Archive for February 2018

Where would you find the higher education elite?

February 27, 2018

Last year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) identified excellence in teaching and learning in United Kingdom universities. When the results were published, a frequent observation in the media, as in this case, was that many ‘elite UK universities’ had been found to be less than excellent. My purpose in reminding readers of this is not to pursue an argument for or against TEF, but rather to ask why particular universities should be classified as ‘elite’, particularly when the narrative is just suggesting that they are not.

Ask anyone to name the world’s ‘elite’ universities, and no doubt without much hesitation they’ll come up with Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton – you recognise the sort of institution likely to be suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, let me stress that these are great universities, and that they have many impressive academics and very smart students. But why would we say they are part of an ‘elite’?

The problem with this form of intuitive ranking is that it is self-perpetuating. When we say that Cambridge is an elite university, we don’t mean that all the evidence suggests it is so, but rather that we know it is so because this is what has been handed down through the generations. This assumption is made and recycled so effectively that the university is able to gather up very smart and ambitious students, willing donors, media supporters and so forth, to the the point where any argument that it is not in the elite will sound absurd to most.

The consequences of this reach into society and the economy and perpetuate all sorts of things we’d rather not have, including significant social inequalities.

But it need not be so. Recently Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and recognised as one of higher education’s most innovative leaders, pointed out in a speech to the US National Governors Association that intelligence is not reserved for students in Ivy League institutions, and that many of the smartest people are in other universities less often associated with the elite. This is not just the case, but needs to be more vigorously asserted if we are to be successful in securing a more open and equal society in which access to influence, money and power is not a form of club membership. And it may be time to think again about the metrics used to determine how close your institution and mine may be to ‘elite’ status.

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Finding value in higher education

February 19, 2018

Today the British government launched a new review of English higher education, the aim being ‘to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone’. This review has been heavily trailed for some time, and appears to be based on a sense of uneasiness with the existing framework. One particular angle was given expression by the Prime Minister in her speech announcing the review: she suggested that higher education was influenced by ‘outdated attitudes’, and that in particular there was too much much of a tendency to maintain a gulf between higher and further education.

The terms of reference of the review set out further concerns with the existing system:

‘… The system has encouraged growth in three-year degrees for 18 year-olds, but does not offer a comprehensive range of high quality alternative routes for the many young people who pursue a technical or vocational path at this age. The majority of universities charge the maximum possible fees for at least some of their courses and three-year courses remain the norm. Average levels of graduate debt have increased, but this has not always led to higher wage returns for all graduates. And the system does not comprehensively deliver the advanced technical skills that our economy needs.’

In the meantime, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP, in a television interview on Sunday suggested that a problem with the current system in England was its pricing uniformity: as the BBC reported, he suggested that tuition fees should reflect each degree’s value to society:

‘What we need to look at is the different aspects of pricing – the cost that it is to put on the course, the value that it is to the student and also the value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future.’

This again raises a number of questions about the value of higher education, and how that should relate to is cost. This is a complex issue in a system that bases university funding on tuition fees paid by students, but in a tightly regulated framework. Higher education in England is not a market (which few in the UK would want it to be), in the sense that universities cannot base their fees on supply and demand. But if not a market, then what? It is not offered as a social service, either. Indeed, it is much easier to say what it is not than to suggest what, in public policy terms, it actually is.

So the problem with the expectations that this new review may raise is that it is unclear what political perspective the UK government wants to adopt to inform its higher education strategy. Some of what we know is laudable: the drive for more participation by disadvantaged groups, for example. But it is hard to see an overall philosophical direction in the government’s pronouncements and actions.

In fairness, many (and not just the UK government) struggle to articulate and pursue a clear higher education policy. Is it all about protecting and resourcing a public good? Is it about recognising the benefits to the individual of a degree and extracting a contribution from that individual? Is it about meeting society’s skills needs? Back in 1963 the Robbins report┬áset out a clear vision of turning what had been a benefit for the elite into a national resource. The sheer success of that vision eventually made its continued development difficult, because of the enormous cost involved. It will be interesting to see whether this new review, chaired by City equities broker Philip Augar, is able to make a significant contribution to finding a new vision that is based on a coherent outlook and is capable of being implemented successfully.

Frankly, that is quite a challenge.

My friend Gavin

February 12, 2018

“Hi Ferdinand”. This was the friendly salutation in the first email I opened this morning. But then came one of those phrases I particularly hate in emails, and in letters for that matter: “I hope this email finds you well.” At that point I could safely say that the email didn’t “find” me well, mainly because it had actually found its way to me.

“Regarding your marketing needs in your company, can we arrange to have a chat on the phone later this week.” No question mark at the end of that sentence, by the way. If I were to reply to this, the text of my reply might be “Fat chance”, or words to that effect.

Two other irritants. The email is signed “Gavin”, with no surname, and a company name, but no indication of what role Gavin plays in the organisation. The subject line is “Your query”. Now if I had the time and energy to focus on Gavin, I would indeed have a query or two, but none related to his ability to service the marketing needs of “my company”.

Of course we all know about the spam problem. In 2016 it was estimated that 59 per cent of all email traffic was spam – which, mind you, was an improvement on the 71 per cent estimated for April 2014. But actually that’s not my issue here. Gavin wasn’t selling me Viagra from dubious sources, or offering me the chance to meet some desirable Russian ladies. Gavin, in fact, works for a quite reputable company which I have come across a few times and which, I believe, offers an appropriately professional service. So what on earth has persuaded Gavin that this is a good way to get my business?

So for all the Gavins out there, don’t do this. Not because it annoys me (though it does), but because you won’t get my business this way, even if your product looks interesting. Your email is destined for the bin. Don’t address me as if I were one of your oldest friends, if we have never met. Don’t address me at all if your product or service is obviously handled by someone else in my organisation. Don’t suggest I run a “company”, at least make the effort to find out what kind of institution this is. Don’t suggest a “chat”, or even a cup of coffee. Don’t, in fact, be such a complete pillock.

A learning society?

February 5, 2018

Since about the late 1980s, one of the key assumptions of all higher education planning has been that university education would not in future be mainly focused on the learner progression of school leavers but would be available to people at various stages of their lives and for different reasons. The concept of ‘lifelong learning’ was born, and it informed a good bit of education policy over the ensuing decades.

But has something changed? In the reporting of a noticeable drop in university applications in Ireland just now, one element of this that has received special mention is the decline in applications by mature students. This has been put down in part to the current economic recovery, which it is suggested has made continuing education less attractive to those already in employment.

But this decline in mature student numbers has not been unique to Ireland. In England the decline has been attributed to the impact of tuition fees.

Whatever the reason, if we are going to see fewer mature students (usually referred to as ‘adult learners’ in the United States) then this will have an impact on planning in higher education at various levels. It is time to re-state what public policy actually is in this area, and how it can best be realised.