Positive data all round: but don't forget the service industry

Green shoots in this sector are just as important.

Last week’s manufacturing and service sector data caused many sighs of relief, in Threadneedle Street, in Westminster, and also in boardrooms up and down the country, as evidence built of a sustained economic recovery in the UK. However, as is often the case, many were noticeably more enthusiastic about information from the "making things" part of the economy, than from the "doing things" part.

Much of that interest in manufacturing can be attributed to the perception that manufacturers offer the solution to the UK’s trade deficit. However, while it is certainly be part of the solution, the service sector has an equally important part to play in ensuring the UK’s international competitiveness.

The UK leads the world in many specialist and high-quality areas of manufacturing, but we also possess genuine excellence in the services sector. The UK has world leaders in media, marketing, publishing, entertainment, accountancy, law, technology, scientific research, business consulting and more. Those are all industries capable of providing knowledge and expertise at an economically significant level for global consumption, and helping to secure a sustainable recovery for the UK economy.

And to laud our professional economy should not take away from those parts of the service economy that do not export – the retail parks, the high streets and the back offices of our country. Such enterprises are often condemned by those wont to complain that our economy is the weaker for having such a high proportion of service sector businesses, but this is wrong. A manufacturer that does not export still adds value to the economy, and the same is true of a wholly domestic service business.  The contribution of such a business is not measured in the value of exports, but in the efficiency of the business, and the support it can render to its customers in the wider economy. Such businesses are as worthy of investment as any other and, as we plan for a brighter economic future, we will need to plan for the long-term future of both manufacturing and services, and not just those services with an international operation.

So, how should we go about preserving and enhancing the UK’s success in services – to make sure that our international companies compete with the world’s best, and that our non-professional services add the maximum value to the economy? Well, in this case, service industries should take their cue from the manufacturing economy, where leaders have long called for a fundamental change in the skills and knowledge that young people take from their basic education.

Much of the UK’s education system is world-class but, if it is to sustain a world-class economy, then ongoing reforms will need to ensure a greater focus on science, technology, engineering, and maths (otherwise known as STEM) skills. In fact, that is one change that could help secure the successful future of both manufacturing and services. STEM skills are now just as important for service workers as they are for those in manufacturing. The business world is now so reliant on technology that few processes can be properly understood without some knowledge of the enterprise systems and applications that make them possible.

Furthermore, it would be a huge mistake to think that such understanding is only relevant to those destined to be managers and technicians. In my work, I see all levels of the service economy – one day I might be showing a publishing CEO how technology can help her company engage with new audiences, the next I might be advising a telecoms customer experience manager on how to keep his contact centre staff motivated and appropriately skilled. Whether speaking with MBA graduates or school leavers, my team and I see that the skills and knowledge required in the modern workplace are changing quickly.  Whether for a customer service representative being asked to advise on appropriate apps for a small-business phone user, or a lawyer who sees her case turn on the capabilities of data protection infrastructure, some level of technical knowledge is often indispensable.

Successful businesses and successful economies are not just built on good management, but on good work, and good work comes from a workforce with skills and knowledge appropriate to the world in which it operates. If we want the British workforce to be like this, then we should make sure that the foundation for such skills and knowledge is laid at the earliest opportunity.  Doing so will have equal benefits for both services and manufacturing, helping us preserve our global leadership in the creative and professional industries, and making sure that the consumer facing service businesses we use every day remain fit for purpose.

Photograph: Getty Images

Sanjiv Gossain is the SVP & Managing Director at Cognizant

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Oxbridge’s diversity failure is so severe it’s time to ask if it’s wilful

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems.

“We’re not the best”.

It’s the open secret that every Oxbridge student eventually comes to accept. Some realise it during their first term, informed by the mundanity of their year group’s Received Pronunciation-dominated conversations. Others learn the humbling fact mid-way through a tutorial, or when first entering employment. For a remaining few, it took the allegation that their peers amuse themselves with porcine-related debauchery for them to question whether the Oxbridge cohort really does encompass the brightest and best.

Yet it remains almost sacrilege to voice anything other than self-deserving grandeur when it comes to Oxbridge’s student intake. Admissions tutors maintain the infallibility of their interview technique in selecting the country’s most promising students but still, admission figures show an unrelenting bias to a white, middle-class population. Pupils from independent schools dominate 43.7 per cent and 37.8 per cent of the intake at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, black students are half as likely to be awarded a place than white applicants and students on free school meals are under-represented by a factor of more than ten to one at the universities.

I’ve spent the past six months researching the under-representation of disadvantaged demographics for OxPolicy, an independent think-tank comprised of postgraduate and undergraduate researchers. Our report, published tomorrow, reveals an even bleaker picture. Statistics obtained by Freedom of Information requests show the universities’ own efforts to support applicants from under-represented demographics are consistently failing.

Consider Cambridge’s admissions last year. Applicants from schools flagged by the university as having a poor record of sending students to Oxbridge had a success rate of just 18.6 per cent, compared to 28.5 per cent for unflagged students. This trend was replicated for an array of markers recorded by both universities, including living in a deprived area and attending a school with poor academic attainment. The discrepancy translates into a statistical equivalent of 275 applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds missing out on places at the University each year.

When we approached admissions tutors to discuss the topic, we were met with a general sense of denial. “It would of course be good to have more students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” commented one, “but factors substantially outside the control of universities make this difficult”. Others were blunter. “I don’t think there is a problem” was one tutor’s only response to our question about under-represented demographics. “It is self-evident that the University is not to blame” asserted another.

The universities’ senior staff offered similar retorts. In January of this year, Oxford’s Head of Admissions, Dr Samina Khan, claimed that applicants were “more likely” to be shortlisted for interview if they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. The figures in our report show this to be statistically untrue. When I presented our findings to Khan she was unavailable for comment, although she referred me to the University Press Office. A spokesperson insisted that our statistics “did not suggest a bias on the part of the selection system,” attributing the discrepancy instead to the “lower prior attainment” of candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But this confidence was not shared by everyone we spoke to. One tutor told us that “more could be done” in terms of the “implicit biases [that] play a role in the problem,” while others expressed concern that “not all tutors [were taking] contextual information into account”. “I use contextual data, but it's limited. I'd like to get more” suggested multiple respondents.

Other replies were more concerning. “A lottery would be fairer than the current system” was a sentiment expressed on more than one occasion. Another tutor who had more than twenty years of experience of handling admissions blamed the universities’ senior staff for a “defensive ‘arse-covering mentality’ which refuses to admit they have a serious problem”. “There is a stark refusal to allow evidence to impinge on decision-making. Anyone looking in from the outside would think we were deliberately hostile to widening access”.

A 2012 report by the Supporting Profession in Admissions programme analysed the kind of evidence this tutor was alluding to. The document summarises the policies of UK Higher Education Institutions which have used contextual data in their admissions processes. Policies include offering students from under-represented demographics lower entrance offers, being more likely to invite these applicants to interview, or giving their applications extra weight in borderline decisions. While 40% of these institutions reported that students admitted because of their contextual data out-performed their peers, not a single one concluded that these students performed worse than the rest of their cohort. One study, carried out at the University of Bristol, revealed that contextually-admitted students were outperforming their peers by such a margin that reducing offers by up to three A level grades was justified. In other words, when universities gave a selective advantage to applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, they were rewarded with a higher calibre of applicant.

This evidence from universities across the UK clearly suggests that Oxbridge should rely more heavily on contextual information in admissions. However despite officially recommending that demographic data be considered in decision-making, neither university provides obligations nor incentives for its admissions tutors to do so.

In fact, not only are tutors not obliged to consider contextual data, but the funding arrangements at Oxbridge mean that colleges are actively discouraged from admitting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In each of the years I studied at Oxford, my parents would receive letters requesting donations; to support learning opportunities, teaching resources or construction projects. They were invited to countless drinks events and fundraising dinners to the same effect. It was symptomatic of a culture that pervades the collegiate system at Oxbridge - we will educate your son or daughter, and in return you will support us financially.

Oxbridge colleges operate in networks dominated by white, middle-class and southern-dwelling families. Fixated with the idea that they are short of money, the stakes are too high for colleges to risk losing the hundreds of thousands of pounds they receive in annual donations by pioneering a new access policy. Their reluctance to diversify their student intake is as much about preserving capital – whether financial or cultural - as it is an unwillingness to admit applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The admissions tutors we spoke to in our investigation openly discussed the existence of “an unconsciously corrupt relationship between many colleges and independent schools”. No surprise then, that many tutors expressed a desire for admissions to be dealt with by the central university. “Decisions are left almost entirely to a college’s discretion, there is no way that the University can exercise any oversight over the representation of different demographics” they warned.

If Oxford and Cambridge are to become the diverse institutions they claim to want to be, they must address the systemic problems inherit in their admissions systems. Their admissions officers should stop telling the press that disadvantaged applicants are more likely to be shortlisted for interview when the opposite is true. They should follow the lead from other UK universities whose contextual data initiatives have led to almost universal success. And they should encourage all their admissions tutors, by either obligation or incentive, to follow the evidence and give a bias towards, not against, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

No longer can we believe the myth that Oxbridge’s diversity crisis is a result of incompetence alone. The universities’ failure on admissions is so stark and longstanding that even its own students are wondering if it’s wilful.

OxPolicy is a think-tank set up by Oxford University researchers in 2013. It produces regular policy papers on a variety of issues from a non-aligned stance. You can access their reports at their website, www.oxpolicy.co.uk.

George Gillett is a freelance journalist and medical student. He is on Twitter @george_gillett and blogs here.