The Policy Exchange National Scholarships Programme


This post is a short critical analysis of the proposal for a new National Scholarships Programme contained in the Policy Exchange Education Manifesto, published in March 2015.



Policy Exchange describes itself as ‘the UK’s leading think tank’.

It is Right-leaning, having been established in 2002 by a group including Boles (the founding Director), Gove and Maude, all currently Conservative Ministers in the Coalition Government.

On Friday 6 March, Policy Exchange published an Education Manifesto, authored by its Education Team: Jonathan Simons, Natasha Porter and Annaliese Briggs.

The Manifesto’s Introduction says:

‘This is not a manifesto in its traditional sense. What is published here is a collection of short ideas around particular areas which are more localised than those in our main reports. It is our hope and our belief that any or all of them could be taken up by any main political party in May 2015, and they complement the broader policy recommendations we have put forward in our published reports.’

There are seven ‘ideas’, the last of which is for National Scholarships, summarised as follows:

‘Government should design a prestigious scholarship scheme to financially support the most talented undergraduates in the country – covering approximately 200 individuals a year – if they attend a UK university and remain in the UK for at least three years after graduation.’

Despite the authors named above, this has unmistakeably Odyssean fingerprints!



The purpose of the Programme seems to be to ensure that the economic benefits vested in the most outstanding undergraduates are not lost to the UK through ‘brain drain’:

‘The intention would be to marry the most able students within the UK with some of the world class provision on offer at UK universities (though the scholar would have their free choice of which institution to attend). The financial package would act less as a facilitator to go to university in general but as a nudge to incentivise scholars to remain in the UK throughout university and beyond, as opposed to going abroad, which is becoming an increasingly competitive battleground. [sic]’

The paper emphasises the economic benefits of investing in a country’s very highest attainers:

‘If such highly able individuals can accrue great awards and accomplishments which benefit not just themselves but, through positive spillovers, drive increase in human capital more widely, then this will be of wider benefit.’

This idea is associated with Benbow and Lubinski, Co-Directors of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) located at Vanderbilt University in the US:

‘They argue for a national scheme to identify such individuals and nurture them, both for the individuals’ own benefits but also for the benefits of their home nations. This is because in advanced economies in particular, with a shift towards higher skilled jobs, the economic prosperity of a country depends on its human capital potential. Education today is the economy of tomorrow. If such individuals as these under discussion can generate further talent by virtue of their own accomplishments, then there is a competitive rationale for countries to identify and support these individuals.’

In fact, these arguments have a longer pedigree

There is no explanation of how the highest attainers ‘can generate further talent by virtue of their own accomplishments’, though this might be a reference to potential future employment as university academics.

Some limited evidence is cited to support fears of a brain drain:

‘A BIS report from 2010 found that some 2.8 per cent of state sector pupils and 5.5 per cent of independent sector pupils apply to universities outside the UK – small in absolute terms but “It is particularly significant that it is the academically most gifted pupils who are the most likely to apply to foreign universities”. Longitudinal data – which unfortunately only goes to 2011 – nevertheless shows a consistent increase since 2005.

Most recently, the Institute for International Education and the US-UK Fulbright Commission releaed [sic] data in late 2014 showing that there were a record number of UK students studying in the USA, which has always been the most popular country for foreign study. 10,191 British students pursued study in the US during the 2013/14 academic year, up from around 9,500 12 months earlier and the largest year-on-year increase in more than a decade. Undergraduates accounted for 49.6 per cent of all UK students heading to the US. Some 23.9 per cent were postgraduates and the remainder were taking part in short-term exchanges or graduate work programmes.’


What is proposed?

The proposed Programme would award £10,000 per year for three years of undergraduate study at an English university to ‘the top 200 scholars in the country’. The total cost of the awards would be ‘£6m a year in steady state’.

This would involve the Government collaborating with universities and other unspecified partners to develop a new optional test for 17-18 year-olds.

Any student resident in the UK would be eligible, so there would be no screening process.

The test would:

‘…seek to measure via a range of metrics a combination of academic ability and academic potential. The test would be calibrated to accurately identify those with ability found in approximately 1 in 10,000 individuals (or variants of this depending on how wide the entry criteria are drawn). A proportion of the top ranked scores on this test would be designated National Scholars and be eligible for a package of incentives under the National Scholarship Scheme, contingent upon enrolling as an undergraduate at a UK university.’

Anyone who received a scholarship and subsequently left the country within three years of graduating would be required to repay it.

Hence the scheme would obstruct enrolment as an undergraduate overseas and also place a significant obstacle in the path of postgraduate mobility.


There is no problem

The idea is a solution in search of a problem.

There is no specific evidence that the 200 students with the highest ability and academic potential (however that is measured) are any more likely to study abroad.

The 2010 BIS research report quoted above notes that 76% of the students in its survey planned to return to the UK, although many wanted to work abroad before doing so.


‘Significantly, the survey results point to the students with the strongest A level results being more likely to want to return to the UK at some point after their studies. International student mobility should not therefore be interpreted as a brain drain of the UK’s best and brightest young people.’

The BIS report quite rightly explores this issue in the context of international student mobility, the globalisation of higher education and the postgraduate labour market.

The threat of brain drain can be countered by the argument that the strongest UK students should be encouraged to attend the best courses at the world’s best universities (language of tuition permitting). Only by doing so will they maximise their skills and their subsequent economic value.

Meanwhile, the best overseas students should be welcomed to UK universities and encouraged to consider postgraduate study and employment here, so that the UK economy benefits from their engagement.

Poor policy design

There is insufficient information about the nature of the test.

It would not be an intelligence test, but would assess ‘academic ability and potential’.

Since it must be applicable to all students, regardless of their current subjects of study or their intended undergraduate field(s) of study, it must not rely in any way on subject content, otherwise it would be biased in favour of specialists in those fields.

It seems unlikely that such a test already exists, unless one is prepared to argue that the US SAT test fits the bill and, even if it does, the ceiling is almost certainly too low.

The footnotes acknowledge that:

‘…such a proposed test has no track record on validity and there will be a large number of students therefore caught in statistical noise just outside the cut off score.’

The development process would be lengthy and complex – and the costs correspondingly high. These development costs are not included in the £6m budget.

If the test is coachable, this opens up the possibility of a further market for the private tuition industry. Students will be diverted from their A level studies as a consequence.

The reference to ‘a range of metrics’ suggests the possibility of a complex test battery rather than a single assessment. The ongoing cost of administering the test is also excluded from the budget.

Similarly, the ongoing costs of administering the scholarship scheme, evaluating its effectiveness, monitoring the movements of alumni and pursuing repayments are also excluded.

The relationship between the scholarship and other forms of student support is not properly developed. Why not link the incentive to student loan repayments instead of introducing a separate scholarship scheme? One section of the paper suggests it could meet living costs, or be offset against tuition fees.

It acknowledges that many of the beneficiaries of such scholarships are likely to come from privileged backgrounds and be educated in the independent sector.

It seems unlikely that they would they be swayed by financial inducements at this level, especially if their parents have been forking out upwards of £25,000 a year for school fees.

It is likely that those who are determined to study abroad will choose not to take the test. The benefits of £30,000 now will be more than outweighed by the additional earnings they might subsequently expect as a consequence of pursuing a better course elsewhere. This will be especially true of those from affluent backgrounds.

Finally, one doubts whether a sample as tiny as 200 students a year – no matter how talented they are – would have any substantive impact on the UK economy, even assuming that the arguments in favour of globalisation could be set aside. Such a scheme would be more effective if it had a wider reach.

Redundant lines of argument and poor research

The first part of the paper is devoted to describing the original National Scholarship Programme, a completely different animal, designed to provide financial support to enable disadvantaged students to participate in higher education. It is a red herring.

In contrast, the new proposal has nothing to do with fair access or social mobility. It is ‘targeted on talent rather than socio-economic background’.

The paper argues that there are few incentives that ‘recognise and support the most intellectually able’, continuing:

 ‘At a school level, the previous National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, was cancelled in 2010 and its funds used for the National Scholarship Programme! [sic]’

This is hopelessly wrong.

NAGTY’s five year contract ended in 2007. Its sponsor, Warwick University, chose not to bid for the subsequent contract, which was intended to extend support to all England’s gifted and talented learners (then numbered at approximately one million), rather than the top 5% of 11-19 year-olds who were NAGTY’s main target group.

The subsequent contract, for Young, Gifted and Talented, ended in 2010 and was not renewed, as the then Labour Government decided to devolve responsibility to schools. This funding stream was not diverted to the NSP, which was administered by HEFCE through BIS.

The paper continues:

‘In line with a general approach towards autonomy, there is also no agreed definition of able students or gifted and talented students. Anecdotally, it is often tended to be used for somewhere around the top 15% or so of the cohort in ability terms. However, this note takes a different and much narrower definition, and is concerned with what might be called the extremely able – those with ability levels found in approximately 1 in every 10,000 of the population.’

The problematic co-existence of definitional autonomy and Ofsted’s emphasis on assessing the effectiveness of all schools’ support for the most able is not discussed.

The reference to ‘somewhere around the top 15%’ is more than anecdotal – it is plucked entirely out of the air. Having introduced this topic, what is the justification given for shifting the emphasis away from 15% of learners to 0.0001% of prospective undergraduates? The policy response to one has negligible bearing on the other.

(In fact, the footnotes reveal that a cadre of 200 scholarships would accommodate some 0.003% of the undergraduate population.)

The next section of the paper suggests that SMPY has been focused on different countries, yet SMPY participants have all been resident in the United States (though Cohort 5 covers graduate students enrolled in the top-ranked maths, science and engineering courses located there).

Benbow and Lubinski argue for a national scheme to identify and nurture such learners from the age of 13. Yet the paper switches again to discuss university scholarship schemes in the US, India, France and Russia. All of the three still extant are focused on maths, science and technology, so are not direct parallels with what is proposed here.

A comparison is drawn with elite sports funding

‘This approach mirrors closely the “no compromise approach” of elite sporting organisations funded by UK Sport, which requires tangible outcomes of high performance (ie realistic chances of an Olympic medal) in exchange for funding. Less successful sports, however, popular, are not entitled to the same levels of funding. The net result is that performance at the elite end of UK sport has exponentially grown – whilst alongside that, other funding helps develop grass roots sport and widening participation.’

I struggle to understand the parallels between funding for successful sports and for successful students, unless this is supposed to make the case for not linking the scholarships to socio-economic disadvantage.

The inclusion of a table of five countries’ Olympic medal tallies from 1996-2012 is, however, entirely spurious and redundant.



The end of the paper says:

‘There should also be a renewed focus on how to stretch all pupils within the state sector at whatever level, and further work on identifying potential highly able talent across the wider state education sector as Ofsted have identified – both of which will be the focus of future Policy Exchange work. But this is not the same thing, and nor should it be confused with, a scheme to reward and nurture excellence at 18 now, wherever it comes from.’

This is surely ironic, in that much of the commentary above shows how these two issues have been interleaved in the paper itself.

The fact that Policy Exchange plans fresh work on the wider question of support for the most able in schools is welcome. I look forward to being involved.

But, meanwhile, this idea should be consigned to the bin.




March 2015


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