Vision, what vision?

The news on 7 November that 24 universities and three FE colleges had submitted revised access agreements for 2012-13 to the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) is a deeply depressing statement on the current state of the policy and politics of English HE. Most of these new agreements were submitted close to or on the 4 November cut-off stipulated by OFFA – not surprising given that the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) was only able publish information on the bidding process under the government’s new wheeze of a ‘core and margin’ system of funding on 17 October.

Much has been made in the media about the late timing and its impact on this year’s round of UCAS applicants, who are at present having to select their universities for next year on the basis of inaccurate financial information about fees and scholarships. OFFA has promised to publish revised agreements ahead of the UCAS cut-off of 15 January, but it will be interesting to see whether this delay has a further impact on what may already be a wobbly and uncertain year for admissions (see my last post).

For me, what is most depressing about this whole episode is the extent to which policy is simply being made on the hoof, creating even greater uncertainty for not just the students, but the sector and the local economies the universities do much to support. The government’s original great wheeze on fees didn’t work, which, worryingly, surprised no one except the government. Equally worryingly, the herd instinct once again came to the fore amongst university and college senior managers. Few obviously quite vulnerable institutions in the sector seem to have anticipated that the government would respond to force average fees closer to their desired level, or if they did foresee it, they took a rather poorly calculated risk. If nothing else, they will be exposed as the first to blink (though whether that is tactically smarter than waiting a year remains to be seen).

What this whole episode clearly exposes is the hollowness of rhetoric around the fitness and purpose of a modern HE system. This is not about efficiency. This is not about HE quality, it is most certainly not about the students. It is all about the sums. It is not a good way to run an education system.

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Law School applications and social mobility

Publication of the first round of UCAS figures brings news of an overall fall of 11.9% in home applications to university compared with this time last year. That won’t come as a great surprise to many doomsayers in the wake of the Government’s carve-up of higher education (a process which was of course commenced by the previous lot – in case you thought my political biases were showing).

But whether it will all be doom and gloom is not something we should be predicting at this stage – it is simply far too soon to tell. The only deadline that has passed is for  Oxbridge, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science – and these only show 0.8% decline. None of these are ‘ordinary’ parts of the HE ‘market’ so we should equally not read too much into that either. Given the high demand for all these areas, one might reasonably expect only a small decline here – so that in itself may not say much about what will happen in the rest of the sector. At this stage, I think, there are only trends to watch.

First, there are big variations in how the (apparent) decline is affecting different disciplines: -26% in business studies, and -17% in architecture, for example, whereas law is only -5%. Such variations could make hitting targets and managing student numbers a lot more ineresting for universities, particularly in the context of the new recruitment game that has been created by splitting the ‘market’ into high achievers (AAB+)/core and margin.

Secondly, the decline in home student numbers so far has been offset by a rise in international applications. Is this a sign of increased recruitment activity by UK universities as a safety net, and/or is it symptomatic of students moving away from the US and Australian markets, both of which have had their troubles? We shall have to see.

Thirdly, rather more troubling is the noted decline in mature student numbers. Overall, applications from students aged 19 or over has fallen by 19.2 per cent. Applications by those aged 30 to 39 have fallen by 22.7% and by those aged 25 to 29 by 21.4%. These age groups do quite a lot of the sector’s work for diversity and social mobility – the participation rate of black 17-30 year olds, for example, exceeds that of white students; for 17-19 year olds it is below the proportion of whites.

Underneath this, of course, is the troubling concern that any significant decline in undergraduate student numbers is going to impact the sector’s continuing poor performance on social mobility (as opposed to diversity – we are pretty good at middle class diversity now in the UK, its really upping the mobility of the working class we still have problems with). In their background papers for the White Paper, BIS advisors made the point very clearly that social mobility would be assisted by an increase in student numbers, which, of course, the Government has felt obliged to ignore (and yet still claim its reforms will be good for social mobility).

To what extent students will be put off by the spectre of massively increased debt is moot, and an issue we have been currently exploring as part of the LETR literature review. Research on earlier changes to the fee regime have not uncovered the fear of debt as having a significant or systemic effect on participation, but we are moving into a different country now, with the average level of indebtedness predicted to more than double (and averages in this area are notoriously unhelpful; I suspect – but can’t prove – that they disguise a broad range with quite a lot of polarisation towards the ends of that range.

In the US, law school applications for 2011 were running 12.5% down in January, levelliing up slightly to a 10% decline by September – the biggest drop in 1o years according to the Wall Street Journal, but that’s probably still not big enough to have too many Deans and Admissions Directors losing sleep.Would a 5% or 10% decline in applicants have a serious impact on UK law schools? The ratio of applications to places across the whole sector works out at roughly 1.5 to 1, so there is capacity to spare, though this, of course, disguises massive variations in the demand for places between institutions. A 10% drop may well be enough to make life very uncomfortable for some of the least popular recruiting universities. The new funding regime, again adds to the complexity here.  If  their core numbers were to continue to decline through under-recruitment and/or re-allocation to the margin, and they failured to achieve successful bids for margin numbers, we could certainly see some schools seriously at risk in the next two to three years. But there are, as you can see, a number of variables at play.

Closure of any post-92 law school is not going to be good for the diversity of the legal education sector. Will a decline in student numbers impact diversity and social mobility in the legal profession? Worryingly, possibly not a lot. Most of the improvements in social mobility have  been achieved by the post-92 sector, and such research as is available suggests that the cost of vocational training, combined with the recruitment practices of (seemingly) a significant part of the profession, still leave the majority of those students seriously disadvantaged in the marketplace. The 2012 changes will certainly not make a tough job any easier.

The numbers’ game

I got copied in yesterday to an interesting puzzle that Shakeel – our Information Manager at UKCLE – had uncovered for Gary Slapper at the Open University. Recent UCAS statistics apparently indicate that just under 90% of those applying for law are getting in. So what, Gary asked, has happened, and what about that still widely held belief that law is a massively oversubscribed subject?

I don’t actually know the answer, but I have no particular reason to doubt the data. The following I think is a reasonable supposition based on what I do know about the admissions system over the last 10-15 years (the older stats quoted below pretty much all come from UCAS, courtesy of the study on “Access to and Participation in Undergraduate Legal Education” (Faculty of Law Working Paper No. 2, UWE Bristol, 1996) that Vera Bermingham and I undertook for the Lord Chancellor’s Advisory Committee in 1995.

1) The extent to which law was oversubscribed was probably always a bit mythical, reflecting the way students applied to the old UCCA/PCAS system pre-1993-4. Under that system students could apply through UCCA to six universities (I think) and then separately to about the same number of polytechnics (now post-92 universities) via PCAS. There were a lot of insurance applications across the two schemes as students tried to protect their position – especially in case they did worse than they expected. This would have inflated the admissions figures. In the last year of the old scheme UCCA and PCAS together handled 31,760 applications. In the first year of the combined UCAS scheme (for 1994 entry) UCAS handled 20,988 – that doesn’t mean almost 11,000 less students applied to read law, it just means that the number of applications became a truer reflection of the real number of applicants across the system as a whole.

2) Since then we know that institutions have recruited significantly more students to LLB coursess, and that the number and range of courses has also expanded. In 1994 about 8,000 students were admitted to qualifying law degrees. It appears that, subsequently, that number has more than doubled.

3) In 1994 the overall ratio of UCAS applicants to admitted students was about 2.5:1 – itself way below the old UCAS/PCAS average which I believe was nearer to 12 or even 15:1. Interestingly, the number of applicants in 1994 and in the latest figures are strikingly similar. I suspect the figure may be relatively constant in the intervening period. If that is correct, then, logically, if the number of applicants remains constant, and the number of places continues to grow, we would reach the position we seem to have now: near parity between applicants and places.

That of course represents an interesting challenge, particularly as yet more law degrees are due to come on stream in the next year or so, eg, at York and Winchester, and British universities seem to be doing less well in the highly competitive market for international students. While the elite law schools may be protected by their status and popularity from the worst effects of these trends, and will, I am sure, continue to be oversubscribed, the lives of admissions tutors in some law schools may be about to become even more interesting. How long can you keep fishing at a nearly empty pool?