UCAS, the body which handles applications for university places, has released 2011 figures. The headline, reported throughout the press, is that applications this year are down by over 12% on last year. The increase in fees, payable after graduation by a form of additional income tax, is being blamed for the drop.
Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns has weighed in, saying that the preliminary data should act as a “harsh wake-up call”.
Toni Pearce, of the National Union of Students, blames the government:
“The confusion caused by the government’s botched reforms is causing young people to at the very least hesitate before applying to university.”
The Guardian misrepresents the data to suggest class differences:
Monday’s figures are just too stark to ignore. When the number of applicants from outside the UK is included, the fall is 9% — greater than it has been for at least six years. The figures show this decline in applicants comes from the pool of students most likely to be badly-off.
Everyone, it seems, thinks that university numbers should be on a one-way escalator to steadily greater proportions of our youngsters studying for degrees and that any drop is, by definition, a bad thing.
Everyone, it seems then, is wrong.
The figures, of course, do not indicate a collapse in student confidence. Although 12% seems a large drop, it should be understood in the context of dramatic rises in recent years, not least last year when many students put off a gap year to apply early. This artificially inflated 2010 figures by taking from what would have been this year’s applicants. Even with the fall, we are still only just below the 2009 rate, with a smaller pool of applicantants. (There has been a 6% drop in 17-year-olds over the last four years of increasing applications and two more years of falls — expect the same stories next year!)
The Real Issue
What the headline writers have failed to address is whether a growing number of graduates is really a good idea. The advantages are supposed to be that the UK needs more graduates for all the new graduate jobs that are being produced in the economy, and that there will be fewer jobs for lower skilled people.
Does the economy need more highly skilled workers? Yes, naturally. Highly skilled people have always been in demand throughout history. But there is a sleight of hand going on here. The problem is that the term graduate is not now synonymous with skilled, and graduate jobs do not often require high levels of skills. Twenty years ago, if you were an employer looking for a reasonably bright, trainable youngster, you advertised for someone with A-levels or good O-levels. Now that anyone who can hold a pen through sixth-form college is encouraged to start a degree, not having a degree is a serious hindrance.
Not because of the skills you did not pick up, but because employers will wonder why you weren’t up to a degree when all and sundry can graduate now.
Reaching Their Limits
When we have students maxing out at GCSE grade C going on to be awarded A-levels and then degrees, you might just wonder what it is they are learning at university. If the top three GCSE grades were beyond them, just what level was the intellectual challenge of the degree? Before you start to panic about the quality of our engineers, doctors and scientists, you can’t get on one of the technical degrees without very good grades: C’s won’t cut the mustard. But having a degree, by itself, is no guarantee of superior skill levels, with many course instructors unable to lift the academic standard to a suitable level without having most of their students failing and dropping out.
For many people, GCSE or A-level is their academic limit. Unfortunately, many of these teenagers are being mislead into thinking that by investing in an expensive three-year course their careers will be appropriately enhanced.
The evidence is against them though, as some school-leavers are starting to realise.
The country does need more skilled workers, but not more low-skilled workers with degree certificates and unrealistic expectations. The solution is not more accessible (read ‘easier’) degrees, but investment in Primary and Secondary education, with higher technical graduate salaries to persuade those bright enough to tackle the harder subjects,
or else encourage talented people from overseas to boost our ailing manufacturing economy.
This brouhaha will blow over soon, regardless. The hugely increased fees charged by middling universities will not last long, as students will expect value for money. Fees will fall to match the desirability or career benefit of the course and student numbers will drop, returning hard working students to the productive economy where they are needed.
Much of the current focus in the education press is on the threat to funding for Universities, with the Telegraph reporting a plan to allow badly run universities to go bust and close, and the LibDem Minister Vince Cable announcing that his department will in the future only fund the highest quality university research.
Cable’s plan is especially barmy, even if he does have a crystal ball to sort the research wheat from the chaff (who saw the value of lasers, developed solely to test a subtle prediction of Einstein’s, or knew that the quantum physics of the 1920s would lead to the digital revolution?)
If only the top research centres survive, where will the career progression for freshly qualified post-docs be? Where will Ph.D. students find posts to cut their teeth on and develop their skills? Why would the most talented students in schools be attracted to research instead of banking?
Britain’s research base is still world class, which is a near miracle given how much is done with so few resources. But the structure of our research base is lean already. If Vince Cable seems intent on reducing it back further, he will find that it is not the fat he is cutting away. Real and irreversible damage to the country will be done. It will not be easily reversed by cash injections in a few years time when the damage becomes apparent.
Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary, has announced that the General Teaching Council for England (GTCE) is to be abolished in the autumn, and not a moment too soon.
It has cost a small fortune to run and was never going to be a rallying point for teacher professionalism, and has failed even to act as a guarantor of teacher quality by disciplining us.
When the GTCE was created in 1998, it had so few teachers paying their subscriptions, even under the threat of de-registration, that it had to arrange for salary deductions to cover its expenses. I, like many other teachers, saw no benefit in the extra layer of bureaucracy. All teachers were already registered with the government Department for Education (and its heirs and successors), many were also members of unions and teacher subject groupings (such as the ASE) and felt we were already quite well represented and regulated.
For my own part, I did not pay any subs until salary deductions started, I responded to no letters, and was pleased that when I moved to a Sixth Form college which didn’t require my registration, the GTCE was unable to take any further money. I had a letter saying that I would be de-registered (struck off) if I didn’t pay up, so I was surprised that two years later they wrote again to say I owed them two years’ payments. They couldn’t even get that right.
The GTCE is, and always has been, a complete irrelevance to teachers. When it finally goes, few will notice and none will care.
So what did the GTCE say on hearing the good news? Did they respond by apologising for wasting everyone’s time and money? Promise to do better? No, they said that they were “seeking legal advice on (their) position“.
Parliament will surely vote to abolish the GTCE later in the year, and it can be finally buried, unloved and unmissed, in the graveyard of the Quangos.
With the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, signalling a public sector pay squeeze, and the ever more political and activist head of the Audit Commission quango, Steve Bundred, recommending a pay freeze as “a pain-free way of cutting public spending”, it is worth looking at the figures to see how much teachers have really benefited from government largess during the boom years.
The answer, in case you don’t want to read to the bottom to see the graph, is not at all!
Bundred wrote in the Observer last Sunday:
“let’s dismiss the notion that spending on health and education will be protected. There are good reasons why they won’t and shouldn’t. One is that, at a time when inflation is likely to be between 2% and 3%, a pain-free way of cutting public spending would be to freeze public sector pay, or at least impose severe pay restraint. This is especially true if real wages in the private sector are still falling.”
adding a political stance with:
“Health and education will not be immune from pay restraint, partly for reasons of fairness to others, … and also because ministers will correctly assume that as public sector workers have done well over the past decade, they will tolerate some modest real reduction in earnings.”
This is misleading in two ways.
Wages Are Not Falling
First, although pay growth has slowed, wages are not falling. As Ken Mulkearn of Incomes Data Services wrote in the Guardian, the reported negative private sector pay awards are skewed largely by the loss of bonuses in banking:
“The data for April 2009, using figures not seasonally adjusted and excluding bonuses, shows earnings growth of 2.5% in the private sector and 3.3% in the public sector, consistent with IDS research on pay settlements. In the private sector, the official figures show manufacturing (where most freezes are) at 1% and private services at 2.9%.”
Teachers Have Not Seen Pay Rise
Second, teachers have not done well out of the last decade, despite repeated claims from ministers and the uncritical acceptance of this factoid in the media. The graph shows an index of how (sixth form) teacher pay, which has been largely pegged to school teacher rates, has increased compared to the All Items Retail Prices Index. I start at 2001 as that is the earliest data I can find from the teacher union websites.Clearly, our pay moved ahead of inflation for the first couple of years, but since 2004 there has been steady slide. Not bad, but we’ve hardly “done well over the past decade”
What? Ministers are Being Deceitful?
Now, I don’t mind joining in on a general belt-tightening, but at least I would like my pain to be recognised — I can’t bear to have the millionaire ministers looking down their patrician noses at me, feeding me lies about my own pay and telling me that I should be grateful to have had it so good.
Results day is nearly on us, but those unfortunate students who miss their offer grades will have fewer options than usual this year. There is more competition, and even the standard fallback, clearing, will not have many course places to offer.
For a quick assessment of the regular effects of this silliest part of the silly season on teachers check last year’s post on the matter (the newspapers will just roll out the same stories anyway). This post will focus instead on the students.
This Year is Different
This year is different for anyone biting their nails waiting for Thursday’s results, because of the combined effects of three government policies:
- One is the often discussed grade inflation, which leads ever larger proportions of the school population to feel they have what it takes to succeed at university, and allows the government to claim standards are improving.
- The second is the lack of funding to cover the extra costs to institutions of teaching the increasing numbers of undergraduates.
- And the third is that, for the first time in fifteen years, universities will be financially penalised if they over-recruit.
Traditionally, students’ applications to universities are based on the school predicted grades, which are inflated to improve the chance of an offer. It is not as risky as it sounds, since universities routinely allow students who only miss their offer by one grade to still keep their place. And everyone does it, making it fair, at least. And if they missed out, then last year 44 000 applied for course during Clearing, filling up the remaining university places.
But now, with 40 000 extra applications and only 3 000 extra places, Clearing will only have around 16 000 places on offer, leaving 65 000 hopeful students without a place. And with a demographic peak reaching college in the next year or two, taking a year out and applying again next year is now looking to be a silly strategy.
One could hope that the main effect of all this is that only those students with poor grades applying to weaker institutions will suffer, but many students are unrealistic when it comes to selecting competitive courses at prestigious universities.
Admissions officers are saying they will not allow any ‘softening’ of offers, so missing one A level subject by one grade will lead to a rejection. Even our local ex-teacher-training college-now-university will not soften requirements or offer places for clearing on any but the two most frivolous courses.
The next couple of weeks look likely to deliver heartache on a large scale.
I’ve just seen the new pay deal offered by sixth form colleges, and it wasn’t what I expected. The pattern for the last few years is to match school teachers, who have been offered a 2.3% rise in September. The deal for college teachers is 1% in September rising to 2.3% in April.
This will be tricky for the unions in the current climate. With many in the private sector having pay cuts or job cuts and the government briefing the press that the public sector has done well in recent years, few teachers will have the stomach for a fight. But teacher pay has risen below inflation for a while now and has fallen 10% compared with other service sector employees in the last five years.
College funding is rising this year faster than student numbers, and there is money in the coffers to pay the award in full, so expect the unions to make plenty of noise over the next few weeks. Last year’s increase was delayed until the new year due to wrangles between the staff side and the employers — looks like we’ll be waiting a long time for a resolution again.
The National Union of Students (NUS) has long campaigned for a university education completely funded by the state and for a return of the system of grants to cover living expenses, so the announcement of their future funding proposals comes as a bit of a shock.
Wes Streeting, the NUS president, had been under pressure to suggest an alternative to the current system of loans to pay for the fees, which start to be paid back when a graduate passes an earning threshold. He describes the proposals an ‘not a simple graduate tax’, and he is right – it is not simple.
Instead of a flat rate, the NUS plan has a sliding scale of tax, ranging from 0.3% to 3% depending on earnings. Wes says that this is needed to ensure that those who benefit most from their education pay back most.
There is also a system to encourage companies to pay some of the debt for employees.
I think that he has missed the meaning of ‘percent’, in that a single flat rate ensures that those earning more pay more. The sliding scale is a nakedly redistributive tax measure. In the NUS’s words, though, it is ‘progressive’.
The main motivation for the NUS funding suggestions is the pressure from the top research universities to raise the maximum fees charge from 3000 to at least 5000 pounds per year. These universities offer more of the expensive laboratory based courses than the newer institutions and are struggling to fund them. One solution is to recruit even more foreign students, who pay a much larger market rate for their studies, but local students are missing out on places.
Wes Streeting does not want an education market, but with more demand for top courses than places, something has to be done. But why should someone with two Es at A Level, studying an endemanding course at a undistinguished local college pay the same as someone studying Engineering at Cambridge?
A well educated and motivated graduate will benefit from their education, although it is their character and abilities as much as their qualifications that determines their level of career success. With the existing income tax system the Treasure already shares in the success of the best and most employable graduates. If you earn more then you pay more tax.
What is the reason for a punitive graduate tax that seeks to milk those deemed to have a privileged education, who will already be paying a higher rate of tax than others?
Coming from student political hacks, one might suggest it is just the standard class envy of the jealous young socialist. A detail from the NUS proposals that supports this guess is the limit on paying for the cost of your education if you can afford it. Wealthy families who would be happy to completely fund a course will be prevented from paying more than a small percentage, since it is these graduates who will be paying way over the odds for twenty years and funding those on lightweight courses who will never be taxed enough to cover the cost of their education.
It is nice to see the NUS abandoning one of its cherished policies, but this proposal offers more light on the proposers than on future university funding structures.