Category Archives: universities

Higher education, social mobility, Leicester City and the NFL

This week I spoke at the Bridge Group’s inaugural conference Bridging the Gaps: Fair Access to University and the Professions. The event coincided with the launch of two reports by the group, a ‘bottom up’ charitable think-and-do tank comprised of people working in and around the higher education sector concerned about widening participation and fair access to university as well as access to the professions and other blue-chip graduate employment. The report launched on the day, in which I have a featurette, focused on what happens after the first degree. A few days earlier, the Group published a report commissioned by the Civil Service’s ‘Fast Stream’ recruitment strand, looking at the diversity of its entry and noting that this is less diverse than the intake to Oxbridge.

The conference was a great success, bringing together academic researchers, widening participation practitioners, employers and the third sector and demonstrating that there is genuine commitment to tackling these issues to be found in many places. For me, there were two very clear (and straightforward) conclusions from the event. First, simply securing access to higher education for under-represented groups is not enough to achieve social mobility. We need to look at what happens afterwards, whether that is recruitment of graduates in the labour market or access to postgraduate study. Presenter after presenter highlighted the hidden advantages of cultural capital enjoyed by graduates from advantaged backgrounds as recruiters – unconsciously or not – select in their own image. Particularly interesting here was the study by Louise Ashley and colleagues on how social class background influences progression within the firm. This ties in to Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison’s seminal research on the ‘class ceiling’, where they show an earnings penalty for the upwardly mobile compared to those in the same occupation who are socially immobile.

Second, obsession with institutional status permeates graduate employment (and probably postgraduate recruitment) practices. A few employers are starting to examine and review their use of first-degree institution as a filter to their graduate recruitment process and widen the net. However the strong impression remains that the more prestigious graduate schemes focus their efforts on a small set of universities within the Russell Group. Keynote speaker Greg Dyke told a probably-not-very-apocryphal anecdote about a graduate recruiter for an elite law firm claiming they were widening their graduate recruitment pool: now they would look for graduates from certain University of London institutions, not just Oxford and Cambridge. I hope this is not the case when it comes to selection to postgraduate degrees, but it is quite possible. We know that there are stark differences in progression rates to postgraduate study for graduates from different universities, but the postgraduate admissions process is currently a bit of a ‘black box’. We do not know how much these institutional differences result from different rates of application or acceptance for graduates across institutions.

A key challenge raised by employers was the commercial imperative behind graduate recruitment. To some extent, this meant hiring graduates who they thought would be a good ‘fit’ with the organisation and who would be able to relate to their clients. While some of the major employers present, like hosts KPMG, argued that their client base was diverse so their workforce had to be too, I suspect that most employers do not know or care that they have an issue. Getting the best talent was a concern for all employers though, since this directly affects the bottom line. On the face of it at least, graduates from the most prestigious universities with top grades are the ones appearing to offer most to employers. If this is a socially as well as academically selected group, well for many firms that will be a secondary consideration at best. Here firms are behaving not unlike universities in selecting for undergraduate degrees – they want to widen the pool, but ultimately grades matter most.

It is here where I want to draw on two sporting examples to highlight what is wrong with this model. First, football. As a Leicesterian[1] I am obviously desperate to contrive as many opportunities as possible to talk about Leicester City while our moment of glory lasts. Call me a pessimist, but I’ve seen what has happened to Blackburn, Portsmouth and, er Nottingham Forest (hahahahaha) so I’m making hay while the sun shines.[2]

The English Premier League has 99 problems, but lack of meritocracy is not one. The team that scores more goals than its opponents most often become champions. Players end up in the team based on how much they contribute to achieving this. Every week, tens of thousands of people pay a lot of money to turn up and watch their team and hence they are quick to point out to managers in colourful language when a player isn’t cutting it – and quick to point the same out to directors about managers too. At least in terms of the players, the League is diverse and a route to untold social mobility for those in Britain from deprived backgrounds (and those from poor countries too).

And yet…still within the Premier League, there is a temptation to ‘pick winners’. The absurd wages and transfer fees mean a squad can cost as much as the total annual turnover at my university of 20,000 people. The biggest clubs cream off talent through sheer spending power, which has meant that only five clubs have won the Premier League title out of the 47 that have competed for it at some point since its inception in 1992. Manchester United alone has won 13 of the 24 titles since then. Spain’s La Liga is little different, with Real Madrid winning more than half the time. The two clubs are economic giants.

Leicester City are a different prospect. Their squad is made up of the footballing equivalents of cheap cuts. Jamie Vardy, the League’s leading goalscorer and now major star was previously at non-league Fleetwood Town, a veritable snip at £1 million. Riyad Mahrez, almost certainly the best player in the League on current form, cost just one third of that. When City beat Chelsea a few weeks ago, the cost of their team on the night was one tenth of that of the London club.

What is the lesson for graduate recruitment? It’s about looking for talent wherever it may be, recognising potential and creating a team. Sticking together a group of galacticos works some of the time, but equally with the right set up it is clearly possible to bring the best out of unsung players such as Drinkwater, Albrighton and Morgan. Having a fixed graduate entry point which is open only to a narrow band of institutions writes off any chance of picking the next Vardy of marketing or Kanté of accounting.

My second sporting example is the NFL. It may seem a strange choice. It is an endeavour soaked in commerce, the most capitalist of sports where owners have been known to move the team to another city entirely in search of greater profits (a fate which has just befallen the Rams, who return to Los Angeles in 2016 after years in St Louis). Games are staccato affairs, with frequent breaks and ‘timeouts’ to squeeze in more advertising. Player and coach salaries are huge.

But in other respects, NFL borders on being socialist. To begin with, there is a salary cap. Teams can spend BIG, but they can’t outspend each other. Coaches must decide whether to splash out on a few stars or spread the money around. To be successful they need to find and develop unfashionable players. The league also prevents tall poppies through the Draft. This works by giving most to those who have least: the team finishing last has the first choice of new recruits from college football; the reigning Superbowl champions are last in line to choose. Teams can recruit those not picked in the Draft (‘free agents’), some of whom go on from nowhere to be top stars.

The incongruous equality of the NFL has a strong dividend. American football is not a game to everyone’s taste, but the athletic quality on display is Olympic standard, team after team, week after week. While I’ve been watching that Vardy goal on repeat for days, it’s matched by the feats of the NFL elite. And it’s an open contest. In the 50 Superbowls played up to 2016, no team has won it more than six times, only four of the current 32 teams have never appeared in the final and no team has three consecutive wins. By regulating in this way, the NFL has prioritised the collective over the individual team and everyone has benefitted.

The lessons for graduate recruitment are clear. Equality works well and picking winners is no guarantee of success. Being more open – as universities and graduate recruiters – to late developers and to growing and nurturing, rather than just selecting talent can be highly effective. Watch out Real Madrid: Leicester City are coming for you…

[1] There isn’t really a word for people from Leicester. I don’t know why some cities seem to have nouns for their inhabitants (London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol) and others don’t (Leeds, Sheffield, Edinburgh etc). According to @patlockley on Twitter, people from Leicester are called ‘chissits’ in Skegness (the Lincolnshire seaside resort popular with Leicester residents). This is on account of the habit of walking into shops, picking something up and asking ‘owmuchissit?
[2] And I’ll be honest here: I’m a bit of a fairweather football fan. Rugby union is my sport of choice. On which, this article by Stacey Pope on female fans of Leicester City and Leicester Tigers highlights the social class (and city/county) connotations of the two clubs.
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Hell no! I won’t go to the Higher Ed Expo!

[title to be read in the style of a cheerleader’s chant]

On Thursday 17 October London’s Olympia will host The Higher Education Expo 2013. I know this because I have now received several pieces of direct marketing advising me of the event, including brochures and emails; and because of the prominent full-page adverts in recent editions of Times Higher Education. Although this publicity onslaught has partially done its job in alerting me to the event, it hasn’t convinced me in the slightest that there would be any point in me attending. Quite the opposite in fact.

‘Expo’ is not a word I’ve come across in relation to higher education before and I had to check to be certain what it meant. It’s a trade fair essentially, one of those things where a hangar-shaped space is filled up with flimsy-looking stands staffed by good-looking and slightly over-friendly sales staff, possibly wearing matching t-shirts and giving out binfuls of freebies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trade fairs, in the right context. They’re not really my sort of thing, but companies offering goods and services and individuals, companies and organisations needing goods and services clearly have an interest in being introduced to each other. New developments need to be showcased. However the format for that introduction should be appropriate to the context of the activity it represents. A trade fair might work for the Ideal Home Exibition or the motor trade, but the clothing industry plays it differently, through the fashion week (London/Milan/Paris). For researchers it is the academic conference: new ideas are showcased in the form of conference papers, publishers exhibit their books, professional associations and special interest groups promote themselves to potential members. Money and glitz are unwelcome guests.

For me, the Higher Education Expo is in no way sensitive to its context. It is a crass attempt to import the commercial trade fair approach to higher education and push further the monetisation and privatisation of public education. It presents the issues facing higher education in entirely consumerist terms, amenable to handy solutions through application of the right product or service. A series of seminars covers issues such as procurement, the achievement of ‘efficiency’, student choice and the student ‘experience’. Inevitably, the unsubstantiated, over-hyped fads of the moment, MOOCs and ‘alternative provision’ get a plug too. Teaching, learning and research are barely mentioned in the main conference programme. A couple of side events, in the ‘Teaching and Learning Theatre’ and ‘Research and Innovation Theatre’ give a semblance of connection to what I thought higher education was actually about, although reading the programmes for each I found it hard to recognise anything which said much to me about either teaching or research. The very strong impression is of a breathless futurism, a la Tomorrow’s World (for those of you old enough to remember it). This fetish for the new is coupled with a contrived millenarianism which shouts: “embrace the market; change or die; don’t be a dinosaur” and so on, ad nauseum. Nothing like a good bit of crisis and fear to make those universities reach for their chequebooks, eh?

This is epitomised by the session scheduled for 9.45am in the main conference programme: “Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies – Which HEI Will You Become?”. Supported by a sensationalist full-page advert on the inside cover of THE, this talks purports to be a discussion of a potential future typology of higher education institutions. It looks to me much more like a 15-minute advert for PA Consulting, a management consultancy firm with a HE/FE division. (The company appears regularly in Times Higher Education using what seems to be a similar tactic, promoting its latest ‘research’ report which is usually based on a survey of unnamed vice chancellors’ views of the sector). The typology itself comprises three sorts of institutions:

The oligarchs, a small super league of large, research-intensive universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, UCL and Manchester […] The innovators, those institutions that are developing enterprising ways of doing business [sic] […] The zombies, those institutions that are unable or unwilling to invest in change and hence risk finding themselves in a spiral of decline, characterised by continuous cost-cutting and retrenchment.

Forgive my cynicism, but to me these three categories could just as easily be read as: those institutions which are doing well and won’t spend money on strategy consultants; those institutions which do buy our services and so will be fine; those institutions which don’t buy our services, bad things await them.

At their worst, events like the Higher Education Expo risk eroding the public mission of the university, subverting sober, critical and impartial inquiry by presenting an adulterated imitation of academic research to hide commercial exploitation and the pursuit of private profit. Mary Madden has written persuasively about the dangers of the colonisation of medical conferences by medi-business (such as the big pharma companies and the medical device industry). Her point is that increasingly such events marry the ‘hospitality’ of corporate sales with a veneer of academic respectability through presentations of findings, many of which do not stand critical scrutiny. We should resist the same processes being applied to our universities.

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When is a university not a university? Some thoughts on university titles

Yesterday I was trying to come up with a definitive list of all the universities in the UK. It’s a lot trickier than I expected and certainly harder than finding out how many universities there are in other countries. One of several issues I faced was finding a list which had caught up with all the latest awards of university title. The official list of institutions recognised with degree awarding powers (thanks @amcgettigan) is out-of-date as it incorrectly lists Harper Adams University, BPP University and Bishop Grosseteste University as university colleges. (There is also the bizarre historical throwback of the Archbishop of Canterbury having the power to confer degrees! Mine’s a doctorate please Justin!).

The latest batch of awards of university title have caused a bit of a stir, not least because they confer the name on for-profit outfits, formerly the College of Law and BPP University College, now the University of Law and BPP University respectively. An excellent recent blog post by Andrew McGettigan for the Campaign for the Defence of British Universities draws attention to the ‘Companies House’ route to university title followed in these two cases and the apparent dilution of the requirements now permitted, at least in England and Wales. All of this is part of an ideologically-driven government attempt to ‘introduce new providers to the market’, siphoning off public value into private profit in the usual way (and doing it in a cack-handed headlong rush too). It appears to be as spectacularly unsuccessful as it is distasteful, the irony being that the ‘market’ tells us that young people massively prefer decent public universities.

Looking at the list of universities got me thinking about what the title should mean. It seems to me that the definition of ‘university’ is inevitably slippery, but that there must be some core features around which any university worth the name should cohere.

Firstly: subject range. It should be pretty broad. The root of the word ‘university’ is ‘whole, entire’. It’s not feasible for every university to teach everything, but as a minimum there ought to be coverage of arts and sciences, some social science, and a bit of vocational education of some sort (recalling that medicine, law and theology have been there since the beginning). What a university absolutely shouldn’t be is anything close to a ‘monotechnic’. This makes the University of Law an utter oxymoron, but the same must apply to universities which only teach arts subjects, whether that be the University of the Arts, London or some of the newest, smallest universities with a very limited subject range. If LSE and Imperial, with their limited set of departments, can eschew the university title, then there doesn’t seem any good reason why others of similar nature should adopt it. Don’t misunderstand me – this is not a comment on the academic standing of ‘universities’ with narrow subject ranges, it is simply about the scope of their provision.

Secondly, research and scholarship. A university should have the creation, transformation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge in its very fibre. It should be organised around a community of scholars, not to the exclusion of others or for the aggrandisement of academics, but rather as the best way of fulfilling its intellectual mission. Above all a university is its people, much more than it is a place (as the Open University shows us). I tried to find the name of the academic staff at BPP University, but all I could find was the board of directors. Are there any academic staff? There certainly doesn’t appear to be any research or scholarship going on. Type the word “research” into the BPP University search engine and you get back a list of courses only. A university should also enable the pursuit of truth above all else, which implies space for critique, dissent and new ideas. That seems pretty difficult to me if you only teach accountancy.

Thirdly, scale. Size is relative of course: a couple of thousand students was fine for medieval universities and all UK universities look pretty piddling compared to the mega-varsities of Buenos Aires, UNAM and Rome La Sapienza. Still, many of the institutions to become universities most recently are very small in student number terms. I think there is a useful analogy here with cities: there are some places which are undeniably cities given their size – London, Birmingham and Manchester, for instance. Other places are much smaller, but still cities: York, Bath, Exeter. A few ‘cities’ are baffling oddities though (yes St. David’s and St. Asaph, I mean you). There has to be a certain scope to a university, which I appreciate is difficult for anyone tasked with setting a size criterion to specify. One thousand students seems too small to me because it is difficult to achieve breadth and depth with that number. However absolute size cannot be the only guide because larger institutions with a narrow subject base and/or little research are less university-like than some smaller institutions with greater disciplinary reach.

Using these three criteria as a guide, many of the newest universities don’t seem to me to fit the definition. The pint-size University of Buckingham, of which I’m not very fond, with its two year degrees and Thatcherite heritage does pass muster. This is not about pulling the ladder up or ‘protecting the brand’ (yuk) – many of the newest universities are clearly university level institutions, doing a good job. Rather it is about being honest and consistent in the application of the university name to an institution – and faithful to the contested, yet enduring idea of the university.

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