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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Britain’s endless skills problems: why academics and policy wonks need to communicate

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 November 2017

Francis Green. 
The OECD and the Institute for Public Policy Research came together this week to launch complementary reports on Britain’s long-term skills problem and what should be done about it. The event unfurled in august surroundings, at the offices of JP Morgan, in the old hall of what used to be the City of London School. Both reports were looking at an uphill task. Britain’s productivity has stagnated for the last decade, while wages have been coming down in real terms. Britain’s skills problems have been around for much longer. The government’s policy for addressing this is embodied in its Industrial Strategy, of which skills policy is one of ten ‘pillars’. This is where schools, FE colleges and universities come in.
The IPPR report identifies three problematic aspects of Britain’s skills system:

  • skills produced are insufficiently valued and utilised in the workplace;
  • the lack of high-quality vocational training and education provision; and
  • a failure to tackle regional and social inequalities.

It is not hard to substantiate these claims. For example, Britain has one of the most (more…)

We need to have a big conversation about the nature and purposes of a university or college education

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 2 August 2017

Francis Green. 
Especially since the surge in university and college enrolments around 1990, Britain’s workforce has become very much more educated. The proportion with tertiary (post-school) qualifications has been rising very fast – at roughly one percentage point per year (see diagram).
And we can say confidently that the stock of highly-educated workers is going to go on rising for many years. In 2015 the tertiary education gap between the cohort of 30-34 year-old “millennials” and the cohort of 50-64 year-olds was 21 percentage points. As the older group starts to retire, the overall education level of the workforce is sure to increase.
The question is, if the level goes on rising will our college and university leavers continue (more…)

Why do privately educated people in Britain earn more?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 30 May 2017

Francis Green
Private schooling in Britain is unaffordable for the majority of families, but for those that can afford it what do their children get out of paying for education? There are some who say, not much, and that it all depends on family background, but most of the evidence finds that this is not true: private school pupils achieve better GCSEs and A-levels (England’s school-leaving exams) – on average – even when we allow for their background. The crucial point for those interested in social mobility, however, is that later in life it is those that have been to private school who are found – again on average – to get on especially well in the labour market and in (more…)

Why job insecurity is bad for our health

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 21 November 2016

Francis Green
We live in uncertain times. Eight years on from the Great Recession of 2008, and still one in ten workers across Europe is unemployed – that’s 21 million people. Global growth is faltering and in Europe the “Brexit” decision threatens a prolonged period of adjustment at minimum. It is likely that there will be low growth in Britain for a while, if not a renewed recession, and repercussions elsewhere. What does this uncertainty mean for our well-being and for the demands placed on health systems? Can we do anything to alleviate the potential health fall-out?
For some time now we have known that health can be impaired through unemployment. It can lead to a loss of identity, because many see their job as part of what they are – even if they may sometimes curse it on a Monday morning when facing a long week’s hard work ahead. And of course unemployment also means a loss of livelihood.
But the problem of uncertainty goes well beyond just those people unlucky enough to lose (more…)

What your choice of degree means for your future earnings

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 18 April 2016

Francis Green.

The mass expansion of higher education, the arrival of high fees in English and Welsh universities, the ongoing technology revolution and the Great Recession have pushed and pulled the graduate labour market in contrasting directions over the last 15 years.
So a new study published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to help us to better understand how new graduates fare when they leave university is especially welcome. Until now, our understandings have come from surveys, with only some thousands of respondents, or else from the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which tracks earnings six months after graduation.
By linking administrative data from the Student Loan company, pay data from HMRC’s records, and university level data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the study’s (more…)

Hidden sins of economic crisis: the problem of unhappiness at work

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 March 2015

Francis Green
When the financial crisis and recession hit Britain more than six years ago, many feared for the loss of jobs. Respectable forecasters expected unemployment to reach three million, as it had in the 1980s era of high Thatcherism.
That fate was avoided, but another serious problem has been lurking in the shadows: enhanced fears and anxieties at work, and reduced well-being.
Such fears are not presented in official statistics, so how do we know this? As social scientists here at the Centre for Research on Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES) we can’t go on what we hear from anecdotes about this or that employer, or group of employees. Instead we use properly conducted surveys. We talked to a nationally representative sample of people in their own (more…)

A fairer deal for top International Baccalaureate students

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 30 April 2014

Francis Green
It seems that Leeds University and Kings College London have decided to become more generous to their applicants with the International Baccalaureate, lowering the grade equivalents with A-levels. Where once they asked for 39 points (out of a rare maximum of 45), now they will ask for around 35. A good thing too. For too long now, the upper tier of universities have been far too snooty about the IB. Our research at the IOE showed that top universities did not appreciate how well their IB students were doing.
We compared IB and A-level students who make the same decision on university and subject. The principle we used is that the equivalence map between the IB grades and A-levels should be such that IB and A-level students on average are shown to do equally well. We deployed the power of large numbers. Looking at all those students who graduated in 2010, we compared our equivalence map with the map that universities were in practice using. We found that:

  • In the middle ranks the universities’ guesses were broadly right: IB students performed similarly to A level students in middle-ranking universities that recruited IB applicants with grades in the low 30s. At the bottom end, students who barely passed the IB (pass mark 24) performed a little worse than their fellow students who had been admitted with low A-levels.
  • At the top end of the scale, however, universities’ IB students performed significantly better than those they mistakenly thought were similar A level students. In other words, the ‘high-ranking’ universities were asking for too high grades from their IB applicants. Any IB students rejected because they did not quite achieve the very high grades asked for (around 38, 39) could feel aggrieved, as they would have done at least as well on average at their chosen subject as accepted A level students.
  • We excluded Oxford and Cambridge from our analysis because of their intensive selection processes which dominate exam grades as their selection filter. Nevertheless, their admissions tutors frequently appear to ask for unreasonably high IB points (often as high as 42 at Cambridge) compared to the grades asked of their A level students, most of whom have very little trouble in achieving the top A-level grades asked for, once given their conditional offers.

Now don’t get me wrong: it is quite easy to misread research of this nature, thinking that it proves IB is a better preparation for university than A-levels: it does not. As anyone with any contact with IB knows, on the whole the IB has attracted more academically capable students over the years. Of course, more academically-capable students do better academically! The argument that IB is best might be valid, but it would be difficult to set up a statistical test, not to mention a quasi-experiment, that would seriously evaluate that claim. It is very difficult to find adequate ‘controls’ that mimic the counterfactual case for a school-student that opts for A-levels instead of IB.

Falling pay, less happiness at work

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 13 August 2013

Francis Green
Two months ago the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) revealed that the cuts in real wages in Britain over the last few years of stagnation have been the deepest since records began. And now figures collated by the House of Commons Library show that the cuts put Britain fourth from the top of Europe’s league of wage cuts, an unenviable record.
Still, some might say that many people have at least still got jobs. Three million unemployed was the forecast, but we remain still well below that. Perhaps those still in jobs are happy to have survived?
Far from it. The 2012 Skills and Employment Survey (pdf) shows that there has been a substantial drop in job-related well-being in recent years.
Since 2001 a research team has been periodically collecting nationally representative data. Using scales devised and validated by psychologists that capture the complex feelings that people express about their work, the trends in the index of “Enthusiasm” and in the index of “Contentment” can be plotted.  These show that, whereas between 2001 and 2006 nothing much altered, between 2006 and 2012 there were some big changes. The diagram here shows how matters have gotten worse. It looks at the low end, giving the proportion of workers registering low degrees of Enthusiasm or Contentment below a certain threshold. As can be seen, there was a big jump in the proportion with low Contentment, from 15% to 19%, and a small rise in the share registering low Enthusiasm.
This means that there were many more jobs where people were reporting that their job frequently caused them to be worried, anxious, or depressed, and fewer where their jobs gave them contentment and enthusiasm.
We also used a measure of job stress, obtained by averaging responses on a 6-pt scale to three questions about the frequency of experiencing “worry about job problems”, “difficulty to unwind at the end of a work day”, or “feeling used up at the end of a work day”. We defined “high” job stress as where a worker responded “much”, “most” or “all of the time”. There was a large rise in the share of workers with high job stress, from 12% to 17%. This means that, across the country as a whole, there were nearly five million workers in the “high stress” category in 2012.
Why have people become unhappier at work? At the IOE’s LLAKES centre we have analysed the data to try to find out exactly what has been happening inside people’s jobs. We have found that part of the reason is that employers have been accelerating the pace of workplace change – including restructuring work organisation – and downsizing the numbers of other workers in the job. Such changes are detrimental for workers’ well-being. Another part is associated with increased work intensity, and employees’ decreasing sense that they have a say in matters that affect the way they do their work. Our worker respondents told us that they were having more meetings than before; but they were not being listened to as much.
A third part is down to the increased job insecurity that people are feeling. The risk of job loss is a source of stress in the workplace.
Yet fears in the workplace extend beyond just the fear of losing the job. They include the fear of being unfairly treated, and we have found that fears of unfair treatment (pdf) have risen dramatically since 2000, especially in the public sector. And in addition, as we now learn, most workers have been experiencing cuts in their pay, a change which is likely to have added to the feelings of depression and concern.
Of course, it is not all gloom and doom. Many employees have been able to do well enough in all sorts of jobs, despite the stagnating macroeconomic environment. What is clear, however, is that the detrimental effects of economic recession on well-being can be best ameliorated where employers afford their employees a good level of participation and involvement. The research shows that what matters most is direct empowerment of employees in their own jobs, but it also helps if employees can be involved in organisational matters.