MIE Building Evidence into Education (BEE) blog

Tom Fryer



Tom Fryer is the author of free-to-access “Naff: Universities and how to change them” and a PhD researcher at the Manchester Institute of Education. He is also a school governor and a former teacher.


I reckon there are three things all teachers should know about universities. And there’s never been a more important time to know them. As more young people than ever are going to university, teachers have an essential role in supporting students navigate the (often) bewildering procedures in higher education.

Thing 1: University access is hugely unequal, and it isn’t really improving

This might not come as a huge surprise, but access to university is hugely unequal. This is especially true when we look at the most prestigious universities. But what might come as a surprise is the size of the gap. The graph below shows that a student from the most privileged 20% of society* (Group A) is 16 times more likely to make it to a highly selective university, compared with someone from the bottom 20% (Group E).

Not only is there a big gap, but it isn’t getting any smaller. This is despite a quarter of a billion pounds spent on widening participation each year.

So, if you hear stuff like ‘More disadvantaged students than ever are getting to university’ just remember this graph. It is true that the number of students in Group E getting to a highly selective university has almost doubled—but it’s gone from a very small number (1.1% in 2006) to a still very small number (1.8% in 2018). That’s not much to celebrate.

Thing 2: The status of a university does not reflect its educational quality

We all know that there are hierarchies between different universities. There’s a prestige that goes along with studying in certain types of universities and courses. However, there’s not all that much evidence that more prestigious universities offer a higher quality education.

In the Teaching Excellence Framework, a nationwide assessment of teaching excellence at universities there was a huge range of outcomes for different universities. LSE and York St John got a Bronze; Bristol and Bolton got a Silver; Durham and Portsmouth got a Gold. There’s no simple rule that more prestigious universities do better.

Similarly, when it comes to employment outcomes from university, graduates from prestigious universities do tend to do better. But, and it’s a big but, we don’t really know why. This could be caused by a higher quality education, but it could also be previous attainment/skills of students, the symbolic status of different universities or a bunch of other things unconnected to educational quality. All in all, there just isn’t much evidence that the status of a university is a good guide to its educational quality.

This puts teachers in a difficult position. If there’s no reliable connection between university status and teaching quality, then there’s no simple way to advise students which universities to apply to. If we rely on university status or league table position, there’s a risk we push students towards courses that are neither the best fit nor the best educational environment. The best advice you can give your students has to be focussed on that individual: where do they want to live, what type of course do they want to do, what extra-curricular activities do they want to jump into. This isn’t revolutionary, and it sure is time-consuming, but teachers can play a vital role in breaking the unevidenced link between university status and educational quality.

It might help to reflect on a few questions:
1. How does your school help students choose which universities to apply to?
2. Does this approach (in)directly push the idea that ‘high status’ equals ‘high quality’?
3. Do your students know that ‘status’ does not equal ‘quality’?

Thing 3: University education is very narrow

The education on offer in English higher education is weirdly narrow, with students tending to study only one or two subjects.

I think we should take a step back and ask whether this is the right approach. Does a narrow and specialised education enable us to achieve the wider goals of education? Sure, it’s super interesting to learn about sea-slugs and evolutionary biology, but does that make me a better citizen, a more critical thinker or more empathetic human? I’d argue that we’ve set up our university system in a way that doesn’t help us to achieve these wider goals.

However, these wider goals are absolutely essential for students to thrive in later life. In our modern world, we’ve never been exposed to so much information, and with lots of it pretty damn misleading, our students need to be prepared to navigate through this environment. I think we need an education system that does more to teach about the huge forces that plague our society, whether the climate crisis or systemic injustice. We need to prepare our students with a knowledge of these forces and the skills to critically consume new information. Without this, how can we expect to prepare our students to make decisions that will make the world a better place?

A university system dedicated to studying one subject full-time over three years, is more focussed on training future researchers (about 0.5% of the population) than promoting the critical skills that everyone needs for a healthy democracy. That needs to change.

So, what can teachers do to help? Two quick things:
1. Point students in the direction of innovative and multi-disciplinary courses, e.g. Birmingham offers a course in Liberal Arts and Natural Sciences.
2. Evaluate how students choose subjects at your school: Do students tend to over-specialise, i.e. narrow their subject choices beyond that which is needed for university access? Does your school actively encourage this overspecialisation? Do your students tend to specialise because they want to, or because they feel they have to?

If you’re interested in more information on the injustices in universities, and three ideas for how to reform them, please check out the free-to-access “Naff: Universities and how to change them”.

* This data is taken from UCAS and their multiple equality measure.