Archive for October 2013

The limits of higher education?

October 29, 2013

Some of the key changes in higher education over recent times have been driven by what is sometimes termed ‘massification’ – i.e. the move from a system that served an elite only to one that every member of society might aspire to experience. As I have mentioned before, when I was a student I was one of around 5 per cent of my age cohort who could reasonably expect to go to university. In the years that followed the number increased rapidly, to a point where in many countries it is now common to see more than half of each cohort participate in higher education. The consensus that emerged suggested that most young people, and a good many older ones, should aim to go to university, and that in doing so they would create valuable human capital, enhancing their own income prospects significantly and providing skills and leadership for the wider society.

But now voices are beginning to emerge that question this consensus. In those countries in which relatively high tuition fees are largely funded by student debt, and where that debt has reached dramatic proportions as is the case in the United States, some are now asking whether this is producing ‘negative educational equity’, in which the salary advantages enjoyed by a graduate no longer exceed their accumulated student debts. Others are asking whether the surge in university graduates has asset stripped professions that society needs and that pay well but which, because they are not degree-based, no longer attract sufficient new entrants. Others again ask whether massification has anchored middle income groups within the graduate elite but has more effectively marooned the disadvantaged outside  this large golden circle, because the cost of including the middle leaves insufficient resources to help the poor. In the meantime the growth in numbers has also meant a growth in the number of degree-based professions and, by that token, in degree courses that are heavily vocational

There probably isn’t a simple answer to all this. What seems clear to me is that massification cannot and should not be reversed; the days of small educational elites should be over. But there is within that framework a case for more debate on how far higher education should go, how it should be funded to make it genuinely excellent rather than just competent, and how professions whose formation does not properly need a university setting can be made sustainable and attractive. There also has to be a robust framework to ensure that the dividing line between higher education participation and other forms of adult formation is not a socio-economic one.

It may be worth saying that too often the debates about higher education are producer-oriented: focusing on the terms and experiences of academics rather than on the aspirations and experiences of students, or indeed of those who never become university students. To this extent the higher education debate needs to be re-balanced, and urgently so.

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What’s not to like

October 23, 2013

Quite frequently I travel to and from work by bus. I live a little way outside Aberdeen, and the bus journey is good for doing some reading in preparation for the day; and to over-hear conversations, like the following one. The dramatis personae were two young women.

Woman #1:   ‘I don’t know, like, it’s like, I was like, “what are you doing?”‘
Woman #2:   ‘I hate that, like, when they’re like “I don’t understand”.’
Woman #1:   ‘I’m like, “are you stupid, like?'”

Well, I think the word ‘like’ now urgently needs to be erased from the English language. Its use in any context should be severely punishable. That’s all we can still do. If we don’t act now, we shall all be fatally buried under an avalanche of ‘like’.

Bringing up Robbins

October 22, 2013

Almost exactly 50 years ago saw the publication of the Report of the Committee Appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins – the slightly unwieldy title of what became known as the Robbins Report, the most extensive review of higher education ever conducted in these islands. The report set out four aims of higher education: (i) instruction in skills, (ii) promoting the ‘general powers of the mind’, (iii) the advancement of learning, and (iv) the ‘transmission of a common culture and common standards of citizenship’. The report also set out guiding principles, including the principle that ‘higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.’

The report had a huge impact and influenced the course of British higher education (and perhaps that in other countries) for the next few decades. And now, 50 years later, the current English Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, has written a pamphlet (published by the Social Market Foundation) reflecting on Robbins and looking at how, in the light of the principles of that report, the university system should now develop. In doing so Willetts embraces what he regards as some key themes of Robbins: the expansion of higher education; the importance of teaching (he believes it needs to be moved centre stage, partly through the better use of technology); the avoidance of inappropriate specialisation; and the development of effective funding models (he believes the UK government has got this right).

It is possible to argue with the Minister’s conclusions while still admiring his willingness to engage in this debate. Fifty years after Robbins, it is indeed time to look again at where higher education should go.

Ireland: budgeting in hard times

October 16, 2013

Whenever the Irish government announces its annual Budget, public and media attention focuses in particular on changes in taxation and benefits; and that is understandable. For higher education the far bigger story, which tends to get buried in the news coverage, is the announcement of the annual expenditures – the sums of money the government proposes to spend on public services and departments. This used to be known as the ‘Book of Estimates’ and, until recently, it was published separately in advance of the Budget.

Yesterday the Irish government produced the Estimates alongside the Budget, and the details can be found here. To see the higher education story, you ned to turn to pages 152-3. During 2014 current expenditure on higher education will be €1.45 billion, or around €62 million less than was allocated for 2013, roughly amounting to a 4 per cent cut. Elsewhere in the Budget documentation some of that is explained by suggesting that universities have surplus cash balances. It is also worth noting that capital expenditure for higher education will be €32 million, which is probably payment for already committed projects and, in practical terms, suggests a zero capital investment in the sector.

Elsewhere in the Estimates there is a cut of 7 per cent to the ‘Innovation’ budget in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; this is likely to mean a drop in spending on research and the promotion of industry R&D.

These are of course still difficult times for Ireland. But there is a marked difference here between the way higher education has been handled in the Irish Budget and the way it has been addressed recently in the expenditure plans of the Scottish government. A small economy relying to a major extent on inwards investment cannot afford to starve higher education. Making Irish higher education competitive with those economies that could also attract high value investment should be a priority. It must be hoped that this goal is not being abandoned.

The university debate: academic expertise in the conversation

October 15, 2013

If you are interested in how the university system is changing, or perhaps how it should change, there is plenty for you to read. A number of notable writers, including a fair number of university heads or former heads, have offered their analysis of higher education and how it will, should or should not change. Some of these contributions have been angry complaints about a system that, the authors believe, has abandoned (or perhaps been forced to abandon) its traditional values; others have suggested that change has not gone far enough. But there is no shortage of public analysis.

Now however one researcher into higher education reform has suggested that the debate lacks expert academic input. Kevin R. McClure, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, has suggested in an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that there is a ‘vast reform-industrial complex’, but a missing academic input:

‘The questions surrounding higher education’s future demand input from academics whose livelihoods are tied to rigorous scholarship, imbued with an understanding of history, theory, and data, not from policy centers pursuing a political agenda or entrepreneurs shoring up business. Yet out of the multitude of works on higher education I have read over the past year in completing my exams and writing my dissertation proposal, surprisingly few for general audiences are written by higher-education scholars.’

When a year or two ago I chaired the higher education governance review for Scotland, my colleagues and I came up with a similar finding: that there is an expert research gap in higher education literature. We recommended therefore that funding should be found for a Scottish Centre for Higher Education Research. This has not yet happened, but it seems right to me that a significant dose of scholarly expertise should be injected into this debate. Of course those, both within the system and outside it, who wish to use their experience of higher education to comment on it should have space to do so. But the time has also come for this debate to be informed by higher education scholarship; and I hope that in the near future more than one centre dedicated to this work will emerge.

The university debate (guest blog)

October 13, 2013

Over the next while this blog will host occasional contributions to the debate about the future of the university. Right now in many countries, though not Scotland,  public funding for universities is falling (in some cases dramatically) and traditional assumptions of how they should operate are under pressure. Have these changes reinvigorated the idea of the university, or undermined it?

Here a view is offered on changes in the Irish higher education system, by Professor Ronnie Munck of Dublin City University.

It seems to me that the Irish university system is heading down a particular path without much debate or even basic reflection by those driving it down that path. The economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has led to the austerity policies that the IMF once imposed on the developing world. University managers have agreed to a man (yes) that what the universities need is more of the market logic that brought us to this impasse in the first place. Just as with neoliberalism in it’s heyday (before the small detail of the 2008-09 global crisis) ‘there is no alternative’ and there is but one path to salvation.

This is politics, you might suggest. Our job is just to run the universities as best we can in conditions that are not of our choosing. But these are political choices that have been made and, always, people and societies can make other choices. Trade union members at Dublin City University have put out a ‘charter’ laying out ten basic principles they feel are core values of a progressive university fit for purpose in the 21st century. Given the severity of the crisis facing the Irish university (amply demonstrated in this blog) we should probably spend some time reflecting in a safe environment what we feel about this statement. I think all the points are debatable but at least we can agree that some of the right questions are being asked.

To rephrase the ten principles of the DCU Charter as questions we might ask ourselves:

1. Is the university a public good and if so, what does that mean? What level of industry input in its teaching and research agendas are we all comfortable with?
2. Do our university strategies reflect the needs of society at large and do staff and students feel they ‘own’ them?
3. Is our teaching designed to increase the employability of our students and nothing more?
4. Should the research agenda be driven to the extent that it is by economic and state interests, and is there an alternative logic?
5. We all claim to be engaging with society but is this really ‘core business’ in an era of austerity?
6. Are our students consumers of knowledge or our ‘customers’ (customer satisfaction include follows), or is there some other definition of student we might appeal to?
7. Is the current employment control framework, Haddington road, etc a sustainable human relations policy for the university?
8. Are MOOCs simply the only way to go and can we just ditch traditional teaching methods?
9. Are the too many senior posts at the university under present conditions, a slightly different question, are they over-administered?
10. Do we still value collegiality and creativity, or is it a case of ‘needs must’ and we need to run universities like businesses?

So over to you all. We were all once students and we should be able to respond coherently and persuasively to these questions. After all we ask our students to do this all the time!

Rank confusion

October 8, 2013

For the last few years the late summer and early autumn has been the season for university world rankings. This season kicks off in August with the Academic Ranking of World Universities (published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University), and a month or so later we have two sets of  World University Rankings (one published by Quacquarelli Symonds, and the other by Times Higher Education).

There are also others that, at least for now, we can disregard; and there is the EU’s U-Multirank project, which describes itself as a ‘multi-dimensional ranking of higher education institutions’, and which says that its first (2014) publication will look like this:

‘U-Multirank is a new multidimensional, user-driven approach to international ranking of higher education institutions. The dimensions it includes are teaching and learning, research, knowledge transfer, international orientation and regional engagement. Based on empirical data U-Multirank will compare institutions with similar institutional profiles and allow users to develop personalised rankings by selecting indicators in terms of their own preferences.’

The purpose appears to be the production of a variable ranking system that users program to reflect their own priorities; meaning perhaps that most institutions will find a way of extracting from this a league table that has them in an attractive position.

But back to the existing autumn show of rankings. What do they tell us? One of the problems with them is that they seem to tell very different stories. All of them agree on one thing: that US universities still clearly lead the field, followed by British institutions. But when you get to the detail, there is little agreement. Each has a different leading university. The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) is global number 1 in one league table, number 6 in another, and number 10 in the third one. And when you get just a little further down the list, the variations are much greater. And as the Irish universities have shown this year, in one league table they can go up significantly while, in the same year, dropping like a stone in another.

So are league tables really just unreliable? Are the U-Multirank folks right, and the best thing is for you and me to compile our own rankings?

The point is that, like it or not, we are in the age of rankings. People want to have an objective view of quality and merit, and they will go for something that looks as if it offers that.  Even when we criticise the league tables, as at some point we all do, we still play the game they set us. And in truth, that’s what we have to do. So then, choose your favourite league table, and see how you can use it to best effect. But don’t be mesmerised by it, and for goodness sake don’t construct your strategy around it.