Archive for February 2012

Not enough choice?

February 28, 2012

I confess I find it difficult to make up my mind about the significance of the following. According to figures released last week by the academics’ trade union in the UK, the University and College Union (UCU), if you wanted to go to university in 2006 you would have had 70,052 university programmes from which you could have chosen. If you were beginning your studies in 2011, it was a mere 51,116. In other words, the national menu of university courses had declined over those four years by 27 per cent.

This is not a story about falling student numbers: over the same period more students entered higher education. Also, before any hasty conclusions are drawn, it is not about the student-staff ratio: there was not a corresponding decline in academic staff numbers. It is not even about the breadth of subject provision, at least to the extent that the information released is not about the number individual modules. Rather, it is about how these modules are grouped into programmes leading to the award of a degree. So what the UK had less of in 2011 than in 2006 was award titles.

So at one level it could be said that the headline information provided by the UCU is not as meaningful as might at first appear. Indeed it could be argued that the rationalization of course provision is not a bad thing, particularly in a system that has some reputation for stretching resources by adding new programmes without dropping existing ones. A look at the menu available to students making their choices each year could suggest the conclusion that there are far too many options, and that the differences between some of them are not always clear.

On the other hand, the UCU information does raise some more specific issues, particularly the apparent decline in offerings in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The data also suggest that the changes in provision are not even across the UK, with the biggest decline in England (31 per cent) and the smallest in Scotland (3 per cent): it would be useful to find out why this is so.

Even if the UCU survey on closer analysis does not suggest that there is quite as much of a problem as might at first appear, it does raise important questions about what kind of breadth of subject provision is ideal, and what the impact on this has been of recent (and varying) policy changes across the UK. In other words, it merits further debate.

Similar questions could also be asked about provision elsewhere – for example, what the impact has been in Ireland of the fairly dramatic cuts in higher education funding and staffing. Overall, it is time to have some debate about the ideal shape of a modern system of higher education.

Educating the regions

February 24, 2012

One of the puzzles of higher education as it is currently developing is how we are supposed to address regional issues. On the one hand, if you mention ‘regional universities’ most people assume you are talking about teaching intensive universities with only minor research ambitions and a vocational orientation. On the other hand, regions provide the basis for R&D-focused university and industry clusters, as in the North Carolina Research Triangle. On top of that, many governments now want universities to address regional issues, including both economic development needs and the up-skilling of members of the workforce.

So what is it to be? Are regional universities to be the lower value cohort of higher education institutions, or are they the smart winners in the new knowledge agenda? And should high ranking global universities see themselves as international institutions with few regional interests, or do they gain some of their strength from local associations? All of these options are at one point or another public policy targets in most developed countries, but such policies can appear to be somewhat confused.

My own university clearly has a regional focus: we aim to provide the best educational experience to benefit local society and the local economy in the North-East of Scotland. We have strong links with local further education colleges and provide access routes for their students to proceed to a university degree. We also see the university as a key participant in and driver of economic development in the region, as well as a major and high value employer. But then again, we are also part of a global educational and scholarly agenda, and we are developing specific areas of research in which we intend to achieve international recognition.

In fact, as regions become increasingly important in both economic and social policy, all universities will need to develop and maintain a strong relationship with the locality where they are based. In fact, as the OECD has observed, human capital and innovation systems now grow mainly in regional settings. In that sense, therefore, the suggestion that we should view ‘regional universities’ as lesser value institutions is seriously misguided. Regions represent the higher education future.

Politics and markets and public intellectuals

February 22, 2012

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, this week used the occasion of a speech delivered at the London School of Economics to develop a little more his theme of a society that has lost its way, and of an academic profession that should accept the responsibility of restoring it to intellectual health. His starting point, which he had already given an outing a few weeks ago when conferred with an honorary doctorate by the National University of Ireland, is that a political orthodoxy of unfettered markets took hold of public discourse and policy and led to the recent economic disaster. He attributes this movement largely to to the late Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, whom he credits with the view that markets are necessarily rational and that they should be ‘unregulated’. The President continued:

‘We have, as a consequence, been living through a period of extreme individualism, a period where the concept of society itself has been questioned. The public space in so many countries of the EU has been commodified, and it is as calculating rational choice maximizers, rather than as citizens, we have been invited to view our neighbours. That is the mark of our times, the hegemonic version, by which it is suggested, we live our lives together. Our existence is assumed to be, is defined as, competing individual actors at times neurotic in our insatiable anxieties for consumption…’

In fact what President Higgins attributes to Hayek could be questioned. In his seminal book The Road to Serfdom, Hayek confirmed his preference for as little state regulation as possible, but also stated that where markets are distorted or abused state intervention is necessary. And in Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek argued not that markets are rational, but that people and organisations experiencing fully competitive markets – i.e. with proper levels of competition – will tend to behave rationally. Hayek was indeed the high priest of neoliberalism, but his views were a little more nuanced than suggested in the President’s speech.

As for society, it was indeed questioned, in particular in the famous (or infamous) statement by Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing; but whether it was forced to give way to a set of purely commodified relationships is much more questionable.

As I have mentioned before, the desire on the part of President Higgins to stimulate debate and encourage academic leadership in this debate is wholly to be welcomed. The issues he raises and the questions he asks are good ones. He is justified in encouraging debate about the nature and purpose of society. And he is right to highlight the role of the public intellectual, and thus of the academic community.

I am less persuaded by his own analysis of these issues. His thesis, that we are all the victims of a fashion for unregulated markets, is perhaps questionable. As neoliberal policies took root from the 1980s, markets were opened up but were then subjected to significant regulation; indeed the levels of regulation increased substantially after the Enron and WorldCom disasters of the last decade. Whether this regulation was appropriate or good is another matter; there is actually one school of thought that there was too much of it, meaning that some of it had become too complex to be effective. Another view is that there was adequate regulation, but that it was inadequately enforced.

All of this is open to debate, and academics should indeed seek to lead it. But that debate will be better if its basic assumptions are not too simplistic. President Higgins has a significant opportunity to prompt a national and even international dialogue. I would hope that his own contribution takes account of the considerable complexities that got us where we are, and from where we want to escape.

The bureaucratisation of learning

February 21, 2012

In 1988 the American Historical Association celebrated its 100th anniversary. At the conference held to mark the event one of the speakers, the distinguished historian Theodore S. Hamerow, reflected on the many advances and achievements witnessed over the century, but then concluded that all was not well; he identified what he described as a ‘broad cultural process by which scholarship in the course of he 20th century became bureaucratised and rigidified in institutions of higher education’. Part of that had come about, he suggested, by the growth of ‘disciplines’ and the methods they used to protect their integrity, and partly by a bureaucratisation of learning.

In fact in 1989 the bureaucratisation of learning had hardly even started. Over the years that followed quality assurance processes, research assessment and other tools for developing transparency and standards could legitimately be said to have created anti-intellectual impulses in the academic system. The concept of ‘learning outcomes’ is a good example: a concept that completely misunderstands the process of learning by assuming that when you dress inputs as outputs something profound will happen. Learning should engage and stimulate the learner, and the result may (and in an ideal world will) be something unexpected. Learning outcomes are a tool to subvert that experience and suggest that the scholar’s mind can only go one particular way.

What has been happening is that we have tried to suggest that scholarship and learning, at their best, should be predictable, or that standardisation of learning is more important than originality of thought. If we go on this way it will not end well. It is time to reconceptualise education.

Satan is coming for you (if you’re an academic)

February 20, 2012

You may not have been aware of this, but one of the key dangers facing higher education, at least in America, is that it has come to the attention of Satan, and may indeed have already been taken over by him. You see, Satan understands the ‘pride of smart people’, and their dangerous desire to ‘pursue new truths’ (thereby destroying old ones).

Who is saying all this heady stuff? Well, it’s Rick Santorum, would-be President of the United States. He explained all this in an address to Ave Maria University in 2008. That of course is a few years ago, but there are few signs that his perspective on such matters has changed since then. Of course it is one of the genuine strengths of the American political system that it can provide a forum for really diverse points of view, but his remarks suggest that a Santorum presidency could produce some attacks on academic freedom and the freedom of campus expression. And that is something to watch.

Over-qualified graduates?

February 16, 2012

The European Union publishes an annual report entitled Key Data on Education in Europe. In the 2012 issue there is some interesting statistical analysis of the structure and nature of Europe’s education systems. For me, one finding suggested in the report rather stands out:

‘… A growing number of young people appear to be overqualified for the type of employment they find. This suggests the need for more efficient forecasting of the short- and long-term needs of the labour market with a view to providing reliable educational and careers guidance to students so that improvements can be made in matching young people’s educational qualifications with actual employment opportunities.’

At first sight it is not easy to see the basis for this conclusion in the data recorded, but it appears to rest on the finding that, across Europe, up to 40 per cent or so of graduates find work as technicians, clerks, craft workers or machine operators – the assumption being that none of these jobs require higher education degrees. In other words, it is assumed that the graduates working in them do so because they could not find employment more suitable to their qualifications.

Of course in a recession graduates, like others, will find it more difficult to secure employment, and some will opt for non-ideal jobs that will at least give them an income. But the same report also finds that graduates find work ‘two times faster’ than non-graduates.

In many countries it has been public policy for a while to increase participation in higher education, and to upgrade educational qualifications across the population. It would be highly reckless to suggest now that this has been a mistake. In fact, much more analysis would have to be done before anyone could conclude that people are leaving higher education with qualifications beyond their needs. The European report suggests that maybe students are choosing the wrong subjects, and there is some evidence to support that contention: we know for example that there are significant vacancies in the information  technology sector that, even now, cannot be filled with appropriately qualified graduates. On the other hand the evidence still is that all graduates are more likely to find a job quickly.

Careers guidance and the careful selection of programmes of study is always desirable, but in the end there is still little evidence that a university education, of whatever kind, does anything other than support labour market success. Public policy should continue to recognise this.

Reconfiguring the Irish system of higher education

February 14, 2012

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has, as part of its programme for implementing the national higher education strategy in Ireland (the Hunt report), has issued a paper setting out how it hopes to develop the structure of the system from its present state. The paper, Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, makes certain assumptions about the current state of the sector and how it should be reformed. At the heart of these assumptions is the belief that what will make Irish higher education successful will be a much greater diversity of institutional mission that has been nationally coordinated. This position is expressed as follows in the paper:

‘In order to create and sustain a diverse yet coherent system, it will be essential that all institutions have a clear perspective on their particular mission and role within the overall system. In particular, it will be essential that institutions ensure that their programmes continue to be reflective of, and appropriate to, their mission.’

This diversity, the HEA believes, will need to be reflected in ‘greater differentiation based on field specialisation, programme orientation and mode of delivery.’ This in turn will be accompanied by ‘regional clusters’ which will allow students to tap into various specialisms spread across the universities and colleges in their area, at least in areas where there are several institutions that make this possible; and the HEA also envisages ‘mission-based clusters’ that will not depend on geographical proximity. All of this will also, the HEA intends, lead to the ‘elimination of unnecessary duplication of provision’.

The other key plan set out in the paper is to bring to an end the state funding of smaller institutions, which will have to merge with larger universities or colleges in order to survive. Institutes of technology will also have to consider mergers, leading to what the paper says will be ‘a smaller number of multi-campus institutions.’

The HEA rightly recognises that this kind of re-ordering will, as it puts it, ‘not occur in an “organic” way’, and it therefore envisages ‘top-down’ action. It therefore acknowledges a risk to institutional autonomy, but argues that this can be overcome by a phased and ‘agreed’ process of implementation; though one must assume that a different framework from that envisaged is not available to be ‘agreed’. As part of this process, universities and colleges are now to put forward proposals to the HEA involving one or more of options that include merger, clustering, conversion to ‘technological university’, or the establishment of a ‘specialist institution’. In the meantime the HEA will commission a paper addressing ‘the number of institutions, the range of missions and the alliances and relationships which have the potential to strengthen the system.’

What all of this represents is a significant reconfiguration of the Irish system of higher education, from one characterised by autonomous but (increasingly) collaborating institutions, to one based on a national, centrally coordinated plan.

It is easy to see how such a nationally directed system could look neat in a bureaucratic sense, but the HEA paper makes little attempt to explain in what way the system will deliver something better once reconfigured, and how those using it (students, industry, communities) will benefit. It acknowledges that the world’s best universities are highly autonomous, and it accepts that the plan will affect autonomy; but it does not say in any specific way what compensating benefits will emerge. It does not address at all the impact of these changes on basic principles such as academic freedom.

It is true that institutions will be able to propose their own plans for focused mission, but since all this will need to add up across the system as a whole, their ability to design their own strategic options will be seriously limited. And while it is entirely right that a small national system should encourage collaboration, in some contexts excellence requires competition also.

Given its role as funder of the system, the state has a legitimate right to look for both excellence and value for money in higher education. So for example, it can appropriately question institutions on issues such as unnecessarily overlapping provision, while however bearing in mind that a university will need, in each case, to be able to offer certain intellectual building blocks within the institution. What we are being asked to contemplate here is that institutional autonomy is wasteful, and that a ‘national system’ that distributes educational and research activity amongst institutions characterised by their specialisms will be better. This, it has to be said, is a mighty big experiment, and one without any currently successful model elsewhere to draw on or to provide some comfort. It changes the nature of institutional strategy from content to process, and vests substantive planning in a central structure. In short, it is threatening to replace institutional initiative with central planning, a framework that was not spectacularly successful in countries where it has been tried.

It is hard to resist the view that managing higher education by grand design is not the best way forward. In fact, Irish higher education has impressed both itself and the world with its ability to absorb serious funding cuts while still, more or less, maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality. It does this with resources that are now very substantially smaller than those available to less successful competing national systems. There is, in short, no evidence that Ireland’s higher education sector is wasteful. There is no evidence that the existing model is in any serious way deficient. There is therefore little evidence of a need for the kind of centralised system being proposed, and there are many serious risks that will attend its implementation.

I could be proved wrong. But this is a big leap in the dark.


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