Negative educational equity?

Posted October 5, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

The funding of higher education is something currently under review in a number of countries, including Ireland and Wales; but any debate around it raises issues not just of how an ambitious university system can be resourced, but also of the impact of a fees régime in a country that chooses to let the the students pay for some or all of the costs of their education.

It has now been estimated that in England the average student can expect to pay £63,000 for their university education – a sum consisting of tuition fees and living costs, and amounting to much more than the deposit for a mortgage to buy a house. While it is also clearly the case that a university degree will significantly enhance a graduate’s career prospects and salary expectations, there may come a point at which the cost is greater than the expected return; a condition sometimes described as negative educational equity.

One of the possible consequences of this state is that some may choose to look to higher education outside of England; and recent reports have highlighted the much lower cost of degree courses in some European countries, many of which are now being offered in English. There are apparently signs that some English students are availing of this opportunity, while international students are being put off from coming to England by the cost.

Therefore, while there is a strong argument for saying that free university tuition is something the taxpayer cannot afford, it can also be argued that a funding régime that imposes tuition fees on all students while the state detaches itself from the resourcing of higher education is equally unsustainable and may produce unintended consequences. University funding needs to reflect the value of higher education to graduates, but also the value to society. It is an area in which an ideological approach to what is right and what is wrong is very unlikely to be satisfactory. The reality is that, in order to have a successful system, the state must carry some of the cost, as must those taking the courses – where they can afford to.

The academic network

Posted September 28, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

Tags: , ,

No doubt the internet creates challenges for academic integrity, but it also provides interesting tools for scholarship. One of these (founded in 2008) is the website, which allows academics to upload their published or unpublished work and get readers, citations and comments. It is intended partly as a tool for academic interaction and the exchange of ideas – a worldwide network of colleagues and contacts one might previously have found only in one’s immediate circle of collaborators.

The publishing house Sage has also created an academic networking site, Methodspace (mainly, I suspect, as a prospecting tool to find promising authors).

More mainstream social networking sites also contain pages that link particular groups of academics.

It has often been suggested that, for many academics, the primary community to which they belong is not their institution but their discipline. As a lawyer, for example, I am often more connected with law academics in other universities than, say, biochemists in my own. As it becomes easier and easier to network with these colleagues across the world, will this further loosen institutional cohesion? This is one of the challenges facing universities today, one that makes it important to present faculty with opportunities to link across disciplines and promote a sense of institutional relevance.

A global academic community is one of the real benefits of today’s technology, and should be celebrated. But a university that is able to bind together its members in an overall purpose is also still important, particularly as cross-disciplinary insights become more and more relevant to global problems. Universities need to be able to work with both dimensions.

Knocking louder on Europe’s door

Posted September 27, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society

Tags: ,

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, the University of Dundee

It is almost two years exactly since my guest post on this blog, Knocking on Europe’s door, a post I felt compelled to write out of outrage and frustration at the loss of over 300 migrants’ lives off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Sadly, Lampedusa has proven not to be an isolated tragedy. Only a few weeks ago the photograph of a dead Syrian boy on a Turkish beach suddenly captured the world media’s attention dispelling, or so one hopes, any ‘compassion fatigue’ that the European public opinion might have experienced so far. Germany has taken the lead, presenting itself as the Weltmeister in willingness to help, while also asking for that pan-European solidarity (in the form of a redistribution of refugees across the Union) it so clearly rejected in the Greek crisis. The country is struggling to cope as the first destination of choice for the world’s refugees and asylum seekers, to the point that plans of housing some of them in Buchenwald barracks are being considered. History, as philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote, is “irony on the move.”

While the watershed moment in public opinion caused by the powerful photograph of a dead child is welcome, I don’t think that the EU can function if it is run according to the shifting moods of the national electorates. This is exactly what has happened so far with regard to the immigration debate, which not only has conflated crucial legal distinctions between a migrant, a refugee and an asylum seeker, but also has predominantly reflected the populist views of the mob over those of the democratic crowd.

This is not the place to analyse in depth the root causes of what is only the latest migration/refugee crisis in humanity’s history – the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory is often evoked; I believe instead that literature provides us with the most useful insights into the shape of things to come. The Camp of the Saints (Le Camp des Saints), a 1973 French apocalyptic novel by Jean Raspail depicting a not too distant future when mass migration to the West leads to the destruction of Western civilisation, eerily foreshadows current discussions about ‘European (Christian) values,’ or its local variant of ‘British values.’ In December 1994 The Atlantic Monthly dedicated its cover story “Must It Be the Rest Against the West?” to the novel. The piece is still so relevant that it might have been written yesterday. Here is its sobering conclusion:

For the remainder of this century, we suspect, the debate will rage over what and how much should be done to improve the condition of humankind in the face of the mounting pressures described here and in other analyses. One thing seems to us fairly certain. However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints.

For a more recent literary example in a similar dystopic vein I would suggest Michel Houellebecq’s  Soumission (2015), which features the election of an Islamist to the French presidency, against the backdrop of a general disintegration of Enlightenment values in French society.

So here is the challenge facing us: how best can we advance the debate from the disturbing xenophobic undertones which have characterised it so far?

First of all a close look at our own myths might reveal that at the origin of Western civilization there is a refugee story: wasn’t Aeneas, the founder of Rome, a homeless refugee from the war between Greeks and Trojans? From the world of myths to the more pragmatic one of politics, the answer lies in “more Europe and more union”, as the EU commission president recently put it (not only more but a much better union and Europe, I would argue), and in the role that cultural institutions like universities, Europe’s traditional seats of knowledge, must play.

It is very welcome that, perhaps belatedly, Universities UK new President, Dame Julia Goodfellow – first female President since UUK was established in 1918 – launched the Universities for Europe campaign last July. Also, the UK universities’ commitment ‘to a future in the European Union’ was strongly reaffirmed in her recent address to the Annual Member’s Conference, together with the repeated urge to remove international students from the Government’s net migration target. In her conclusions Dame Julia Goodfellow reminded the conference that ‘every day, universities are improving lives, helping the country grow, and changing the world.’ This is the time for universities to be true to such an ideal mission. They can contribute to changing the world and changing lives in many ways, one of which is by supporting projects like Article 26, whose aim is to promote access to higher education for people who have fled persecution and sought asylum in the UK. Universities can make a difference by introducing a whole series of measures to support refugee students, as the University of Glasgow has just done. In ‘The Syrian refugee crisis – What can universities do?’ Hans de Wit and Philip G Altbach identify several ways in which universities can provide a positive response to the crisis, not least because ‘in the current competition for talent, these refugees are not only seen as victims and a cost factor for the local economy, but in the long run also as welcome new talent for the knowledge economy.’

Personally, I would love to see universities, so acutely aware of the benefits of philanthropy at times of financial constraints, becoming themselves generous intellectual benefactors. Solidarity (fraternité) might have its costs, but the costs will be enormously higher in the long run for us all by the lack of it. In a globalised world our personal stories and those of our nations are interconnected, just like our destinies.

A testing time for university admissions

Posted September 21, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: ,

In higher education there are few things as difficult, as potentially controversial and (as some might argue) as habitually misleading as the examinations that secure access to university courses. In the not-too-distant past many universities that considered themselves to be part of an elite conducted their own tests as a basis for admission decisions. But over time these examinations disappeared, particularly as in several countries standardised admissions procedures were developed across the whole university sector. So for example the University of Cambridge discontinued its own entrance exam in 1986.

This produced a situation in which the final school examinations, typically run by the state, determined university admissions. In the United States of America the equivalent standardised test – the SAT (originally the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’, now just SAT) – is run by a private non-profit organisation, but is accepted by the entire higher education system.

The advantage of a nation-wide standard test is that it provides an apparently objective and comparable basis for university admissions decisions; everyone applying has done the same test and has been graded according to the same guidelines and standards, across the whole country and in applications to all institutions.

Of course that only works if the credentials of the examination and the usefulness of the results it produces are widely accepted. A problem that has emerged in a number of countries is the suspicion that results have suffered from grade inflation – i.e. the belief that improved scores are less due to better performance and more due to a tendency to increase the average marks over time. So if results are in large numbers converging on the same high point in the scale it becomes more difficult, it is argued, for universities to determine which student applicants have demonstrated the better aptitude for their chosen course.

Now the University of Cambridge has responded to this apparent phenomenon by talking about reintroducing its entrance exam. Whether this is a good solution to the perceived problem is another matter, not least because the entrance exam is seen by many as favouring students from private schools, who will have the staff and resources to prepare applicants for this exercise.

There is a very good case for re-examining final school examinations in a number of countries, and also for looking again at how the results are used in the university sector to take admissions decisions. Where they are used to determine entry standards they should work reasonably well; where they are used to make individual selections (i.e. to select one student over another) they may often be less useful. But the answer to the problem almost certainly is not for individual universities to introduce entrance examinations.

Bingo, it’s a cliché

Posted September 15, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university

Tags: , ,

As academics all over the Northern hemisphere usher in the new academic year and all its activities, they will no doubt be enjoying the new round of committee meetings. One way of passing the time at these, according to an American website, is to play a game of bingo that spots various clichés and behaviour patterns. Some of it is very familiar on this side of the Atlantic, some of it less so (do people here talk about ‘the guy with the short shorts’?).

So perhaps we need our own bingo cards. I’m open to relevant entries.

Parental care

Posted September 7, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, students, university


A few years ago I recruited a very impressive American to work for my university. As could be expected, he encountered a number of cultural issues in his new place of work, but most of them he was able to deal with appropriately. One that he found particularly difficult, however, was our reluctance to engage in any way the parents of our actual or prospective students, except during university open days. He was used to parents being a key stakeholder group with whom universities would engage on a regular basis, keeping them informed of their daughters’ or son’s progress and of the university’s plans and achievements. We did no such thing. Indeed if parents contacted us about their children, we would routinely tell them, politely I hope, that we could not discuss them with ‘third parties’ – a category that included parents.

I confess that I have felt particularly committed to this approach because, often, parents tended to push their children in all the wrong directions, in particular by pressing them to do courses because of the social standing this would give their offspring (rather than choosing courses to fit the children’s talents and interests).

And yet of course parents are a genuine stakeholder group. Their influence in the choice of university and courses is usually significant, and of course the years that follow often see parents having to make major financial investments in their children, even where there are no tuition fees. The role that parents play is now often recognised and promoted. And to return to America, some universities there now contact parents when students misbehave.

Perhaps we need to think again and to strike a more reasonable balance between the correct recognition of the personal autonomy of students and the legitimate interest of parents (though perhaps less so in the case of mature students). Or perhaps that interest is better expressed in communications between the students and their families, without university involvement? Even if that is so, involving parents in discussions about institutional strategy and priorities cannot be a bad thing.

The never-ending accumulation of courses? Or no change at all?

Posted September 1, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: university

Tags: , ,

Recently the University of Stirling is reported to have indicated that ‘consideration is being given’ to ‘the sustainability of religious studies’, one of its courses. Current students are being assured that they will be able to complete their studies, but apparently there are no guarantees beyond that. This news has led to a number of actions, including a petition, and statements of support for the continuation of the course from various prominent people. And of course there is a lively social media campaign. Some of the efforts to stop the closure can be viewed here.

Stirling University itself does not seem to have offered any comment at all – certainly the news section of its website makes no reference to the issue; and that may not be an ideal way of communicating. However, it is not my intention to critique the decision, not least because I know nothing about the university’s reasons, or even intentions. But there is a wider issue here that universities have to grapple with: at a time of limited resources and income, how can any institution develop and innovate if it cannot let go anything it has already accumulated?

Times change, knowledge changes, resources change, fashions change, demand changes – and all of this must produce changes over time in a university’s offering. Too often, however, what this means is that universities offer new courses and programmes while also holding on to everything they have already got, even where demand for some has dropped. Every so often statistics are released showing that specific courses continue with tiny numbers.

Universities are often quite bad at discontinuing things – which realistically they must do; but then again, when they try, they often face howls of protest from within and without the institution. In 2010 Middlesex University decided to close its Philosophy department, a move that led immediately to an outcry and the attendant petitions. How can such steps then be taken? Or if they cannot, is it in practice not acceptable for a university to re-envision what it does?

Stirling University may be right or may be wrong to consider closing religious studies (if indeed it is doing that), and Middlesex University may have been wrong in 2010 (as I suspect it was). And yet, you cannot keep a university alive and well without taking some difficult decisions from time to time. We do not seem to be able to work out how to do that, and do it with the support and consent of the wider community of stakeholders. This is something that we will need to get better at.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 862 other followers