Original HEFCE report serves to mislead
Back in the summer the HEFCE managed to grab the headlines with an arresting counterintuitive finding –state educated graduates were getting proportionately more top class degrees that privately educated graduates .82 % of state school graduates gained a first or upper second ,compared to 72% of independent school graduates. HEFCE banked the news coverage and moved swiftly on. One small problem. They got the figures the wrong way round, a fact uncovered by Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at Buckingham University .Although the HEFCE quickly admitted its mistake to Professor Smithers , and amended its report, it hasn’t published any acknowledgement of its mistake and the subsequent correction, on either its web site , or the report
Remember this statistic was seized upon by campaigners calling for universities to do more to improve access for state school pupils – such as by setting them lower entry grades.
This what the HEFCE report as amended now states:
- In 2013-14, 73 per cent of state school graduates gained a first or upper second class degree compared with 82 per cent of independent school graduates. This is a nine percentage point difference.
- There is only a small difference between the two groups at the highest entry grades, but this difference widens considerably for those entering with A-level grades AAC and below.
- The modelled results show that after taking other factors into account, the percentage of state school graduates is higher than predicted. The observed nine percentage point difference is more than explained by other factors (such as the different distribution of A-level achievement), which results in an unexplained four percentage points advantage to state school students.
Professor Smithers said: “It is extraordinary that an influential body like HEFCE should have got its figures wrong and failed to publicly rectify them after being alerted to the error. So long as these figures are out there uncorrected, they will continue to influence both perceptions of schools and how universities are expected to go about recruiting students. “I call on HEFCE to set the record straight so that everyone understands the true picture.”
Although HEFCE has, as we can see above, changed the figures in the report it still repeats that state school pupils are four percentage points ahead rather than nine points behind.
How come? It could be that HEFCE is calculating what state school students would have achieved had they the same entry qualifications as independent school students. But they haven’t said this.
Professor Smithers said: “While statistical alchemy may be able to turn a nine-point deficit into a four-point advantage, ultimately university admissions tutors have to deal with real people not statistical constructs.”
Mistakes, of course, are made. What matters probably more than the mistake itself is how you react when you find out you have made one. Given the amount of media coverage generated by this error passing as fact, HEFCE really ought to be more up front with the media and public, otherwise they will lose some credibility.