Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

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 One of these (founded in 2008) is the website, which allows academics to upload their published or unpublished work and get readers, citations and comments.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.

A testing time for university admissions

September 21, 2015

In higher education there are few things as difficult, as potentially controversial and (as some might argue) as habitually misleading as the examinations that secure access to university courses. In the not-too-distant past many universities that considered themselves to be part of an elite conducted their own tests as a basis for admission decisions. But over time these examinations disappeared, particularly as in several countries standardised admissions procedures were developed across the whole university sector. So for example the University of Cambridge discontinued its own entrance exam in 1986.

This produced a situation in which the final school examinations, typically run by the state, determined university admissions. In the United States of America the equivalent standardised test – the SAT (originally the ‘Scholastic Aptitude Test’, now just SAT) – is run by a private non-profit organisation, but is accepted by the entire higher education system.

The advantage of a nation-wide standard test is that it provides an apparently objective and comparable basis for university admissions decisions; everyone applying has done the same test and has been graded according to the same guidelines and standards, across the whole country and in applications to all institutions.

Of course that only works if the credentials of the examination and the usefulness of the results it produces are widely accepted. A problem that has emerged in a number of countries is the suspicion that results have suffered from grade inflation – i.e. the belief that improved scores are less due to better performance and more due to a tendency to increase the average marks over time. So if results are in large numbers converging on the same high point in the scale it becomes more difficult, it is argued, for universities to determine which student applicants have demonstrated the better aptitude for their chosen course.

Now the University of Cambridge has responded to this apparent phenomenon by talking about reintroducing its entrance exam. Whether this is a good solution to the perceived problem is another matter, not least because the entrance exam is seen by many as favouring students from private schools, who will have the staff and resources to prepare applicants for this exercise.

There is a very good case for re-examining final school examinations in a number of countries, and also for looking again at how the results are used in the university sector to take admissions decisions. Where they are used to determine entry standards they should work reasonably well; where they are used to make individual selections (i.e. to select one student over another) they may often be less useful. But the answer to the problem almost certainly is not for individual universities to introduce entrance examinations.

Parental care

September 7, 2015

A few years ago I recruited a very impressive American to work for my university. As could be expected, he encountered a number of cultural issues in his new place of work, but most of them he was able to deal with appropriately. One that he found particularly difficult, however, was our reluctance to engage in any way the parents of our actual or prospective students, except during university open days. He was used to parents being a key stakeholder group with whom universities would engage on a regular basis, keeping them informed of their daughters’ or son’s progress and of the university’s plans and achievements. We did no such thing. Indeed if parents contacted us about their children, we would routinely tell them, politely I hope, that we could not discuss them with ‘third parties’ – a category that included parents.

I confess that I have felt particularly committed to this approach because, often, parents tended to push their children in all the wrong directions, in particular by pressing them to do courses because of the social standing this would give their offspring (rather than choosing courses to fit the children’s talents and interests).

And yet of course parents are a genuine stakeholder group. Their influence in the choice of university and courses is usually significant, and of course the years that follow often see parents having to make major financial investments in their children, even where there are no tuition fees. The role that parents play is now often recognised and promoted. And to return to America, some universities there now contact parents when students misbehave.

Perhaps we need to think again and to strike a more reasonable balance between the correct recognition of the personal autonomy of students and the legitimate interest of parents (though perhaps less so in the case of mature students). Or perhaps that interest is better expressed in communications between the students and their families, without university involvement? Even if that is so, involving parents in discussions about institutional strategy and priorities cannot be a bad thing.

From Waterford to Carlow – the runaway train still on track

September 1, 2015

As evidence of the truth that bad ideas are particularly hard to kill, everyone continues to conspire to ensure that the idiotic notion of a ‘technological university’ for the South-East of Ireland built on a shotgun marriage between Waterford and Carlow institutes of technology comes to pass. What most of us, or maybe any of us, say to this probably makes no difference to those driving this crazy policy, but anyway, I wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Irish Independent.

‘So, we are told that a new “technological university” for the South-East is “back on track”. There is a good case to be made for a normal university for Waterford, but the concept of the multi-campus “technological university” is crazy. What WIT has been told is that it is not qualified to be a university, but that if it merges with a much weaker institution (Carlow IT) located miles away it will be eligible. This makes no sense of any kind, and is a recipe for disaster.

The whole idea of “technological universities” dreamt up in the Hunt Report is badly thought through, and the government really should not be going ahead with it. There is no evidence anywhere that creating multi-location institutions with no track record of strategic collaboration or coordinated provision is a good idea.

This really does need to go back to the drawing board.’

 It will all happen anyway of course. Evidence-based policies are not in fashion.

The difficult questions concerning university autonomy and accountability

August 24, 2015

As readers of this blog will know, in 2011-12 I chaired a review of governance in Scottish higher education. The main products of the report we issued in 2012 so far are the Scottish Code of Good Governance and, more recently, a Bill now before the Scottish Parliament.

It is not my intention, at least in this post, to restate the case for the recommendations we made or to critique the code and the Bill. However, in the course of our deliberations we came across one recurring theme: how do you reconcile university autonomy (which both we and really all of those who gave evidence strongly supported) with the modern desire for accountability? As universities are free to follow their chosen strategic direction, how are those who take the decisions on strategy answerable to those affected by it, or indeed to anyone at all?

There is, I think, a widespread consensus that this cannot be resolved by allowing governments to direct universities or review their decisions, except that where universities are spending public money they must answer for the expenditure; this indeed is the issue being debated now in the context of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill. But if university governors are rightly not accountable to government, then to whom, and how is that accountability expressed? Furthermore, how can it be assured that any framework of accountability does not undermine effectiveness and operational success? How can universities be held to what one might describe as their traditional responsibilities to the wider society, as recently expressed by the new President of Cornell University?

These questions are at the heart of governance review and reform, and having a satisfactory answer will be the key to securing acceptable forms of governance into the future. It is important for universities to accept that autonomy does not mean that those taking the decisions are answerable to none of the key stakeholders; university autonomy is being misused if it is seen by the decision-makers as autonomy from the wider university community of staff and students. And it is important for governments to understand that controlling higher education institutions condemns them to educational and intellectual mediocrity and compromised integrity.

From sensitivity into intellectual vacuity

August 17, 2015

Back in the early 1990s, a British trade union developed quite a reputation for right-on radicalism. One of its innovations was that, at its annual conference, it had a ‘speech monitor’ whose task it was to follow every speech as it was being delivered and to identify the use of terms and expressions that were deemed to be offensive to anyone with a progressive radical agenda; and when he heard any such terms or expressions, his job was (literally) to pull the plug on the speech, switching off the microphone and forcing the speaker into an embarrassing return to their seat, and maybe longer term ignominy.

Furthermore, this particular power was well used. At one point when I was following one of the speeches (then being televised) the speaker used the word ‘denigrate’, and before he could finish his sentence the microphone was off and he was in disgrace. He had used a word that connected ‘black’ (niger in Latin) with something negative. There was something excitingly bizarre about this, and I confess I was watching solely in the hope that I would see one or two more of these displays of Orwellian censorship.

It is sometimes suggested that this kind of over-sensitivity has reached university campuses. In an article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt set out a fairly disturbing picture of American universities being subjected to increasing pressure not to let anyone say anything that could possibly offend or disturb someone of a very thin-skinned disposition. Examples given are pressure applied not to teach rape law in a law school, or not to make English literature students read The Great Gatsby (because it ‘portrays misogyny and physical abuse’). With this a (to me at least) new concept has been introduced: that of the ‘microaggression’. This is described as ‘small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless’ – such as asking someone from an ethnic minority where they were born.

It is of course right that universities seek, to the greatest extent possible, to create safe spaces for those who work or study in them. But this should not mean encouraging people to make a great effort to find things offensive. Universities need to prepare students for the world, and it is a world in which they cannot be protected from such stuff at all times. Furthermore, the university must maintain a culture of curiosity and inquiry, which should not be restricted just because in some contexts not everything is completely lovely. As Lukianoff and Haidt point out, if this approach is abandoned it will damage students both intellectually and mentally.

Respect and sensitivity must be part of any university’s framework of values. But at the same time, universities are there to challenge and  stimulate. This task becomes impossible if every innocuous statement has to be examined again and again before it is made, in case somebody unexpectedly might contrive to be offended by it. The academy’s educational mission must stay on the right side of intellectual vacuity.


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