Universities are spending billions on buildings

I have been reading ‘What do I get?‘ an excellent collection of ten essays on student fees, student engagement and student choice published by the Higher Education Policy Institute. Hats off to HEPI’s Director, Nick Hillman, for commissioning it.

In his contribution, Carl Lygo, Vice-Chancellor of BPP University, asks a very pertinent question: why does university cost so much?

His answer has attracted a fair amount of publicity. Here’s how the Guardian reported it:

Money raised from tripling tuition fees has probably been used to boost pension funds, research and vice-chancellors’ pay – anything but enhance the experience of undergraduate students, says Carl Lygo, vice-chancellor of BPP University.

That makes for a nice headline: “Universities are squandering tuition fee income, private provider warns”. To be fair to Carl Lygo, however, his main point is that universities have been spending large sums on infrastructure. He points out that Russell Group universities plan to invest £9 billion over the next five years – equivalent to the sum spent on the London Olympics.

His essay struck a chord, so I had a quick look at the published accounts of twenty universities. I went alphabetically through the list helpfully provided by Universities UK, clicking more or less at random. Some universities were discounted because they haven’t yet published their accounts for 2013/14. A few were dropped because I couldn’t find their financial information quickly enough: it’s bound to be there somewhere, but if it was too well buried, I moved on.

The full table is below. All the universities I looked at recorded an increase in tangible assets between 2009/10 and 2013/14. Collectively, these 20 added £1.3 billion to their balance sheets over the five year period, an increase of 30%. Increases at individual institutions varied considerably, from 7.9% at Birmingham University to 78.4% at De Montfort.

I don’t plan to work through every university’s records to compile a complete picture, but this cross-section proves Carl Lygo’s point: universities have been investing heavily in infrastructure.

Other parts of the education world – particularly further education – must look on with wonder. Wasn’t it meant to be a period of financial austerity?

University 2009/10 2013/14 Difference (£) Increase (%)
Anglia Ruskin 70,179 113,396 43,217 61.6
Birmingham 553,119 596,829 43,710 7.9
Bournemouth 70,613 98,047 27,434 38.9
Chichester 44,138 62,832 18,694 42.4
De Montfort 153,040 273,014 119,974 78.4
Essex 182,239 217,747 35,508 19.5
Greenwich 93,441 162,116 68,675 73.5
Hertfordshire 198,044 214,335 16,291 8.2
Kent 164,089 210,079 45,997 28.0
Leeds 409,333 595,149 185,816 45.4
Leicester 174,018 257,081 83,063 47.7
Lincoln 86,410 150,136 63,726 73.7
Manchester 637,385 825,771 188,386 29.6
Newcastle 221,300 248,800 27,500 12.4
Oxford Brookes 190,428 307,307 116,879 61.4
Plymouth 213,990 248,573 34,583 16.2
Roehampton 71,302 114,666 43,364 60.8
Southampton 379,145 474,203 95,058 25.1
Winchester 57,520 65,150 7,585 13.2
York 316,535 345,146 28,611 9.0
Total 4,286,268 5,580,377 1,294,109 30.2
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Graduate prospects are improving – but how much?

The High Fliers study of the graduate market in 2015 predicts recruitment will be at its highest for a decade … Universities minister Greg Clark said: “This report will be warmly welcomed by the record number of students who started university this year and highlights how a degree remains one of the best routes into a rewarding career.” (BBC, 12 January)

Students who gain their university degree this year could start work on a typical salary of £30,000, according to new research. (The Telegraph, 12 January)

[The] 201 companies that responded to the Association of Graduate Recruiters survey … offered 21,682 graduate vacancies in 2013-14, a rise of 4.3% on 2012-13 and expect an 11.9% rise this year. (BBC, 27 January)

Graduate vacancies are predicted to rise by almost 12 per cent in 2015, according to a biannual survey of the graduate jobs market. (THE, 27 January)

The number of graduate vacancies is predicted to rise this year, reflecting an increased confidence in the economy among employers, according to a new survey. Available graduate positions are expected to increase by 11.9 per cent, double that of the previous two years, which saw roles increase for university leavers by 4.3 per cent in 2013 and 2014. (The Telegraph, 27 January)

Let the good times roll! Happy days are here again! Jobs for all!

On the other hand …

All this press coverage stems from two reports, each of which focuses on only a small part of the graduate market. In 2012-13, 427,870 people completed undergraduate and post-graduate courses in the UK. Of these, 244,775 went into full-time work and 53,265 into part-time work. A further 29,145 combined work with further study. (HESA, 4 August 2014). Figures for 2014 aren’t available yet, but let’s assume they are broadly similar.

The High Fliers report (The Graduate Market in 2014) examined recruitment by organisations featured in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers. Between them, they recruited 18,129 graduates in 2014. That’s 7.4% of all the graduates who entered full-time work in 2013.

Meanwhile, AGR members offered 21,682 graduate vacancies in 2014. (AGR, 27 January) That’s 8.9% of all graduates entering full-time work in 2013.

None of the journalists covering these stories mentioned this. Nor did they consider whether the High Fliers and AGR findings were representative of the graduate market as a whole.

To be fair, there was coverage of a couple of points which point to continuing problems in the graduate labour market. First, there are shortages of suitable applicants in some fields.

AGR members … had 1,422 unfilled vacancies in 2014, with 44.8 per cent of firms having unfilled graduate positions in 2013-14. (THE, 27 January)

Recruitment was said to be particularly challenging in IT and telecommunications. AGR also mentioned engineering and construction.

Second, large numbers of people apply for every vacancy advertised by AGR members.

Employers responding to The Graduate Recruitment Survey 2015 (Winter Review) said they had received an average of 74.5 applications for each graduate post. (CIPD, 27 January)

If 74.5 people apply for a graduate job and one of them gets it, what happens to the other 73.5?

Some of them go on to get graduate roles with other employers. However, many have to settle for non-graduate jobs.

In the second quarter of 2014, 44% of recent graduates (defined as less than five years out of education) were in non-graduate jobs. (ONS, 7 January)

What about non-recent graduates (ie more than five years out of education)? In the second quarter of 2014, 34% were in non-graduate jobs. Ten years ago, the figure was around 29%.

If we look back even further, we can see that graduate job prospects used to be fantastic. The Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) covered this in a landmark report, “Moving On: Graduate Careers Three Years After Graduation”, based on a large-scale study of people who graduated in 1995. By late 1997, 30 months after graduating:

… only 2 per cent of economically active graduates [were] unemployed and less than 10 per cent of graduates [were] in a non-graduate occupation. Most graduates move[d] into work with relative ease and most graduates [found] work in traditional graduate or graduate track occupations. (Moving On)

HECSU repeated the exercise, this time reporting on people who graduated in 2009. Thirty months after graduating, just over four in ten were in graduate-level jobs; more than three in ten were in non-graduate jobs; about one in ten were unemployed; and around one in ten were in full-time study. (Futuretrack: transitions into employment, further study and other outcomes, November 2012)

Futuretrack found – unsurprisingly – that virtually everyone with a degree in medicine or dentistry found graduate-level employment after graduating. On the other hand, only 30% of law graduates had graduate-level employment 30 months after graduating. Linguistics and classics graduates fared about the same (31% had graduate-level employment) and creative arts and design graduates slightly better (37%).

Let me be clear: I am absolutely not against higher education. Far from it. However, I worry that we’ve got the balance wrong.

For one thing, for every eight undergraduates aged 19-24, there are only three apprentices. It might be better if more young people completed an apprenticeship before going on to higher education. It’s a well-established path in Switzerland – why not here?

Second, we have an unusual fixation with full-time, three year degrees.

University applications have reached record levels, according to the Ucas admissions service. More than 592,000 people have applied so far, up 2% compared with the same point last year. (BBC, 30 January)

How many of these applicants plan to do something other than a full bachelor’s degree? Not many, if recent trends are anything to go by. “Other undergraduate” enrolments (eg HNC, HND and Foundation degree) fell 57% between 2009/10 and 2013/14, from 408,625 to 174,170 (HESA, 15 January).

The OECD reported last year that we already lag well behind other countries in the number of people with technical and professional qualifications at around level 4 (OECD, Skills Beyond School). We ought to be increasing recruitment to these courses, not cutting to the bone.

Finally, let’s go back to where I began. Optimistic stories about the graduate labour market don’t tell the full story. Too many graduates end up in non-graduate jobs. Meanwhile, we struggle to get enough people to take degrees that are in demand – engineering, IT, technology and so on. We need much more – and much better – careers information, advice and guidance.

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How vocationally-related education transformed Nashville’s high schools

First, a word of thanks.

In my haste to become a blogger, I failed to give due credit to the two people who prompted me to start, Sam Freedman and Michael Fordham. Let me make it up to them!

Sam is Director of Research, Evaluation and Impact at Teach First. Before taking his current post, he was one of Michael Gove’s advisers. His tweets consistently make me stop and think.

So when Sam tweeted about a brilliant blog (Truth about and knowledge of the world: a fundamental right for children), I read it. It was by Michael Fordham, historian and teacher.

Michael believes all young people should follow an academic curriculum up to the age of 16. He says, among other things, that –

The great educational injustice in this country is that children up and down the land are told that academic subjects are ‘not for them’.

My first reaction was to post a comment on Michael’s blog, starting with a counterpart to his argument:

The great educational injustice in this country is that children up and down the land are told that vocational subjects are ‘not for them’.

My second reaction was to start this blog: thanks, Sam (@Samfr) and Michael (@mfordhamhistory)!

This time, I’ve chosen to write about Nashville, where high school graduation rates improved significantly following the systematic integration of vocationally-related learning into the curriculum for all young people. I first heard the story when Marc Hill, Chief Policy Officer at Nashville Chamber of Commerce, spoke at the Whole Education conference in November 2013. Nine months later, I went to see for myself. That makes me an educational tourist, not an expert – but I do believe there are lessons to be learned from Nashville.

The Academies of Nashville

In the closing years of the 20th century, education in Nashville was in the doldrums. Attendance was poor and the high school graduation rate hovered around 55-58% – well below the US national average.

Between 2000 and 2006, senior business leaders became convinced that further action was needed. At the same time, high school principals realised that the traditional high school curriculum would not lead to a step change in student engagement and achievement.

An initial group of eight principals came up with plans to reorganise their schools into small learning communities, called Academies, which would forge strong links with the local business community. Today, standard high school structures and programmes have been transformed across all of Nashville’s twelve zoned (comprehensive) high schools.

These are the main features of the reformed system:

  1. All students go through a one year “Freshman Academy” programme of careers education, supported by employer visits/talks, a city-wide careers fair and taster sessions in a wide range of technical and vocational subjects.
  2. At the end of the freshman year, students choose a thematic career academy for the remainder of their time at high school. There are over 40 academies across the 12 high schools, linked to five broad sectors of the economy –
    1. Arts, media and communications
    2. Business, marketing and IT
    3. Engineering, manufacturing and industrial technology
    4. Health and public services
    5. Hospitality and tourism
  3. All students study technical subjects as well as a core academic curriculum including English, maths, science and humanities.
  4. Employers offer job shadowing, work experience and mentoring for students and short industry placements (“externships”) for groups of teachers.
  5. At the end of their externships, teachers develop work-related curriculum projects which they deliver with the active involvement of their host employer.
  6. Each academy has a “coach” who co-ordinates links with employers.
  7. A city-wide education-business partnership, the Pencil Foundation, also helps connect schools and businesses.
  8. High schools are held to account by both the District Superintendent of High Schools and Nashville Chamber of Commerce, which publishes an annual report card on education.

The Academies programme appeals to students across the whole spectrum of aptitudes and abilities. It has obvious value in motivating students who might previously have disengaged from the standard high school curriculum: many more now go on to meet the full requirements for high school graduation, including credits in academic subjects. At the same time, students aiming to become doctors (for example) find the Academy system gives them a distinct advantage when applying for places in medical schools, because they have taken part in projects directly linked to their ambitions and had internships in local hospitals.

More widely, high school attendance rates improved from 87% in 2007-08 to over 92% in 2013-14. Last year, the high school graduation rate reached 78.7%, up from 58.2% in 2003-04. There have been social dividends, too: for example, the average age of Nashville’s gang members has gone up from 16 to 21.

When President Obama visited McGavock High School last year, he said:

Students in the Academy of Business and Finance are operating their own credit union here at the school, and doing some work in a real one over the summer. If you choose Digital Design and Communication, you get to spend time in a TV studio … If you choose the Aviation and Transportation Academy, you get to learn how to operate a 3D printer, and work on your very own airplane.  That’s pretty cool.

The idea is simple but powerful: young people are going to do better when they’re excited about learning, and they’re going to be more excited if they see a connection between what they’re doing in the classroom and how it is applied. And [they’re] seeing people who may open up entire new career options. (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/31/remarks-president-world-class-education)

There’s a more detailed report of the Edge study visit to Nashville here: http://www.edge.co.uk/media/146659/nashville_study_visit_report.pdf

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What should young people study in Key Stage 4? No-one knows.

The debate about curriculum content has been going on for decades, if not centuries. Some have an unshakable belief in what might be called an “academic” curriculum for all, starting at 4 or 5 and continuing through to 16 at the earliest. They believe both vocational and vocationally-related learning should be delayed to 16 or beyond.

Others believe – and I am one of them – that these forms of learning can be successfully introduced before the age of 16, as part of a broad and balanced Key Stage 4 curriculum.

Neither side can point to conclusive evidence that they are right. There has been remarkably little research into the short, medium and long-term impacts on individuals of different courses of study in KS4.

This post is mainly about that problem. But let’s start with a quick look back.

In 1994, Sir Ron Dearing carried out a review of the National Curriculum. The government accepted his recommendation that that art, geography, history and music should be optional subjects in KS4 (School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, The National Curriculum and its Assessment: Final Report). On the subject of vocational teaching and learning, Dearing said:

For some students, the introduction at Key Stage 4 of pathways with a more applied approach would increase the incentive to learn and provide a valuable teaching opportunity. In this, there are useful lessons from experience in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

This is not to suggest tightly-defined alternative pathways, since many students may find a mixture of academic and applied elements both motivating and crucial to future success.

Ten years later, design and technology and modern foreign languages also ceased to be compulsory KS4. This left maths, English and science as the only compulsory externally-examined subjects at KS4, though young people were required to take part in PE, RE and PSHE lessons and were entitled to study another language, a humanities subject (eg history), an arts subject, and design and technology.

These changes were announced by the then Secretary of State, Charles Clarke, in a green paper (DfES, 2003, 14-19: Opportunity and Excellence) which said:

Nearly half of young people still do not achieve five good GCSEs at school. More still do not reach that standard in English and mathematics. And one in twenty leaves without a single GCSE pass. These data reflect a deeper problem. Too many young people truant in their last two years of compulsory education. And the behaviour of some who turn up makes it hard for teachers to teach and others to learn. International league tables rank us 25th out of 29 among developed nations for participation of 17 year-olds in education and training.

[By developing a 14–19 phase,] we aim to provide greater coherence for schools, colleges and employers. And we hope students will more clearly see how their qualifications lead to further education or work. But to make this change a reality students must have more choice. That means more flexibility in their GCSE studies, with new applied options for traditionally academic subjects.

There was empirical evidence that some young people did benefit from studying a work-related subject alongside GCSEs. Ofsted wrote –

The students on adapted programmes of study are overwhelmingly positive about the changes to their curriculum. Adaptations are mainly, but not exclusively, aimed at those who might otherwise become disengaged from their learning. Well-considered changes to the curriculum have improved their motivation and attendance. Students are generally very positive about WRL [work-related learning]. There is also some evidence to suggest that attainment and staying on rates are improving. (Ofsted, The Key Stage 4 curriculum: Increased Flexibility, Work-related Learning and Young Apprenticeship Programmes, 2005)

This was not conclusive evidence, of course. Nevertheless, it lent support to the concept of increased flexibility in the KS4 curriculum.

Sadly, what happened next was a gross distortion of the original policy, leading inexorably to a loss of confidence and, ultimately, the Wolf Report.

In 2004, 113,202 Applied GCSEs were awarded; the most popular subjects were Applied ICT and Health and Social Care. In addition, about 117,000 GNVQs were awarded alongside GCSEs: 100,777 Intermediate GNVQs and 16,531 Foundation GNVQs (source: Joint Council for Qualifications).

The government intended that GNVQs should be phased out and replaced by new Diplomas. In practice, schools opted instead for a raft of new vocationally-related qualifications (VRQs) such as BTECs and OCR Nationals.

Unlike post-16 programmes such as Apprenticeships, courses leading to VRQs did not set out to provide young people with the skills to do a specific job. Rather, they were programme of study taught against the backdrop of a sector of the economy. Students developed research, project management, communication and maths skills in the particular context of their chosen field, be it engineering, child care or business and administration. Practical, hands-on projects helped illustrate the link between what was learned in the classroom and the way knowledge and skills are applied in the workplace. That was the theory, at any rate.

VRQs were popular with schools not just because they suited some young people, but because they were deemed equivalent to two or four GCSEs – sometimes more – and had high pass rates. As Tina Isaacs put it,

Schools were clearly seeking to improve their position in performance tables and reduce the possibility of being put into special measures by encouraging or even forcing their students into vocationally related courses, where they were more likely to get a C grade or above, which would then count for up to four grade Cs. (Good Secondary Education for All, in “The Tail”, 2013, edited by Paul Marshall. London: Profile Books)

By 2009/10, the number of VRQs awarded to KS4 students had risen to 462,182 (source: Alison Wolf, Review of Vocational Education, 2011). The incoming Secretary of State, Michael Gove, had no confidence in vocational provision either pre- or post-16. He asked Professor Alison Wolf to review 14-19 vocational education and recommend steps to eradicate poor practice.

Professor Wolf noted that almost all the teachers who gave evidence, and many others besides, said that vocational programmes increased students’ motivation, achievement and propensity to stay in education or training after the age of 16. However, she said that such views were not supported by the academic literature.

In reality, there was no substantial evidence either way. There had been no robust studies of the measurable impact of vocationally-related programmes in KS4, as none had been commissioned up to that point.

At her behest, the DfE commissioned the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions (CAYT) to explore the available evidence. They did a rapid initial analysis, summarised in the Wolf Report in these terms:

The cohort for which the most detailed information is available (LSYPE) was in year 11 in 2005/6. This was before the huge rise in VQ entries, so very few took anything other than GCSEs. Conversely, a good number report taking ‘vocational’ qualifications, meaning, for the most part, GCSEs with vocational titles (eg business studies) or vocational GCSEs. An analysis by CAYT for the Review looked at whether taking such qualifications made a difference to the later trajectories of disengaged students (identified by poor attitudes to school, aspiring to leave education, playing truant). They found no statistically significant effects.

Following the publication of the Wolf Report, CAYT went on to do a more detailed analysis, published in October 2011 (The impact of KS4 vocational courses on disengaged young people’s engagement with education 15-18).

Overall, their conclusion was much the same as before:

We found no evidence to suggest that taking vocational courses in Year 10 helps to re-engage young people who are already disengaged from education. Neither did we find any evidence to suggest studying vocational courses makes matters worse.

Almost all of the young people included in the CAYT research took Applied GCSEs and GNVQs, not VRQs. Without further research, therefore, we cannot assume that their conclusions – that vocationally-related courses have no measurable impact on the performance or progression of disengaged young people – would hold true for disengaged students who study for post-2004 VRQs.

Nor does academic research tell us much about the impact of VRQs on students who are not (in CAYT’s terms) disengaged. That said, there is some evidence that achieving a BTEC increases the likelihood of continuing in education or training. This issue was examined by Pamela Lenton and Steve McIntosh (Achievement, Progression and Labour Market Impact of BTEC Qualifications: An Analysis Using the 11th Youth Cohort Study, 2008). They investigated ‘young people studying for a BTEC qualification one year, the outcomes of that study the next year, and the impact that such study has had on their labour market outcomes the year after that’. They concluded:

Amongst those young people who … acquire a BTEC qualification, there is strong evidence that this acquisition persuades them to continue to higher levels of education, even when controlling for background characteristics and original education choices at age 17. Individuals who acquire a BTEC qualification at a lower level are shown to be more likely still to be in full-time education at age 19, relative to individuals whose highest qualification is below Level 2.

The study examined data only for students aged 16+. It would be interesting to know whether students taking BTECs (or equivalent VRQs) in KS4 also show an increased propensity to continue their studies at a higher level.

More recently, the University of the West of England examined the impact ASDAN’s Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) on KS4 students’ achievements (The Impact of the Pursuit of ASDAN’s Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE) on GCSE Attainment, 2012). The likelihood of achieving grades A* to C in GCSE English was found to be 10% higher in schools which make extensive use of CoPE than in similar schools which do not use CoPE. The effect is particularly strong among students with relative weak levels of attainment in Key Stage 3.

Again, this is not conclusive proof that VRQs improve attainment, motivation or progression – this time, because CoPE has a broader context than most VRQs: it focuses on developing students’ personal attributes, planning and communication skills and resilience.

Which brings us back to a crucial point: there is a huge lack of evidence as to the impact and effectiveness of KS4 vocational provision, because it has not been properly researched.

However, the absence of evidence does not prove that vocationally-related learning is invariably inappropriate for 14-16 year olds.

A corollary also applies. There is a lack of evidence that the prospects of KS4 students are invariably harmed if they drop academic subjects such as history and modern foreign languages.

This whole area would lend itself to further research. For example, it should be possible to compare indicators such as attendance rates, achievements and post-16 subject choices made by KS4 students in each performance quintile (measured by reference to prior attainment) who –

  1. take a VRQ but not (say) GCSE history in KS4
  2. take (say) GCSE history but not a VRQ in KS4.

Research of this kind would shed light on the short-term consequences of choosing to study for a VRQ in KS4. It would have to be done at scale, and take account of a wide range of variables including school and pupil characteristics.

Looking to the longer term, it would be interesting to find out whether young people who study (say) history or a VRQ in KS4 experience any long-term educational and/or economic advantages or disadvantages, compared with those who do not. Again, this would have to take account of prior attainment and other characteristics, in order to assess differences within performance quintiles.

Until we have strong evidence, we will continue to debate the content of the KS4 curriculum, based on our experience, our beliefs and our interpretation of empirical evidence. For example, I will continue to bring forward evidence from countries where pre-16 students routinely undertake vocational and/or vocationally-related learning as part of a balanced curriculum: countries like Switzerland and Austria, for example. But that’s for another day.

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