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EY Wrote a Report on Higher Education. They Should Not Have.

EY, the global accounting, auditing and consulting firm, released a report on higher education recently.

As is obvious, I have some thoughts. For one, it’s dishonest.

As I recently wrote at Forbes, the data in the EY report show rather convincingly that college students in the areas they surveyed are quite happy with their college choices, “By a lopsided margin of 67% to 13%, college and university students in the surveyed nations said they were either ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’ with their ‘choice of university.’” In the U.S., just 3% of college students said they were very unhappy with their choice.

Yet somehow, for EY, this was failure. The headline of their press release announcing the survey results was, “Universities failing to deliver as 1/3 of students say they feel negative or neutral about their choice of university.” For EY, “failing to deliver” is when 87% are either happy or satisfied enough to not feel strongly one way or the other. Again, only 13% of students said they were unhappy.

Sticking with the core finding about student happiness, EY’s report says, “While two-thirds of students are happy with their choice of university, the remainder are neutral at best.”

Yes, two-thirds were happy. But the egregious error is that the remainer were not neutral “at best.” They were heavily neutral. Removing the 67% who said they were happy, you’re left with 21% saying they’re “neutral” and 13% in the not happy column. In no usage of standard English is that neutral “at best.”

EY is an accounting firm. They’re expected to know what numbers mean and how to describe them.

There’s more.

The report is filled with confident statements offered without any evidence at all.

For example, EY’s report says, “The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed what students want from universities.” The line had no source or citation. It just sits there as though it ought to be common knowledge. I mean, maybe it’s true that student wants have “fundamentally changed,” but I’d sure like to know who says so and based on what. If it’s true, that feels like news. But EY does not say. We have to take their word for it.

Later, EY’s report says, “Not all university leaders or faculty are convinced of the pedagogical merits of incorporating digital learning into HE. In our focus groups, some faculty expressed concern that increasing digitalization is reducing students’ critical thinking and social skills.”

That seems fair.

But then, without source or reason, EY writes, “No matter what faculty and parents believe, for students, pure in-person teaching is no longer the gold standard of HE.”

Given its assertive dismissal of the views of university leaders, teachers, and parents, the sentence itself is shocking.

If it’s true, I think it would be worth knowing. But again, there’s no citation, no data. We have no idea why it is EY believes teaching experts are wrong.  

That sentence was so nakedly anti-teaching and anti-expertise that I asked EY where they found the information to brush aside the contrary view of teaching experts and declare that “pure in-person teaching is no longer the gold standard.” They did not answer.

Bad as that is, it actually gets worse.

EY also says, “Student preferences are clear. In-person, mass lectures must give way to a flipped learning model, with asynchronous digital learning occurring before synchronous, interactive engagement.”

Must give way, says EY. Because students prefer it.

It’s not clear why we should do what students want, just because they want it. Or why the preferences of students should supersede the expressed concerns of educators. I asked EY that too. Their answer was something about listening to everyone, though their report definitely takes sides.

But the bigger problem is that once again, EY said something that their own data flatly contradicts. Remember, EY said, “student preferences are clear” and that “in-person, mass lectures must give way” to “digital learning.”

When EY actually asked students how they “prefer to access” lectures, they said they wanted them either fully on-campus or mainly on-campus and not online. Just 8% said they wanted their lectures to be online. Another 8% said they wanted them “mainly online.” A quarter (24%), said they wanted the delivery to be “an equal blend.” A majority (about 58%) said they wanted lectures either fully on-campus or mostly on-campus. In fact, the plurality (about 29%) said they wanted lectures fully on campus.

Somehow, a majority of students saying they want lectures either fully or mainly on campus became that “student preferences are clear” in precisely the opposite direction. It makes me wonder if EY read their data or just wrote what they wanted the data to be.

And it’s pretty obvious what EY wants that data to be – they support digital learning and want more of it, and think schools are not doing a good job.

Pushing Digital Learning  

EY is all-in on digital learning despite what their own evidence shows. Their report says, “Students also give low ratings to their experience of quality of ‘online learning’ — putting it at the bottom of all surveyed aspects of university life in terms of satisfaction. One in five students say the quality of online learning does not meet their expectations at all.”

Since EY headlined their report that a 13% rate of unhappiness was “failing to deliver,” I asked if they felt a rate of 20% saying the quality of online learning “does not meet their expectations at all” was also a failure. They did not address that either, except to parse and speculate that many of the students who responded unfavorably to online learning may have had a negative experience with what they sanitize as “emergency remote instruction” during the pandemic, so as to distance it from online learning. Maybe. Though that’s speculative. And it does not change the fact that 20% of students say online learning quality is not up to their expectations.

On online learning, EY’s report also says, “Despite ample evidence to the contrary, our interviews suggested a pervasive skepticism about the pedagogical merits of digital learning.” Again, there’s no citation, source or even evidence with the statement about “ample evidence.”

I asked EY about this too and got no response.

EY’s report flatly says, “By introducing students to digital content outside of class, students can learn at their own pace and accommodate their own learning style and schedule. By working with faculty in interactive activities and discussions during class time, students can gain a deeper understanding of the content, while developing critical thinking and other higher-order cognitive skills, such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.”

That’s great.

It’s not related to EY’s survey in any way. And it’s an unsupported assumption that reads like an ad for digital learning even though, once again, when EY asked, students said they did not want to learn that way.

According to the actual data in the EY survey, students had clear preferences for educational resources being delivered either entirely or mainly on campus. Informal assessments, formal assessments, progress feedback, lectures, onboarding and orientation, tutoring, seminars and group discussions, wellbeing services, group projects, networking and social events, practice sessions and labs – students wanted them on campus, not online. According to EY’s data, the only things students preferred to be online were administrative tasks – applications and admissions, and course administration. If it was related to learning, students wanted it in on campus.

Nonetheless, EY insists a digital, “flipped classroom” is best. They write, “In fact, executed in line with best practice, a flipped classroom model, with well-facilitated, in-person debate, will actually improve both [critical thinking and social skills]” As has been typical, EY offers nothing to support this, though it’s an “in fact.”

Actually, the sequence is insightful here. The sentence above that starts with “In fact,” comes immediately after the sentence shared previously – “Not all university leaders or faculty are convinced of the pedagogical merits of incorporating digital learning into HE. In our focus groups, some faculty expressed concern that increasing digitalization is reducing students’ critical thinking and social skills.”

So, once again, EY dismisses faculty concerns, this time with, “in fact” – though EY does not provide any actual facts.

And in case that’s too subtle, when EY gets to the section titled “What this means for HE,” they say bluntly:

  • Phase in asynchronous learning and phase out pure in-person teaching models
  • Move to flipped learning
  • Invest in high-quality digital content

EY says this despite their own data showing that teachers and parents question it and that students don’t want it. But that does not stop EY from writing again, “When it comes to digital or blended learning, universities need to catch up with student expectations.”

Down on Schools

Remembering that the EY press release for this report characterized the evidence as a “failing to deliver,” EY isn’t done spreading disdain for colleges and universities.

Their report says, “Yet too often, universities are not adequately preparing students for their future careers.” Once again – says who? I mean, maybe that’s true. But it is – at best – an opinion. And frankly, the available data on career earnings premiums and employment rates imply otherwise.

All EY offers on this point is that, “Not meeting expectations around improving career prospects and preparing students for the workplace are key drivers of overall unhappiness with university choice. A concerning 21% of final year undergraduates say their university experience does not meet their expectations regarding preparation for the workplace.”

But, for the fifth time, only 13% of students said they were unhappy with their university choice – two thirds said they were happy.

And it should be said that college seniors probably are not the best judges of what is good workplace preparation. How would they know? Moreover, if you ask hiring managers whether they think a college degree is good workplace preparation, 80% or more say it is. It’s also not clear at all how investing in digital learning and doing away with in-person instruction will help students feel more prepared for the workplace.

Finally on this point, 21% expressing missed expectations is “concerning” when it’s about workplace preparation. When 20% express missed expectations regarding the quality of online learning, that barely gets a mention and is explained away.

It’s clear the report is biased and flawed, driving an agenda, unsupported by facts or evidence. But the truly bizarre part of the EY report is that parts of it are downright negative on digital and online learning – the very thing they’re so clearly advocating.

Consider this from the report, “’Social life and networking’ was the second most-cited reason for happiness with [student] choice of university — especially for first-year students. More than 90% of surveyed students, whether campus-based or mainly online, have participated in some form of university social or networking events during that academic year. Of these, only 12% said they had done so mainly online.”

And this, “Even institutions offering completely online programs still need a campus where students can come in to access labs and equipment, play sport, connect socially or visit teaching faculty. Many students are keen to meet professors in person at least once before programs start.”

Or this, “There is a real sense that the more virtual the university experience becomes — and the less human interaction there is — the more difficult it is to create real connection, engagement and enjoyment. In this environment, some students are missing out on the chance to improve their social skills and are suffering from isolation, contributing to the mental health crisis.”

Or this, “The research findings could not be clearer: students value high-quality teaching that is complemented by digital learning — not replaced by it.”

Which makes it entirely nonsensical that EY actually advised colleges and universities to invest in more digital options, to “phase out pure in-person teaching models,” and simply dismisses the concerns of teachers about digital and online learning.

If EY wants to hawk online and digital learning and less in-person instruction, that’s fine. I don’t understand why they’re so invested, but sure. Have at it. That is not what irks me.

What irks me is dishonestly characterizing your own data to make a point. Don’t do that. And maybe really don’t do that if your core business is accounting and auditing. It’s a really bad look and decidedly unhelpful. And I told EY.

In my last e-mail with their press liaison I wrote, “it’s dishonest to say that a third of students ‘aren’t happy,’ as you get that only by counting the neutral responses. By that math, I can honestly say that 87% of students ‘are not unhappy’ with their college choice. At best, it’s fuzzy math. And I don’t understand why EY is trying to sell it.”

I still don’t.