Archive for July 2014

Higher education apocalypse or renewal?

July 29, 2014

As the years and months go by the voices become more insistent that universities across the developed world are in trouble and that many of them will collapse. The latest prophets of doom include a writer for Fortune magazine, Chris Matthews,  and a Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen.

Such prophecies are not necessarily new. However, until relatively recently the predictions were based on doubts about whether universities were equipped to deal with a more challenging financial climate, particularly as governments came under pressure to reduce public expenditure during the recent recession. While money issues still get a mention in more recent warnings of pending catastrophe, they may not always be the primary source of concern. What is being highlighted now is the disruptive effect of phenomena such as changing demographics, new technologies, new entrants into the higher education market, corporate disenchantment with older university programmes such as the MBA, and the inability or unwillingness of faculty to adapt to changing conditions.

Notwithstanding all the warnings, it seems to me to be doubtful that many universities will close, though some may find mergers to be more comfortable than precarious survival. That does not mean, however, that there is no cause for concern. Higher education has grown massively globally, but largely on the back of a growth of universities that, with varying degrees of quality and success, all try to do more or less the same kind of thing. The evidence seems to me to suggest that the system needs much more diversity in order to meet social and economic needs. It is not that the old university model has become unserviceable, but rather that it does not meet absolutely everyone’s requirements.

Even if there are now, in most western developed countries, fewer school leavers entering higher education, there are far more wanting access to it at different stages of their lives and careers. There may be a case for some universities focusing less on traditional academic research, and more on research and development that is much closer to identified needs. Some universities may need to engage much more directly in economic, cultural and social regeneration.

Higher education needs to be renewed; but not so as to find a new – different – common identity for all institutions. It needs to recognise, celebrate, encourage and reward successful diversity. If it does that, I suspect the system will remain remarkably robust.

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Not fit for women (or men)?

July 22, 2014

Around this time of year many universities will have been holding graduation ceremonies. And as the graduands approach the stage, it will have been noticeable that in some disciplines they were predominantly of one gender. Engineers and computer scientists will more often than not have been men, while nurses and teachers will have mainly been women. In some subjects – say, law – the gender gap is also widening, with women making up the majority. Is this an avoidable state of affairs, or something we just have to put up with?

Dr Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow suggests the latter. As reported in the Herald newspaper, he has argued that ‘we probably need to give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses’, and that initiatives to bring about another outcome ‘completely deny human biology and nature.’ He also said that it should not matter to us whether the person who fixes our computers is a man or a woman. Rather, in a free society we should let people choose their professions without worrying about what that produces in terms of gender balance.

Of course historically there have been other implications. A profession dominated by women has tended to be an under-valued one, with lower pay and fewer opportunities for career development. In addition, such professional imbalances tend to perpetuate themselves as they restrict the availability of role models to persons of the other sex. Whether these patterns may change as women take hold increasingly of previously male-dominated careers such as law remains to be seen. Equally, as evidence grows of the disengagement of some boys from education more generally, we will need to see whether this produces new social problems.

The patterns of university education have a more profound impact on society than many other things. Nobody expects or requires the student population across all courses to be perfectly gender balanced, but it is unhealthy for gender stereotyping to be reinforced in higher education. There are no quick or easy solutions, but it would be a good start for us to recognise that we still have a problem, and that while the specific nature of the problem may change from profession to profession, it still needs to be addressed.

Sic transit

July 14, 2014

Readers of this blog may forgive me for a very short post today. I have been on a short holiday in America, and have only just returned. This week RGU has its summer graduations, and it is a busy week for me as I recover from jet lag.

However, I would want to note that over recent days, in two separate jurisdictions that both have had cabinet reshuffles, Ministers in charge of higher education have retired from the scene. In Ireland it has been Ruairi Quinn, and in England David Willetts. These are both very different men, but they have shared one thing in common: that they both value and have wanted to engage constructively with universities. One of these Ministers may have views that are rather closer to mine than those of the other, but I have met them both and found them both impressive, in different ways.

All too often university affairs are governed by politicians who have little understanding of higher education and who see their responsibility primarily in terms of where it will take their careers. Neither Ruairi Quinn nor David Willetts were of that kind. I wish both of them well, and I suspect they have more to offer still, and that we may yet get some of their reflections in published form.

Dealing with debt

July 8, 2014

As the global debate continues about how to resource higher education, there are some strong voices suggesting that the only way to generate sufficient cash to pay for educational excellence without discouraging the less affluent from entering universities is through tuition fees funded through student loans. Under such systems students pay nothing on commencing their studies, but rather take on a loan, with the sum of the loan representing some or all of the cost of their courses. That loan is later repaid by instalments when the student, now a graduate, is in employment or economically active and earning more than a specified income.

This system, it is suggested, is superior to ‘free’ higher education (i.e. studies funded entirely by the taxpayer) because it secures more resources for universities than the taxpayer could afford to provide, and to a tuition fee-based model because the student pays nothing up front or during the course of their studies and so is not excluded by lack of means. It is used in Australia (where the Higher Education Contribution Scheme – HECS – was introduced in 1989) and more recently in England (and not, as is sometimes suggested, in the United Kingdom as a whole).

The introduction of a similar scheme in Ireland has been proposed by some for a while. The Irish Universities Association began to argue for the ‘introduction of a system of income contingent loans and top up fees’ by 2009. More recently the new President of University College Dublin Professor Andrew Deeks, in an interview with the Irish Times, said:

‘My personal view is that the contribution system that has worked in Australia for the past 20 years now provides a good model. It is a deferred payment of a debt, which is accumulated module by module as students progress through the course.’

There is little doubt that the Irish system of higher education is now seriously under-funded. It is also easy to see the attraction of a resourcing framework that does not create a financial entry hurdle for students. Whether the Australian model is as good as is suggested could however be open to argument. One of its significant features is the by now very high level of unpaid debt. It is estimated in Australia that over A$30 billion in student debt is outstanding, of which up to A$7 billion will never be recovered (nearly £4 billion). Now one of the live issues in Australian politics is the question of whether student debts owed by people now deceased can be recovered from their estates. Other studies have suggested that the prospect of high indebtedness is also discouraging some poorer students from entering higher education.

Nobody has yet found the silver bullet for funding higher education, and all debate and exploration should be welcomed. As countries in the developed world identify the need to promote universities that are resourced to host world class discovery, attract very high value industry investment and provide graduates with top skills, it is clear that the funding burden is not an easy one for the taxpayer to carry. Equally it remains of vital importance that appropriately able people from all socio-economic backgrounds are encouraged to pursue a university degree. However, whether a loan system is the answer is, in my view at least, somewhat doubtful.

Finding the formula for higher education

July 1, 2014

If you read the pages of political and business magazines these days, then sooner or later you’ll come across an article on higher education that will, almost certainly, suggest that the traditional university model across the developed world is falling apart: buildings, infrastructure and equipment are becoming too expensive; people with great academic potential are being lured away to industry; governments are interfering too much and paying too little; students cannot afford the cost of a university degree; disruptive technologies are creating havoc amongst the old institutions; and so on. Some add that this toxic cocktail of problems will cause many universities to go bankrupt.

The latter prediction one can justifiably take with a grain of salt. For the past decade or so the demise of institutions has been predicted again and again, but none of any significance has in fact collapsed. Some no doubt are living precariously, but they are all still there. Many universities have learned to do what business always does – to respond to financial challenges by cutting costs suddenly and dramatically; redundancies are not so rare now in this sector. But the institutions survive.

And yet there is change in the air. New online courses (including MOOCs) create new learning environments and outcomes (the latter including alarmingly high drop-out rates). Interaction with external partners has become the norm for almost everyone. Research is now often aligned with the drive for national technological innovation.

If we are looking for new models for universities, we need to find an agreed framework for evaluating these. Such a framework must address the two most important questions for assessing higher education: (1) what pedagogical aims are we pursuing? – and (2) what impact do we want scholarship and research to have? Too often I find people discussion higher education innovation in terms of capacity (‘we are doing this because we can do it’) rather than in terms of principle (‘we are doing this because we should do it’).

If universities do go bankrupt, I suspect it is because we are no longer clear about what higher education is for. There is of course more than one good model. But let us at least be clear about what these models are, and why they are desirable.