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Emerging HE policies highlight new political landscape

Interventionism is suddenly all the rage with the Westminster Conservative government, and higher education is feeling the impact as new policies and legislation are brought to bear on the sector, writes Johnny Rich, Chief Executive of Push and of the Engineering Professors’ Council.

Rethinking universities from the outside in

Mike Boxall, an independent researcher and consultant on higher education policies and strategies, and a senior adviser to PA Consulting, considers the emerging post-COVID world and its implications for the future of universities. His blog is based on a paper published recently by PA Consulting, and co-authored with its HE lead, Ian Matthias.

Graduate earnings and HE admissions data mark another Groundhog Week in HE

Charlie Ball, Head of Higher Education Intelligence for Prospects at Jisc, reviews a week of higher education news which felt much like every other since lockdown, as new research on graduate earnings and university admissions was published.


In the film ‘Groundhog Day’ Bill Murray starts to get an inkling that all is not quite right in Punxsutawney when he awakens for the second time to Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’. For many of us in HE, a similar sensation is evoked when, on awakening to day n of homeworking, a day almost identical to days n-1  and n+1 - because all days are the same now - we look at the news to find a debate about whether we should be using salary as a metric in HE.

So it is that we had the annual release of Longitudinal Educational Outcomes data, showing median graduate earnings at five years after graduation was £27,400, a 4.2 per cent increase compared with 2017/18, and an 8.7 per cent increase compared with 2014/15.

The data release came as ex-Universities Minister Chris Skidmore questioned the validity of salary as a measure of HE quality. Skidmore’s intervention at an Advance HE/HEPI webinar on value for money in HE demonstrates how mainstream the view of salary as a poor metric has become. The recent release of the 5th stage of the venerable and influential longitudinal study of graduate careers, Futuretrack, further weakened the case for salary metrics, showing, as it did, that the majority of graduates were primarily motivated by other factors and those motivated by maximising salary were not particularly satisfied.

But hidden within the data was valuable information about another theme that has been constant throughout the last year. Female median earnings five years after graduation were lower than male median earnings by 13.4 per cent in 2018/19, and the gender pay gap appears to be increasing.

The DfE’s release was not the only significant work on LEO this week – the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published their own examination into the returns to undergraduate degrees by socio-economic group and ethnicity. All groups examined received positive returns to university study - an unsurprising but still welcome discovery. But the devil is, as always, in the detail. Returns are especially high for privately-educated graduates - to the surprise of literally nobody - but the high relative returns for Pakistani students or state-educated students from the poorest families, are really because their prospects are so poor if they don’t go to university. Indeed, Pakistani graduates have simultaneously the highest relative returns and the lowest actual salaries at age 30.

In similar vein, the Royal Society has released a new report on diversity amongst postdoctoral researchers. Women are poorly represented in STEM and Black postdocs are underrepresented everywhere. As Society trenchantly puts it: “This  means  there  remain  very  few  Black  role  models,  of  any  nationality, despite the changing overall ethnic mix, and this may continue to deter young Black scientists entering the academic workforce.”

And there are other forms of disadvantage. The HE sector is based largely in urban areas and many of the jobs graduates are expected to get are in urban areas. The University of Bath found that able but disadvantaged students from urban areas are more likely to enter elite UK universities than similar peers from rural communities due to an urban ‘escalator effect’ – a finding that increases a quiet but persistent concern that the sector doesn’t always quite understand the challenges facing rural students in the way it gets those facing students from urban areas.

HE entry also received significant attention, with UCAS raising concerns about the guidance available in schools, finding that two in five students at university said they would have made better choices if they had had better information and advice at school. Meanwhile, Professor David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University, cast doubt on the suitability of PQA as a means of addressing issues in the admissions system, and members of the Commons Education Committee wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warning there could be a "Wild West in grading" in England as a result of plans for teachers to decide GCSE and A-level grades. The Fairness Coalition also proposed in a HEPI blog 10 requirements for a fair admissions process.

But as the days grow warmer and longer, and the vaccine programme continues to roll out, we can start to hope for a day when we’re not awoken by Sonny and Cher, and we emerge into what awaits us in the post-COVID world. And if you’re worried you might forget all about 2020, Michael Ward, a senior lecturer in social science at Swansea University, has assembled 750 pieces of material from 182 people across the world providing an account of how they have experienced the pandemic over the past year.

Actor Bill Murray awakes to another GroundHog Day