Thursday 29 August 2013

David Willetts and 'Educational Equilibrium' theory (and what it means for Widening Participation)

Widening Participation is usually presented as a good thing - particularly by people who, like me, work for institutions whose mission it is to provide higher education opportunities to those who would otherwise be excluded from the system. I continue to care about this deeply, and I have found that working with this group of students is at once more challenging and potentially more rewarding than anything else we might do in education. In the 'exclusive' institutions (I have plenty of dealings with them too), there are clever people with many qualifications talking about changing the world with complicated words. Educating people in a Widening Participation institution IS changing the world in a real way that matters -much more than educating middle class kids who will succeed whatever happens.

Having said that, there are some worries I have about our uncritical acceptance of widening participation. The problem stems from whose "agenda" it really is - the student's agenda? society's? the government's? or individual institutions? I've always considered that "widening participation" is an agenda for people disenfranchised by education, particularly by the dismal experiences they've had of education by the time they reach 18, or for mature learners, and are thinking about what to do next. Opportunities are available to them that were not there 20 years ago, and that should be a good thing. But what exactly do we mean by "opportunities"?

The widening participation agenda has gone hand-in-hand with the expansion of HE and government-driven frameworks which are meant to guarantee quality standards between an ever-increasing array of institutions and course opportunities. Despite the fact that a UEL degree (say) is not the same as a Cambridge degree, the quality frameworks do at least create norms of expectation between different parts of the sector. There are, of course, many good things about having a degree from UEL, and having a degree may well be better than not having a degree; having a degree from Cambridge however is by the reckoning of most people - rightly or wrongly - 'better'. But the problem is that when we talk about 'opportunity' we talk as if the students being presented with the range of opportunities are in some fundamental ways identical. This is clearly not the case. The more challenging the personal and educational backgrounds of students, the more diversity there is in the specific challenges they face in exploiting any opportunity. Presenting courses which are moulded from a slightly adapted traditional model of education as 'opportunities' to this group of people is only feasible if they are in a position to exploit the opportunity; but those who are best equipped to exploit the "opportunity" of widening participation (if they so choose) are still those who will probably go on to enter elite institutions.

This is really a problem about 'information' and economic equilibrium. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out a long time ago, information is not evenly distributed in a society. Equilibrium theory holds that prices are in equilibrium in an economy by the balance of supply and demand and as a result of individuals making rational decisions - but with the implicit assumption that people have the same information. In pointing out that people do not have the same information (indeed, being informed is different among different people even in the light of the same information), Hayek argued that equilibrium theory couldn't be right, in the process placing the focus of economics on epistemology (which was his most significant contribution). Currently we have a similar kind of 'equilibrium theory' of education, promoted principally by David Willetts. Willetts is so keen to promote a 'market' in Higher Education that he overlooks the complexity of individual differences amongst learners/consumers and the different ways in which individuals will interpret information. Despite presenting himself as a man of letters, Willetts really wants to be a man of action. Beyond a certain point, the letters just get in the way!

Information is of crucial importance to Willetts, because like all good capitalists, he believes his market in HE will only work if people are properly informed about their consumer choices. So we have 'Key Information Sets' that every University has to compile, providing data about employability, average earnings, fees, retention, etc in addition to 'student satisfaction' data. Willetts's idea is that learners will peruse this data rationally making decisions according to economic cost-benefit. If everybody did this, then we might see how 'educational equilibrium' works. Clever students choose to attend more prestigious institutions whose KIS data indicates better life-chances after following a degree course. Those institutions grow. Institutions whose statistics are less attractive start to lose applications. Some of these latter institutions might seek to gain some competitive advantage by competing on price through increasing efficiencies (reducing staffing). Other institutions might seek to compete in the market with increasingly innovative course offerings designed to appeal to those students unable to get into more prestigious institutions. All in all, 'educational equilibrium' is achieved through balancing consumer choice supported by rich information with increasing diversity as institutions find their place in the market (or go under). But, as Roger Brown has recently argued (see, this is predicated on an information model where students all behave rationally in the light of the same information.

Brown refers to [Lord] "Browne's Paradox" - the hope that market reforms will lead to increasing diversity in the sector, which Willetts also believes. He argues that the Browne reforms will produce the conditions that lead to the reverse. In order to understand this, we have to understand the ways Vice Chancellors and students make decisions. The information that the KIS conveys will be dependent on the ways in which different students interpret it. Whilst there is a tendency to think of information as a kind of 'positive' force in decision-making (that's probably how Willetts sees it), it is perhaps better seen as a 'constraint' within which decisions occur. League table information, for example, makes studying at certain institutions 'unthinkable' for those students who have the choice not to. Equally, for those students who don't have that luxury, league tables simply reinforce the message of social exclusion. The same goes for the economic data about earnings. This means different things depending on your place in the social pecking-order. We might look at a statistic that says "80% of our students are employed within 6 months of graduating" but then think "but as what?", "what about the others?". The extent to which it matters to a student depends on the circumstances, life history and confidence of that student. For Vice Chancellors, their job is to produce information that looks good. Their choices for doing this are constrained by the information that's there. What emerges? There is positive feedback between information around 'successful courses' and so naturally Vice Chancellors close those courses deemed 'unsuccessful', losing sight of the differences between different institutional cultures  (masked by the information) and often losing sight of their own local priorities because the information they have to-hand doesn't allow them to defensibly do any different. Consequently, there is a reduction in the diversity of offerings.

The information sets of this 'educational equilibrium' experiment are not liberating student choice. They are, in fact, reinforcing social divisions. They embody and emphasise the uneven constraints that are imposed on individual learners who by accidents of birth do not come from the kind of backgrounds which would give them real access to the opportunities of the elite.

But then there is worse. Those institutions who find their 'credit rating' approaching 'junk status' (i.e. poor KIS stats, bottom of the league tables, etc) see that the way forwards for them is to ape the established elites. "We too can be like Cambridge!" they cry, as they attempt to import young, cheap PhD graduates from around the world to boost their research ratings (irrespective of whether they can teach or not!) and attempt to raise their profile in the hope of impressing the "widening participation" student market. Unfortunately, this was a market of people who didn't have much choice of where they went anyway, and even if the marketing gimmicks have a modicum of success, the efforts that went into the marketing were not reflected in course designs which often are a poor fit for the kind of diverse challenges presented by this group of students (and this is not to mention the misery within so many of these institutions as a result of the savage cuts imposed as they try to keep their heads above water).

Now we should ask "Where's the opportunity?" Students who have few choices find themselves dealing with their part of the sector which is not only contracting, but trying to compete for different kinds of students from the ones that they actually recruit. Instead of having their needs met, these students risk finding themselves being trapped by the institutional bureaucracies of repeated modules, refers, failures, etc whilst finding their institutions strangely distracted by dreams of "being somewhere else". That's not an opportunity I would wish on anyone!

Facing up to these issues is important because the result of the government's educational reforms is really that people ask "is widening participation worth it? - these people shouldn't be at University, they should be in apprenticeships, or work..." The problem is that there was a point where widening participation was indeed an opportunity, and much good came from it. The changes to HE funding mean that it's "opportunity" status for the student is now under question. Widening participation students face the seductions of marketing departments of universities, just as they face the seductions of loan sharks, with a high risk that they become trapped in expensive educational bureaucracy when they could have pursued other options to give themselves more freedom in the economy. However, the information about the 'other options' isn't there. Indeed, there is no way an informed rational decision can be made that takes into account all the options, and there is nobody who can help them find their way through it.

Widening participation shouldn't be a prison for students, and it certainly shouldn't be a means to an end for institutional survival. Yet both these things are natural consequences of Willetts's crazy theory. The fundamental issue ought to be fairness and justice. The "education debate" masks the fundamental inequalities that are unfolding in front of us. It is because we lack a holistic way of thinking about the relationship between education and society, and monitoring that relationship, that we may be sleep walking into a social disaster. 

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