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Trust, standards & the DDD tariff

January 10, 2019

If you’ve seen one of my talks over the last 18 months, you’ve probably seen me pull up a slide referencing a Browne review proposal that was rejected by the Coalition government:

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

“All students who meet the standard will have an entitlement to Student Finance and can take that entitlement to any institution that decides to offer them a place. Institutions will face no restrictions from the Government on how many students they can admit. This will allow relevant institutions to grow; and others will need to raise their game to respond.

“Rather than create a new test of aptitude, our proposal builds on the UCAS tariff admissions system, which is currently used by around 70% of full time undergraduate students. … The minimum tariff entry standard will be set every year by Government shortly after the UCAS deadline for receiving applications.”

Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education, p. 33 (my emphasis)

I have underscored ‘qualified to benefit’ because I think this point is missed in the current furore around a proposed DDD tariff.

Browne’s idea wasn’t simply to limit the financial costs of an uncapped system: it was an argument about standards. Browne doubled down on his proposal when he appeared before the Treasury Select Committee in December 2017. He described the idea as a key part of efforts to drive up quality. And indeed, he went on to provide an additional gloss: the minimum tariff should move upwards over time.

When I wrote my report, one of the things we said was we should set a standard for entry qualifications every year that made it tougher and tougher to get into higher education provision. We did that because we thought that was one of the aspects of improving quality and one of the aspects of getting the right people with a graduate degree, as opposed to some other form of qualification.

There was some evidence to show that the tariff points that you got when you went into university bore a strong relationship to the quality of the degree you eventually achieved and your employment. There were exceptions, and we covered that under the participation activity to make sure that disadvantaged schools did not create disadvantaged people.

He returned to the point later in his evidence:

When I looked at this a little while ago, the thing that was really concerning to us was maintaining and expanding quality. A lot of what we looked at was doing just that transparency but in a much more detailed way: suggesting that we qualified lecturers much as we would qualify teachers. It was the same idea: that we would look at tariff points—ie prior attainment—and make sure that that was rigorously applied across the system and made better every year. We are in a competitive world, and we have to improve the quality of our output every year. This was the most important thing that was driving the report.

Back in 2017, it seemed clear to me that the Higher Education & Research Act prefigured something like the return to the “quality wars” of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Trust in universities to provide appropriate undergraduate education to students who can benefit has been eroded. See the concerns about graduate inflation, graduate earnings and the comparatively low levels of numeracy and literacy amongst English graduates. Note how Browne would like to accredit lecturers and tie that in with current consideration of the feasibility of accredited external examiners (tasked with ensuring comparability of degree awards across the sector).

In short, I think it is a misjudgement to see the DDD tariff idea solely as an elitist variant of “more means worse”. It is also entirely possible to view the proposal from a different perspective: that students with lower tariffs should be nudged towards preliminary courses before embarking on a undergraduate study or to approach undergraduate study piecemeal by achieving levels 4 and 5 first.  (If it is meant to drive some students down a technical, vocational path rather than others, then it is a divisive proposal).

I am not backing this proposal, I am suggesting it needs to be better understood in the broader context of (i) a loss of trust in the quality of undergraduate courses and (ii) concerns that the post-2004 expansion in undergraduate numbers has been a bad deal for students and government, because low-tariff students were recruited onto low quality courses.

That is, the sector will misunderstand this proposal and be poorly placed to contest it if they fail to realise what it’s about.

As I stressed in my talks, it’s legitimate for government to ask how public money is spent (whether loans or grants). Reviewing who gets funding does not directly impinge on institutional (academic) freedom (deciding who gets offered a place). That matters legally, given the way HERA is written. But indirect controls are powerful.

You might also see the DDD-idea through the lens of “varieties of neoliberalism”. The weaknesses of market competition in English HE are already visible. I perhaps have more sympathy with the idea than some because I have seen up close what has happened in the private HE sector. You can find some frightening completion rates amongst new providers in the newly available Unistats data. As May said in her 2016 party conference, “where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene”. At the time I wrote:

If May is consistent then I would expect to see a shift away from the idea that competition (with easier market exit and entry) will drive up quality and a move to shore up (or impose) standards so that ‘university means university’.

… May announced a more interventionist policy with a bigger role for the state here, citing utility markets as a contender for reform. … [F]rom a certain perspective (that of the lender), the HE market looks dysfunctional with a large amount of misinvestment or even over-investment …

What Browne desires is to open up teaching and academic judgement to view. But if that cannot be done then what he (and others) seeks is a safeguard that funded students are in a position to benefit. They are inclined to trust A-levels, but that’s a whole other story.




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One Comment
  1. Kate Evans permalink

    As one of the ‘exceptions’ to the DDD rule (BEE at A level – 180 points, first class BA Hons degree, PhD, a career in HE) I think you make excellent points here. I was lucky enough to get an EE offer, as Swansea University saw my potential, and that was a lifeline for me. A level grades are a poor indication of capacity to learn and can be skewed by the course, school, or situation you find yourself in/on. Far better to trust HEIs to recognise and support potential when they see it. That doesn’t mean HE is for all, and we need to have honest conversations about that too, but for those who have the capacity to achieve, funding should never be denied.

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