Monday, 8 August 2011

Unintended consequences

There was a report in the Sunday Times a week ago (hidden behind their paywall, I fear, although the Daily Mail picked up on it here) which suggested that English universities would be reducing their fees for ‘top’ students, defined as those getting at least AAB at A level.  It strikes me as being a good example of the law of unintended consequences - twice.
Having increased the levels of fees for all, capped the number of places, and then told universities that they must do more to attract students from less-privileged backgrounds, the government realised that the first unintended consequence would be that students with the ‘best’ A level results might be excluded in favour of those with less good scores.  Bad publicity, and not likely to be well-received amongst their voters.
So, they told universities that the cap wouldn’t apply to AAB or better, and that universities could recruit as many of those students as they liked.  Problem solved?  Not exactly – this in turn meant that recruiting these students became very attractive to universities, who were now having to compete for them.  And given the market-oriented approach so beloved of the government, what better way to recruit them than to reduce their fees.
And that brings us to the second, presumably unintended, consequence.
As the same newspaper reported yesterday, achievement of good grades at A level isn’t distributed evenly amongst the population as a whole.  Indeed, it seems that when it comes to A* grades for example, pupils at fee-paying schools gain more of them than do pupils at all the comprehensive schools put together, despite only constituting 15% of the pupils.
This is nothing new; there is a well-known correlation between the ‘best’ results and the ‘best’ schools, and thus, in turn, with the highest family incomes.  The result is that many of the students most likely to qualify for the discount will also be those from the most privileged backgrounds, who attended the best schools and had the best support, whilst those paying the full fees will be more likely to be those from the poorest backgrounds.
It’s not quite as black and white as that, of course – some pupils achieve high (or low) scores regardless of their background.  But there is a correlation, and to the extent that that correlation applies here, it means that the targeting of reduced fees is completely the reverse of what economic fairness would suggest.
I’ve yet to see how the Welsh Government will respond to the situation – but I hope that we won’t see Welsh policy emulating England in this case.


Anonymous said...

Universities will shoot themselves in the foot with this 'lower fees for better A levels'. The best students in Uni are not necessarily those with the best A levels. I went to Uni as a mature student paid for by early liquidation of an NCB pension, and part time work. My entry qualification was a long previous OND in Engineering from Tech and lots of work experience in local businesses. I sailed through Uni and graduated in the upper quartile. Way better than most of the A level students. Since then I've been in positions to recruit graduates to large multinationals, and if I'm on the panel the 'geeks' don't get an interview. If someone with 3As accidentally get to the hot seat I often wonder if they are able to work un-supervised and why they spent too much time swatting rather than doing. Personally I don't think anyone should go from 6th form direct to Uni.They should do at least a year out working, and that year to be banked tax-free earnings, redeemable as the university tuition fees. Of course to do that in Wales, we'd need fiscal powers and a University system directed at industry rather than notions of social class.

John Dixon said...

I share your scepticism about the over-emphasis placed on grades; it's a lazy way of assessing people masquerading as an 'objective' assessment. The same applies when employers specify that a degree is essential for a range of jobs where the claim is dubious, to say the least.

There is, I suspect, an element of self-perpetuation in this; the people doing the selecting - whether for university places or for jobs - have often got where they are at least in part on the basis of 'good' academic results. They then select people who match their own assessment of who will do well; an assessment coloured by their own experiences.

Unknown said...

Einstein was, of course, a rather poor student, which is why he ended up working for the Swiss Patent office, where he had plenty of time to follow his musing to wherever they took him, unfettered by the academic orthodoxies of the day. How exactly you spot the next Einstein is, I'm afraid, unclear.

Glyndo said...

There is, I suspect, an element of self-perpetuation in this; the people doing the selecting - ..... then select people who match their own assessment of who will do well; an assessment coloured by their own experiences.

Not sure what point you are making John. Presumably these people have done rather well, (They are doing the selecting)so what is wrong with them choosing people like themselves? Is experience a bad thing to bring to the selection process?

John Dixon said...


But what if someone with a different background could do even better? Selecting for more of the same because it's worked to date doesn't mean it's been the optimal approach.

If I may make a less than entirely fair comparison, if a panel of white people selected only white people because white people had done rather well to date, the flaw in the approach would be obvious.

Glyndo said...

"But what if someone with a different background could do even better?"

Ah! You're suggesting that maybe taking a punt might pay dividends.
Perhaps so, but not an optimum strategy, unless the organisation is in dire need of change. They used to say that nobody ever got sacked for chosing IBM. (I think that has now been overtaken by events.) You can't blame somebody too much for taking the tried and trusted route.

Unknown said...

The problem is that human nature being what it is there is a tendency for people to appoint staff who are similar to them, but not quite as good, so as not to present a threatt.

Follow this down a few generations of appointers, and you are reduced to mediocrity.

John Dixon said...


Not quite what I meant, but I can see how you got there from my sloppily worded response to another comment. I'll try and do better:

I remember once someone telling me that person X 'must be brilliant - he got a first at Oxford'. My own assessment of the individual concerned, based not on his academic achievements but on his all-round usefulness to the task in hand, was significantly less positive. It illustrates the point that making a judgement purely, or even largely, on academic grades tells you mostly that the individual concerned was good at passing exams; it can sometimes tell you little about how useful they will be to any particular task, even a task based directly on what they are supposed to have studied. And there is (and the reasons are not relevant here, although we've discussed them in another thread previously) a strong correlation between high academic grades and socio-economic background.

The problem that arises is that there are far too many people who are willing to make the judgement largely or purely on academic grades. And perhaps I was overstating this next point a little, but there is at least some truth in it - there is a tendency for those who were themselves judged largely on the basis of academic grades to make a similar judgement themselves; and that can be self-perpetuating.

Nothing at all unusual in that - most elites are self-perpetuating; that's why politics and business are so full of Old Etonian Oxbridge graduates - it isn't simply the operation of a nepotistic old boy network.

The fact that self-perpetuating elites 'work' is probably undisputable; there's plenty of evidence to that effect. Whether they work optimally or not is a mush more open question. I have an innate aversion to elites, and accept that that colours my judgement, but tend to the view that a more open-minded approach, making a more rounded assessment of ability, will produce better outcomes.

Unknown said...

I agree with you john. My parents were both involved in medicine, and I was brought up in a social environment where there were a large number of doctors. Doctors have to be good at passing exams, but my impression of them (apart from a few) was that they were no more elevated intellectually than the farmers who were also part of my upbringing, who as a body of men, were far superior in my opinion.

One of the tragedies of our education system over the last 40 year has been the obsession with exam results - leading to a drive to turn every possible field of human endeavour into an academic subject - testable by exam. This has led to the devaluation of real academic subjects, and the bastardisation of good old practical and vocational subjects. Turning everything into a GCSE subject is ridiculous.