Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

An office for students?

November 24, 2015

The major higher education event in the UK this month was probably the publication of the UK Government’s plans for English higher education in their Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. It is amongst other things a fairly comprehensive statement of the priorities and intentions of the new UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson. In his introduction the Minister sets out his agenda:

‘We will reward excellent teaching with reputational and financial incentives; widen participation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds; provide greater focus on employability; open up the sector to greater competition from new high quality providers; and reform our regulatory structure so that it drives value for money for students and taxpayers.’

Each of these elements has a section within the Green Paper, and I shall return to each of them in due course. On this occasion I want to comment on the Green Paper’s proposals for a new regulatory structure, or as it is put in the document, for ‘simplifying the higher education architecture’. At the heart of this is the UK Government’s proposal to establish a new ‘Office for Students’, which would be a ‘single, light touch regulatory system for all providers of higher education’, and would be both a ‘regulator’ and a ‘student champion’. This new agency would combine many or all of the functions of the current nine public bodies regulating or supporting higher education; but it would also have a particular focus, based on what the government regards as they key reasons for government intervention:

‘(i) information asymmetries between students and institutions and insufficient demand side pressures to ensure quality; (ii) the inability of students, in the quantities desirable for society and the economy, to finance higher education at the point of entry without support; and, (iii) the broader benefits to society of having a highly educated population.’

The frame of reference therefore guiding this reform is that higher education operates in a market which the government needs to regulate to protect the consumer (i.e. the student). This can be compared with the role of the current primary higher education  regulator in England, HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England). This is how HEFCE explains its role:

  • ‘ensure accountability for funding and be a proportionate regulator
  • act in the public interest and be open, fair, impartial and objective
  • be an effective broker between Government and the sector and in doing so, ensure that we are implementing government policy effectively.’

The role of HEFCE is to act as an intermediary between universities and government, and in that setting to recognise and protect also the standards of higher education and the interests of students. That is not the same role as the one now being proposed for the Office for Students, and the Green Paper contains little analysis or argument about what this change might imply and how it might change higher education practice. HEFCE is what is generally referred to as an arm’s-length body – this is a body that ‘delivers a public service, is not a ministerial government department, and which operates to a greater or lesser extent at a distance from Ministers.’ In the higher education field such bodies generally channel public money to universities and monitor performance under various headings; but they provide a voice for the sector in the sector’s dealings with government. If the new Office for Students is principally concerned with student interests, a key support function for universities will be lost – not a minor issue at a time when some institutions are thought to be very vulnerable.

But in any case, it must be doubted just a little whether the new agency will in practice primarily work to support students; not least because most student representative bodies are pretty hostile to the system being implemented.

This reform may not be the wrong reform; but it may need a more explicit narrative that recognises and assesses the fairly fundamental shift in higher education assumptions that it is introducing. That is what is missing.

Charles W. Eliot, and the nobility of ideas

November 10, 2015

There are certain books, I would argue, that everyone who has an interest in higher education should read at some point. One of these without doubt is a collection of essays by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University for an amazing 40 years until 1909 and a cousin of the celebrated poet T.S. Eliot, published in 1898 under the title Educational Reform. It was Eliot who turned Harvard into the world leading university it is today, and along the way he contributed to some really interesting public debate about the nature and purpose of higher education.

The book is full of fascinating reflections on a variety of subjects connected with education, but it is best for the reader to start with the first essay, which is in fact Eliot’s inaugural address, delivered at the beginning of his presidency when he was only 35 years old. This essay not only sets out Eliot’s views on education, but also illustrates, by describing the system he had taken on, how much he managed to change it during his presidency. But it also contains insights that are still important today, including this:

‘The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities and public schools, from primary to professional. The worthy fruit of academic culture is an open mind, trained to careful thinking, instructed in the methods of philosophic investigation, acquainted in a general way with the accumulated thought of past generations, and penetrated with humility.’

In the same essay Eliot suggested that the task of the university is to make people (well, he said ‘men’, but they were different times) ‘be loyal to noble ideas as in other times they had been to kings’. Today one would say that different universities can and should have different missions, but the integrity of intellectual thought – ‘noble ideas’ – needs to be common to all institutions still. Eliot’s ideas are worth reading.

Don’t expect too much of every new disruptive innovation in higher education

November 3, 2015

There is no doubt that higher education has seen significant change over recent years, but not the kind of fundamental shift that some commentators were expecting a couple of years ago. At the beginning of the current decade a number of people – including some university leaders – were predicting that all universities would have to adopt MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) if they were to survive. MOOCs would subvert and replace the pedagogical model used for as long as anyone can remember in higher education; and for that matter the business model also.

It hasn’t happened. Over recent months there have been several articles and studies suggesting that while MOOCs are not dead, they are unlikely to dominate university education. They are too easy for people to access, so too many people are dropping out early; they are not being recognised by employers; they are too expensive to design and run, particularly if they produce zero revenues.

I shall avoid saying that I told you so right from the start; though of course I did. But I will say that higher education is by its nature too conservative for all of its traditions and practices to be swept away overnight by one piece of disruptive innovation. Technology-enabled distance learning will continue to grow and develop, but the courses it spawns will not at a stroke become the new norm, particularly if they are un-funded and nobody is paying. There is clearly room for innovation and change, but it needs to be driven by analysis and evidence.

Waterford and Carlow, and the strange tale of a proposed ‘technological university’

October 19, 2015

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute or the city for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

Since 1997 there has been a statutory mechanism for examining the case an institution might make for conversion to university status. Under the Universities Act a panel of national and international experts would be established to examine the application, and would make a recommendation to the government based on criteria set out in the Act. There is at the very least a strongly arguable case that any such application by WIT would succeed.

But that would be all too rational and simple, so of course we cannot do it that way. Partly because Waterford is not the only institute of technology wanting to be re-badged, and because regional political pressures might push the system to consider such ambitions seriously, a much more complex and totally implausible framework has been established, based on the idea that there should be a separate category in Ireland of ‘technological universities’.

The idea of technological universities emerged in the Hunt Report, National Strategy for Higher Education, published in 2011. This report suggested that such institutions could be created by merging clusters of institutes of technology and calling the resulting organization a ‘technological university’. The criteria to be applied, which were to be set out in legislation, do not differ markedly from those we might expect for a university more generally. And before anyone would be able to apply for such status, they would first have to merge with someone else.

There are all sorts of problems with this proposed framework. First of all, contrary to what is suggested in the Hunt report, there is no recognized international concept of a ‘technological university’. There are some institutions with such a name – the Technological University of Munich, and Queensland University of Technology are examples, but these are high value research-intensive universities, and nothing like the concept suggested in Hunt.

Secondly, and crucially, it is completely baffling why anyone would think that a merger should make two institutions more suited to be universities. The Waterford example is an instructive one. As I have suggested (and as many others have also concluded), very good arguments can be made for university status for WIT. However, the institute has been told that it can only be considered for such a status if it first merges with Carlow Institute of Technology. Carlow is a perfectly good institute, but has nowhere near the same claim for university status as Waterford. It has a much more modest research profile, and generally has a profile that is extremely valuable but not typical of a university. So how are we to make sense of the proposition that WIT is not good enough to be a university, but that if it merges with a weaker institute (and one with which it has no record of strategic collaboration) it will be more eligible? Frankly, this is totally crazy.

In fact, the assumption that merged institutions are stronger than individual ones is very questionable. None of the world’s top 20 universities is particularly large. In fact, the world’s top university (according to Times Higher Education) is Caltech, which if it were in Ireland would be the smallest third level institution here. In addition, none of the 100 largest universities in the world are in the top 100 ranked institutions. There simply is no correlation between size and excellence.

Finally, there is no evidence that mergers between institutions based in different locations are a good idea. Those that have been tried have more often than not failed. There is, simply, a need for Irish policy makers more generally to stop thinking of mergers as a good solution to anything. The fixation on this objective has the potential to do damage to the system

It would have to be said that Irish public policy on Irish institutes of technology has gone badly wrong. Rather than trying to force institutions to do something that really makes no sense, it is time to think again.

So here comes the ‘Teaching Excellence Framework’ – do we actually need it?

October 12, 2015

The UK Government has indicated that it intends to introduce a system for assessing teaching quality of a kind that would be comparable with the Research Excellence Framework (REF). In July the new British Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, set out his agenda in a speech to Universities UK, in which he referred to ‘delivering a teaching excellence framework that creates incentives for universities to devote as much attention to the quality of teaching as fee-paying students and prospective employers have a right to expect’. He added that ‘it is striking that while we have a set of measures to reward high quality research, backed by substantial funding (the Research Excellence Framework), there is nothing equivalent to drive up standards in teaching.’

As a result there is now a process under way in England to design a TEF. Right now it is not yet clear whether Scottish universities should also be part of this framework. Some have argued that, for league table and related reasons, it would be important for Scotland to take part; others have indicated they would prefer Scotland not to join the TEF. But in any case, how sensible is the whole idea?

Even in our age of measuring everything to create raw material for rankings, no attempt had been made to date to develop metrics to rate comparative teaching excellence. In part this reluctance has been driven by recognition of variety – teaching will not always take the same form and pursue the same objectives from institution to institution and from subject to subject. But it is also really unclear as to whether there are objective standards that can be measured. Or rather, where something can be measured (such as student satisfaction) it already is.

The big risk inherent in a TEF is that it will punish innovation. Just as the REF (and its predecessor, the RAE) undermined interdisciplinarity and encouraged competent mediocrity, so a new TEF may persuade academics that sticking with traditional courses and teaching methods is safest. I hope we don’t go there.


Negative educational equity?

October 5, 2015

The funding of higher education is something currently under review in a number of countries, including Ireland and Wales; but any debate around it raises issues not just of how an ambitious university system can be resourced, but also of the impact of a fees régime in a country that chooses to let the the students pay for some or all of the costs of their education.

It has now been estimated that in England the average student can expect to pay £63,000 for their university education – a sum consisting of tuition fees and living costs, and amounting to much more than the deposit for a mortgage to buy a house. While it is also clearly the case that a university degree will significantly enhance a graduate’s career prospects and salary expectations, there may come a point at which the cost is greater than the expected return; a condition sometimes described as negative educational equity.

One of the possible consequences of this state is that some may choose to look to higher education outside of England; and recent reports have highlighted the much lower cost of degree courses in some European countries, many of which are now being offered in English. There are apparently signs that some English students are availing of this opportunity, while international students are being put off from coming to England by the cost.

Therefore, while there is a strong argument for saying that free university tuition is something the taxpayer cannot afford, it can also be argued that a funding régime that imposes tuition fees on all students while the state detaches itself from the resourcing of higher education is equally unsustainable and may produce unintended consequences. University funding needs to reflect the value of higher education to graduates, but also the value to society. It is an area in which an ideological approach to what is right and what is wrong is very unlikely to be satisfactory. The reality is that, in order to have a successful system, the state must carry some of the cost, as must those taking the courses – where they can afford to.

The academic network

September 28, 2015

No doubt the internet creates challenges for academic integrity, but it also provides interesting tools for scholarship. One of these (founded in 2008) is the website, which allows academics to upload their published or unpublished work and get readers, citations and comments. It is intended partly as a tool for academic interaction and the exchange of ideas – a worldwide network of colleagues and contacts one might previously have found only in one’s immediate circle of collaborators.

The publishing house Sage has also created an academic networking site, Methodspace (mainly, I suspect, as a prospecting tool to find promising authors).

More mainstream social networking sites also contain pages that link particular groups of academics.

It has often been suggested that, for many academics, the primary community to which they belong is not their institution but their discipline. As a lawyer, for example, I am often more connected with law academics in other universities than, say, biochemists in my own. As it becomes easier and easier to network with these colleagues across the world, will this further loosen institutional cohesion? This is one of the challenges facing universities today, one that makes it important to present faculty with opportunities to link across disciplines and promote a sense of institutional relevance.

A global academic community is one of the real benefits of today’s technology, and should be celebrated. But a university that is able to bind together its members in an overall purpose is also still important, particularly as cross-disciplinary insights become more and more relevant to global problems. Universities need to be able to work with both dimensions.


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