Monday, 16 January 2012

Is it open season for AABs?

Kim Catchside in the Guardian likens the AABs to Grouse on the Glorious 12th. Not, I confess, quite the language I would have used since -hopefully - being eagerly pursued by many prestigious HEIs will be more fun for the AABs than grouse shooting is for the grouse.

Kim makes a couple of mistakes in the piece. One isn't important in the context of her argument, but could confuse people thinking in a different context. She says:

The only reason that the Treasury allowed David Willetts to make AAB students off quota at a time of deficit reduction was that there are very few other qualifications that are equivalent to A-level performance at that level, so the bean counters could be fairly confident that the numbers wouldn't go above the 65,000 budgeted for.
 This isn't correct. HEFCE have defined the AAB equivalencies for this purpose out of whole cloth, not relating in any way to existing standards such as the UCAS Tariff. The issue is rather that at the very high qualification levels, almost everyone already goes straight into HE. There isn't scope for students who currently decide to go straight into the workforce to be tempted into HE instead, nor are there many mid-30 year old AABs who might fancy a degree and haven't got one yet. As you go lower down the grade scale, there are more and more people who opt - or have opted in the past - out of HE and might therefore be tempted back, thus costing the Treasury extra money.

This is a minor issue, though, because it doesn't really affect Kim's argument. Much more important is her judgement about who is at risk of having their AABs nicked.

The institutions most at risk of losing students who've done best in their A-levels are those in the bottom quarter of the league table for academic entry. They often have a hundred or more AAB students each year. These are often students who've actively rejected more elite universities for reasons of culture, geography or course, but this surely will be the richest hunting ground for academic expansionists touting generous merit-based bursaries.

This is completely wrong, and to understand why you need to know that some of the 'AAB equivalent' qualifications are things such as degrees. In consequence a minority of these 'AAB' students are completely unlike the rest. There is essentially no chance that someone with an existing English degree looking to retrain as a social worker will be tempted to do so at Cambridge. The real risk - as I have been saying since my SOAS post at least - is to some really pretty prestigious institutions which have many AAB+ students, but also many sub-AAB.

This in turn tells you something about the dynamic in the AAB system. If the rules were going to strip a few hundred students away from each or the bottom-25 institutions in the league tables, no-one (I mean no-one who counts at Westminster) would much mind that. If it rips many hundreds of students away from a small group of really rather well-regarded places which Ministers' children might be likely to attend, that will be a different issue. The AAB threshold cannot stay where it is. It either has to come down, so that the institutions currently cut in half at AAB can be entirely above the line, and start putting effective pressure on those below them, or the whole policy will have to be abandoned.

But if the AAB threshold comes down, then there is a big risk to the Government funding and Kim's other mistake becomes relevant again. This isn't an issue of equivalencies which could be subject to some technical fix. This is why the evidence that Government has started to move the level of the average fee was so important. If that comes down, then the AAB threshold can come down too, and - for good or ill - the current dispensation stands a chance of lasting.  If not, then not.

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