Counting the smart money

March 29, 1996

There is clearly a strong link between levels of resources available and levels of quality achieved in education, argues Clive Booth. What do the BSE scandal and higher education policy have in common? The answer is an alarming tendency to wishful thinking on the part of ministers. They are desperate to assert that no connections exist between two things - such as BSE and human health - where to do otherwise would involve the Government in increased public expenditure.

They plough on regardless, until the disaster which overwhelms them is much worse, and certainly consumes far more public expenditure, than that which would have been required if prudence had been their watchword.

Political correctness used to be a preserve of the left. It has now been hijacked by the right. Under the new politically correct thinking there is no relationship between the quality of a public service and the level of resourcing. This assertion is repeated, mantra-like, at every available opportunity, because ministers believe that it is too difficult for their critics to disprove the assertion. Not for them the precautionary principle that action should be taken in time to avoid serious risks turning into disasters.

Applying the precautionary principle to higher education, we have, as I shall show, strong indications of a link between quality and resources. It would therefore be prudent to reverse the latest draconian cuts so that no irretrievable damage will be done - irretrievable because students have only one life and most have only one go at higher education.

And so to Eric Forth's extraordinary statement reported on the front page of The THES on March 15. Mr Forth, too, claims that no demonstrable connection exists between quality and funding in higher education. One might be persuaded by ministers' faith in their own arguments if they were seen to be encouraging their children to apply to poorly funded universities of high quality. Now here is scope for an interesting research project!

The surprising thing is that Mr Forth's own department has had evidence at its fingertips for some time of the link between quality and funding, evidence which is supported by our own published research at Oxford Brookes. In the recent Higher Education Funding Council for England report on quality assessment for 1992-95 published last November, there were some revealing, not to say dramatic, findings suggesting a strong link between resourcing and the winning of excellent ratings.

If you were fortunate enough to be in one of the top 20 per cent of institutions by institutional income per student, you had an 80 per cent chance of securing a rating of excellent. At the other end of the scale, if your institution was one of the poorest 20 per cent, your chance of being judged excellent was only 11 per cent. Now the HEFCE quite properly says that the income measure in this comparison is made at the institutional level, and not at the level of the unit of quality assessment. So the evidence is admittedly circumstantial. But the HEFCE findings are surely too strongly indicative to be ignored .

At Oxford Brookes, Rene Paton-Saltzberg and Roger Lindsay have carried out a number of studies which exploit the very large record of student marks held in our computer system going back for a couple of decades. These marks are generated as part of normal assessment practices and are thus quite independent of any research studies for which they may subsequently be used.

Concerned about rising student-staff ratios caused by funding cuts, Paton-Saltzberg and Lindsay asked whether a relationship existed between student performance and class size (for which module enrolments are a rough proxy). They reported a significant reduction in high grades as modules increased in size. The probability of candidates gaining an A grade (a score of over 70 per cent) in a module enrolling 50-60 students was less than half the probability of gaining an A on a module enrolling less than 20 students. The frequency of B+ grades (scoring 60-69 per cent) was also lower in large modules. Paton-Saltzberg and Lindsay also showed that average module sizes have increased continuously since 1980 as resources have been cut and staff-to-student ratios increased.

My psychology colleague Stephen Fearnley has calculated that there was an approximate reduction of 1 per cent in score for every 13 additional students enrolled beyond a threshold size of about 20. This general pattern of negative relationships between numbers on courses and average performance has been recently confirmed by Graham Gibbs and Lisa Lucas.

Funding cuts have also impacted directly and harshly on students' financial circumstances through withdrawal of housing benefit and changes in grants and loans. Does this also affect academic performance? Alerted by anecdotal reports that students were increasingly undertaking paid work, the academic standards committee at Brookes commissioned Paton-Saltzberg and Lindsay to investigate. Their report on a sample of undergraduates showed that 57 per cent were having to work during term time.

Students in regular paid work failed over three times more modules than those not working. Working students gained marks which were about 3 per cent lower on average than those who were not in work. The researchers estimated that several hundred Oxford Brookes students per year gain degrees which are at least one class lower than their ability merits because of the effects of working to avoid debt, and that the cost to the university in terms of courses retaken because of failure runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Similar results have been found in a stream of studies at other universities.

We thus have broadly-based research evidence in two areas, one indicating a link between the funding of teaching and academic performance and the other showing an inverse relationship between students' need to take paid work and academic performance. Both of these conclusions have a direct bearing on the links between academic performance and funding - both institutional and student support - which are so strongly denied by ministers. Time for a U-turn, Mr Forth!

Clive Booth is vice chancellor of Oxford Brookes University.

(Research references to the studies quoted in this article can be found on the Brookes pages of the World Wide Web.)

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