Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Department Of Stuff We All Knew Already

That whole UCAS thing really boiled my blood, so it's nice to mock the media for something else for a change.

The Guardian have rocked the entire education establishment to its foundations by breaking the terrible news that the 50% participation target probably won't be met by 2010.

I half expected this news to be alongside another headline informing us gravely that man had set foot on the moon, or perhaps that King Harold had suffered an uncomfortable reverse at Hastings.

After all, it's only a year since HEFCE came to the very same conclusion and actually announced it, so well done the Guardian on trying to fabricate another story.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

UCAS Discrimates Against Middle-Class. No, Working Class. Er, Someone Anyway

The 'announcement' that UCAS are going to 'start' collecting socioeconomic data on applicants seems to have riled a whole lot of armchair critics.

Everyone seems sure this is a sinister plot to discriminate against somebody, probably middle-class students, maybe working-class students, or perhaps ethnic minorities, aliens or the dead.

Two quibbles are easy - this is not news - it's been known to be in the pipeline for a while. Also, we have data on about half of graduates, which is largely collected at admissions stage - believe me, I'm looking at it now.

But the main issues are the wholesale missing of points by the media covering this (and the commentators talking about it). It really is an object example of how badly and lazily higher education is covered by the Press.

The facts are this: it would appear from previous research that the widening participation agenda might not have worked as planned. The idea was that widening participation would bring in a great many students from non-traditional (lower social classes and ethnic minorities in other words). In practise, what evidence that exists suggests that, whilst participation from non-traditional backgrounds has gone up a bit, middle-class university participation has rocketed. In other words, the system may well have merely made it easier for mediocre well-off kids to get into university.

And there's more. The outcome data I have in front of me are clear. On the sample I have (about half of graduates), those from lower socio-economic classes are less likely to go onto further study, and significantly more likely to be unemployed than their middle-class peers. But I can't be sure, because it's only half a sample. Now, with personal contacts so important in the UK, perhaps it's not surprising that those with a lower level of social capital (as we funky labour marketeers say) struggle more in the job market. But I'd like to be certain that there really is a problem before I bang on about it. I'm not a journalist, after all - I take this stuff seriously.

But the only way I can do that is with the data, and the only way we can see if the universities are doing their job fairly is to get that data when people enter university.

And that is why this initiative has been set up. It is so we can see if universities are properly serving the population by representing and treating them fairly.

If they are not, well, then we have a problem.

Admission tutors can discriminate in plenty of ways already if they so choose. Your postcode, for example, can be used as a proxy for social class. It is in a number of interesting pieces of social research, and if you use this ace website, you can get all sorts of good info on inhabitants by postcode. Admission tutors, by and large, know what they are doing - see this excellent piece by Mary Beard for details.

All in all, some newspapers have behaved very poorly here. In the haste to manufacture a controversy, they don't seem to have asked the people who took or implemented the decision, they fail to have grasped who uses the information and why, and they have done their best to make an initiative designed to advance social justice look as grubby as possible. I am not impressed.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

This is not a new post really

Back to this post about the CIPD survey - and how graduates wish they had done another degree. Apparently.

The report is here (danger: PDF), and it would appear that many of the misgivings are justified. The samples are small, don't appear representative, and are asking graduates who are very new to their careers. It is also unclear what questions have been asked. You get a very different result if you ask people, 'Do you want to leave your job', than you do if you ask them 'Have you ever thought about working somewhere else', but they usually get reported the same. A similar principle could well apply.