Universities and political elites

Posted July 24, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, university

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Politicians, as we discover from time to time, on the whole like social cachet. For men and women ‘of the people’, they often have backgrounds and enjoy privileges that the ‘people’ don’t always get close to. One way of assessing this has often been by looking at what (if any, of course) universities they attended. While the proportion of MPs in the UK House of Commons who are graduates of Oxford and Cambridge has been declining, it is still an extraordinary 23 per cent.

Interestingly, no Scottish constituency returned an Oxbridge-educated MP. A significant proportion graduated from the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen, but it is not a outrageously disproportionate number.

For someone looking to pursue a career in politics in the UK, it still seems to make sense to apply to a handful of universities generally (button usefully) described as ‘elite’ universities, That should not be the case, and candidate selection needs to be more focused on this issue (amongst others)

I might add in parentheses that one university that seems to be getting closer to the people politically is Trinity College Dublin, who have recorded their first graduate as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar. I might suggest that a Dublin City University graduate should be next, and maybe that the next First Minister of Scotland should have studied in Robert Gordon University; but those might not be objective thoughts.

Tuition fees; or not; or what?

Posted July 17, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Perhaps unexpectedly, tuition fees moved centre stage in the recent UK general election. It is assumed by several commentators that the promise by the Labour Party to scrap tuition fees in England (Scotland has none) and restore free higher education played a major part in bringing out the youth vote and upsetting Conservative plans in the election.

Since then, the Guardian newspaper has carried opinion pieces by Christopher Newfield, Professor of English and American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and by David Green, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester, calling for a policy change. Professor Green suggests a return to a version of the pre-2012 framework in which the cost of university studies was shared by the state and the student (he would now add ‘companies’ to the mix), while Professor Newfield wants tuition fees scrapped completely.

Each of these pieces contain some strange or unrealistic elements. Professor Newfield rather astonishingly suggests that the cost to the taxpayer of abolishing tuition fees would at worst be £48 per taxpayer per year. Even taking the most favourable options for this, such a sum would have to be paid by over 166 million taxpayers every year, which is several times the number of taxpayers actually available; and that doesn’t address the accumulated enormous student debt. Professor Green wants ‘companies’ to shoulder some of the funding burden; but apart from this being a somewhat vague class of funders, how would this be administered or enforced?

What both comment pieces have in common, however, is a search for a reason why one group rather than another should shoulder the burden. Professor Newfield, like many others, believes that education as a public good needs to be funded by the taxpayer. Professor Green sees more of a mix of stakeholders who should contribute, including (in some measure) the students.

I confess I find the public good/private good debate on tuition somewhat pointless, because it obscures the real social and economic issues and ignores to a large extent the needs of the universities themselves for adequate resourcing. The harsh reality is that free tuition requires the taxpayer to make a major investment in supporting wealthier sections of the population, often at the expense of poorer ones; it is ultimately a redistribution of money from the poor to the rich. The standard response to this is that this can be balanced by securing more revenue from wealthy taxpayers. The problem is that this isn’t ever done, and in any case tax revenues are never hypothecated, so that even if it were done there is no guarantee that the funds secured would be spent on universities (they almost certainly wouldn’t be during times of scarce public money). So free tuition tends to go hand in hand with inadequate university participation by less well-off sections of the population and the decline of the university sector during difficult economic cycles (something that pretty well everyone now accepts has happened in Ireland).

On the other hand, the payment of tuition fees funded by student loans, based on some sort of understanding of most university education as a private good, creates horrendous debts that will, in very many cases, never be repaid and thus create a huge financial liability that will have to be met at some point, but no one knows by whom. This system also punishes the disadvantaged, who don’t enjoy special financial support and who may find that their debts have left them facing negative educational equity, with the added salary value of their qualifications not matching the accumulated amount of their debts.

Three points seem to me to be totally obvious. (1) The state does have a direct interest in advancing higher education that is both inclusive and properly resourced; it absolutely must make a major contribution. (2) The state must provide baseline funding for all institutions and all subject areas, but must also target a significant part of its funding where it is most needed: participation by groups experiencing socio-economic disadvantage (and not just by removing the burden of fees but also by providing adequate financial support). (3) Students from all groups other than socio-economically disadvantaged ones must make a contribution to the cost of their studies.

I genuinely respect those in politics and other walks of life who argue as a matter of principle that university tuition should be free. But in practice this doesn’t have the intended effect. On the other hand, a student loan-funded system creates a huge problem further down the line and generates a highly arguable vision of what higher education is all about.

This is not an easy policy to get right, because emotions run high and political competition is involved. I hope nevertheless that I shall live to see a much better and fairer and more effective system of higher education funding than I have experienced to date.

All dressed up?

Posted July 10, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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For the remainder of this week, I shall be enjoying my university’s graduation ceremonies. I share with my Chancellor, Sir Ian Wood, the task of presiding over these events (we divide them up between us), and I speak at all of them. Over the years between Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University, I have presided at maybe 170 ceremonies and shaken some 31,000 hands in the process; often experiencing the sensation and occasionally the pain of the graduands’ hand jewellery, and always marvelling at the improbable footwear in which amazingly many of them manage to negotiate their way across the stage. But no matter how often I have done it, the spirit of these occasions always carries me along.

Ten years ago in DCU one of our academic colleagues made a formal request to discontinue, for staff at least, the requirement to wear academic robes for graduations. He argued that this was an outdated practice not in tune with the times or indeed with the ethos of the university. We had a lively debate on the DCU Academic Council (the final decision-making body for academic matters) and the proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. While the proposal didn’t cover students, I canvassed their opinions anyway and, again, found the mood totally hostile to any relaxing of the rules. What I did change in DCU at the time was the somewhat strange and certainly sexist requirement (generally applied in Irish universities) for women only to wear mortar boards at graduations: in DCU it became optional for both men and women.

So, even in universities such as RGU and DCU, which build their strategies on a non-traditional outlook, formal dress at graduations is still seen as not just appropriate but necessary. This in turn reminds us that rites of passage are rites, or rituals, which need to generate a sense of occasion and emotion. Higher education is changing rapidly; the ceremonies that mark each student’s success probably not.

Exploring discriminatory language

Posted July 3, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: society, university

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I want to raise something here without suggesting what the appropriate response should be.

Let me take the report from the Daily Telegraph:

Cambridge University examiners are told to avoid using words like “flair”, “brilliance” and “genius” when assessing students’ work because they are associated with men, an academic has revealed.

Lucy Delap, a lecturer in British history at Cambridge University, said that History tutors are discouraged from using these terms because they “carry assumptions of gender inequality”.

“Some of those words, in particular genius, have a very long intellectual history where it has long been associated with qualities culturally assumed to be male”, she said. “Some women are fine with that, but others might find it hard to see themselves in those categories”.’

I have absolutely no doubt that a fair amount of language used ostensibly in an impartial way actually conveys discriminatory assumptions, and sometimes intent. It would be very difficult to argue otherwise. A couple of years ago Liverpool Football Club issued a list of unacceptable words and expressions as part of the campaign to drive out sexual and racism from football. Most of these words are easily recognisable as unacceptable. Would the same be said readily about Lucy Delap’s short list? And if not, how do we know where the line is to be drawn between expressions that are acceptable (even if sometimes controversial) and those that are not?

Disrupting institutional entitlement in higher education: the Teaching Excellence Framework

Posted June 26, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

Tags: , , , ,

Let me first of all declare an interest. This post is going to be about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the UK. My university, Robert Gordon University, entered, and was awarded a Gold rating. So you may conclude that this colours my judgement.

But let me first go back some ten years to a meeting I attended on university rankings. One speaker, representing a particular league table, argued that in devising a set of criteria and weightings for such a table you had to start from one assumption: that nobody would accept its credibility if the top ten didn’t contain everyone’s favourite famous and venerable institutions. You could make it interesting and exciting by leaving room for, say, two outliers or unexpected entrants, but the remaining eight had to be the ones you and I would guess were bound to be there. So you kind of had to work backwards from that: what were the criteria that would guarantee a top-three slot for, say, the University of Cambridge?

This way of working – or to be less tendentious, this pattern of rankings – has another effect. It creates a system in which one particular kind of institution becomes the benchmark for everyone. When people talk about ‘top universities’, or ‘elite institutions’, invariably they mean ones that manage to look and feel most like Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You are as ‘good’ as the degree of your resemblance to this small group. Your aspirations for excellence must be based on your strategy to achieve Ivy League or Oxbridge similarity. You may do all sorts of valuable or worthy things, and no matter how innovative they are or how effectively they meet social, cultural or economic desiderata, if they are not based on the characteristics made desirable by that elite group the praise you will receive will never quite lack an undertone of condescension, and almost certainly won’t help you at all in any league table. Of course Oxbridge and the London University institutions and the Ivy League are excellent and to be admired. But is that the only acceptable gold standard?

All of this is proved emphatically in some of the loudest responses to the outcomes of TEF. Even TEF didn’t relegate Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College from the top grade; but it did send some other venerable institutions packing. No other London university made it to Gold, and several Russell Group members were awarded Silver and indeed Bronze. The Russell Group, according to its own website, represents ’24 leading UK universities’. You get the idea: you start with the assumption that these universities will ‘lead’ whatever you have come up with. And here is how the Russell Group responded to the results:

‘We need to recognise that developing a robust TEF that is truly reflective of the UK’s excellent higher education sector will take time… TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact.’

I won’t comment here on the various questions and arguments that have been advanced on TEF, and I have no doubt at all that there is significant room for debate about the exercise, its merits and intentions. But, in full recognition of my special interest here, I will say this. It is high time that higher education becomes less monolithic. It is time to recognise that excellence is not incompatible with diversity, and that there are many different contributions universities can make – no, that truly leading universities can make – to help achieve society’s need for pedagogical and scholarly excellence; that there are different ways of realising intellectual creativity translated into social progress and that these different ways deserve proper funding; and that we must not accept a higher education hierarchy of elitism today any more than we would accept a socio-economic one. If TEF takes us even a little bit in this direction, then TEF has done something really good.

The Great Exodus

Posted June 19, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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All of us in the United Kingdom, and universities specifically, are still struggling to discern what the practical implications of Brexit will be. We are not helped by the total confusion in the matter right now, with no clear consensus either in the UK government or the opposition as to what should be the desired outcome of the negotiations that began, sort of, in Brussels yesterday.

But as we wait to interpret the occasional clues thrown our way, there are some things we do know. One of these is that EU nationals who work in UK universities, unsure as to what their immigration status will be, are leaving in droves. According to the most recent report in the matter, 1,300 academics who are nationals of EU member states have left British universities in the last year, with Cambridge and Edinburgh the most seriously affected.

Universities are hosts to an international community of scholars. The United Kingdom has recklessly undermined this principle, by leaving unanswered for now the question of whether EU nationals (and indeed others) will still be welcome to work in UK higher education and by suggesting that non-British students may be subjected to tighter immigration restrictions. The excellence that is rightly claimed by British universities will, if this is not addressed very quickly, be fatally compromised. Higher education must not be part of the collateral damage of Brexit.

Lighting the darkness

Posted June 18, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: photography

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Amongst the things I like about living in the North-East of Scotland are mid-summer nights. From early June to mid-July it is never totally dark. Last night it was beautifully war, and I went for a country walk at around midnight, returning at 1 am. This is what I saw as I left the house.

Ythsie at midnight

And this was the sky on my return.

Ythsie at 1 am

This may not be the warmest place in Britain, but it is one of the most beautiful.