The organising intellectual model of The Guardian’s education coverage seems to take any press release claiming there’s a problem in education and interpret it through the lens of the ancient fairy tale Chicken Little. The one where the acorn falls on the back of Henny Penny and she creates panic crying, ‘The sky is falling’.
Two recent examples in their education stories are:
- Labour MP Lucy Powell’s claim that the impact of recent education reforms are putting state schools students at a disadvantage because private schools are “gaming” the university application system by allowing their students to study “easier” IGCSEs.
- Universities’ alarm over no-deal BREXIT and EU student enrollment, based on a story by Professor Janet Beer, Vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and President of Universities UK. The gist of which is that a no-deal Brexit would be “one of the biggest threats” universities have ever faced and that it would “take decades to recover”.
Both of these are serious claims, one made by an MP based in an answer to her parliamentary question and the other coming from a senior representative of the UK universities’ trade body. Let’s see if their claims stack up and whether they are matters serious enough to be, in one case, the lead story in an international newspaper.
Powell’s claims seem weakly supported by any evidence. For example, she claims that the reformed GCSEs, which her party bitterly opposed, have raised standards to such an extent that the International GCSEs mostly used by private schools are actually easier and therefore give their students an unfair advantage. The facts undermine or directly refute these claims:
There’s a lack of data: reformed GCSEs have been marked only once. For reliable statistical analysis most educational statisticians recommend 3 years of results to see any reliable trends. Not everyone agrees, for example Education Data Labs ‘quick analysis’ says there “looks to be something in it (the claim)” but they “need more to ensure the comparators used are equivalent”. On the other hand Cambridge Assessment, the main provider of IGCSEs, released independent benchmarking research by UK NARIC, the national agency for the recognition and comparison of international qualifications and skills. This states that IGCSEs are “rigorous, robust and globally-relevant” and “demonstrate closer alignment to the newly reformed national GCSEs” (https://bit.ly/2Qkdwg4).
Powell’s headline-grabbing claims also ignored the international nature of IGCSEs (taught in over 120 countries) and how just one subject within the portfolio helps Britain attract thousands of fee-paying foreign students to our universities and colleges each year. That subject is English as a Second Language where achieving a C or better satisfies the language proficiency requirements for 134 UK universities and colleges (and thousands more internationally).
Powell should know better; she has been a Labour Party member for 29 years, would have sat (non-reformed) GCSE examinations and even spent 9 months as the Shadow Secretary of State for Education under Jeremy Corbyn (before resigning). What she should know from this accumulated experience is that the worst rorting of the GCSE system was BTEC equivalence, where one vocational subject was equivalent to several academic GCSEs including maths, physics and chemistry. This scam undermined the the huge national importance of vocational education, an ongoing educational and economic disaster that has not been fixed by any of the adhoc ‘solutions’ of any government for almost half a century.
If Lucy Powell and The Guardian’s Toby Helm really want to address substantive education issues at the secondary school level (as they should) then I’d suggest looking into issues like:
- assessment reform, especially formative assessment and even some ideas emerging around the woefully-named but very interesting pedagogical concept known as playful assessment.
- vocational education
- Finland’s 1% AI experiment a completely different approach to using education to help shift their economy towards being a leader in AI
Will no-deal Brexit be a disaster for universities?
Two recent Guardian stories about the impact of a no-deal Brexit claim it is “one of the biggest threats our universities have ever faced” (as above) and that “research would take decades to recover” (headline of a story by Education Correspondent Sally Weale).
While this is obviously a serious issue it’s perhaps not the ‘sky is falling down’ that the headlines imply and even within the first paragraph of of Ms Weale’s story there is a more measured response from the senior policy analyst at the Russell Group, Dr Holly Chandler, describing it simply as “troubling”.
The core of the story is the claim that there has been a 9% fall in the number of postgraduate EU research students studying in the UK and a 5% fall in postgrad taught students
To see just how bad things might be in the context of the whole sector I went to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency whose most recent public data covers the academic year 2016/17. This gives a total cohort of 2,317,880 students of whom 442,375 are classified as Non-UK. Of these, 134,853 or ~6% come from within the EU and 307,540 or 13% from the rest of the world.
The same HESA figures also show that China’s 95,090 students account for 4% of all HE students in the UK and 30% of all non-EU students. By comparison the top ten EU countries (Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland, Cyprus, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria) send 100,110, marginally more at 4.21%.
In terms of The Guardian’s suggestion of a collapse in postgraduate students from the EU, these numbers roughly equate to:
- 9% fall in Postgraduate (research) = 1348
- 5% fall in Postgraduate (taught) = 1566
- Total decline 6.29% = 2914 students.
While this is not great, there are also twice as many non-EU postgraduate research students and four times as many taught students.
What it does point towards is the larger recruitment crisis facing UK universities. Put simply, the UK HE sector will not implode even if Brexit caused a 50% fall in EU students. UK universities compete in an international market for students and those from outside the EU are far more important in terms of the absolute numbers (at almost every level) and they spend far more in fees. The biggest challenge is the UK’s static/declining market share compared to our biggest competitors, USA and Australia. Research by Professor Simon Marginson from the Centre for Global Higher Education showed that between 2011 and 2015 the number of students studying in these markets increased by:
- UK 11,000 or + 2.6%
- US 198,000 or +27.9%
- Australia 32,000 or +12%A
Australia recruited another 41,000 students in 2016 and a similar number in both 2017 and 2018. This means Australia overtook the UK for non-EU students in 2016 and by 2018 had usurped the UK as the number two destination for international students. Canada, once a rank outsider in the market, is now seen as a serious contender to relegate the UK from 3rd to 4th in the market.
In summary, the sky is not falling in education; private schools aren’t unfairly or unethically gaming the GCSE exam system, nor is Brexit the biggest threat facing the UK HE sector, despite claims by The Guardian, Universities UK, some academics and politicians.