Skip to content

Jo Johnson’s evidence and arguments

January 12, 2017

Jo Johnson has set out his arguments for ‘breathing new life into our higher education sector by encouraging innovation and putting in place incentives to drive up the quality of teaching’. Given that the last round of innovation infected English HE with a virus previously confined to the US, he has some case to make.

High-quality institutions that meet rigorous standards for quality, financial sustainability, management and governance upheld by a new regulatory body, the Office for Students, will no longer need to be ‘validated’ by their rivals before they can award their own degrees.

The government hasn’t consulted yet on these ‘new rigorous standards’ – they aren’t part of the HER Bill but are separate regulations. The White Paper suggested that no track record in higher level teaching would be needed to meet these standards. Validation here is a red herring, what we are really talking about is allowing for-profit companies, perhaps registered overseas for tax purposes to access public funding. But if you don’t want universities – established, and previously trusted, higher education institutions – to act as gatekeepers then you need to set out in full detail what these standards are going to be.

As history tells us, every period of university expansion in this country has met with opposition. And the arguments against new entrants put forward today echo those aired more than a century ago when UCL – now a pillar of academic excellence – was dismissed as ‘a Cockney university’.

This tired and ahistorical analogy is repeatedly trotted out. How many universities were there in England when UCL was founded? Two (Oxford, Cambridge) and then depending how you count an institution as a university, you have to consider the rival claims of Durham, University of London, and King’s College London to be the next oldest.

The same arguments were also made in opposition to the 1992 reforms that allowed the Polytechnics to convert into a wave of new universities, enabling them to play their part in ensuring higher education was never again rationed for the benefit of the socially privileged.

Polytechnics had been delivering higher education for 25 years (a track record) before they were converted to universities. In 1991, there were over 40 universities, we now have over 100 in England. This is a very different context and one where the government is proposing to relax what many would take to be the defining characteristics of universities. (Today, Johnson was reduced to retweeting a Toby Young article, which again gives the reader no indication as to how many universities there are today in England).

Students are crying out for new ways of learning. That’s why Dyson has received twenty times more applications than places available at their newly announced Institute of Technology.

Dyson is offering 25 degree apprenticeship places taught by Warwick (it’s stretching things a little to call it an institute yet). So 400 people applied. There are over 1million undergraduates in English HE. As the example obviously indicates, there is nothing to stop such initiatives being established so it’s not clear why Johnson thinks it backs up the need for the HERB reforms.

While our higher education institutions are among the best in the world, research-based league tables tell only part of the story and we know that too many students have been dissatisfied with the quality of the teaching they have received.

Over 60 per cent of students feel that some or all elements of their course are worse than expected and, of these, a third feel that this is due to the teaching quality.

As far as I can tell, Johnson is basing his claim on a chart from the 2016 HEPI Student Experience Survey. (Though he ignores the first finding that 85% of students are ‘very’ or ‘quite’ satisfied with their course experience.)


One could equally say “Over 75 per cent of students feel that some or all elements of their course are better than expected.” But you’d probably be better off comparing the 13% in red and the 27% in green and trying to find another way to drill into the blue.

But, when Johnson does so, things go awry.  HEPI says that the third referenced by Johnson are referring to ‘lack of support for independent study’, not teaching quality. I quote:

One of the specific reasons for expectations being met, which explains the differences between student groups, is the support provided to study independently. Overall, among students whose expectations were not met (in full or in part), 29% cited a lack of support for independent study …

The other factor explicitly discussed in this section is that many students feel their time as a student did not match their expectations, because they didn’t put enough work in. This is the ‘singlest most cited reason for expectations not being met’. And really means that Johnson is abusing the data.

Back to Johnson:

Our reforms deliver on the new Teaching Excellence Framework we promised in our last Manifesto, for the first time linking teaching funding to quality and not just quantity – a principle established by a Conservative government of the 1980s for research funding.

What’s proposed in the TEF is a suite of imperfect proxies for teaching quality – only one of which (completion rates) is a good indicator of something awry, but that may be more about recruitment and the financial strain of fulltime study rather than teaching quality per se.

For more on Johnson’s misuse of stats – this time in relation to the NSS – here see, BishopBlog on a lamentable performance.

  1. Deanne Arlansky permalink

    Sorry for my ignorance – what is the virus previously confined to the US all about?

  2. Lydia permalink

    I think there is strong evidence from elsewhere that higher pay actually corrupts behaviour, rather than driving up standards. Are they ruining universities too?

  3. Lydia permalink

    I don’t actually understand this, do we have government encouraging schools to be more independent as academies, whilst being much more heavy handed in how universities are run?

  4. Brian permalink

    The academisation of schools policy is history; it’s now all about grammar schools!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: