Policy Update – December 2021

Sharon Witherspoon MBE FAcSS, Head of Policy, Academy of Social Sciences 

AcSS Response to ESRC announcement on social science PhDs

AcSS has now published our response to the ESRC announcements about changes to the social science PhDs they fund.  We welcome these changes, and the transparent and robust use of evidence that underpins them.  We also suggest that many of these changes can and should be put in place for social science PhDs that are not funded by the ESRC.

Place to Be

We have launched The Place to Be: How social sciences are helping to improve places in the UK.  This highlights 24 case studies of social science-led initiatives that are already making real practical contributions to ‘levelling up’ in their parts of the UK.  We call for an acknowledgement of how important the social sciences are in doing things to improve place-based prospects; how this involves virtually all social science disciplines; and how funding support and incentives need to insure that this work can grow.  Our report was sent to government ministers and departments  — especially those responsible for the forthcoming White Paper on ‘Levelling Up’ — and opposition spokespeople and a large number of parliamentarians and select committees in the UK parliaments.  We are grateful to SAGE Publishing for their support.

The White Paper on Levelling Up is now expected after Christmas, and it will be interesting to see whether funding streams recognise the contributions of the social sciences to the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

Other policy developments

We still await the government’s response to the Augar proposals on the funding of teaching in higher education.

The Minister for Higher and Further Education has announced that the new Office for Students Director for Fair Access and Participation will be developing new benchmark outcome measures on student dropout rates and, significantly, graduate employment outcomes. This was foreseen in an OFS consultation earlier this year. A key issue remains the choice of benchmarks for what constitutes a ‘graduate’ or ‘professional’ job, and how the availability of those differs by location, as we pointed out in our response to that consultation.  The plan is that benchmarks will apply to courses of study at universities, to be agreed as part of their Access and Participation plans.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Sutton Trust have released a report, much covered in the media, about the extent to which individual universities, subjects and courses promote intergenerational mobility.  The measure of the mobility rate is the ‘access rate’ (share of students with eligibility for free school meals, FSM) times the ‘success rate’ (share of the FSM students who are in top 20% of earnings distribution at age 30). While more selective universities did well in their success rates, they admitted far fewer students on FSM.  There are subject differences, but in general the subject rankings follow general patterns on graduate earnings, with law and economics scoring relatively highly.  As IFS says about courses (particular subjects at particular universities), ‘ Many courses that do poorly in terms of boosting earnings on average do a lot to promote mobility.’ There are interactive tables here.

Additional analysis has recently been posted by HESA here about regional variation in employment outcomes.

It is clear that public policy discussions about graduate employment outcomes will be of increasing importance.  Our policy work shows that social science subjects have a good story to tell, and that graduate earnings are not the only appropriate measure of graduate outcomes.

Contact us

Write policy@acss.org.uk and let us know if you have suggestions or ideas about our message, or to suggest future topics we should explore.