LETR: draft literature review published

We – the LETR research team – published the draft of our main Phase 1 output, the literature review on Friday. It’s great to have this first major milestone complete, and particular credit goes to Paul Maharg, who lead the work on this phase.

LETR is distinctive relative to other reviews of education and training in starting this way with a substantial review of the existing literature, in this case dating back to the 1971 Ormrod Report. We think this should be one of its strengths: it provides an historical context, synthesizes literature from other jurisdictions and professions, and focuses on the regulatory framework to reframe existing debates and create an original analytical framework for our work. The resulting draft is a substantial piece of work – around 230 pages – and will be the most overtly academic output from the research phase of the review, though obviously our final report will do more to contextualise the literature in ways that highlight its practical and policy relevance. We will be revising the draft in due course and invite comments on it.

In the interim, we will also be publishing our first major discussion paper within the next week, calling for evience on a range of key issues.

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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.

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.

New College of the Humanities – caveat emptor?

News that philosopher A.C. Grayling is launching a new private university for “gifted” students in London is, on present evidence, adding to the flames of the privatisation debate in England. The essence of the furore lies in the fact that Grayling is proposing to charge £18,000 a year to students to study for University of London degrees that they could obtain for considerably less elsewhere. The lure: small class sizes, an emphasis on a “responsive” learning environment, and a panoply of academic star professors, including Stephen Pinker, Sir David Cannadine, Richard Dawkins, and, in law, Ronald Dworkin, and Adrian Zuckerman. In addition to their degree subjects, students will also take three “intellectual skills” modules in science literacy, logic and critical thinking, and applied ethics. For this they will receive a Diploma of New College in addition to their BA or LLB – whether this promise of an extra workload for an additional award will be an incentive, or quite the reverse remains to be seen!

Critics have tended to focus on two issues so far. First, just how much teaching these luminaries will do is, of course, a moot point, and Dawkins’ observation in the Guardian that “Professor Grayling invited me to join the professoriate and give some lectures” does seem to suggest that he may not be rolling up to offer weekly tutorials in traditional Oxbridge fashion. I’m not exactly expecting Dworkin to be brushing up first years contract law either. But a second charge being levelled at New College, that it has been guilty of plagiarism in “ripping off” London University International Programme syllabi, does seem misconceived. The International Programme is of course the UoL’s old External Programme with a shiny new name. It has been around a long time, and has acquired some pretty impressive alumni over that time. These UoL courses are taught by colleges all around the world, and none of them have a formalised link with the University of London as such (though I know from my own experience as an external examiner on the External Law Programme – as it then was – that the University has in recent years put a lot of effort into outreach and developing support for the colleges offering its awards). Some of these external colleges are very good at what they do… and others are not. And that is a concern, it can be a bit of a lottery.

There is no formal quality assessment by the University of London of the teaching or learning resources provided by the external colleges, nor unless New College opens its doors to QAA, will it have to submit to the quality assessment regime expected of UK public universities. Some might say that’s no bad thing, but it begs the question as to what New College itself will do to assure prospective students that it will provide the elite education promised.
There is one remaining external check on standards: degree papers will be externally assessed. That separation between teaching and assessment may be good news for the professoriate, who are thereby exempted from the annoyance of the annual marking ritual, but it may be less good news for the students of New College. It can make it a very demanding way to study for a degree, and, certainly as regards the LLB, graduation rates and the proportion of good honours degrees, both tend to be lower than on the UoL’s internal programmes. This reflects a range of factors – student entry qualifications (the International Programme minimum standard is significantly lower than the grades needed to get into an internal programme), often a relative absence of formative assessment and preparation for university learning, variable access to learning resources, and variable teaching quality. An external degree requires teachers with a broad understanding of their subject, who are effective at teaching to a syllabus that is not of their own design. The separation of teaching and assessment can also encourage teachers and students to adopt a risk-averse, assessment-driven approach that can emphasise coverage over deep learning. Educationally, none of these are insurmountable, but I’m not sure its where I would want to start in developing a system of elite education. And if nothing else serves to damn the project, Boris Johnson’s endorsement in today’s Torygraph that New College “is a simply brilliant idea” for taking-on “the cream of the [Oxbridge] rejects” mightjust do the trick.

Legal Education & Training Review

Following the public announcement early last month, word is gradually getting around that the “UKCLE Research Consortium” will be undertaking the research for the regulator-funded review of legal education and training that is taking place in England and Wales. Needless to say I’m very excited to be involved in what is being billed as the largest review since the 1971 Ormrod Report – and also very aware of the challenges of such a complex project.

No doubt that it is going to be a big job. Our remit is to look at the changes that are shaping the legal services market in the wake of the Legal Services Act 2007, and assess their implications for future legal education and training needs. We are currently still involved in a lot of the planning and ‘backroom’ stuff that a project on this scale requires, but we are aiming to start research ‘proper’ in July. We are scheduled to complete the whole project in November 2012. A lot of the research will involve traditional empirical analysis of qualitative and quantitative data, but we are also planning to make extensive use of technology to support and open up the project. There will be a dedicated website, which, as a research team, we want to use as a tool to encourage participation and engagement with what we’re doing. I hope we can make it a different, more inclusive way of doing a review, which given both the consumer dimension, and the importance of the equality and diversity agenda, is important.

We have a top-flight team of researchers engaged in the project – Avrom Sherr (IALS, London), Paul Maharg (Northumbria), and Jane Ching (NTU – pictured here with me, Dame Janet Gaymer and Sir Mark Potter, the Co-Chairs of the Review Consultation Steering Panel), are the other institutional leads. We also have Chris Decker (Oxford Regulatory Policy Institute & CSLS), Rob Wilson (Warwick Institute for Employment Research) and the incomparable Richard Susskind as consultants. I’m sure there will be those who don’t think we are quite the right people for the job. I hear murmurs already from some in the profession that we are too academic, and from some academics that we are too close to the profession! Maybe that level of contradiction at least indicates that we are what we’re supposed to be: independent.

The future of legal education – part 2: gazing in the crystal ball

So, where do my musings, based on the previous post, lead me? Let’s start with the biggest change. I anticipate that we will see the gap between elite and local institutions widening, with a greater degree of mission and market differention than at present. By 2029, what we might think of as the modern ‘compleat university’ will I think be the preserve of a few elite institutions.Why?

First, I think it will be recognised that the demand for graduate employment has been misjudged and that the HE sector has become bloated (in crude economic terms, and, sadly those seem to be what counts), particularly in its ‘production’ of social sciences and humanities graduates. In law, whether we like it or not, changes to the market for legal services, which are already having profound affects on the shape of the legal profession, will have an impact on legal education, and not just in terms of demand for and design of vocational training. We reckon that, today, somewhere between 30-40% of law graduates in England and Wales actually enter the profession, though about 60-70% of them probably still want a career in law. One particularly important facet of this changing environment will be the impact of alternative business structures, increased legal process outsourcing and other forms of de-professionalisation on legal education and training. Even putting the recession to one side, we will, I think, see a further reduction in the number of traditionally qualified lawyers and a significant increase in paralegal work. Even if we do not regard professional education as the primary function of academic legal education, there are plenty of our students who do, and there will be a growing disjunction between their aspirations and the reality of the marketplace. That could start to have an impact on recruitment, and almost certainly will have an impact on what universities, and particularly the ‘recruiting’ as opposed to ‘selecting’ universities, need to do to address the employability of their students.

Secondly, resource, technology and sustainability factors will combine to influence how and where people study. The emphasis on work-based and workplace learning will increase, and the epistemological gaps between academic, social and technical/vocational knowledge will continue to be eroded. Traditional, full-time f2f, tuition may become increasingly outmoded and outpriced as technological enhancements improve, and constraints on mobility increase (due to fuel poverty and/or environmental protection policies), or it may simply become, once again, the preserve of an economic elite. Distance and technology-enhanced learning will become much more the norm, and learning will also become separated from processes of assessment and certification, with some universities becoming primarily assessment and certification hubs for learning that is undertaken through a distributed network of local and workplace centres.

It follows also that we may see fundamental and continuing change to the academic role. If we have fewer ‘compleat’ universities, we will probably have fewer ‘compleat’ academics. We can expect, perhaps, a greater premium on the effective delivery of learning and teaching, especially in those institutions that become more exclusively teaching-led, but also more generally as funding becomes tied more closely to teaching quality evaluations. At the same time, in most disciplines – even law – as successive research impact assessments re-define what counts as appropriate research activity, campus-based research will give way to more flexible approaches. These will increasingly utilise independent research facilities and groupings, often funded directly by the commercial and state sectors. In short, research and teaching functions will become disaggregated, work may become more casualised and competition for ‘traditional’ academic posts will be greatly increased.

For most of us, this probably looks like a pretty dystopian future, despite some glimmers of light in terms of what could be achieved, eg, in terms of widening participation and educational innovation in a more flexible environment. UK universities, including their law schools, have been, for the most part, a success story, and that is not alway an easy position from which to anticipate the need for change. Rather like Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas, I am not here to tell you what will come to pass, merely what might be, if we don’t start to anticipate the need for deep change in both organizational and sustainability terms, and provide leadership (at all levels) accordingly:

“Lead on!” said Scrooge. “Lead on! The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know.”