titled Children First. They signal their support for family learning as a means of raising child attainment, with plans for a new online Family University, supported by leading organisations such as the BBC and Open University, to provide every family with advice and guidance for learning and parenting at home.

This sounds like a good idea, but as will be obvious to every adult educator, the devil is in the detail. Left to its own devices the Family University’s ‘natural’ audience will be middle class mums and dads with ambitions for their kids, rather than those whose kids are systematically failed by the schools system as it stands.

More conventional university education receives detailed attention. The manifesto promises a review of higher education finance, in the light of evidence on access, participation and quality, as well as the reintroduction of means-tested maintenance grants, and a requirement that all universities work to widen participation across the sector. Not a word about the collapse of part-time learning in higher education – most of which took place while the Lib Dems were in the ruling coalition.

The Children First chapter does include a section on what it calls ‘lifelong opportunities to learn’. It offers a paragraph of rationale for lifelong learning, but this is confined to the need for career-long upskilling. Most of it is not particularly concerned with lifelong learning, but instead restates the party’s proposals on apprenticeships and national sector colleges.

Nevertheless, it does offer some specific plans for learning in adult life. These are:

  • Aim to meet all basic skills needs including literacy, numeracy, and digital skills by 2030. This is clearly a Good Thing, but I have no idea what it means in practice; who is to do the ‘meeting’, how they will be funded, and how the results will be measured, are not spelt out.
  • Create individual accounts for fnding mature and part-time adult learning and training, and provide for all adults individual access to necessary career information, advice and guidance. There are plenty of models elsewhere, such as the interesting skills credits scheme in Singapore, so this is a feasible policy if carefully designed. Who will be eligible for the Lib Dem accounts, what types of learning will they cover, how much will they be worth, how will the government avoid fraud, and how will they be paid for? And is the Party really proposing an entire new adult guidance service, or something much more modest?
  • Facilitate across the UK an effective and comprehensive system for credit transfer and recognition of prior learning and qualifications. We already have such a system in place across the EU and beyond (ECTS), and the simplest thing would be for the four nations of the UK to commit to observe it after Brexit. It is, of course, a matter for each of the four nations to decide its own policy in this area. However, the problem is not creating a system; rather, it is to ensure that education providers and employers (including government bodies) actually use the ones that exist.

The Lib Dems make no proposal for replacing the European Structural Funds after Brexit. This is in keeping with the over-arching policy of continuing to oppose Brexit, and in keeping with that they are economic will the truth, predicting ‘the loss of £8.9 billion of European Structural and Investment Funds’, failing to mention that the UK pays far more into the Funds than it receives (and in principle, therefore, will have more funding available for these purposes). As these Funds, especially the Social Fund, are a major source of support for adult and community learning, this isn’t a minor issue. Nor is their decision to keep quiet about reinsertion programmes for the unemployed. 

Before reading the manifesto I wanted to like the Lib Dem’s policies more than I did afterwards. Leaving aside the dishonesty about the Structural Funds (dishonesty was the dominant motif of the Brexit debate, on both sides), I found the manifesto disappointingly thin on specific plans, and lacking crucial detail where it did include concrete proposals. Nevertheless, there are some constructive ideas, and the Family University proposal has real potential for innovation, so there is plenty of fodder for lobbying and development after the election is over.

Some people find it difficult to discuss male underachievement (updated)

As someone with a long track record of interest in educational inequalities, I started my day by reading a new report on male underachievement. Published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, the report points to evidence from the UK of male underachievement in higher education entry, persistence, and final results. In particular, it presents evidence of underachievement among white working class boys. It then sets out a number of proposals for changing that situation.

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I found it a reasoned and evidence piece of work, though far from perfect. Aware that they were entering a minefield, the authors went to some trouble to point out that they were very comfortable with the growth of female participation in higher education, and they noted that there are significant differences between subjects; they discussed male/female salary differentials for graduates and criticised female under-representation in senior academic positions. They developed their proposals in a way that sought to avoid zero-sum political carve-ups.

However, that wasn’t enough to prevent an official from the National Union of Students using the highly-respected WONKHE blog to attack them for turning “a complex and nuanced issue into a battle of the sexes”. Even for a zero-sum world view, this ignores possible wars over ethnicity and class.

The WONKHE blog also contains a number of inaccuracies. For example, it claims that the HEPI report says that female school teachers are the main reason why boys do badly in school. The HEPI report says in terms that “the evidence on whether male teachers raise the achievement of boys is contradictory” – so it is pretty much the opposite of what the WONKHE blog says.

I’d idly started to wonder whether the blogger had actually read the report, or was drawing on another source. Then I spotted an attempt to smear the authors based on who they cited. The WONKHE blog says that on page 36 the report refers to an “un-named academic”, with a footnote referring the reader to a “disreputable source” by the name of Mike Buchanan, who is a leading figure in a campaigning group called “Justice for Men”.

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The blogger simply got this wrong, muddling two quite separate footnotes to two quite separate sentences. The reference to the “un named academic” (footnote 61) is to Joanna Williams, who is at the University of Kent. Mike Buchanan is not identified at all in the report, but footnote 60 does list three sources – one of them being Justice for Men etc – for the statement that “groups representing men’s interests claim to have found areas where hard evidence has been ignored”.

In itself, I don’t think this is that important, though I’d like WONKHE to correct the factual “errors”. The National Union of Students exists to defend its views, and sometimes it officers will do so in ways that they see as robust and others as underhand. What this episode does tell us, though, is that some people will try and stamp out any attempt whatsoever to discuss male educational performance.



It turns out that the report put out by HEPI in advance to sector stakeholders and media had three slightly broken footnotes which were corrected in the finished version which was published. One of those who received an advance copy was the NUS, whose vice-president produced the WONKHE blog post. You must judge for yourself whether a failure to twig that something was obviously wrong was the result of the author’s prejudice or something else. Muddled footnotes do not, though, explain the other inaccuracies.

Widening participation in the Four Nations

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The Higher Education Statistics Agency has just released its latest set of performance indicators for widening participation, covering 2014-15. They are far from perfect, but they do give us some idea of how university systems in the four nations compare with one another.

First, they tell us the proportion of young first degree entrants who come from state schools. These are as follows: Northern Ireland remains out in first place at 99.3%, Wales is second at 92.2%, then England at 89.6% and Scotland at 86.6%.

Then HESA provides the proportion coming from socio-economic classes 4, 5, 6 and 7. These are based on the Office for National Statistics’ classifications of parental status, calculated by their occupation, and classes 4-7 comprise technical and ‘routine’ occupations. Northern Ireland again tops the nations at 38.5%, followed by England at 33.4%, Wales 32.6%, and Scotland 27.2%.

These are overall figures, of course. HESA break the English results down by region, showing huge variations depending on where you live. As so often, London turns out to be a special case, with 38.1% of its young entrants coming from SECs 4-7, against only 28.4% of new students from the rest of South-east England.

Northern England’s students come overwhelmingly from state schools (94% in the case of the North-west), while the highest proportion from private schools are those from the South-east (84.3%).

So it looks as though Northern Ireland is far and away the most socially inclusive of the four nations, when judged on these figures for university entrants. This is probably best explained in terms of Northern Ireland’s history and its school structures, as well as the high cultural value that almost all parents place on education as a way of getting ahead.

Conversely, Scotland appears to do rather badly. I say “appears” deliberately, because the HESA figures do not include people who are taking short-cycle higher education in non-university institutions, and Scotland has a lot of young people who are doing exactly that.

So one conclusion might be that Scots don’t need to worry, as their wider higher education system is meeting the needs of disadvantaged young people by offering a wide range of Higher National courses, taught in colleges. Another conclusion, though, is that an HNC or HND does not carry the same currency as a university degree, and attending a college does not convey the same cultural and social capital. If this is so, then social mobility in Scotland is being constrained, and universities are being let off the hook.



Top of the League Tables: the Social Mobility Index

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

I sometimes think that what higher education really needs is a league table of higher education league tables. No, not really – but here is one league table that I would actually find useful: the Social Mobility Index sets out to identify which universities best serve the public interest. And the results are predictablly intriguing.

Basically, the Index measures performance against five criteria:

  1. the level of tuition fees, with the lowest fees being ranked highest;
  2. the socio-economic background of the students;
  3. the graduation rate, which effectively includes retention and success;
  4. the average early career salary of graduates;
  5. income from endowments, which like tuition fees are measured negatively, on the grounds that a university which does something without endowment income is likely to be more efficient than one which does the same but with high endowment income.

These seem pretty reasonable criteria, and they can be measured fairly robustly.The Index seems to me to combine effectiveness measures with indicators of equity and student success. You won’t be surprised that I am quite keen to persuade someone like Phil Baty and the Times Higher to undertake a similar exercise in the UK, where similar data are readily available.

Indeed, with a pinch a suitably powerful government body (such as the European Commission) could probably collect such information for the whole of Europe. I wonder which universities would do well, and which would do badly, in a European Social Mobility League Table?

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In the USA, which is what the current table covers, there is one clear winner. City University New York and its constituent colleges dominate the top position. What a great track record: best in the USA at taking disadvantaged students, ensuring they succeed, getting them valued in the labour market, and doing all this with low fees and low endowment. Yes, this is a league table I’d love to see replicated more widely.

The continuing value of access courses

In a society which seems to stifle so many opportunities for social mobility, I find it remarkable that access courses continue to thrive. Initially promoted by the Home Office as a means of improving minority ethnic access to the professions, during the 1908s locally-designed access courses were developed across the UK by college and university lecturers who were determined – and were able – to provide a pathway suitable for adult returners aiming to enter higher education.

I’d be surprised if access courses hadn’t changed since then. For a start, they have become ‘normal’; while the excitement and innovation of the pioneers have long gone, so are the insecurity and improvisation that characterised much of the early access provision. Some of the founding principles – accumulation and transfer of academic credit among them – were adopted by managers and policy makers across entire sectors of further and higher education and training. And the courses themselves are now formally regulated, albeit by the relatively ‘soft-touch’ hands of the HE sector’s Quality Assurance Agency.

QAA’s annual statistical reports provide a brief overview of the scale and nature of access provision, and also say something about the students. In 2011-12, 42,150 people in England and Wales were registered on one of the 1,140 courses that were offered that year. Colleges are by far the largest providers, though there is also a healthy showing by adult education providers, and universities are still delivering a significant minority of courses directly.

Following the recession, demand for places has risen by one third. Some 31,860 took an access course in 2007-8, followed by a sharp rise to 39,835 in the next year. Interestingly, though, there seems to have been little change in the student profile: three quarters are female, just under a third are non-white and one third are aged 30 or above. There has been little change in the number of younger students – in contrast to what I often hear said of similar courses in Scotland. Consistently, the male learners are on average younger than their female fellow students.

The main message to emerge from this quick overview, then, is that access courses are flourishing, and are in greater demand during the recession. Importantly, the QAA figures also show that they are still recruiting predominantly from less advantaged socio-economic groups, so we can conclude that access courses are making some contribution to social mobility. So these courses clearly have a continued role to play, and in the current context are probably worth expanding.

Short cycle higher education – cut price option?

Scotland’s higher education system is well known for its breadth and quality. But its most distinctive feature is barely known outside the UK, and this is the number of students who enrol on short cycle qualifications in non-university institutions.

Around one-third of full-time students at undergraduate level in Scotland enrol on a Higher National Certificate or Higher National Diploma at a college. The proportion is even higher among part-time students, a majority of whom take a Higher National at a college. This is much higher than in most other OECD countries, even those – like England – where government has actively encouraged short cycle degrees.

Under the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, an HNC is deemed the equivalent of a first year degree course, while an HND equals the first two years of a degree. In Scotland, where most school-leavers enter higher education at 17, most bachelors’ degrees last four years. And many students do in fact ‘cash in’ their HNCs and HNDs, and enter university to complete a bachelors’ degree.

In general terms, it looks as though this distinctive feature of Scottish higher education is a success. Jim Gallacher’s research has shown that short cycle HNCs and HNDs are attractive to non-traditional students, while the part-time routes provide a progression route for lifelong learners. Anne Gasteen and John Houston have shown that people with an HNC or HND earn higher salaries than those with lower qualifications. So these qualifications are valued by employers as well as their holders.

However, while the same body – the Scottish Funding Council – deals with both colleges and universities, it treats them differently. At present, according to the Herald, SFC pays colleges £1285 a year for students on HE courses, compared to £1820 for a university student.

Can this discrepancy be justified? Some members of the Scottish Parliament clearly think not. At a recent meeting of the Education and Culture Committee, MSPs pressed some of the expert witnesses, including Jim Gallacher, for their views on the funding discrepancy. I suspect that some of these MSPs will now pursue the issue with more vigour in the future.

It’s easy to imagine how the universities might try to argue their case. One line of argument, for example, would be to claim that their costs are higher because the quality of teaching is higher. They could underpin this claim by noting that university lecturers come into the classroom fresh from their cutting edge research, and are often qualified to doctoral level in their discipline.

There are two main problems with this argument. First, there isn’t much evidence to support the view that university teaching really is of better quality, or even that it is much influenced by leading edge research. Worse, the sector’s leaders have shown remarkably little interest in investigating the relationships between research and teaching. On the other hand, journalists are showing an increasing interest in rumours of university lecturers who avoid students in order to concentrate on research.

The second problem is that if the quality is different, then surely the two types of higher education should be differently rated in the SCQF? But opening up that question would quickly undermine the silent and largely tacit consensus on which the whole SCQF is based.

Another possible response is that the Herald is not comparing like with like. The average cost of a university undergraduate is much higher than a college diplomate because they are taking different subjects: an HNC in early childhood is cheaper to teach than a bachelor’s course in building design or nuclear physics. But this only works for obvious mismatches; what is less clear is why it costs so much more to teach first year accountancy or marketing in a university than in a college.

This is likely to be fiercely contested. There is no obvious economic or social policy justification for reducing college teaching budgets (by 16%) while keeping university teaching budgets at their present level.  Of course, universities tend to get a better press than colleges, and are far better at lobbying; they are probably also more popular among the electorate. And the Scottish Government clearly believes it has a winning policy on tuition fees.

So Scotland’s colleges may well lose this battle. Of course, if the universities want to come out of the debate with any dignity, and not just a result, they would be wise to think hard about the evidence needed to buttress their case. Meanwhile, policy makers elsewhere will have cause to reflect on the challenges they face if they are to grow the share of short cycle higher education in their own system.

Living education – changing the generations

Almost everyone entering university or college this year was born later than the World Wide Web. In itself this is a piece of trivia, but it provoked me to think more widely about the ways that different generations view education, and about the way that changing education systems help in turn to form generations.

Access to mass higher education is one example. In his book on the purpose of universities, Stefan Collini ponders the way in which the clichés of elite higher education are still used. Think of such terms as ‘ivory tower’ or ‘port-swilling dons’, for example. Although these terms were born when one person in twenty entered higher education, you don’t have to wait long to hear them in media discussions of higher education today.

You can imagine how these terms sound to a typical student of the twenty-first century. For today’s young people, higher education is the normal route between school and the labour market. Around one third of young Britons, and over half of young Irish people, go on higher education – far more than go into training, apprenticeships, jobs or further education. This isn’t an exciting induction into tomorrow’s elite, it is just what everyone else around you is doing.

The ‘higher education experience’ too has changed. It is far more diverse, encompassing courses offered in colleges, as well as a growing number of private institutions. The subject mix has changed, most notably in favour of business and accountancy. And while many students still take degrees, large numbers in Britain take other qualifications such as Foundation Degrees or Higher Nationals.

Then there is that WWW factoid. Of course, generations are complex formations, and their experiences of communications technologies are only a small part of what makes each generation more or less distinctive. Here’s another factoid: until they were in their fifth year, this summer’s school-leavers went through all their education under New Labour. Some will have gone through New Labour parenting interventions like Sure Start.

So why do the old clichés linger on, well past their use-by date? It is always tempting to blame lazy journalism, but that won’t do. One reason, quite simply, is that most journalists who write about higher education went to university themselves some years ago. And most university readers had their ideas about further and higher education shaped by their own experiences – which, given the age profile of news consumers, was also some years ago. In popular culture, these clichés were reinforced by costume dramas such as Brideshead Revisited and Willy Russell’s rom-com, Educating Rita, while ideas about further education were burnished by the scabrous novels of Tom Sharpe.

Generational differences of these kinds matter a great deal. Some years ago I was involved in a study of adult returners in further education. We found that many people were very badly informed about colleges, believing that they catered mainly for young people undertaking apprenticeships – because this had been what colleges did when they left school.

And we can, to some extent, project these generational differences forward. For anyone born after 1991, ubiquitous access to the WWW is pretty much a given. We have already seen how the internet has changed our students’ approach to their studies – ranging from their ability to find information to the possibilities of cheating. We have also seen how many professors and lecturers, coming from an older generation with less internet exposure, have struggled to keep up.

Without a major investment in upskilling by universities, this generational gap will now accelerate. And universities’ ability to engage the new generation of students and nurture their love of learning will critically depend on their capacity for connecting with their cultural expectations and norms, including a view of the internet and digital media as nothing special.

How we encourage the media to understand today’s higher education system in all its complexity is another matter. Assuming, that is, that we aren’t better off keeping them in a state of ignorance.

If you want to read more on this topic, try my paper on biography and generation in educational and social research: