Thursday 31 May 2012

Why is this man being allowed to preside over the wilful destruction of a major British export industry?

Imagine, if you will, a Government in the midst of a recession that chooses to insult investors who bring £8 billion a year into the UK economy. And it does so purely for reasons of ideology and prejudice, with little regard for the economic consequences. Such an approach would surely be the subject of widespread ridicule, and the minister responsible given the opportunity to spend a little more time with their constituents and their backbench colleagues.

That is precisely what is happening to our universities and colleges, as they strive to compete with Australia, Canada and the US for the brightest and best students in the world. This week, nearly 70 university chancellors have written to the David Cameron urging him to back UK universities in their efforts to recruit genuine international students. What other major export industry would have to go on bended knees to beg the PM's backing?

Yet the coalition's ill-considered immigration policy is turning students away. Already numbers from India have fallen, and other major countries are likely to turn elsewhere unless they see Britain welcoming international students rather than treating them like pariahs. Essentially the problem is this: the coalition is committed to reducing net migration at a time when the number of Britons migrating is falling. There are already strict controls on overseas workers, so the only way to achieve this is to cut student numbers.

Yet as the universities point out in their letter:
In an age of increasing global mobility, the number of individuals considering a university education abroad is growing rapidly. In this market for talent – and export income – the UK performs exceptionally well, with 9.9% of the total market share in 2009, and export earnings of £7.9 billion. International students also play an important role in towns and cities up and down the country, and contribute significantly to local economies. There is a clear opportunity to build on this success, with forecasts suggesting that export earnings from this activity could more than double by 2025.

Since the formation of the coalition, the Home Office has tried to cut immigration to the UK in several ways. It was perfectly reasonable to clamp down on 450 bogus colleges and prevent them from sponsoring students.The Border Agency claims that this has meant 11,000 fewer bogus students coming to the UK. At the same time, universities and colleges are licensed as Highly Trusted Sponsors to admit overseas students and must take responsibility that students will turn up to and attend courses, and that they are legitimate. Institutions that fail in this quickly lose their status, so they have a strong incentive to do so. It is not always easy, as the wholly inept Border Agency is often behind on the paperwork, but it makes some sense. 

What makes no sense is keeping students within the net migration figures: it is like capping manufacturing exports or saying we have enough tourists this year, thanks.

Moreover, the impression from outside is not that there is a sensible balance being struck between recruiting legitimate students and barring bogus ones. Rather it is that an increasingly zealous minister at the Home Office, Damian Green, the man most responsible for the chaos at the borders last month, seems hell bent on discouraging students from coming here in the first place. The Home Office has dusted down all its old wheezes and finally found a willing buyer in the once moderate and mild-mannered Kent MP. As a result, an £8 billion export industry is playing second fiddle to their fantasy targets. So much so that Green told a Policy Exchange event in February that

there is scope for further examination of whether and to what extent foreign student tuition fees boost the UK economy and, crucially, how UK residents ultimately benefit from that. 

Universities UK has argued that the total ‘export earnings’ of higher education, including tuition fees and spending by non-UK students, could grow from £7.9bn in 2009 to £16.9bn in 2025 with the right policy environment.Its research also highlighted the extent of growth in Indian postgraduates, as well as higher international student mobility from China, the Middle East and Nigeria. A recent IPPR report has calculated that current Government targets could see losses of up to £3bn a year from students: in truth it could be a lot higher if the Green message reaches those growing markets. Moreover, these students are not just an invisible export, as the IPPR adds

The difference in terms of the dynamic contribution to the economy over 20 years, in terms of losing so many young, highly qualified and motivated migrants is hard to calculate, but would likely be very large.

It is time for David Cameron to take a decisive stance on this issue, and to back British higher education. If he wants a simple solution, he could start by emulating the Australians - one of our big competitors for East Asian, Indian and Chinese students by treating students differently in the statistics. The IPPR explains:

Australia keeps a record of international students in its estimates of total net overseas migration (NOM), but these fall within the ‘temporary’ category (alongside business long-stay migrants, working holidaymakers and long-term visitors) and there are few formal caps on these numbers, although the government is able to exert some control through policy, such as by raising English language requirements.

Then he should borrow another idea from Tony Blair, and launch a major Downing Street campaign actively to promote UK higher education in overseas markets. The message should be that Britain welcomes international students - and he should show that his government means it.

Monday 14 May 2012

Clegg's premium needs a harder edge to succeed

Last week Nick Clegg renewed his coalition marriage vows with David Cameron at a tractor factor in Essex. Today, the Deputy Prime Minister has reaffirmed his faith in the pupil premium as a great engine of social mobility, at a primary academy is Islington. Nobody could seriously oppose the pupil premium - indeed, it was as much part of the Conservatives' 2010 manifesto as it was that of the Liberal Democrats - but one can reasonably ask how much difference it will really make.

The pupil premium was supposed to rise to as much as £2500 per pupil by 2015, though changes to its calculation and topslicing mean it will probably be nearer £1200 - there will only be £2.5bn available in the last year of this Parliament and £1.25bn is being spent when it is only £600 in the next school year. Yet, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, extra funding in the current system attached to deprived pupils amounts to £2000 in primary schools and £3000 in secondary schools, funding almost double that attached to non-deprived pupils, on average. And there are still huge variations in performance between them. As Clegg himself pointed out in his speech,  

There are now 440 secondary schools - one in five - where disadvantaged pupils are doing better in their GCSEs than the national average for all children.

What that suggests is that they perform worse in four in five schools, despite their existing £2000-£3000 premium. Clegg has sort of recognised that a big problem with the premium is the lack of levers to ensure that schools use it to improve teaching for disadvantaged youngsters. So he has announced details of summer school funding and a sponsored competition for the best ideas on using the new premium. Summer schools were an idea of David Blunkett's first year in government - indeed they may even have been his first initiative - and while they had some positive results, they were no panacea. The contest may spur some good ideas, but it is still likely to leave most schools using the premium to plug the gaps left by the Government's cuts in the rest of the school budgets: again, the IFS has shown that around three-quarters of primary schools and 90% of secondary schools are seeing real terms cuts, though with lower salary inflation, the figure falls to 55% of primaries and 70% of secondaries. An NAHT survey recently found similar concerns.

Clegg says that Ofsted will be reporting on how the pupil premium is used. But unless there is a link between the premium and some narrowing of the gap in Key Stage 2 or GCSE results for poorer pupils (with no loss of performance at the top end) then the pupil premium is unlikely to achieve much at all in the majority of schools and for most disadvantaged pupils. The Government already publishes a lot of this data: why not say that a significant proportion of the premium after three years is dependent on better results for those from poorer backgrounds? The premium needs such a harder edge if it is to succeed.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Clegg should demand real investment for renewing those vows

With Francois Hollande elected in France and Labour's modest triumph in the council polls, it is hardly surprising that David Cameron and Nick Clegg feel the need to renew the vows they exchanged in the shotgun wedding of 2010. But whether they should stick to the letter of the pre-nup that they signed on that fateful day is another matter. The economy desperately needs investment, and the government badly needs a sense of purpose. There are few signs that either are planned. And that reflects a failure of imagination by Nick Clegg and his improbably sidekick Danny Alexander.

The Budget was not just a disaster for the Tories, countering George Osborne's smugness with its extraordinary collection of crowd-displeasers. It was also a failure for Nick Clegg, because he failed to persuade his coalition partners that cutting the 50p tax rate at a time when the country (and Europe) has entered into a populist anti-rich rage might not be the best idea, just at the moment.

But then despite the hype there is little sign that the Liberal Democrats have gained much beyond becoming a punching bag for liberal initiatives already favoured by Cameroon reforms, such as gay marriage or even Lords reform. The Lib Dems have failed utterly to promote the sort of infrastructural investment that might move the economy from Osborne's recession into lasting growth. School building has been slashed. House building is a combination of anti-Labour spin and coalition inaction. The high speed rail will take years to materialise and Heathrow is chaotic not just because of Teresa May's passport panic, but because there is nowhere for the planes to land half the time. High speed broadband seems a distant dream, especially with BT involved.

We have seen that infrastructure can be delivered on budget and on time with the Olympic stadium. And I have no quibble with efforts to get better value for money than Labour in public building projects. But there is simply not enough action on providing the major infrastructural investment that could give the economy the kickstart it needs, boosting demand and jobs, and ensuring more people pay taxes rather than draw benefits. Rather than fighting plans for an extra £10bn cut in welfare budgets, Clegg should be seeking to cut the budget by getting people into real jobs. At present, all that's on offer is the dubious rebadging exercise known as the Youth Contract.

Within months, Europe including Germany will recognise - in part because of what's happening in France and Greece - that it needs a better balance between austerity and growth, and that investment projects are needed for the latter. The US under Barack Obama has recognised that, as has the IMF and OECD in its advice to member nations. This is not about cutting day-to-day spending, which will have to continue, though Osborne always underestimated its knock-on impact on private sector services, but about medium to long-term investments that will have a return.

So, rather than whining about Lords Reform, Clegg and his colleagues should force the investment issue with a real determination: new rail, schools, housing, airports. If he focused on that rather than the dubious achievements that he cites for his role in Government to date, the voters might even notice. By the same token, Labour should switch its arguments from the speed of the spending cuts to a ceaseless demand for more capital investment, with a strong critque of the government's enduring incompetence and inability to deliver. It too might find that a successful formula to consolidate and advance on Thursday's success.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

What lies behind the claims of dumbed down exams?

The exams regulator, Ofqual, has inherited a programme of exam standards reviews that were introduced in 1997 with the support of both the outgoing Conservative and incoming Labour governments. Yesterday, they produced a veritable collection of these reports that were duly spun to a grateful media as confirmation of a concerted dumbing down drive over the last decade.

I decided to look more closely at what Ofqual actually said. And what it does say poses rather more interesting questions than the critics would care to ask.

  • There has been a move away from essays towards multiple choice questions on some papers. In other words, a move away from analysis towards testing knowledge of facts. Now, in many ways, I happen to agree that this is a retrograde step. But isn't the tenor of what the Government has been saying that we need more facts and fewer skills. Won't the result be that we move towards more multiple choice questions like this and fewer 'more demanding' essay style questions? 
  • A big complaint of the dumbing down brigade on science was directed at an effort to make the subject more relevant and interesting at GCSE through 'How Science Works'. Fascinatingly, Ofqual tells us that in GCSE Biology "this change did not affect the demand of the qualification overall." and in Chemistry it even made it more demanding. (Earlier reports on physics and on general science had been very critical in 2009)
  • In GCSE maths, the big change that made a difference was moving from a three-tier to a two-tier qualification, set at intermediate and higher levels. But the problem with tiered papers is that teachers can under-estimate a student's ability and enter them at a tier where they cannot excel. Tiering can be an enemy of aspiration, in other words. The problem when the tiers are removed is that the exam boards reduce demand. There must be a better way to do this that measures true attainment without capping aspiration. That has always been the policy goal.
  • In several courses, OCR seems to have been more demanding than AQA, once again showing the perverse effects of having competing examination boards for the same subjects.
  • Reviewers judged A2 Geography to be less demanding because of the removal of the coursework element. Coursework - typically a 4,000-word investigation - was an effective way to assess skills by, for example undertaking and reporting on investigative fieldwork
So, let's be clear of the implications:
  • First, coursework has been removed or reduced because of concerns over cheating, and the extent to which it can be manipulated by parents or helped by teachers. It is often set now under supervised classroom conditions. But it is not a synoptic assessment in a high stakes exam setting. So, a way must be found to allow for such investigations in ways that avoid cheating.
  • Second, competition between exam boards, far from promoting 'innovation' seems to provide schools with easier options. Ofqual has set its face against moving towards a national exam board for A levels and GCSEs. But shouldn't it think again?
  • Third, we clearly need fewer multiple choice questions and more essay-style questions. That does mean more markers and more expensive exams. It also means more time devoted to learning the skills of essay writing and research. All to the good. But it needs a Secretary of State who is clear that he sees this as being as important as acquiring facts.
  • Fourth, there is not necessarily a tension between making science more relevant and maintaining standards (provided it isn't accompanied by lots more multiple choice questions).
  • Fifth, the system of reviewing standards over time seems to work. And it has existed now for 15 years.

It's always helpful to have a little context.