By: Louis Coiffait
Writing for YouGov-Cambridge
Higher education (HE) in England continues to dominate the headlines. After the controversy, riots and delays that led up to the 2011 White Paper I now see a host of other issues arising. Although most of the funding changes seem to be going through as the government planned (albeit with continued, often heated debate), those policies that require changes to primary legislation now seem to have been overshadowed by intra-Coalition politics. It's still not clear exactly which policies will still go ahead (and how) or if we'll get a research/postgrad White Paper in 2012. The furore over Les Ebden's appointment to the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) nicely illustrates some of the tensions still at play, both within the Coalition and the sector itself.
In order to gather some new evidence for these debates the PearsonCPL have collaborated with YouGov-Cambridge for a second time, asking a representative sample of the British public what they think about higher education?
Our research findings:
On a 0-10 scale, how likely is it that you would recommend to somebody that they go into higher education? (1,542 base). Results can be viewed here.
Our key observations from responses to this question are as follows:
♦ The overall likelihood to recommend higher education to somebody is far higher than I expected, with 11% more 'promoters' than 'detractors'. When compared to the findings from last summer this is particularly striking, with an 18% positive swing.
♦ On political preferences, those who voted Conservative in 2010 were the most positive about HE, but when you look at voting intention for the next election it is those who plan to vote Labour that are most positive. Lib Dem voters (past and future) are the most negative about HE. Sadly we didn't ask these questions last summer so have no comparative data.
♦ Analysing the results by gender, there was a particularly big positive swing of 25% among females.
♦ Looking at age, older respondents were more positive about HE and that group saw the biggest positive swing (22%).
♦ Those from higher social grades were more positive about HE than those from lower social grades (18% vs 3%) and also had a bigger positive swing (22% vs 18%).
♦ Breaking the results down by region, Northern Ireland (25%) and the North of England (15%) are most positive about HE, though the latter has a small sample size. Wales is the most negative at 6%. However comparing the results to last summer, the biggest positive swing is actually in the North (27%) and the South (27%).
Last summer when we asked respondents 'What word springs to mind when you think of HE?' they overwhelmingly responded "expensive", and when asked 'why people go into higher education' they said "fun"! This time we simply asked 'why did you give that answer', which shows some interesting insights (captured in Wordle word-clouds) from 'detractors' and 'promoters'. The former emphasised debt and the importance of just getting a job, while the latter frequently mentioned qualifications and the word 'better' - usually in reference to life, jobs or job readiness.
So what's it all mean?
Although opinion research is never perfect, I do think the overall positive swing is significant, in terms of both the number of respondents and the size of the swing in opinion. Clearly many members of the British public (especially women, older people and those from higher social grades) are feeling a lot more optimistic about HE than they did last May. If I were to speculate at the reasons for this, I would suggest it is because the White Paper finally came out, that students are no longer on television being charged by mounted police in Parliament Square, and that the impact of the changes hasn't grabbed many big negative headlines. Time will only tell if the changes to fees and other parts of the system will aggravate university staff and student groups to similar levels again. If they don't I would probably expect the more positive trend to continue. We are hoping to run this question again in another eight months which should enable us to get a good picture of public opinion over time.
A note on methodology:
I analysed responses on this '0-10 scale' using the Net Promoter Score (NPS) approach, an imperfect but commonly used performance measure that groups respondents according to if they are "unhappy detractors" (score 0-6, marked in red), "satisfied but unenthusiastic passives" (7-8) or "loyal and enthusiastic promoters" (9-10, marked in green) of a particular service or brand. Note that this approach accounts for how people actually complete such surveys, assuming a 7 or 8 out of 10 to be average, rather than the 5 you might initially expect. The NPS score is then established by subtracting the percentage of detractors from the percentage of promoters, ignoring those without strong feelings and allowing for overall comparisons between brands e.g. Apple is the leading UK brand with an NPS of 67%. I fully appreciate that it is potentially controversial to view something as complex and important as higher education as a 'brand', however I believe it is justified given recent developments. Our intention is to bring some new evidence to the table and promote debate, please tell me what you think using the comment function below.
NOTE: All figures are from collaboration with YouGov-Cambridge using the YouGov Plc GB panel, 350,000+ adults who have agreed to take part in such surveys. Fieldwork was undertaken between 13th April - 20th May 2011 (sample of 4,239 people) and then 3rd Jan - 9th Jan 2012 (sample of 1,542 people). Figures have been weighted to be representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). Follow @LouisMMCoiffait on Twitter or his blog for HE policy news, comment and analysis. All text is solely the opinion of the author. The original raw datasets and analysed versions are available in Excel format on request.
(This blog post is also online at the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning)
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