The Discipline-Politics of AAB

09.26.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

A marketing report prepared for the University last year returned over and over to the value of ‘classic degrees’. From memory, it never actually defined this term, nor distinguished the classic from the quotidian. But by the end the point was pretty clear: the degrees that will sell reliably are the single-honours brands that have created their place in the market over the past decades. We all know which ones they are.
     Many of us know enough about the history of our disciplines to feel that these definitions are somewhat tenuous. My own discipline, English studies, was the product of one generation of academic history, and it’s done rather well ever since, benefiting from just about all the demographic changes in university education over the past fifty years. But I still feel uneasy about its status as ‘classic’, not least because I’ve seen how it can be dismantled as quickly as it was built. Monash University, where I received a ‘classic’ education as an undergraduate, now has over 50,000 students, but an English department consisting of just ten people, only three of whom teach British literature.
     Changes to disciplines can be good or bad, depending on one’s perspective. But when I hear all this about ‘classic degrees’, and think through the impact, on top of this inbuilt conservatism, of the White Paper’s AAB-agenda, I wonder about the future shape of the humanities in the UK.
     The White Paper is not yet law, but as we consider its implications, much of the talk has focused on its social politics. But what about its discipline politics? There have been some claims that it will favour the humanities and social sciences at the expense of STEM subjects. But the reality is much more nuanced than that, cutting lines through both STEM and HASS categories. For those who are not devotees of the HEFCE website, I refer to publication June 2011/20, on ‘Teaching Funding and Student Number Controls’. More specifically, I refer to Annex D. These tables on the current nature and distribution of AAB+ students represent a disturbing goldmine of information. They aim to tell us who is achieving these grades, and what they are choosing to do.
     I’m interested in the latter bit: what programmes are attracting AAB+ students? Or, one might rephrase the question, which disciplines are set to do well as a result of this policy? Let’s take a couple of outliers. Of the identifiable students entering Classics degrees in 2009, 551 had achieved A Level grades of AAB or better, while 374 had not. That, we might say, is an AAB+ ratio of 60%. Then there’s Media Studies, for which the equivalent figures are 564 and 6059 (an AAB+ ratio of 9%). That’s partly due to the fact that Classics tends to be taught in Russell Group and 1994 Group universities, which tend to attract better students, while Media Studies tends to be taught in the post-’92s. But the impact of the AAB-agenda means that no university aiming to attract AAB+ students, therefore maintaining a capacity to charge £9000, will ever embrace Media Studies. It will remain ghettoized in the post-92s, taught by academics who will struggle to remain research-active. I don’t want a debate over the value of Media Studies – although it’s interesting to me that this field is now bigger at Monash than English Studies – but it does seem to me that these consequences are not accidental.
     What about our disciplines? On the HEFCE data from 2009, the discipline of History had 40% of students nationally at AAB+, Religious Studies had 37%, English had 36%. The modern languages are listed individually, but are consistently in excess of 40%. Classics, as noted above, is way out at 60%. But then there’s Drama at 19% and Archaeology at 18%. (‘Cenematics and Photography’ is at 9%; but that’s a very loose way of defining our idea of Film Studies.) Drama and Archaeology, remember, are disciplines that have been ‘Band C’, receiving more funding per-student than the likes of English and History. That distinction is disappearing. Now we learn that they that don’t tend to attract the sort of students that a university like our own needs to attract in the post-White Paper world. Did the government intend to screw these disciplines?
     Within the national context, our departments of Archaeology and Drama are actually performing very well, each attracting 2011 intakes with more than 50% of AAB+ students. But the challenge is considerable: in 2009 just 125 students, across the country, entered Archaeology programmes with A Level results of AAB or better. The battle for such students in 2012 will be intense – at least two universities have already announced plans to give bursaries to AAB+ students, regardless of social background – and the consequences of failing to attract a decent share don’t bear thinking about. These are not disciplines that could survive on the Media Studies funding model.
     I want to suggest: a) that it’s worth being aware of the dimension of these challenges; and b) that it will be worth our while, collectively, to identify some strategies to face them. Some niche combined-honours degrees, for instance, seem smart. Archaeology and Anthropology has got off to a slow start, but it’s established, and carries an air of class. (Anthropology has an AAB+ ratio nationally of 45%.) Genuinely cross-disciplinary programmes, such as our planned Liberal Arts, also hold out some.
     And maybe we need to think about recruitment strategies. I can see an institutional logic that says: if discipline X attracts a high proportion of AAB+ students, it should take as many of them as possible; if discipline Y does not, it should redirect its focus to widening participation. I don’t much like that logic, but when we’re forced to meet different targets, each of which carries significant consequences, I can see that many managers will look, above all, for what works.
     But we’re only starting to identify these challenges. We need further thoughts.

One Response to “The Discipline-Politics of AAB”

  1. Jo Gill says:

    I agree that we need to address this issue in as imaginative a way as we can. I was about to say that there are clear implications for many of our disciplines, but actually, I’m not sure how clear the situation is – for us, or more widely, or indeed nationally. And personally, it sticks in my throat to imply – as the proposed policy arguably does – that only AAB students (and thereby only students in certain disciplines) deserve and can benefit from a university education. But I’ve made that point so many times to my MP that he’s told me to stop writing to him . . .

    For now, what concerns me is the fuzziness about how the use of contextual data (and thus the WP agenda) fits in with the AAB proposal. The White Paper gestures towards the use of contextual data, without being clear. What do we need to do, in consultation with Admissions and other parties, to ensure that in pursuing AAB students we don’t overlook the potential of non-AAB students from disadvantaged personal or educational backgrounds? As has been widely noted (see, e.g. the Sutton Trust’s recent reports), privately educated pupils are more likely to present with a high A-level profile, even as state educated pupils coming in with comparable entry grades are likely to outperform them in terms of degree results. If we pursue AAB students without bearing this and other contexts in mind, do we risk rejecting applicants who would, in the fullness of time, be more successful students?

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