Archive for November 2011

Understanding student applications data

November 29, 2011

In the United Kingdom the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles student applications to higher education institutions, yesterday released the current applications figures for the coming academic year, and the numbers are significantly down on the comparable figures for last year. UK-wide the number is down 12.9 per cent.

On the face of it the reduction does not appear to be a result of the new fees régime in England, since the numbers are also down in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

University mission groups such as the Russell Group and Million+ have been quick to put their own interpretation on the data, but both have shown signs of nervousness about the numbers, and their statements are designed to persuade potential students to go ahead with their applications – and these can still be made in the UK until mid-January.

The truth is that we really don’t know right now what is happening. We don’t know whether the publicity around new funding and tuition fee arrangements has influenced student choice – and it is quite possible that some students are not aware that the position in Scotland is different. We don’t know for sure whether there are other demographic reasons for a decline in numbers. We don’t know what impact the recession is having, or fears about future economic developments.

What we do know, or at least imagine we know, is that we are heading into a much more uncertain era for higher education. In this setting, a greater sense of public policy stability and continuity will almost certainly be a good idea. The rather chaotic state of higher education strategy in England over the past year, if continued, could start to do serious damage.

Securing compliance?

November 24, 2011

The Stanford University website contains a list of the university’s ‘compliance offices and officers’. You may wish to note that there are 25 of these, ranging from ‘donor gift restrictions’ to ‘immigration’. And while most of us do not have this kind of wealth of compliance-focused structures, many universities nowadays find themselves almost overwhelmed with regulatory bureaucracy.

Of course it is important to maintain good practice, and areas such as health and safety, data protection, financial probity and so on should be the focus of vigilance, in universities as elsewhere. However, we have gradually been sucked into a compliance mentality that makes institutions risk averse, with people often concerned with covering their backs while grappling with the extensive paperwork.

Perhaps one of the chief problems is that many, like Stanford, see this as a matter of ‘compliance’. The main context is one of policing wrongdoing, rather than encouraging good practice. It may be time to look again at how standards are maintained and enhanced; the current system may not be the way to do that.

How should we view student debt?

November 22, 2011

One of the growing concerns across the developed world is that student debt will increasingly deter young people from entering higher education. In the United States the level of graduate debt is now over $900 billion, a sum considerably larger than American credit card debt. In England individual student debt in the more extreme cases has risen above £60,000.

So is this a major problem in the quest to widen participation in higher education? Not so, according to the English Universities Minister David Willetts in an interview in the Guardian newspaper:

‘We’re trapped in this language of debt. It’s not like leaving university with £25,000 worth of debt on your credit card or anything. If someone said your child was leaving university with £25,000 on a credit card, you’d be quite rightly horrified. If someone said they’re leaving university and during their working lives they’re going to pay half a million pounds of income tax, you’d be completely relaxed. And our graduate repayment scheme is closer to – it’s not exactly the same – but it’s closer to the income-tax end of the scale than the credit-card end of the scale. If their earnings ever fall below £21,000, at that point any repayment stops. It’s 9% of earnings only above £21,000. If you’re earning £25,000, that’s £30 a month. So it is a graduate repayment scheme that has many of the features of income tax. It’s not like some debt around their necks.’

The Minister’s argument is not on the face of it absurd. In fact, if the government had decided to generate the income for universities through a graduate tax, or rather if it had labelled the same scheme differently, the effect might have been different. But it didn’t, and fees will be funded by loans, which in turn produce debt. It is still too early to gauge exactly what impact this is having, but the first visible effect has been a significant reduction in the number of student applicants.

The evidence from the United States, Australia and Britain all points to a similar conclusion: that student loans have unintended consequences and present both a disincentive to study and financial uncertainties attached to repayments. In this setting, it would be wise for countries contemplating loan schemes – like Ireland – to think again. It is one thing to ask those who can afford to do so to pay a tuition fee; it is another to suggest to those who cannot afford it that a loan may be an acceptable form of support. It almost certainly isn’t.

Scotland’s Rectors and elected governance

November 18, 2011

One of the genuinely unique features of Scottish higher education is the office of Rector in the ‘ancient’ universities. This is a totally different function from that of a Rector in continental European universities, where the holder is the institution’s chief academic officer. In fact, the origins of the office are the same, as originally Scottish Rectors were also heads of their institutions. However, the role evolved over time and, since the late 19th century, has been governed by statute. Since that time Rectors have been the elected representatives of the university’s students (except in Edinburgh, where they are elected by students and staff), and have the right to chair the governing body, or Court.

It is hard to evaluate the usefulness of the office, as students have from time to time adopted a variety of approaches to the elections. A number of celebrities have been university Rectors, including John Cleese, Brian Cox and Stephen Fry. On the whole these have not been active contributors to university affairs. In other cases Rectors have had a more direct involvement, such as Edinburgh’s current Rector, the journalist Iain Macwhirter.

The modern concept of the Rector was based in part on the desire to see greater student input in university affairs, at a time when students were not yet granted membership of governing bodies. Whether this is still useful is an issue being debated in Scotland. Are Rectors an historical curiosity that survives because of the attraction of such an unusual feature? Or could they be retained or even extended as an example of a democratic element in higher education? Or is it time to consider whether the office has outlived its usefulness?

Irish university funding: the continuing uncertainty

November 17, 2011

Yesterday in the Dáil (Irish Parliament), the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, refused to rule out the return of tuition fees. though clearly showing some level of discomfort at the prospect. However, according to a report in the Irish Times the more likely development will be a continuing year-on-year increase in what is now called the ‘student contribution charge’, perhaps to €2,500 in the coming year. All of this is in the context of a major student protest in Dublin yesterday, and the submission earlier this week of a report by the Higher Education Authority to the government on university funding.

It is clear that the Minister has a difficult task – though admittedly one made more difficult by his signing of a USI-organised pre-election pledge not to reintroduce tuition fees (which I argued at the time was not a good move). The problem is that the Irish taxpayer cannot afford to fund universities properly at the current time, but the political establishment does not want fees. In reality of course the ‘contribution charge’ is now a fee, albeit an inadequate one for resourcing purposes.

In all of this there is a risk of policy drift. Right now it is not clear what the government, or for that matter anyone else, wants to achieve in higher education funding. There is no clear strategy and therefore a large amount of confusion as to what will happen next. In the meantime the global standing of the Irish institutions is eroding, which in turn may damage economic regeneration. It seems to me therefore that the key requirement right now is to produce a clarity of purpose. Uncertainty is the biggest risk of all.

Postgraduate woes

November 15, 2011

When I began my career as a university lecturer, the student body in my institution was overwhelmingly undergraduate. Taught postgraduate courses were quite rare and generally had small numbers, and in Ireland at least there were very few doctoral research students. By the time I left Irish higher education earlier this year to take up my current post in Scotland, the real growth in universities was in postgraduate studies. In addition, it had become government policy – through the promotion of what has become known as the ‘fourth level‘ – to encourage and fund students wanting to pursue a higher degree. This was so not least because of the now common assumption that an increasing number of high value jobs require postgraduate qualifications.

Now, however, the Irish government has apparently decided to discontinue public funding for postgraduate students. While it is understandable that the government must try to find ways of containing the cost of higher education, it is very hard to see how it makes sense to introduce cuts at the level which government policy has consistently prioritized. Or rather, if there is to be a change of policy of such a radical nature, it would seem right to subject that to some discussion and analysis before implementing it. Certainly if Ireland now acquires a reputation of being inhospitable to postgraduate studies and research it will greatly damage standing of the country and compromise foreign direct investment in knowledge-intensive industries. It would not be wise to implement this decision.

Higher education’s ‘bad ideas’?

November 15, 2011

According to Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University and a senior politician in both Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s administrations, higher education suffers from some ‘bad ideas’. Two of the perhaps surprising ones he lists in an interview with the Washington Post are the end of mandatory retirement in US universities, and small group seminars.

In relation to mandatory retirement, Summers argues that as tenured professors hang on into their old age the average age of the academic staff rises, disconnecting them from the young student body.

The problem with small group teaching, he suggests, is that ‘professors are loathe to give bad grades to students they see at the other side of a table every day.’ In other words, he believes that teaching a small number of students makes it difficult to treat them objectively, and this in turn stokes grade inflation.

Larry Summers is not a typical spokesperson for the academic community, but on the other hand he has a ready audience for his statements. So then, is he right in relation to these points? It has long been my view that the compulsory retirement of academics (and others, for that matter) is now hard to justify. But of course an older average age follows – and does this indeed create an academy to which students will find it hard to relate? And have we been wrong all along to seek to defend small group teaching? Or could it be that better grades flow from the better attention students get, rather than from familiarity?


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