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Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations for the Council for Higher Education in Art & Design (CHEAD), reviews a week of higher education news in which concerns emerged over universities’ financial stability due to Covid-19 and the impact of the crisis on students.
A growing number of higher education conferences and events are being postponed or moved online in response to the Coronavirus restrictions.
Amid predictions that higher education will be changed forever by the current pandemic, Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, suggests the innovative ways the sector is responding to the crisis will make it even more valued in the future.
The current crisis has underlined the critical role played by the UK’s experts and researchers and the institutions supporting them, as well as the need for collaboration between them, says Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.
As a growing number of universities move teaching and assessment online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Derby is holding a virtual conference which aims to support staff in making the transition.
Publication by the Department for Education of new data on graduate outcomes, including employment, earnings, and further study, is useful -- but the statistics still suffer from limitations and must therefore be handled with care, warns Alan Palmer, Head of Policy and Research for MillionPlus.
We British are notorious for being very secretive about our salaries. We may desperately want to know what our colleagues earn, but our natural reserve would never allow us to ask the question. So the publication by the Department for Education of the longitudinal educational outcomes (LEO) of graduates is, of course, enormously fascinating, and goes some way to satisfying our collective curiosities.
Some of the information revealed is obvious - the longer a graduate spends in the workforce, the higher their earnings, salaries are higher in London and the South East, doctors, dentists and vets are paid the most. Some of the information is alarming - it shows that there is a salary gap between men and women present justone year after graduation.
The previous publication excluded self-assessment data, which meant overlooking particularly patterns of employment. Intuitively, the sector knew that graduates from creative subjects were under-reported in employment figures. By including self-assessment graduates in the analysis, it far better represents the outcomes of those that study creative subjects at university. These subjects often lead to individuals taking on portfolio careers and freelance activity so it is vital to ensure that is seen in the data. The inclusion of self-assessment data is a positive step, but it is still likely to be an under-reporting of activity because it only uses one year of data.
Regardless of how interesting the information might be, we need to be extremely careful about how it is used, particularly when assessing the benefits of studying for a degree. For a start, the LEO data are experimental - it is new information being produced in a new way, with all the learning that will come from that.
The focus is on earnings and employment, which is understandable, as that is the information that is available. However, this type of approach takes no account of the non-monetary benefits of higher education, and by looking at earnings misrepresents the social value of careers in the public sector. In fact, the salaries of teachers and the many socially valuable graduate professions in the NHS and the public sector, are limited by the budgets provided by central government, so a spotlight on earnings potential of these careers has to come with a range of caveats.
LEO data is also unable to identify the importance of family and socio-economic background of graduates even though this is the most significant factor in determining early career opportunities and salaries.
A further issue with using the LEO data to make judgements about the course studies or university attended by individuals is that the longer someone is in the workforce, the less of a factor their place and subject of study in determining their earnings. People will gain experience through work that leads to changes in their salaries. They will make decisions based on personal circumstances that will affect their earning potential. These factors are not going to be picked up in an analysis such as this.
More information is always better. But how the information is used is far more important. Ministers should resist the temptation of including the LEO data as an additional metric in the Teaching Excellence Framework. Even as it stands, the LEO data provides only a very partial picture of the value of participating in higher education and has nothing to do with the quality of teaching.
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