Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

Universities in the uncertain world of Brexit

January 16, 2017

There was never any doubt where the higher education sector stood on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Right from the start, Universities UK took a strong position in favour of the EU, and sponsored a campaign group entitled Universities for Europe. This almost certainly aligned with a widespread view amongst academics, as reflected indeed in guest posts in this blog.

But of course the UK electorate narrowly opted for Brexit, and it is now going to happen. But what that means for universities is still far from clear. The message from the academy hasn’t changed, and the theme still is that leaving the European Union will prove damaging and costly. Right after the vote, a senior Cambridge professor estimated that Brexit would cost his university around £100 million a year. Others have pointed to a whole list of potential issues, including staff recruitment, international student admissions, research funding, and so forth. Even an international university rankings website has regularly listed the issues arising from the referendum vote, all of them representing risks or disadvantages.

The question for universities now is how to handle this agenda. There may well be a risk that those needing to be influenced will find the flow of jeremiads to be uncongenial to the stimulation of second thoughts. There are no signs, for example, that the universities’ repeated warnings about the impact of immigration restrictions on the sector’s financial and cultural wellbeing have had any effect at all on the UK government.

The problem is, I think, that very little about Brexit is concerned with reasoned argument: it is more about emotion. It is the product of the fears of those who believe the integrity of their culture to have been compromised, who see sovereignty as an abstract ideal rather than a decision-making mechanism, who fear the impact of immigration. If your frame of reference is governed by abstract principle, then the technical or financial drawbacks of the project may not much interest you.

It may therefore be that those who are alarmed by the impending Brexit – and I am amongst them – need to recalibrate our language, and need to speak in terms of principle rather than of operational impact. This campaign may need to be re-thought.

Higher education: the value proposition

December 19, 2016

There are few people who would argue that higher education does not have value, both for the student or graduate and for society. But perceptions of what that value is, and who or what derives the most benefit from it, can vary greatly. In addition, some people have, over recent years, claimed that the growth of higher education has been accompanied or even prompted by a neoliberal perspective that has corrupted educational principles.

The latest contribution asserting this point of view has come from Kathleen Lynch, Professor of Equality Studies at University College Dublin. In an article in the Irish Times she argues that as the proportion of public funding in the overall university restoring envelope has declined, students have ‘inevitably’ come to be ‘seen through the lens of market value’. There has therefore been a ‘cultural shift’ which is ‘symbolised in the use of market language, referring to students as “customers” or “clients”’.

It is possible that I don’t move in the right circles, but I have to say that I have never ever heard anyone in any university refer to students as ‘clients’. The term ‘customer’ can occasionally be heard, but almost always in an analytical sense – i.e. in assessing what impact new forms of funding may have had – but never as a statement of how students should be seen.

Nevertheless, the argument is worth pursuing. There is no doubt that in society more generally the focus of regulatory attention has been shifting since the 1980s from protecting producers to empowering consumers. This has in particular affected trade unions, whose members coalesce around the common interests of those engaged in production. In the world of industrial relations the shifting balance of power was made visible when, for example, the hugely influential academic Otto Kahn Freund declared in the early Thatcher years that he had come to the conclusion, ‘outrageous from a Marxist point of view’, that the state’s task was to represent the consumer (Labour Relations: Heritage and Adjustment).

The question this raises in higher education is this: what does all this mean for the student? It is entirely possible to argue that the new focus on consumer rights has placed a welcome emphasis on the student experience. Others will argue that it has commoditised learning and that developing it to meet ‘customer demand’ prejudices pedagogical integrity. This, probably more than anything else, is the current no man’s land between the trenches of the educational modernisers and the traditionalists. The weapons used so far in this battle have been rather blunt – slogans rather than arguments: the charge of ‘neoliberalism’ means little when it is just deployed as a general insult in someone’s demonology.

This is a good and necessary debate: but I think it needs to be conducted much better.

Class action

December 6, 2016

Here’s a thing to gladden the hearts of my lawyer friends. Let’s say you’re a student and you’ve just got your exam results. You didn’t do as well as you were expecting. But you’re made of tough stuff and get on with your life. Some years later you think, hang on, if my result had been a little better I’d be a lot richer now. So why not sue the university and let them make up the difference in money.

As I suspect many readers of this blog will already know, that is not a far-fetched scenario. Pretty much exactly that happened in the case, now before the courts, brought by Oxford University graduate Faiz Siddiqui. He graduated in 2000 with a 2.1 in modern history. He went on to become a solicitor, but thinks he could have been a high-flying commercial barrister if he had got a first class degree. He values the difference in income to him at £1 million, and he has sued the university for that sum.

In fairness, there are some issues of concern worth mentioning here. It is admitted by the university that the quality of education in his course may have suffered, mainly because in one key module the availability of staff that year had been compromised by sabbatical leave. The university’s defence does not appear to be that nothing untoward happened, but rather that it happened too long ago too be a legitimate subject-matter for litigation now.

Of course this case raises all sorts of issues. Is the difference between a 2.1 and a first really £1 million in income? Do we think and agree that the primary value of a degree is measurable in pounds, dollars or euros? What kind of legal (as distinct from moral and educational) obligation does a university have regarding the quality of its courses? How can a court judge whether the degree classification of a university is appropriate?

It is expected that the High Court will issue a decision in this case before the end of the year. The judgement will provide us with a whole new insight into the relationship between higher education and the law, and indeed into the legal relationship between students and their universities. The impact could be huge.

Not one of us?

November 29, 2016

For those feeling nostalgic about the McCarthy witch hunts some decades ago in the United States, here’s something to bring it all up to date: a conservative pressure group, Turning Point USA, has created what they are calling a ‘Professor Watchlist’. This is needed, they say, because ‘students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls’. A radical agenda for their purposes does not include, as you will immediately have guessed, a radical conservative agenda.

So far the list contains some 130 names. The reasons for inclusion are worth noting. One is there, for example, because she told students that a person’s race may determine their professional success. Another is there because he criticised the idea that civilians should be allowed to carry guns openly. And so on.

The website lets readers submit suggestions for inclusion in the list. Many have done so, not always taking the list seriously. But in the end we must all be concerned about attempts to put public pressure on academics, or their institutions, to limit the expression of views. Joe McCarthy was ultimately defeated, but he needed to be. Let’s not start all that again now.

The big, really big, higher education fallacy

November 21, 2016

When it comes to Irish higher education, every so often someone steps forward – either with relevant credentials or quite often without – and suggests that the only way forward is to merge the country’s universities. In 2010 it was former European Commissioner and Chairman of Goldman Sachs, Peter Sutherland. He suggested that Ireland could not have seven world class universities, and the only way to get any at all would be to merge Trinity College Dublin with University College Dublin.

This year the suggestion has come from one Philip O’Kane, a retired University College Cork Professor of Civil Engineering. Writing in the Irish Times, he has come up with an argument that is novel to me. Germany, he says, has created a new set of elite universities, and of these there is one for every 7.5 million people. Therefore Ireland really can’t have any elite institutions, given the population, but if it is to have any chance at all it must merge the whole lot and create just one. A single ‘super-university’.

The idea that a really really big university would naturally be much more competitive clearly seduces intelligent people from time to time, but it is complete nonsense. None of the world’s top 20 universities (as recognised by the Times Higher Education rankings) is particularly big. One – the number 2, which in the previous couple of years was number 1 – is in fact particularly small, having only 2,255 students overall. Conversely not a single one of the 100 biggest universities in the world is in the global 100 best universities. And if you think Germany has found the way forward, its ‘elite’ universities don’t score terribly well in the rankings; it has none in the top 20.

The driver of global recognition is never size, but excellence. Even when it come to resourcing and funding, the critical issue is not how many dollars we get overall, but how many per student or faculty. This recurring invitation to set about merging everything is not just a distraction, it is quite simply wrong. If someone were tempted to make it happen, the result would be disastrous, not least because – and here’s another point to consider – multi-campus institutions rarely do well.

So, every time this call is made, I just sit there hoping absolutely no one is listening.

History man?

November 15, 2016

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump in the United States has produced much acrimonious debate and lots of anxiety in the education community, in America and elsewhere. There are clearly many questions that this turn of events should prompt us to address about social, political and educational values, at least over time; but one incident in the past couple of days invites comment now. A history teacher in a Californian high school has been placed on leave for comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. According to reports, Frank Navarro argued that ‘Hitler’s persecution of Jews and rise to power has “remarkable parallels” to Trump’s comments on Latinos, Blacks and Muslims in his own bid for power.’

I won’t offer a view on the merits of Mr Navarro’s analysis; indeed some might suggest that he has violated ‘Godwin’s Law‘, under which anyone who in an argument invokes an analogy with Hitler loses that argument. It is certainly doubtful whether Mr Trump, whatever one might say about him (and lots is being said) is contemplating genocide or the invasion of Canada.

But that is not the question here. Rather, the question is how far an educator should be allowed to go in developing an argument in front of students, even where that argument might not be thought by others to carry merit, or even where it might be thought to state a partisan political position. To assess that further, one could ask whether Mr Navarro would have been suspended if, instead of comparing Donald Trump with Hitler, he had claimed interesting parallels with Winston Churchill. The latter analogy would also have been partisan, though this time in the other direction. And if we transferred the scene from an American High School classroom to a university, would the same or different considerations apply?

The proper test is whether an argument presented in a classroom is framed as an invitation to students to question assumptions and received wisdoms, or whether it amounts to indoctrination. I cannot tell, from the little evidence I have, whether Frank Navarro crossed a line he shouldn’t have; but I am instinctively uneasy about this form of sanction, however questionable his thesis may have been. As his students see him punished for saying what he did, they may well draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of a mature free society.

The global world of higher education. Or maybe not.

November 8, 2016

We are now nearly five months on from the ‘Brexit’ referendum in which a narrow majority of the British electorate voted to leave the European Union. It is generally assumed by commentators (although of course there is no actual statistical evidence) that the key driver of this decision was opposition to immigration. The impact of the undoubtedly high net migration into the United Kingdom was certainly a major topic of debate during the campaign, and indeed became the main argument used by at least some of the ‘Leave’ campaigners.

While it is impossible to tell what motivated individual voters, it is not unreasonable to argue that immigration was an issue. In that sense, the post-referendum discussions about how to limit immigration may not be a surprise, but it has had a particular impact on universities. Higher education operates in a global setting. Movement between countries by staff and students is a key feature, and contributes significantly to academic excellence and, as regards student migration, to exports.

Over the years governments have demonstrated that, whatever their policies or their ideology, none of them were able to reduce net immigration, even (in the case of non-EU migration) where they had all the apparently necessary tools at their disposal. However, there is one group of migrants – students – whose movements are more easily controlled, simply because universities can be forced to act as policing agencies and can be penalised if they are ineffective. Perhaps recognising this fact, the government (or more specifically, the Home Secretary Ms Amber Rudd MP) has focused quite specifically on the control and reduction of overseas student numbers, and at the Conservative Party conference in September she announced a further ‘crackdown’ on student migration. Attempts to persuade the government to exclude students from immigration statistics – which would be totally reasonable given the temporary nature of their presence – have been rejected.

The government’s policy in this area simply does not make sense. Student migration is, by any standards, not an economic, social or cultural problem for the UK. It is however a significant element of a world class university system, and if the view gains ground that Britain does not particularly want international students, the whole university system will suffer. In the meantime the government is also coming under international political pressure in this matter, including (as we have seen over the past day or two) from countries like India with whom the UK is desperate to do business post-Brexit.

One general concern with the Brexit landscape is that policy is not being guided by reason. The government is being buffeted about by the sometimes rather shrill demands of pro-Brexit newspapers and commentators, and responds with an apparent inclination to appease these voices. The long-term damage to Britain from all this may turn out to be significant. It is time to base policy on a much more calm assessment of the evidence.