Do good universities teach better, or do they just select better students?

Research commissioned by the  Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (and reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement) argues that the wage premium associated with studying at a Russell Group university is not statistically significant if you control for the social background of students and their A-levels. Graduates of Russell Group universities do earn 36% more than non-graduates and 15% more than graduates of former polytechnics. However, differences between Russell Group and non-Russell Group graduates vanish if you control for the profession of their parents and their grades in high school. Put more simply, if you are clever and come from an upper middle-class background, it doesn’t really make a difference if you go to a top or an average university. Now of course, if you are clever and upper-middle class, you are more likely to go to a better-ranked university (and top universities are more likely to want you), but going to a top university per se doesn’t seem to provide any added value. The difference is only due to a selection effect. Going to a good university is correlated with being smart (and having higher incomes throughout one’s lifetime), but it doesn’t make you smarter. Yes, let’s assume that income is an indicator of ability, just for a moment.

Somehow, this echoes old research by Bourdieu and Passeron on the role of education in society. In The Inheritors, they argued that the education system is more an instrument of selection and classification than an instrument of well, education. The educational system is better at legitimizing and reinforcing inequalities derived from socialisation than at compensating for these inequalities, or simply at teaching people things. Students from upper-middle-class backrounds have better grades on average not because they are more clever, but because school positively evaluates abilities that are more prevalent in upper-middle classes, and that are not taught at school. Similarly, employers prefer to hire graduates of higher ranked universities because higher ranked universities have selected the better students, but not necessarily because they provide better education. A degree from a good university is just a way to certify abilities that are acquired outside of university. While marking essays, I have often wondered about this: am I assessing if the student has learnt anything from the course that i have taught, or her general ability to structure an argument which has been acquired out of university? If you take this logic further, you could think that the material that is taught at university (and that students will mostly forget after exam time) is just a pretext for marking and ranking students, because you need to evaluate them on something after all. In contrast to the type of university, grades make quite a big difference for graduate earnings, however.

Now, what is interesting with the results of this study is that even if the education provided doesn’t matter, you would still expect Russel Group Universities to provide a wage premium (independently of the education provided) compared to former polytechnics because of these signalling effects. Even with equal abilities, equal social backgrounds and equal A-level results, graduates of Russell Group universities should still earn more because of the prestige of the brand, but as far as I understand, they don’t. Hence, there is something that offsets this “brand premium”.

There are different possible causes. One possible reason is that the education received at Russell group universities is actually worse than that provided at former polytechnics. It sounds counterintuitive, but there are actually a number of reasons why this could be the case. Research-intensive universities are, well, more focused on research while former polys are more focused on teaching. Time is not extensible, and attracting research money, getting grants and publishing a lot means less time to teach. Research is considered much more important than teaching for prestige and tenure. It is not uncommon for high-flying professors at prestigious universities, who may attract lots of money and prestige which count for rankings, to not teach at all, or very little. A great bulk of the teaching is carried out by graduate students on casual employment contracts, or in the US by a lumpenproletariat of adjunct faculty. In the UK, a third of students considered that their courses were bad value for money, considering what they pay and the actual contact hours they spend with their teachers. Of course, one may argue that universities who are good at research should provide also better teaching because of spillover effects, but this should be reflected in the results, and it isn’t. If great researchers do not teach, there is no reason why these spillover effects should take place. WBAEPHR6SFGY

One thought on “Do good universities teach better, or do they just select better students?

  1. Pingback: Malcolm Gladwell: Don’t go to Harvard, go to the Lousy Schools! | Elmar Klausmeier's Weblog

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