The right participation?

Posted August 22, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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It is that time of year again, when (at least in this part of the world) school examination results are out and universities make their final student selection decisions. It is also the time of year when questions are asked, again, about how many people should ideally participate in higher education.

Roughly a year ago a senior Australian academic, Leo Goedegebuure of the University of Melbourne, suggested:

While some may look at graduate employment rates and contend we have an oversupply of graduates, I fundamentally disagree. Not only is the middle- and long-term outlook for university graduates still pretty good, in a knowledge-based economy there is no limit on the level of educational attainment. The higher and the better educated a country, the more competitive it becomes.

Today a different perspective was offered in the Irish Times by Sean Byrne, lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology:

… Encouraging large numbers of young people to enter third-level courses without assessing their aptitude for the subjects they propose to study or their capacity for self-directed learning will inevitably lead to declining standards and thwarted aspirations.

The debate, if we can call it that, about the optimum participation rate in higher education is never really satisfactory because it doesn’t make explicit the very different considerations included in this question. The issues raised are pedagogical, economic and social; and this is complex because our assessment of pedagogy, for example, has significant social implications. When only a social elite went to university (which was generally the case until the 1980s or so) universities could offer a much less utilitarian curriculum. But when higher education is accessed by a majority of the population, it is more or less inevitable that it will focus much more on economic impact and need. And as we get closer and closer to a society in which almost everyone aspires to a university degree, most of these degrees will need to be closely linked to skills needed in the economy, at various levels.

Higher education participation has grown strongly in all developed countries by design (and rightly so). But what this means in pedagogical, economic and social terms has not become a matter of consensus. And so, every year around this time, someone will ask whether we are really doing the right thing in expanding higher education to such an extent; and will neither offer nor get a satisfactory answer.

Brexit and EU research funding – some necessary certainty?

Posted August 16, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Last week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, issued a statement, which inter alia contained the following assurance:

‘Where UK organisations bid directly to the European Commission on a competitive basis for EU funding projects while we are still a member of the EU, for example universities participating in Horizon 2020, the Treasury will underwrite the payments of such awards, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU. As a result, British businesses and universities will have certainty over future funding and should continue to bid for competitive EU funds while the UK remains a member of the EU.’

British universities will undoubtedly welcome this statement, which at any rate removes the financial risk they could face by applying for EU research funds at this point. The statement may not however resolve the main problem facing British universities in this context, which is that European universities are now reluctant to include UK institutions in research consortia at all, and will certainly not accept them as leaders of any consortium.

All of this underscores the importance of clarifying government policy in relation to EU research programmes, such as Horizon 2020. If it is thought desirable for Britain to continue in these programmes it would be useful to state this as a policy objective right now, to provide some re-assurance to European partners. There is no conceivable benefit for Britain not to be included.

This should be a government priority right now, not least because it also supports the case for the UK as a location for high value, knowledge-intensive foreign direct investment; a case that the Brexit decision has somewhat undermined as one of the potentially significant unintended consequences. It is time to act.

Regulating higher education

Posted August 8, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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One common feature of higher education in Britain’s political regions – i.e. England, Wales and Scotland – is that all are making or considering changes to the way in which higher education is supervised. Until now one aspect of each system has been the same: each had a regulatory and funding body – the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Scottish Funding Council.  Now however the nature and role and identity of these bodies has become the subject of official review or proposed reform, raising the question of what they are for and of whether they are necessary or helpful.

In England the government has proposed the setting up of an ‘Office for Students’ taking over some of the functions of HEFCE and other bodies. In Scotland at the time of writing the government is conducting a review of the ‘enterprise and skills agencies’ which may lead to a significant reconfiguration of the system. In Wales a review of higher education conducted by Irish academic Professor Ellen Hazelkorn was published earlier this year; she recommended a new agency to be called the Tertiary Education Authority (a proposed name drawing more than a little from Professor Hazelkorn’s Irish background).

The question raised by all this is whether a university system needs an arm’s length agency set between the sector and the government. Such agencies usually administer public funding and act as regulator; they also, to some degree, represent the interests of the university sector in addressing government. Is this a useful function that gives better protection to the institutions while also providing assurance of oversight; or could such a role be carried out more effectively within government itself (as is the case in Northern Ireland)?

Higher education has become one of the most regulated and bureaucratised sectors within what one might call the public interest areas of the state. Do these agencies make such bureaucratisation better or worse? Or perhaps, should government agencies be configured differently, so that innovation and research is managed in such a way as to ensure that university research is aligned (where appropriate) with private sector research or R&D?

Despite this trend of review and reform there has been little open debate about the value and role of these arm’s length agencies. Reform, if it is to occur, should not be by stealth but should take proper account of – and subject to debate – the appropriate principles of regulation and management.  Right now there is no visible common understanding of what these principles are.

Student debt gets political

Posted August 2, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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A key issue in the current (and often strange) American presidential election campaign is student debt. There are a number of reasons why it has taken on political significance, but as an issue it was initially raised by the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who in his election programme promised to make university education ‘free and debt free’. The issue has also been taken on board by Hillary Clinton.

The prominence of this issue is underscored by various reports and news items. A blog post published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has pointed not just to the scale of student debt in America, but also its socio-economic consequences, increasing the gap between rich and poor and creating ‘negative wealth’ in a number of households. This finds a resonance on this side of the Atlantic, with a British lobby group suggesting that for many graduates the lifetime salary premium secured by a degree is likely to be overpowered by the weight of debt.

All of this tells us that nobody has yet found the silver bullet for higher education funding that is effective in providing necessary resources for institutions while also being socially equitable. Free tuition, notwithstanding the proposals by Sanders, places institutions at financial risk; a loans-financed higher education based on high tuition fees creates unsustainable debt. Sooner or later politicians will need to face up to the fact that means-tested support is the only way out of this. Maybe the US election campaign will help.

Breaking away?

Posted July 26, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, literature, society

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Academics are well used to being asked some time in early June at the latest whether the are now off until September. As I have mentioned a number of times, this is never the case now (and anyway never was the case in most universities) – few manage to take more than 2-3 weeks away.

However, I can report that I am now on a two-week break, and right now am travelling between the United States and Canada (tomorrow I shall be in Halifax, Nova Scotia).

As I travel I get a chance to read things I don’t normally have the time to tackle. This time it has been Pnin by Nabokov; Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens; and The Silent People by Walter Macken. Alongside that, and for real entertainment, a book on monetary economics.

I hope some of my readers are also enjoying a break. Back to normal service for me next week.

The nature of argument

Posted July 19, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society

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One of the key demands made of a democratic community is that it must be capable of critical argument. Nobody can be sure that an idea, or a policy, or a proposal has merit until it has been properly tested in debate. However, as Monty Python pointed out (or not) some time ago, conducting an argument is not the same thing as hurling abuse. And yet that increasingly is what it has become, at any rate in certain political quarters.

Right now I am visiting the United States. It is an interesting time to do so, as we are just into the Republican Party Convention. Perhaps unwisely, I spent a little time this evening watching the proceedings on television, and the sum of the speeches, interjections, interviews and commentary was simple enough: Hillary Clinton is a crooked liar. That’s all you need to know, and let’s not assess the evidence too much, it confuses the message.

But before those who dislike the Republican Party and maybe feel superior to the United States get into their stride, the last few days have seen bucketloads of abuse thrown around in Britain also, a good bit of it at the Conservative Party; in fact, there is a popular hashtag on Twitter that reads #Toryscum. I am not an apologist for the Tory Party, but I cannot help noticing that all too often its detractors detract less with reason and more with vilification.

Political debate is becoming increasingly coarse, and all too often those conducting it seem to assume that they will fare best if they succeed in attacking the bona fides of their opponents rather than the merits of their opponents’ arguments. The result of this is popular cynicism, which in turn corrodes democratic processes.argument

Of course there are some politicians who deserve censorious denunciation. But not all of them do, and not even all in a particular party with which you or I might disagree. Real argument is more intellectually laudable than personal abuse. In fact, abusive anger is never attractive and rarely appropriate, in whatever setting we might be tempted to apply it.

I’ll probably go back to watching the GOP tomorrow. I have asked my family to prod me if I mutter anything abusive.

Irish higher education: the funding dilemma

Posted July 11, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

As Irish readers will know, yesterday saw the publication of the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education (chaired by Peter Cassells), Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education. Its recommendations had been well trailed in advance of publication, so while they merit discussion of course they are hardly new. Indeed they are not new in another sense: most of what is analysed in the report, and indeed of what is recommended, had been analysed and recommended 12 years earlier in the OECD report, Review of Higher Education in Ireland. Very similar conclusions were reached back then, particularly in chapter 10 of that report.

The problem requiring a solution is not hard to state, and has been a matter of pretty solid consensus for well over a decade: Irish universities and colleges are seriously under-funded. The consequences include an increasingly unacceptable student-staff ratio, degraded facilities, high levels of student attrition, an erosion of international competitiveness. The solution is very easy to state also: more money. The conundrum for politicians is who should pay for this, or where this money is going to come from.

The Cassells expert group has identified three possibilities: (i) let the state pay for everything, but more generously than at present; (ii) maintain the current system of a €3,000 student contribution with additional state funding to make up the required amount; or (iii) an income-contingent loan system, under which higher education is free at the point of entry but where students contribute through re-payment of a loan once their income has reached a certain threshold after graduation. The report assesses these options, sets out the advantages and disadvantages of each, and in effect settles for option (iii), though not explicitly.

In the end this will not turn out to be a matter of choosing the best option, but of securing a policy that will not be damaging to anyone politically. The fate of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the UK – who promised not to allow any increase in tuition fees but who were then in the government that did just that and ended up losing seats at the subsequent election – will be on everyone’s mind. If this is a problem that can be dodged it probably will be. After all, the OECD report has gathered dust for 12 years.

I confess I am hugely sceptical about an income-contingent loan scheme. Australia is held up as an example to follow, but the critical thing to note about the Australian model is that it has led to massive unpaid debts, estimated to lie at around or above a staggering AUS$40 billion. As the scheme also involves subsidised interest rates for the loans, it has been estimated that the cost to the taxpayer could be about the same as state funding for the system, but less predictable in its impact.

If it is our intention, as it should be, to ensure that access to higher education is unimpeded for those with the necessary talent, whatever their socio-economic background, then there are really only two options. One is full state funding: but this is meaningful only if that funding is generous enough to secure excellence, quality and international competitiveness. This in turn is unachievable unless taxes are raised to secure the necessary funds, and the revenues are hypothecated – i.e. ring fenced for expenditure on higher education only (which is not possible under current budget systems).

The other option is to have tuition fees for those who (subject to means testing) can afford it, free tuition for those who cannot, and perhaps loans-assisted fee payments for middle income groups.

There is no other realistic option that will actually work in practice and in the long run. There isn’t an easy silver bullet that requires no difficult decision by politicians. And because this is so, this report too may start gathering dust. I would love to think that I am wrong however, and that at least some steps will be taken to ensure that the erosion of excellence in Irish higher education is halted.


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