Archive for October 2010

Comic sanity

October 31, 2010

Here is something we might find a bit intriguing: a sort-of-political rally in Washington DC organised by two satirists working on comedy shows, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The rally yesterday, which attracted somewhere between 60,000 (estimated by the authorities) and 6 billion (early ‘estimate’ by Stephen Colbert). The rally was, somewhat strangely, billed as a ‘Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear’, partly a satirical reference to rightwing commentator Glen Beck’s ‘Rally to Restore Honor’ in Washington last month.

Apart from the humour and satire, a key message of the organisers was a call to stop political ‘shouting and insults’ and a ‘call to civility’. There is probably a worthwhile message in that for the rest of us outside America also.


Paying for tutorials

October 31, 2010

As English universities face up to what looks like a very challenging funding environment, Oxford University has disclosed that it has raised £1 billion from alumni and supporters and that it will use some of  this money to fund its traditional one-on-one tutorial system. While the university has not (as far as I know) disclosed what these tutorials cost on an annual basis, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, has indicated that the sum raised in its philanthropic campaign (while a European record) is not enough and more will have to be found to keep its traditional teaching methods alive.

While small group teaching has been at the heart of the British (and Irish) higher education system, most universities have long had to abandon it or restrict it for resourcing reasons, and realistically it will prove more and more difficult to sustain it as an idea in the light of very different funding principles now affecting the sector. While I have believed that small group teaching is highly desirable where it is affordable, I have long had doubts about Oxford’s one-on-one tutorials. For me the benefit of small groups is that they are small enough to encourage participation, but also large enough (i.e. more than one) to allow for student interaction with each other, which I believe to be a hugely important part of the learning process. I have moreover heard many times from Oxford graduates about the limitations of their tutorials, particularly where the tutor was struggling with an excessive sense of ego.

In any case, before any politician takes from this the lesson that philanthropy is the answer to under-funding, let me say that I also believe Oxford to be wrong is suggesting that donations can subsidise the recurrent costs of teaching; apart from being an unlikely prospect for most universities, I also think it is wrong in principle; philanthropy should be for capital programmes and start-up projects.

Of course I would congratulate Oxford on the success of its fundraising campaign. But I might just suggest to its donors, if any of them are listening, that there may be better value for money in some other institutions. £1 billion is a hell of a lot of money to need for tutorials.

Incentivising completion

October 30, 2010

According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, Irish higher education institutions will, under the framework of reforms to be recommended in the strategic review presided over by Dr Colin Hunt, have to agree various targets on a regular basis with the Higher Education Authority, and that the latter will be entitled to impose financial penalties if any of these targets are not met. One of the likely targets will be an agreed student completion rate. More specifically, this is how the Independent describes the proposed framework:

‘Under a new funding system, colleges will receive reduced ‘core’ grants from the Exchequer. They will then be offered financial ‘incentives’ to meet targets in areas such as the retention of students, the rate of course completion, increasing access to college, teaching standards and research. If they fail to meet these targets, they will face financial penalties.’

In this blog we have already discussed the desirability or otherwise of a centrally coordinated planning process for higher education and the concept of performance targets. There is however a specific issue with student retention as a performance target. Any such target can easily be met by lowering the demands made by programmes of study, or moderating the severity of marking and assessment.

In any case, as nobody seems to have observed, there is already a distinct financial penalty for student non-completion. A student who drops out will cause an immediate financial loss, because his or her fees (as paid by the state) and their part of the recurrent grant disappears. In fact, student attrition creates severe financial problems for the institutions. If in addition to that the HEA were to impose a penalty and withdraw further funds, this will directly lead to a lowering of quality of provision for those students who remain, and I cannot even begin to understand how that would be a good idea.

All of this adds to my impression that we are facing a ‘reform’ agenda in Ireland that is largely misconceived and is based on the belief that what the system lacks is regulation and structure. In fact, what the system lacks is a sufficiently well developed position on pedagogy and scholarship, but that gap is likely to widen as a new system of tight controls emerges. These controls are likely to create major educational quality risks, but this is not being sufficiently articulated by the universities. There may be dangerous times ahead.

Photo #12: exotic Ireland

October 29, 2010

What you see in this photo is Sandycove, just south of Dublin. I chose a perspective, and then a photo editing method, to make the scene look more exotic and sub-tropical. It was actually taken exactly a week ago today.

Understanding why students drop out

October 29, 2010

Just over two weeks ago I addressed the problem of student non-completion in this blog. Yesterday Ireland’s Higher Education Authority published a Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education, which set out some of the more detailed data on student drop-outs broken down by institution and by subject. The study is extremely useful, but on the whole it tells us a lot of things we already know, or certainly ought to know: that students with poorer Leaving Certificate (final secondary school examination) results are more likely to drop out of university; that woman are better at completing than men; that difficult programmes of study have a higher rate of attrition; and that institutes of technology have higher drop-out rates than universities. Perhaps less obviously, it also tells us that there is no significant difference in attrition between those from a better-off background and the less well off (though the latter are much less likely to get to university in the first place).

Yesterday afternoon I was invited by Radio Station TodayFM to be a guest, together with the HEA’s Muiris O’Connor, on the late afternoon programme The Last Word with Matt Cooper. In considering the report of this study, and also in assessing the comments made by Muiris O’Connor in explaining it, I was struck by the fact that one absolutely key message was missing: the impact of the CAO points system.

As Irish readers of this blog know, the points system is essentially a market in programmes: if you want to study a popular subject you will need more CAO points than if you are willing to go for one of the less popular ones. The level of difficulty of the programme is neither here nor there; and so because difficult programmes are by their nature less popular, you find bizarrely that you can get on to a difficult course with much worse Leaving Certificate results than you would need for an easier one. That this results in significant attrition rates for difficult programmes is hardly an earth-shattering surprise. What is a surprise, however, is that we know this and do nothing about it. And the reason why we do nothing about it is broadly the same reason why we won’t tackle fees – we are afraid of the wrath of the middle classes, who generally want to pour money into their children’s secondary education and then want them to be professionals rather than scientists, entrepreneurs or artists.

As I have mentioned before, the CAO points system is slowly but surely distorting and corrupting the whole Irish education system. We need to address this urgently. And as they own it, the people who need to tackle the points system head-on are the universities. It is time to act.

Keeping fees straightforward and transparent

October 28, 2010

For readers who are not immediately familiar with the Irish higher education system, it may be worth saying briefly that there are no tuition fees, but there are charges known as the ‘registration charge’ or the ‘student services charge’. This was introduced shortly after tuition fees were abolished, and at first was fairly nominal in amount. The purpose was that the charge would help universities defray the cost of services other than tuition. Over the years this charge increased in amount, and on occasion the government raised the charge at the same time as lowering the recurrent grant. Most recently, in 2009, the charge was increased from €900 to €1,500. At around the same time questions were asked of the universities about how the money raised was being spent, and whether any of it was actually defraying the cost of tuition.

In yesterday’s Irish Independent there was a report suggesting that, in the light of further budget cuts to higher education now anticipated in the December Budget and Book of Estimates, there could be a further substantial rise in the student registration (or services) charge. Should this happen, then the charge will be bigger than tuition fees in some countries that have fees. But they will be less useful to the universities, who will be unable to apply them to support academic and teaching costs.

Much though I am  in favour of tuition fees for those who can afford them (as readers of this blog will know), I am strongly opposed to fudging the issue by introducing fees but calling them something else and restricting their use. The university ‘business’ that is now being placed at risk is teaching, and to demand ever higher contributions from students but stipulating that they cannot be used to support teaching is bizarre and lacks basic transparency, and moreover tempts the universities into using them in questionable ways. It would make much more sense, as a first move, to introduce fees at the level at which ministers are now apparently contemplating the registration charge. Let us at least be honest about what we are doing; the current (and possibly planned) scheme makes no sense and really encourages dishonesty regarding university funding. It should stop.

German unreliability

October 28, 2010

I suspect that many people, at least in these parts, think of German cars as maybe a little more expensive than others, but to compensate they are better designed, safer and more reliable; whereas Japanese ones, say, are cheaper, less solid and less well made. In fact, advertisements by Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes and others often play on the particular image  of quality and solidity. But is it a correct one? Think again.

One of the consistent findings of car reliability surveys is that Japanese cars are best, and German luxury cars are worst. The latest American one, from, finds that Acura, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Scion, and Toyota are the most reliable cars, while BMW and Audi do very badly, and Mercedes is the least reliable of all. And just in case you think that might be a flawed survey, the evidence is the same in this report from CNN.

What amazes me is that German carmakers, who have clearly had some quality problems for some time, have still managed to retain the image of themselves as the main quality brands. How long can this last, if they do not improve reliability?

I must now confess that I am a Mercedes owner, and actually a satisfied one (not one of the largest models…).

Higher education: Ontario and Ireland?

October 27, 2010

Last weekend the Irish newspaper the Sunday Business Post published an article in which it suggested that the report of Colin Hunt’s strategic review of higher education will recommend that there should be new controls by the Higher Education Authority on how universities spend their money and what they spend it on. More precisely, the article said that there would in future be ‘agreed targets’ for each university in a number of contexts, and that some funding would be made contingent on these targets being met.

While this would be a new departure for Ireland, it is not necessarily original thinking. A little earlier this year the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario was asked by the Ontario government to look at ways in which a more ‘differentiated’ university sector could be established. This is the key recommendation of the resulting report:

‘A roadmap is provided indicating how the government can advance the current university system to a more differentiated one. The cornerstone of this transition is a comprehensive agreement between each university and [the relevant state agency] identifying the expectations and accountabilities of each institution including its expected enrolment and student mix, its priority teaching and research programs and areas for future growth and development. In contrast to the practice with the current multi‐year accountability process, incremental funding to the institution would be aligned with its mission agreement, annual progress would be evaluated using an agreed‐upon set of performance indicators, and institutional funding would be continued or removed based on progress towards agreed‐upon goals and targets.’

It would be foolish to dismiss the idea that a degree of differentiation or specialisation of institutions might be a viable strategy, whether in Ontario or Ireland. But the model being contemplated may be more a bureaucratic one than a strategic one, and would establish the idea that central direction of higher education is a winner. It is likely that the resulting system would be administratively cumbersome rather than strategically effective. It would also completely undermine the concept of university autonomy.

I would agree with the idea that the universities themselves should consider ways in which sector-wide collaboration in order to avoid unnecessary duplication could be achieved. But I would be of the view that a new bureaucratic state-run mechanism to enforce specialisation would be wholly counter-productive and would tend to compromise initiative and innovation. Let’s not do that.

Over-spending their way to success?

October 27, 2010

Longer term readers of this blog will know that occasionally my attention here turns to football (soccer); this is one such occasion, for which my apologies to those not interested. But the topic I am raising here may have implications beyond football, and may even be relevant to the management of universities, indirectly. Also, to declare my vested interest, I am as some here know a supporter of Newcastle United FC.

So what am I raising? Well, many people interested in English Premier League football will have been watching closely how one club, Manchester City Football Club, is faring. For those who have no idea why this should be so, let me explain briefly that a couple of years ago the club was bought by Abu Dhabi billionaire Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan. At the time he did so, Manchester City had for some time mostly been in the lower half of the league. The Sheikh has very deep pockets indeed, and he immediately began to pour money into the club. The idea was that the club should be able to buy any player they wanted from anywhere in the world, whatever the transfer price and whatever the wages. The world’s best and most expensive players were in the club’s sights, and the intention was that it would climb to the top of the league.

Like many fans I suspect, I really really hoped that this wouldn’t work. I was already fed up with the apparent ability of Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich’s ability to buy success for his club, and to have an even bigger spender come in and do the same (or more) for Manchester City seemed just annoying and also wrong. I wouldn’t even like it as a fan: if Newcastle were to win competitions solely because it had a very very rich owner it would spoil it for me.

Well, Manchester City is now firmly established in the top 4 of the Premiership, and may even win it (Chelsea being number 1). There are occasional glitches for these big spenders, but the lesson appears to be that mega-millions talk, and most persuasively. Unless, that is, the new rules being introduced by European football governing body UEFA put an end to this. The consequence of the big big spending by Manchester City is that the club  has a major annual deficit, as its revenues cannot match the expenditure. But now UEFA is about to exclude clubs running a deficit from European competitions, and because these competitions are vital for the big clubs and their players, this may have an immediate effect. Nor will it be that easy for the big spenders just to stop the purchases as the new rules kick in, as they will still have the accumulated wage bills and indeed the amortization of the transfer payments.

So it may be that the rules are about to get fairer. No bad thing. If I were writing the rules, I might actually ban private owners of football clubs altogether. After all, the big Spanish clubs do very well without them. And who would shed a tear if Silvio Berlusconi were no longer the owner of a major club…

In the meantime, I’m still hoping that Manchester City ends up outside the top 4 in the Premiership.

Can teaching quality inform the league tables?

October 26, 2010

Now that the autumn season of university rankings is over, it may be worth reflecting a little on what they do or do not tell us, and what merit there may be in them. As is obvious from much academic commentary worldwide, and indeed from comments posted by readers in this blog, many in the higher education community do not like league tables and believe they play a negative role in developing universities. However, what is pretty much beyond doubt is that the rankings are here to stay and, for better or for worse, will continue to influence potential students, academics themselves and external stakeholders.

One question in particular is however worth asking: if teaching is still the core activity of most universities, how useful are rankings, given that on the whole they pay little or no attention to this? Just one teaching-related metric tends to have an impact, and that is the student to teacher ratio.  This does tell us something about each institution, but it is based on what is now perhaps a financially non-viable assumption, i.e. that universities should strive to keep classes as small as at all possible, and that larger classes suggest poorer quality. The latter may well be true, but financial pressures are pushing everyone that way, and we need better ways now of differentiating between institutions in terms of teaching quality.

The publishers of the QS World University Rankings have set out the dilemma as follows:

‘In our opinion teaching quality, as opposed to teaching commitment, cannot be effectively ranked, because there are no independent experts and no suitable surrogate metrics.’

As is often said, the things that get measured get done. If rankings move into a new generation and neglect teaching quality, then academics will take their cue from that and will focus on whatever it is that gets results in the tables (chiefly research). It is urgently required that we address this and that we find acceptable ways of factoring in teaching quality.