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Institute of Education

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Q&A with Professor Lorraine Dearden

1  What is your role and what does it involve?
I am Professor of Economics and Social Statistics in the Department of Social Science and head of Quantitative Social Science within the Department. All my work involves using data and quantitative techniques to understand, evaluate and inform public policy making. I have a wide range of public policy interests including Higher Education access and financing; returns to education; evaluating school effectiveness; intergenerational mobility; understanding the causes and consequences of child adversity and vulnerability; and evaluating policies that try to help improve child outcomes. I am part of the leadership team of the Administrative Data Research Centre – England and increasingly my work involves using linked government administrative data to look at important public policy issues in the areas of economics, education and health.

2  How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I have been at UCL since 2005 and I did my PhD in Economics at UCL from 1992 to 1995. Before UCL I worked for ten years at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and I still work one day a week at the IFS. I am originally from Australia, and had research jobs at the Australian Department of Employment, Education and Training (1986 to 1992) and the Australian National University (1983 to 1986).

3  What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your students about the subject you teach?
I teach and supervise postgraduate students from a large range of disciplines and from a wide range of countries. This has taught me the importance of not being ethnocentric when looking at public policy initiatives and programmes, and to look beyond your discipline when approaching a research topic.

4  What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
I am most proud of the work I have done which has influenced policy making.

I wrote a paper in 1996 advocating a conditional cash transfer (CCT) paid directly to poor students to encourage them to stay in school based on a similar successful scheme in Australia (which I evaluated in the same paper). After initial resistance, there was a pilot of such a scheme in 1999 – the Educational Maintenance Allowances (EMA). Our evaluation of this pilot showed that it was effective in reducing school drop-out rates, particularly for boys and as a result the EMA was rolled out nationally in 2004. All subsequent evaluations suggested it had a positive impact on reducing school drop-out rates and was a cost effective policy in the long run. Despite this evidence, it was axed in 2011!

My work with a number of colleagues on Higher Education (HE) funding issues over the last 20 years has influenced HE funding design in England through working closely with ministers, government departments and university bodies such as Universities UK and actively engaging in looking at the implications of different options that were being considered at the time. However with every new reform, last-minute political deals have often compromised the clarity and fairness of the eventual HE funding systems that have come into force so there is always more work to do to try and get a fair and well designed system in place. We are certainly not there yet in England, so my work continues. This is an issue that is current worldwide with increasing numbers of students wanting to undertake HE but generally limited government resources to fund this HE expansion.

I think my work with colleagues on the month of birth penalty for summer born children, has raised awareness of the issue in the public domain and changed policy, but again not in directions that I think actually go to the heart of the issue based on the evidence. So again, my research work and policy engagement in this area continues.

My basic lesson from all my work is not to give up, keep an open mind and to use ever improving large scale micro level data to see how public policy making can be made better.

5  Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list.
I am a co-investigator in the Administrative Data Research Centre – England and after nearly three years of hard work, we are getting key administrative datasets from different government departments linked. I believe this will allow for new ground breaking research which will help improve public service provision and public policy making. For example, we now have approval to link children’s education data with hospital episode data which could help us understand how early childhood health adversity impacts on later education outcomes. I am also involved in a pilot project looking at the impact of local environmental factors on educational outcomes.

I am also involved in work with the Centre for Global Higher Education at the IOE and I am currently working on projects looking at options to solve the US student loan crisis; doing work on the latest reforms to the English HE funding system; as well as looking at the implications of the UK HE reforms on the socio-economic mix of HE participants in England.

6  What would it surprise people to know about you?
I am a big cricket fan. I use to play both indoor and outdoor cricket when I lived in Australia. All four of my sons play cricket in London and I help run the colts’ cricket at their club. I am also an improving, though still quite mediocre, Bridge player.

7  What other piece of research outside of your own subject area interests you?
I am very interested in clinical epidemiology and I am increasingly involved in work that involves close collaborations with clinical epidemiologists which I think will help improve health, education and economic policy making. As an economist, I don’t think focusing on purely education and/or economic outcomes tells you the whole story of the impact of economic/education policy making. Equally, with a lot of clinical based practices, the important outcomes in judging the effectiveness of a clinical intervention are not only health outcomes, but for example, whether people can actively re-engage in education and/or the labour market after a serious illness.