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 future of legal education – Part 1: the drivers for change

As I mentioned in the last post, I was in Keele at the beginning of last week for the first two days of the Centenary Conference of the Society of Legal Scholars. It was a good event – a high quality Practice, Profession and Ethics section meeting organised by Hilary Sommerlad, and socially too an excellent conference.

I was invited by Fiona Cownie to be part of a plenary panel on the future of legal education. It was quite a lively event, which generated a lot of questions. I’m unlikely to publish my presentation elsewhere, so I thought I might as well summarise it here – and develop a couple of the points that I left underdeveloped in the ten minutes I had available.

The brief we were given was to consider where we thought legal education would be in 20 years time – 2029. Not an easy brief at all! If we look back at the last 20 years, the changes have been substantial – in the UK we have moved from an elite to a (more or less) mass system of education; we have generated a substantial expansion of academic postgraduate education, experienced the creation of an audit-led research culture, and, in England and Wales particularly, seen a significant relaxation in professional control of the undergraduate law curriculum. Over that same time I think the basic level of teacher competence has improved, though whether there has been a commensurable increase in the quality of the student learning experience as a whole is much more moot, not least because of the research focus created by the RAE.

In this post I’ll focus briefly on what I see as the key drivers for future change, in the next I’ll say where they lead me.

Economy: we are receiving significantly different readings of the economic tealeaves – from those who suggest we are already starting the climb out of recession, to others who say that the worst is still to come, and that it could be another two to three years before we see a return to growth. There is no doubt that the recession will have a direct and probably sustained impact on HE spending for some years to come (HEFCE has already been required to excise £189 M from its 2010-11 spending). Ongoing changes in the financing of tertiary education may make HE less affordable and so potentially reduce access. It is likely that government will increasingly expect the sector to fund widening participation from fee income. It seems likely too that demand for traditional LLM courses has plateaued. Legal education will also be impacted by continuing changes in the professional services market – segmentation and casualisation of the market, hastened by the emergence of alternative business structures, will almost certainly help exacerbate existing status distinctions between educational providers at both academic and vocational stages.

Environment: we need to think of climate change as the one issue that has the potential to impact everything we do. As Prof Tom Burke has observed – “It is a systemic problem – it is one that touches all the others. It will stress all the other stresses in the world. We cannot look at it in a silo… All the pillars of prosperity are being undermined.” Most experts agree we are reaching a tipping point; the longer we leave it to initiate deep change, the more radical the surgery will need to be, the less likely that market mechanisms will be sufficient. On balance I am not one of the optimists, here. Climate change will, I suspect, demand some radical interventions. Fuel poverty will become a growing global problem; economic and, indeed, legal constraints on mobility will become more common; we may by the early 2020s see a return to greater protectionism/state corporatism as the environmental crisis places an increased strain on existing regional and global institutions.

Demography: Concerns have been expressed about the impact of projected demographic changes on HE, in terms of both an aging population generally and a specific decline in the numbers of 18-20 year olds. Government thinking (and the recent IUSS Select Committee report) both point to a need to look to part-time provision and workplace learning to maintain participation levels. The immediate problem is, as the Select Committee noted, current funding differentials provide little incentive to expand p/t provision. It is probably easy to make too much of the demographic risks, but it does seem likely that demographic changes will have at least qualitative effects on the diversity of paths, provision and institutions in future higher education.

Technology: from my relatively non-technical perspective the role of technology is a difficult issue – will it be a driver of change, or more a tool which may help us respond to change? I suspect the answer will continue to be a bit of both. That said, in terms of learning and teaching, certainly, we tend to be behind the curve and that may have to change if we are to respond effectively to the other challenges I have identified.


The numbers game in HE

I promised in the last entry to say more about grade inflation, so I’ve been thinking about some of the possible links between the themes of skills, grade inflation, diversity, and student numbers that kept popping up in last year’s blog. Unfortunately it doesn’t make for a particularly cheering entry with which to begin 2009!

The economic downturn is likely, I suspect, to uncover a few cracks in current thinking about skills, credentials and the knowledge economy.

Firstly, an obvious consequence of the increased supply of graduates since the early 90’s has been that employers, particularly those offering the tastier morsels of employment, have seen a steady increase in supply, to which they have responded by raising the entry hurdles – hence the increasing sense that a 2:i is the sine qua non for a decent graduate-entry job. That this is happening is itself a big clue to a potential problem with the system.   The market value of a degree depends on an element of scarcity. In other words, if 50% of potential employees have an undergraduate degree, then its value is diminished in the marketplace as compared with the time when only 20% of applicants had one. This is surely part of the dynamic that underlies the pressure for degree inflation – graduate numbers have increased, and employability has become an increasingly important success measure for institutions. In this context, looking at it rather cynically, perhaps, if it is in the (perceived) interests of both students and institutions to graduate more students with high honours,  we should hardly be surprised if there is upward pressure – and indeed movement – on grades. Of course the whole grade inflation issue is, as I’ve intimated before, more complex than that, but it is – at the least – one of the plausible factors in what seems to be going on. As the market for jobs gets tighter, it is unlikely that these sorts of pressures will reduce.

There is also a rather large elephant in the room as regards the whole expansion of HE, which is the assumption that there will be continuing growth in demand for graduates by employers. The Confederation of British Industry in The Guardian on 17 Sept 2008, cast its doubts on that one. It takes the view that universities are producing too many graduates already, stating that there are currently 10.1 million graduates in the UK chasing 9 million graduate jobs. And that was before the recession really started to bite. Yesterday’s Guardian, on its front page, made the point that 18-24 year olds seem to be “bearing the brunt” of the downturn. It quotes the latest labour market prediction, that by the end of 2009, we will see unemployment reach three million, with 40% of those ‘on the dole’ under 25. Of course, by no means all of those will be graduates, but graduate opportunities for 2009 are clearly already substantially reduced, and the same piece in the Guardian suggests the big recruiters are narrowing their sights even more firmly on recruiting from the elite universities of Oxbridge and the top London colleges; so another backward step for diversity there.

Logically, one might say some contraction in HE therefore would make sense, though that would not be a comfortable option for those of us who tend to see a university education as a social rather than primarily economic good. But this is, in any event, unlikely to happen, unless so dictated by market forces, and demand for HE has tended, I think, to operate relatively independently of trends in employment.  The latest projections from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on recruitment to UK higher education suggest that, overall, demand for higher education is likely to remain strong to 2029.  In this context we are likely to see  greater indebtedness, and maybe a decline in the (perceived, but actually difficult to prove) earnings premium that graduateness is supposed to attract, and probably still greater pressure on universities to link higher education to employability.

My wish for us all for 2009 and beyond? May we not live in such interesting times!

Degree classification and grade ‘inflation’

This summer has seen an awful lot of ink expended on issues of degree quality and ‘grade inflation’. I don’t particularly want to wade in on one side or the other, largely because the issue is incredibly complex, in a way that many of the ‘commentators’ in the media (and in Parliament) over the summer either could not grasp or chose to ignore. Let me just make a few observations:

I instinctively dislike the term grade inflation. It carries a lot of (deliberately disparaging) baggage. Inflation is not a neutral term. Inflation implies a reduction in value. By even engaging in the debate in the language of inflation we are therefore, from the outset, assuming something that needs to be proved; not just that we are awarding more Firsts and Upper Seconds, but that this is wrong and devalues the status of our degrees. This in turn also assumes that our assessment practices twenty or thirty years ago were superior to those in place today, and that assumption should certainly be challenged.

And this is where we have to come back to the problem of complexity. Whether we like it or not, we are not comparing like with like. When Norman Baird at qed law produces a table showing that most law schools are awarding substantially more First and 2:i’s in 2007 than in 1997, then we can certainly acknowledge that is interesting (though why 16 law schools were apparently awarding less in 2007 is more counter-intuitive and possibly even more interesting), but as Norman himself acknowledges, it is just a snapshot, based on some very simple percentages. It tells us nothing about which of those changes (if any) are statistically significant; it does not indicate whether either of those years chosen was atypical for that law school, so we have no sense of the outliers, and, obviously, it tells us nothing about the underlying practices that might account for that change. And there are a lot of candidates to explain the changes, mostly well known, including:

  • changing teaching and assessment methods;
  • possible changes to student motivation and prior learning;
  • availability of more student support mechanisms in HE;
  • possibly greater individual and institutional pressures on teachers to give higher marks (including the growing recognition that marks may need to be defensible if challenged)
  • maybe even the recognition in law that the practice of marking across a narrow band of marks, relative to other disciplines, is not defensible when you are dealing with what is usually one of the most able cohorts of students in the university.

This is where it starts to get a bit more contentious. We know we are no longer, as a system, dealing purely with the top 5% by educational attainment. And rightly so. But this has consequences; more work has to be done by departments and institutions to support those whose prior learning experience has not necessarily prepared them well for traditional higher education. Within the pressures of a crowded curriculum, that is difficult. This seems to me to expose the biggest elephant in the room. It is surely not sensible to graft the expectations of an old elite system, in which a relatively small number of students who, frankly, had the cultural and intellectual capital to succeed almost regardless of the education they received, onto a modern mass system.

In short, I don’t think we are facing a crisis of degree standards, but I think we do have some artificial expectations of what a mass system of HE can and should achieve, and a certain amount of political dishonesty about the consequences of massification; and universities have, to some extent, been complicit with government in that process.

If we really wanted the ‘standards’ of an elite system in a mass environment, we would need to resource the environment much better, and more logically (most degrees still operate an illogical system of resource allocation, whereby, as much by default as by design, a larger pro rata share of resources are spent on the later years, rather than on the critical first year of the programme). It would also have to become politically acceptable to have higher initial failure rates. Neither of these things are likely to happen. And I don’t actually have a lot of problems with that. But we surely do have to accept that, in a mass system, the purpose, scope, and value of an undergraduate degree is different from what it once was. That is not to say necessarily better or worse, just different. To some degree, the market is already doing this for us, though, of course, fairly arbitrarily, and without much sensible public debate.

As it is we have at best a hybrid (some might just say confused) system, and the teachers – the poor bloody infantry in all this – have to work out how to fix a machine that, ultimately, is constitutionally broken. What are the fixes? Here are a couple of starters for ten for this particular university challenge:

  • The classification system as both the Burgess Report and the QAA have pointed is well beyond its sell-by date. It should be replaced, though personally I would favour a more radical solution than Burgess’s transcript; possibly a grade point system.
  • Perhaps we should also consider an institutionalised move to marking on the ‘bell curve’ for larger modules. If this is done transparently across the sector (a job for the Committee of Heads of University law Schools perhaps?), it could act as a potential brake on creeping grade inflation, as any move of the median grade would have to be at least reported, possibly agreed, within the sector. Moreover, ‘marking to the curve’ seems a fairer way of accounting for marker variations (including teacher experience and expectations; year-on-year variations between papers, etc) than our current supposedly ‘objective’ system.

Higher, wider, further, deeper, oops….

So, Higher Education minister Bill Rammell is prepared to admit that, six years on, the success of government widening participation strategy has been less than spectacular. OK, I admit he didn’t go that far, preferring to blame the “scatter gun” approach of Aimhigher instead, (he would wouldn’t he?) but come on, a little reading between the lines is surely permissible. The news from the Higher Education Careers Service Unit that a young person is twice as likely to attend university if they have graduate parents is also less than surprising (both items reported in The Guardian Education section 12.06.07) . I draw attention to this not because I’m against widening participation (on the contrary it was one of the reasons I hung on in the polytechnic/new university sector for 20-odd years), but I do think it is a particularly intractable problem for HE institutions to deal with. The middle class ‘parentocracy’ still win the game for all the obvious reasons – a history of family expectation that normalises a university education, the economic and cultural capital to exploit school and university admissions systems, better access to information, etc, etc, and, if all else fails, the inclination to shout loudly to the Daily Mail whenever they become aware of any university admission policies that could possibly be conceived of as positive action, let alone discrimination.

The problem, of course, is that the solutions are (as we all – including Government – know) much harder and more expensive to achieve than slapping a target of 50% age participation on HE. Effective outreach programmes, summer schools, strategies to target talented and gifted kids, and embedding really effective advice and guidance in secondary schools and communities are massively time and resource intensive activities. Particularly in a context where resources are already scarce, and teachers are often struggling to deal with an overloaded and frequently changing curriculum. To be sure the government has targeted money on WP initiatives, but the data suggest we are still swimming against a tide of relative ignorance and indifference in many communities.

Perhaps even more critically, if widening participation strategies are going to make a material difference beyond university, schools, universities and employers also need to think very seriously about the steps they should be taking to prepare non-traditional students for the graduate workplace. One of the problems we continue to see in the legal profession is the tendency for employers to recruit, on the basis of their social and cultural capital, ‘people like us’. Given the relational nature of much legal work, these shared cultural values and assumptions often ‘oil the wheels’ in what is an increasingly competitive marketplace, but they also act as a powerful exclusionary tool in recruitment processes. The situation is improving, slowly. But my sense is that widening participation strategies need to focus more on what can be done both to develop some of that cultural capital, and to co-opt employers into delivering a much stronger pull effect, to support the push that the education sector is already working hard to provide.