Obsessions with outcomes won’t deliver the flexible revolution

Susanna Kalitowski

The government will not succeed in its efforts to increase flexible and modular provision until it ends its obsession with narrow student outcomes, argues Susanna Kalitowski.

This article first appeared in Wonkhe, on 09 Feb 2021

With the pandemic-induced recession meaning even greater numbers will be needing to upskill and retrain, never has there been a more important time to properly invest in and incentivise flexible, modular provision.

University Alliance and others have been calling for this transformation for some time, but the Government’s relentless focus on narrow student outcomes, particularly if they are not benchmarked, means there is a real risk that providers are being disincentivised and discouraged from embracing this agenda. The approach to regulating HE quality is going to have to change for flexible provision to truly take off across the sector.

Aspirations at odds

For some time, the two core planks of the Government’s higher education policy have been tackling low quality courses and increasing flexible, lifelong learning. These two agendas dovetailed neatly in the 2019 Augar Review and got a namecheck in the Conservative Party Manifesto’s sparse section on higher education.

Since then, we’ve gleaned flashes of insight about the Government’s plans through ministerial speeches and seemingly unrelated policies on student number controls, the Higher Education Restructuring Regime (HERR) and the PM’s speech on the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. The recently published OfS consultation on quality and standards and the Skills for Jobs White Paper, however, contain the mother lode. The more we learn of the detail, the more it is clear that the Government’s approach to raising quality and increasing flexible and modular learning are fundamentally at odds.

It didn’t have to be this way. In principle these shouldn’t be conflicting or controversial agendas. Who doesn’t think that higher education should be high quality? And the lifelong learning agenda is endlessly appealing – which is probably why it is one of the few HE policy issues that commands true cross-party support.

The holy trinity of quality

The problem seems to come down to the insistence on the part of both the Department for Education (DfE) and the Office for Students (OfS) that the best way to measure quality is to look at student outcomes, and the best outcomes to measure are continuation, completion, and progression to skilled employment and/or further study – the ‘holy trinity’ of quality according to the gospel of DfE and OfS.

The focus on numerical student outcomes appears not only in the current and proposed OfS B3 registration conditions, but also in the current and proposed Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF). These are arguably set to become more influential in the future, particularly if OfS goes ahead with plans to impose absolute minimum baselines in the B3 conditions – which are opposed by University Alliance and many others in the sector, from Universities UK to the British Academy.

Alliance universities are justifiably proud of their students’ outcomes. However, across the sector, these outcomes are unevenly distributed across different groups of students, subjects, courses, and employment sectors. All three indicators are closely correlated to entry tariff, to socioeconomic and family background, and to geography.

Students stop studying for a range of reasons, many of which are wholly unconnected to their experience of HE. Disabled students, BAME students, LGBT+ students, mature students and part-time students are all more likely to drop out than other groups of students. The continued focus on continuation and completion is even more puzzling when you learn that the UK has the highest completion rates among comparable developed countries – by quite a long way.

Employment variations

The progression indicator seems reasonable enough at first – don’t students ultimately go to university to get a decent job, even if they don’t admit it? Again, a key sticking point is that many differences related to progression cannot be attributed to education.

Recent OfS analysis revealed projected rates of progression are strongly linked to entry tariff, and graduate outcomes are heavily influenced by geography and subject. Non-white graduates are more likely to be unemployed 15 months after graduation according to HESA. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that the earnings of graduates from poorer backgrounds are considerably lower, even conditional on studying the same subject at the same university. There are similar unexplained salary gaps based on gender and geography which shows the limitations of using the longitudinal educational outcomes (LEO) dataset for regulatory purposes.

The relentless focus on narrow student outcomes, particularly if they are not benchmarked, means that there is a real risk that providers will seek to reduce risk by making admission judgements based on likelihood of continuation and completion, or decreasing provision with less straightforward or established progression pathways, for example in the arts and humanities. We’re already seeing trends emerging, as the UCAS figures from the 2020 cycle show that the Government’s favoured subjects (STEM, IT, and healthcare) are taking off, while recruitment for others (arts and humanities) is plummeting, particularly at lower tariff institutions.

Time for a more rounded approach to HE quality

It is difficult to see how flexible and modular provision can flourish in this landscape. If you ask universities why they do not offer more of it, conversation will quickly turn to the continuation metric in the TEF. Continuation and completion rates for learners accessing short courses and modules tend to be considerably lower than for full-time courses. Unemployed mature learners pose even higher risks. A key reason – in addition to the funding model – providers have favoured creating places for full time undergraduates is there is more time and scope to favourably shape their outcomes, for example through targeted support and interventions.

The Government’s Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE) envisages a brave new world in which people space out their learning across a lifetime, dipping in and out of study, possibly one module at a time, transferring credits between further and higher education providers. University Alliance and others have been calling for this transformation for some time, and arguably we have never needed it more, with large numbers of people having to upskill or retrain in the wake of the pandemic-induced recession. Alliance universities are keen to offer more flexible and modular provision and see this work as integral to their role as civic anchor institutions. They are highly experienced at developing this type of provision, working closely with local employers and further education colleges.

However, the approach to regulating HE quality is going to have to change for flexible provision to truly take off across the sector. For one thing, the Government needs to become a lot more relaxed about continuation. As the Dearing Report observed back in 1997:

“non-completion will become an increasingly difficult concept to measure if more students undertake higher education programmes in a flexible way, over a long period of time.”

It also needs to be more patient about progression; a modular approach may take longer to bear fruit.

There are many other established ways to measure higher education quality, handily summarised in this thoughtful SMF briefing paper. The “education gain” measure proposed by the DfE in the revised TEF is a good start. Going forwards we need a more rounded approach to assessing quality that is not so focused on narrow outcomes over which providers will exert even less influence than they do now.

Further reading