For as long as I can remember, the idea that the many and diverse higher education institutions in the UK are playing, and must continue to play, on a single, level playing field has been one of the key tenets of our HE sector. The phrase appears in virtually every major policy document in regard to higher education, and it underpins many of the debates and discussions about its future. The idea of the single level playing field underpins notions such as a 2:1 from institution x is the exactly the same as a 2:1 from every other institution in the sector.
I find I am not alone in my scepticism. Back in 2012, Paul Greatrix reported that “Steve Egan, Deputy Chief Executive at HEFCE, at a recent AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) event, was rather dismissive of the idea of a single level playing field, preferring to imagine number of different playing fields. However, it was not clear if these were side by side or one on top of each other or indeed whether they were marked up for the same game or which teams were playing on each”.
To answer Paul Greatrix, of course there are a number of different playing fields, and though everyone is playing the same game, the pitches are marked up for different versions of the game. Think football. There’s 11-a-side, 6-a-side, 5-a-side, Futsal, beach football, etc. There are outdoor pitches and indoor pitches. There are different types and sizes of pitches, different markings, different goal sizes. There are different rules…..but it’s all still, clearly football.
It is patently absurd to believe that a small, specialist, world-leading music conservatoire is playing the same game, on the same pitch, as a large, multi-subject, world-leading university. They may have ‘world-leading’ in common, but that’s about it. Mission, values, teaching styles, staff-student ratios, research profiles and output, employability, etc. are all very different.
The problem we have in the UK was elegantly expressed by David Eastwood, the Chair of the Russell Group, at the recent Parliamentary Select Committee meeting into teaching quality in higher education: “We have a genius for turning difference into hierarchy”. That is certainly one reason we are loath to let go of the myth of the single level playing field. The fear is that once we admit there are different playing fields in higher education, we will immediately begin to construct hierarchies and league tables, with all the consequent gaming of the system (and academics are expert gamers), triumphalism and desperation.
It was also pointed out at the Select Committee meeting that the sheer diversity of UK higher education is one of its greatest strengths. Prof. Joy Carter, Chair of GuildHE, spoke about importance of having and maintaining ‘Excellence in Diversity’ (which just happens to be the title of the report I wrote for Guild HE). The different playing fields lie together on a hierarchy-less plane, each displaying excellence in different forms. Any hierarchy is in the eye of the beholder, and that excellence in diversity is something that ought to be celebrated and sustained by intelligent, informed policies and strategies, not threatened by simplistic, unfit-for-purpose, one-size-fits all metrics. The maintenance and enhancement of the UK’s world-leading sector requires sophisticated evidence-based policies, not policy-based evidence.