Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

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.

Opening up the university

April 10, 2017

In 1979, when I was working on my PhD in Cambridge, I was invited to address a short course on employment law conducted by the university’s Department of Extra-Mural Studies, located a little outside the town in the amazing Madingley Hall. I don’t remember that much about it now – it was one hour on a Saturday morning – except that I found the participants to be interesting. It was a varied group, including a car mechanic, a factory shop steward and a retired army colonel. The conversation between the latter two was particularly lively.

The term ‘extra-mural’ is interesting. It is the traditional name for a university’s offering to those ‘outside the walls’ – i.e. those who are not members in a formal sense of the university. Today it sounds quaint, and many universities, in fact including Cambridge (and also Oxford), have now opted for names like ‘Institute of Continuing Education’, thereby moving the activity a little more into the territory of formal education for credit. In addition, many of the courses are now offered online.

But leaving the nomenclature aside, extra-mural education is an important university function. Higher education may be mostly about formal accreditation, but some of it should be about engaging with the wider community and offering some access to the expertise the university possesses in its people for those who cannot or will not take the formal degree route. It is also a way of ensuring that universities do not see themselves as keepers of a flame that gives light to a social elite. And so maybe it is also better that the term ‘extra-mural’ has been abandoned, because all of society should be somewhere within the walls; or rather, because there should be no walls.

The social academy?

April 3, 2017

You’re all very young, so you’ve probably never even heard of Bebo. But actually, Bebo was the real thing in social networking before Facebook got going properly.

Anyway, I first came across Bebo (and social networking) in 2006, when a colleague in my then university asked to see me urgently and rather urgently implored me to ban access to the website, particularly in the library, but also everywhere else. Students were, he told me, logging in to it at all times and were neglecting their studies. Some could even be seen looking at Bebo during lectures (on their laptops, no real smartphones in use back then) and inviting others to look over their shoulders. The world as we knew it was about to end.

It was not just my colleague who was concerned. A few weeks later I received an email from a student, complaining that she could not get access to computer workstations in the library because other students were on Bebo and were preventing her from using them for her studies.

Nevertheless, I decided I would join Bebo, which I did that year. And as I became aware of it I also joined Facebook in 2008; and Twitter in the same year. As some readers will know, I am a regular twitterer, though a more restrained user of Facebook. I occasionally use WhatsApp and Instagram.

Fast forward to the current decade, and Bebo has been bought and sold and bankrupted and re-released as something entirely different; but Facebook and Twitter are still very much there. In universities in the meantime the discussion is not about whether or how to ban social networking on campus, but how and whether to include it in the academy’s armoury. This has become even more important as students have tended to move away from other forms of electronic communication (including email).

An interesting study carried out in the University of Glasgow revealed that 68 per cent of students think social media can enhance their learning experience; though it also concluded that inexpert use of social media can make it all go badly wrong. Overall, it is hard to ignore social media – and universities cannot operate in an environment that is divorced from the experience of their students. Back in the early 1960s I learned to write with a nib pen that you had to dip in an inkwell every few words. We don’t use that now, nor should we expect students to use the technological equivalent (for them) of the inkwell.

Universities are generally taking a more direct interest in social media as marketing tools. But the more interesting potential lies in pedagogy, not least because social media, as the name implies, provide a social experience which can be an enabler for learning collaboration. Some interesting work on this has been done by Dr Fiona Handley at the University of Brighton.

The significance of social media in higher education is not that universities can invade their students’ social spaces, but that they can adopt the look and feel, and the potential for learning interaction, that social networking platforms provide. That is the place to start.

The articulation challenge

March 27, 2017

The aim of widening access to higher education has been a public policy priority in a number of countries for some time. The intention is to ensure that a university degree is not seen as a privilege to be claimed primarily by the wealthy, but as an entitlement based on intellectual attainment and ability. How successful this has been in practice is another matter and varies from institution to institution – but overall the participation rate by disadvantaged groups is now much higher than it was a generation ago.

One driver of the widening access agenda has been the practice of articulation. This involves a transfer of students from further education colleges (or equivalent) to universities under arrangements where the college education is counted as relevant to the university degree, therefore allowing students to enter university directly without having to start again. In other words, credit achieved while studying at the college is recognised and counts as credit (and therefore relevant study time) for the course and award at the university. The concept is widely known in a number of countries – in the United States for example it would apply to transfers from community colleges to universities. It helps in the access agenda because even highly talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may be reluctant to apply for a university course, and may find a transfer later to a university course to be easier.

Articulation has become a significant feature of Scottish higher education. But it has been observed that not all universities are as active or as successful in pursuing it. Now Professor Peter Scott, Scotland’s first commissioner on fair access to higher education, has according to a report in the Herald newspaper suggested that some universities are not entirely enthusiastic about the practice. The number of students articulating from colleges to universities varies enormously from institution to institution. So for example Glasgow Caledonian University in 2014-15 admitted 1,557 articulating students; of those 57 per cent were admitted with ‘advanced standing’ – that is, the received full credit for their prior college studies. In the case of my own university, 734 articulating students were admitted, of whom 67 per cent were with advanced standing. On the other hand the University of Edinburgh admitted 95 articulating students, and 5 per cent were with advanced stating. In the case of St Andrews University the figures were 29 students and 10 per cent.

In order for articulation to work well certain conditions have to be satisfied. Students need to see the whole articulation journey, from college to university, as a seamless transition in which they are part of the family of both institutions. Staff from both institutions need to believe in the process and to respect each other.  The syllabus in each needs to be aligned to the other. And the student needs to be seen as a valuable member of the learner community in both. If these conditions don’t all exist, the process may not succeed.

But beyond that, for articulation to work we all need to accept that a student who pursues a vocational course in which she or he transfers between further and higher education is doing something of real value in both systems, and that in doing so she or he does not diminish either sector. According to the Herald report, Professor Scott fears that some universities don’t like articulation because they fear it will undermine their standing in league tables. One must hope that this is not a widespread view; it is only when we celebrate articulation that we allow it to flourish.