Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

An educated vote?

August 14, 2017

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

Erosion of support for higher education?

August 7, 2017

One of the points of wide consensus in the world over recent decades was the desirability of extending higher education to a much greater number of people, both so as to create a more equitable society and to ensure that high level skills were available to the economy.

Recent debates may be starting to call that consensus into question. In the United States universities have increasingly come to be seen as being part of the liberal political cluster, and their value has accordingly been called into question by some on the conservative wing of politics. In the UK and elsewhere criticism of pay and conditions for senior managers has become widespread, giving universities a bad press.

Opposition to universities is not on the whole based on arguments against higher education, but on dissatisfaction with this or that attribute or practice of the sector. This has the capacity to put at risk support for educational excellence at tertiary level, which would have more serious implications. Universities should therefore consider it a priority to look at how they are perceived by society (or sections of it), and how they can steer the system back to where a broad consensus supporting higher education can be found. This is vital for any number of economic and social reasons.

Tuition fees; or not; or what?

July 17, 2017

Perhaps unexpectedly, tuition fees moved centre stage in the recent UK general election. It is assumed by several commentators that the promise by the Labour Party to scrap tuition fees in England (Scotland has none) and restore free higher education played a major part in bringing out the youth vote and upsetting Conservative plans in the election.

Since then, the Guardian newspaper has carried opinion pieces by Christopher Newfield, Professor of English and American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and by David Green, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester, calling for a policy change. Professor Green suggests a return to a version of the pre-2012 framework in which the cost of university studies was shared by the state and the student (he would now add ‘companies’ to the mix), while Professor Newfield wants tuition fees scrapped completely.

Each of these pieces contain some strange or unrealistic elements. Professor Newfield rather astonishingly suggests that the cost to the taxpayer of abolishing tuition fees would at worst be £48 per taxpayer per year. Even taking the most favourable options for this, such a sum would have to be paid by over 166 million taxpayers every year, which is several times the number of taxpayers actually available; and that doesn’t address the accumulated enormous student debt. Professor Green wants ‘companies’ to shoulder some of the funding burden; but apart from this being a somewhat vague class of funders, how would this be administered or enforced?

What both comment pieces have in common, however, is a search for a reason why one group rather than another should shoulder the burden. Professor Newfield, like many others, believes that education as a public good needs to be funded by the taxpayer. Professor Green sees more of a mix of stakeholders who should contribute, including (in some measure) the students.

I confess I find the public good/private good debate on tuition somewhat pointless, because it obscures the real social and economic issues and ignores to a large extent the needs of the universities themselves for adequate resourcing. The harsh reality is that free tuition requires the taxpayer to make a major investment in supporting wealthier sections of the population, often at the expense of poorer ones; it is ultimately a redistribution of money from the poor to the rich. The standard response to this is that this can be balanced by securing more revenue from wealthy taxpayers. The problem is that this isn’t ever done, and in any case tax revenues are never hypothecated, so that even if it were done there is no guarantee that the funds secured would be spent on universities (they almost certainly wouldn’t be during times of scarce public money). So free tuition tends to go hand in hand with inadequate university participation by less well-off sections of the population and the decline of the university sector during difficult economic cycles (something that pretty well everyone now accepts has happened in Ireland).

On the other hand, the payment of tuition fees funded by student loans, based on some sort of understanding of most university education as a private good, creates horrendous debts that will, in very many cases, never be repaid and thus create a huge financial liability that will have to be met at some point, but no one knows by whom. This system also punishes the disadvantaged, who don’t enjoy special financial support and who may find that their debts have left them facing negative educational equity, with the added salary value of their qualifications not matching the accumulated amount of their debts.

Three points seem to me to be totally obvious. (1) The state does have a direct interest in advancing higher education that is both inclusive and properly resourced; it absolutely must make a major contribution. (2) The state must provide baseline funding for all institutions and all subject areas, but must also target a significant part of its funding where it is most needed: participation by groups experiencing socio-economic disadvantage (and not just by removing the burden of fees but also by providing adequate financial support). (3) Students from all groups other than socio-economically disadvantaged ones must make a contribution to the cost of their studies.

I genuinely respect those in politics and other walks of life who argue as a matter of principle that university tuition should be free. But in practice this doesn’t have the intended effect. On the other hand, a student loan-funded system creates a huge problem further down the line and generates a highly arguable vision of what higher education is all about.

This is not an easy policy to get right, because emotions run high and political competition is involved. I hope nevertheless that I shall live to see a much better and fairer and more effective system of higher education funding than I have experienced to date.

Disrupting institutional entitlement in higher education: the Teaching Excellence Framework

June 26, 2017

Let me first of all declare an interest. This post is going to be about the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in the UK. My university, Robert Gordon University, entered, and was awarded a Gold rating. So you may conclude that this colours my judgement.

But let me first go back some ten years to a meeting I attended on university rankings. One speaker, representing a particular league table, argued that in devising a set of criteria and weightings for such a table you had to start from one assumption: that nobody would accept its credibility if the top ten didn’t contain everyone’s favourite famous and venerable institutions. You could make it interesting and exciting by leaving room for, say, two outliers or unexpected entrants, but the remaining eight had to be the ones you and I would guess were bound to be there. So you kind of had to work backwards from that: what were the criteria that would guarantee a top-three slot for, say, the University of Cambridge?

This way of working – or to be less tendentious, this pattern of rankings – has another effect. It creates a system in which one particular kind of institution becomes the benchmark for everyone. When people talk about ‘top universities’, or ‘elite institutions’, invariably they mean ones that manage to look and feel most like Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You are as ‘good’ as the degree of your resemblance to this small group. Your aspirations for excellence must be based on your strategy to achieve Ivy League or Oxbridge similarity. You may do all sorts of valuable or worthy things, and no matter how innovative they are or how effectively they meet social, cultural or economic desiderata, if they are not based on the characteristics made desirable by that elite group the praise you will receive will never quite lack an undertone of condescension, and almost certainly won’t help you at all in any league table. Of course Oxbridge and the London University institutions and the Ivy League are excellent and to be admired. But is that the only acceptable gold standard?

All of this is proved emphatically in some of the loudest responses to the outcomes of TEF. Even TEF didn’t relegate Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College from the top grade; but it did send some other venerable institutions packing. No other London university made it to Gold, and several Russell Group members were awarded Silver and indeed Bronze. The Russell Group, according to its own website, represents ’24 leading UK universities’. You get the idea: you start with the assumption that these universities will ‘lead’ whatever you have come up with. And here is how the Russell Group responded to the results:

‘We need to recognise that developing a robust TEF that is truly reflective of the UK’s excellent higher education sector will take time… TEF does not measure absolute quality and we have raised concerns that the current approach to flags and benchmarking could have a significant unintended impact.’

I won’t comment here on the various questions and arguments that have been advanced on TEF, and I have no doubt at all that there is significant room for debate about the exercise, its merits and intentions. But, in full recognition of my special interest here, I will say this. It is high time that higher education becomes less monolithic. It is time to recognise that excellence is not incompatible with diversity, and that there are many different contributions universities can make – no, that truly leading universities can make – to help achieve society’s need for pedagogical and scholarly excellence; that there are different ways of realising intellectual creativity translated into social progress and that these different ways deserve proper funding; and that we must not accept a higher education hierarchy of elitism today any more than we would accept a socio-economic one. If TEF takes us even a little bit in this direction, then TEF has done something really good.

European obsessions: a rant

June 12, 2017

Here’s something that may surprise you. I share one key concern with the most extreme Brexiteers: Europe is the only key policy issue that matters right now for the UK. Everything else is an also-ran, not because nothing else is important, but because nothing else can be achieved or delivered unless we get the European issue right. And here of course I part company with the Brextremists, because their vision of the future is baloney, and if it were implemented would catastrophically damage the UK at every level and in every context.

For UK universities Brexit has become the issue which makes planning almost impossible. Because universities are essentially international institutions, links with other countries touch almost everything – and because Europe is nearer than anywhere else, it plays a disproportionate role.

But beyond universities many people still don’t realise that the European Union by now is part of almost everything. Of course some have persuaded themselves that this is oppressive, and some have rightly challenged aspects of EU regulation. But what they may not grasp is that there is no quick or easy alternative. Abandoning all things EU at short notice doesn’t leave us with a reassuringly British way of doing this, it leaves us with chaos capable of causing great and lasting damage.

I am hoping that recent political developments will make the UK’s politicians take a more sane approach. We will leave the European Union. But let it be on terms and through a process that protects the genuine interests of the country, rather than on terms that satisfy ideologues to whom the practical impact is either a mystery or irrelevant or both. And for the avoidance of doubt, ‘no deal’ is immeasurably worse than any ‘bad deal’ that could be imagined.

Is it misguided to lower entry requirements for disadvantaged students?

May 29, 2017

So-called ‘contextual admissions’ are becoming an increasingly accepted method for mitigating educational disadvantage: students without the benefit of an elite school education may be allowed lower entry requirements for their chosen university courses. However, the Independent reports that in a recent survey of Russell Group undergraduates, 63 per cent thought that ‘lower entry grades for disadvantaged students could be perceived as patronising’. Instead they thought that additional resources should be used to support potential students at secondary level so they can achieve better GCSE and A-level results (in England).

For once I would hope that this particular student view is not followed. Educational disadvantage is deeply rooted in socio-economic disadvantage, and this will not be corrected by spending a little more money on some A-level students. If we are serious about access to higher education, we need to look flexibly at the achievements students carry to the end of the secondary school experience; and if we have additional resources, we need to apply them to student support and care once they have entered university. That isn’t patronising, it is making a contribution to correcting injustice.

Students first?

May 22, 2017

A survey in the United States of America has found that ‘nearly three out of five Americans believe that higher-education leaders put the long-term interests of their institutions first over the needs of students.’ This is, I suppose, a variant of the view held by some in this part of the world that managerialist higher education leaders prioritise business projects over educational excellence.

Whether or not that charge is justified, it is obviously true that universities are finding it necessary to implement a profitable business model to ensure institutional sustainability, and not just where income for institutions comes from private sources rather than from government funding. Tight public funding also requires universities to deploy entrepreneurial creativity.

The nirvana of universities receiving generous financial support from the taxpayer on a demand-led basis is not one we will experience again – it is an impossible scenario in a setting of mass higher education. A university business plan is not of itself a denial of academic values. But it does make it ever more important that institutional values are clearly expressed, reinforced and widely applied. The needs of students must always be one of the most important; if we marginalise this, we have lost all purpose. And if students believe we have done so, we have an urgent need to put that right.