Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

Diversifying the university ‘business’

February 1, 2016

While some of the most prominent universities internationally have an array of activities that include teaching, research, consulting, managing intellectual property and so forth, and while their financial accounts often reflect this diversity, overwhelmingly most universities are heavily dependent on income from one particular activity and one source of revenue: teaching undergraduate students, funded by the state. In this role universities are public agencies providing a vitally important and strategic service to national goals.

But they are also financially highly vulnerable. Their organisational health depends on the ability of their key funder to keep increasing their income in line with both inflation and the university’s strategic development goals – but almost no state can guarantee that kind of financial stability, and pressures on public money will quite regularly force governments to cut higher education funding, usually moving the funding baseline downwards as they do so. In the meantime the reliance on teaching prevents the institutions from developing a high profile reputation globally, which is really only achievable through high value research. Therefore a teaching-focused university threatened by public funding pressures has little with which to market itself to other potential funders or customers. The same may even be true of a privately funded teaching-only institution, which would still be vulnerable to market shifts affecting its customers and a lack of alternative products.

The answer to this problem is to behave, at least in some respects, more like the prominent high value research universities – while at the same time managing to find a set of priorities and values that distinguish them from those institutions. This view of how universities should behave in order to be sustainable was suggested in a recent comment on the US system in the Washington Post. The author, a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggested that ‘the strongest universities are those that depend on more than just students for their revenue’, and that institutions should in particular ‘double down on their research efforts to attract new dollars.’ Of course there are many different ways of tackling a research strategy, and there are other ways also of developing revenue streams based on skills and knowledge; for example an increasing number of universities are now presenting themselves as commercial consulting firms.

It has been suggested for some time that an increasing number of universities may be financially at risk. To avoid slipping into this state and to ensure sustainability, higher education institutions would do well to diversify and to ensure that their portfolio is not excessively focused on just one particular activity.

Addressing student attrition

January 25, 2016

If you were a student at Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland, and if you were studying Theatre and Drama Studies, you’d be in clover and pretty much guaranteed to complete your course: the attrition rate in the course is zero. On the other hand if in the same Institute you were studying IT Management, or Electronic Engineering, then more likely than not you’ll drop out before you complete: over 60 per cent don’t make it in either course. The same is true for students in Energy in the University of Limerick; but not Midwifery in the same university, where there are no drop-outs. Even in Trinity College Dublin, 50 per cent of Computer Science students don’t make it.

All of these figures, and many more, are revealed by the Irish Times in a recent article. But this phenomenon is not unique to Ireland. In Britain there are significant trends also, with Computer Science generally recording the highest attrition rates. Overall some 25,000 students drop out of higher education altogether every year in the UK, without completing their course. Interestingly, and as an aside, the drop-out rate amongst international students is lower than that of domestic students. In the United States the overall attrition rate is high – estimates put it at over 30 per cent; but very low in well resourced research universities.

What is the cause of all this? In some cases it is likely that students have made an immature choice of study. Young people, for example, who have been used to working with computers since a very early age imagine they will be wonderful computer programmers, until they discover that they do not have the technical (in particular mathematical) skills needed. In some cases students were persuaded by parents or teachers or other advisers to pursue a course of study that they were never really suited for. In some cases universities and colleges don’t provide the kind of support needed to keep people in their studies.

But student attrition is not something minor – it is a huge failure of the system.  It is an extraordinary waste: a waste of talent and personal application; a waste of money, including taxpayer money in many countries; a waste of opportunity for people and society. There is no acceptable drop-out rate. Where students are not completing, those of us in the system need to work very hard to find out why, and need to remedy it. And the key thing to bear in mind is that student achievement requires the best facilities and the best support – it requires good funding. Without that the problem will not be resolved.

David Bowie RIP

January 11, 2016

So now the Starman is waiting in the sky.

Here’s what I’m hoping at the start of 2016

January 5, 2016

It is the human condition to hope that everything will be better in this year compared with the last. Tennyson expressed it well:

‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.’

So, in that spirit, here are my hopes (I shall not say expectations) for 2016. They may or may not be in order of importance.

  • Newcastle United will shine in the English premiership. OK, won’t be relegated.
  • Ireland will win the European football championships. OK, won’t be eliminated in the group stage.
  • There won’t be a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in Scotland. (I don’t think it should be adopted anywhere, but let’s stick with Scotland).
  • There will be a real drive to remove bureaucratisation from higher education.
  • Daniel Craig will agree to play James Bond one more time.
  • Aberdeen City and Shire will succeed in the bid for a City Region Deal.
  • The Eurovision Song Context will be the most enjoyable ever, and avoid geopolitics.

A very happy New Year to all readers of this blog. May 2016 bring you health, and prosperity, and intellectual curiosity and satisfaction.

Keeping the library open

December 21, 2015

This post will be slightly more philosophical in intent than the title may suggest.

In the late 1970s I was a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in England. As was the case with many of those doing research for a PhD, I spent a lot of time in the library. Or maybe I should say, in the libraries, because Cambridge had a number of these and I frequented many of them, in part because I was trying to stretch my work across disciplinary boundaries. I loved the libraries, and I enjoyed working there and eating there and observing other users there.

And then I attended a talk at which the speaker suggested that the age of libraries was nearly over. At the time we were not yet in the era of personal computing, but the speaker predicted – accurately – that this was just over the horizon, and (less accurately) that once computers became accessible to the masses libraries would be out of business. Books, he suggested, would be acquired for their historical and aesthetic attractions but not for reading.

Earlier this year, on a visit to London, I sought out a library I used to frequent on visits from Cambridge, and found much of it as I remembered it. There were plenty of readers, and while some were sitting at desks with iPads out, others were immersed in old fashioned print. But there was a difference. I don’t know whether it was just that particular day, but what I found was that the readers were interacting with each other much more than in former days. Back then we would sit quietly and do our reading and writing, and the only interaction would be an irritated glance at someone making a noise. Now people were exchanging views, pointing to things 0n their iPads or their books, quietly arguing or discussing.

If there has been a change, I suspect this will have been caused by a number of different factors; but I think the accessibility of technology-disseminated information will have played a part, as this breaks down strict disciplinary boundaries more easily than, in former days, cautious attempts to invade some other discipline’s scholarly spaces. And books have kept pace, still read, indeed perhaps more widely shared now than before: the analog and the digital in harmony.

Employability: the purpose or a by-product of higher education?

December 15, 2015

A little while ago I attended a talk at which the speaker, an academic from a highly respected traditional university, argued strongly that higher education should not have a purpose. It is, he suggested, an enriching experience for the student and is desirable for that reason. Whether it enhances the chances of the student, upon graduation, to find a job is not important (though no doubt congenial to the student if it does). He was followed by  another speaker, a recent graduate from the same university, who suggested that most students see their university course only in one light: a passport to a job and a career.

I was reminded of this last week when the Higher Education Policy Institute published a paper entitled Employability: Degrees of value. In this the author, Johnny Rich, suggests the following:

‘…The development of sound higher education policy does need some practical answers because, if universities are to command public investment, then a public good has to be served and observed. The money could otherwise be spent on the ill, the aged and the unhoused. Without equations to demonstrate impact, it is hard to measure the public good and, in an austere world driven by econometrics, what is hard to measure is hard to fund.’

As the author explains, recent decades have seen governments trying to find ways in which the utility of higher education can be measured. Most of the schemes introduced have been flawed. But there is, he suggests, one good way to address this: to identify the ‘three components’ that measure learning and address social and economic need. He concludes:

‘The three components are: knowledge, skills and social capital. Together, they make up “employability”.’

I suspect many academics will still baulk at this. So for example the Council for the Defence of British Universities on its website declares its opposition to the ‘instrumentalisation of knowledge’ (though it acknowledges that the fostering of intellectual skills needs to be undertaken ‘with due regard to the demands of a rapidly-changing economy’). Some academics still argue that education is good ‘for its own sake’ (an expression I find rather meaningless) and that its value is unrelated to the extent to which it leverages employment and income for the graduate. But even these academics would presumably agree that education produces a social and economic benefit.

It will always be difficult to find metrics that capture excellence in learning, and I am still open to the argument that, in reason, all such metrics are flawed. But I believe that higher education is at its most powerful when we can articulate what it achieves, and employability is one of those key achievements. We should not be afraid to declare that knowledge, skills and social capital are desirable outcomes of an excellent education.

Managing debt. Or not.

December 1, 2015

For many policy-makers on higher education wanting to work out how to fund universities the answer has seemed simple: let students pay, but not at the point of use. This policy, which began in Australia and has spread elsewhere, is based on the view that students should be encouraged to enter university, that they should not pay anything up front, but that the cost of their education should be funded through a loan that eventually they will re-pay (or at least will pay if their salary rises above a certain threshold).

However, outstanding student loans are fast becoming the new major debt burden, in America even outstripping credit card debt. A recent report from Missouri documents a high school teacher who, through ‘a series of unremarkable decisions about college and borrowing’, ran up debts of $410,000.

Large debts also quickly become bad debts. In Australia the total amount of unpaid student loans is estimated to be around AU$70 billion. It is too early to say how this will play out in England, but it is unlikely to follow a completely different pattern. So far, nobody has put any particular thought into how this will be managed, and who will pick up the tab.

As I have said before in this blog, I am in favour of tuition fees, not least because the taxpayer simply cannot afford to fund the entire cost of a higher education system that is internationally competitive. I am also in favour of grants made available to support those who cannot afford to pay, so that nobody is barred from higher education by the inability to pay. But I am  not in favour of a loans-based system, not least because the delayed payment makes the student less conscious of the quality or  good value (or otherwise) of the education she or he is being offered, and because it appears to absolve the state from bothering with higher education funding at all.

The debt bubble connected with property triggered a severe global recession towards the end of the last decade. It is time to think again about the funding of  higher education.


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