Regulating higher education

Posted August 8, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education


One common feature of higher education in Britain’s political regions – i.e. England, Wales and Scotland – is that all are making or considering changes to the way in which higher education is supervised. Until now one aspect of each system has been the same: each had a regulatory and funding body – the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, and the Scottish Funding Council.  Now however the nature and role and identity of these bodies has become the subject of official review or proposed reform, raising the question of what they are for and of whether they are necessary or helpful.

In England the government has proposed the setting up of an ‘Office for Students’ taking over some of the functions of HEFCE and other bodies. In Scotland at the time of writing the government is conducting a review of the ‘enterprise and skills agencies’ which may lead to a significant reconfiguration of the system. In Wales a review of higher education conducted by Irish academic Professor Ellen Hazelkorn was published earlier this year; she recommended a new agency to be called the Tertiary Education Authority (a proposed name drawing more than a little from Professor Hazelkorn’s Irish background).

The question raised by all this is whether a university system needs an arm’s length agency set between the sector and the government. Such agencies usually administer public funding and act as regulator; they also, to some degree, represent the interests of the university sector in addressing government. Is this a useful function that gives better protection to the institutions while also providing assurance of oversight; or could such a role be carried out more effectively within government itself (as is the case in Northern Ireland)?

Higher education has become one of the most regulated and bureaucratised sectors within what one might call the public interest areas of the state. Do these agencies make such bureaucratisation better or worse? Or perhaps, should government agencies be configured differently, so that innovation and research is managed in such a way as to ensure that university research is aligned (where appropriate) with private sector research or R&D?

Despite this trend of review and reform there has been little open debate about the value and role of these arm’s length agencies. Reform, if it is to occur, should not be by stealth but should take proper account of – and subject to debate – the appropriate principles of regulation and management.  Right now there is no visible common understanding of what these principles are.

Student debt gets political

Posted August 2, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , , ,

A key issue in the current (and often strange) American presidential election campaign is student debt. There are a number of reasons why it has taken on political significance, but as an issue it was initially raised by the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who in his election programme promised to make university education ‘free and debt free’. The issue has also been taken on board by Hillary Clinton.

The prominence of this issue is underscored by various reports and news items. A blog post published by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has pointed not just to the scale of student debt in America, but also its socio-economic consequences, increasing the gap between rich and poor and creating ‘negative wealth’ in a number of households. This finds a resonance on this side of the Atlantic, with a British lobby group suggesting that for many graduates the lifetime salary premium secured by a degree is likely to be overpowered by the weight of debt.

All of this tells us that nobody has yet found the silver bullet for higher education funding that is effective in providing necessary resources for institutions while also being socially equitable. Free tuition, notwithstanding the proposals by Sanders, places institutions at financial risk; a loans-financed higher education based on high tuition fees creates unsustainable debt. Sooner or later politicians will need to face up to the fact that means-tested support is the only way out of this. Maybe the US election campaign will help.

Breaking away?

Posted July 26, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, literature, society


Academics are well used to being asked some time in early June at the latest whether the are now off until September. As I have mentioned a number of times, this is never the case now (and anyway never was the case in most universities) – few manage to take more than 2-3 weeks away.

However, I can report that I am now on a two-week break, and right now am travelling between the United States and Canada (tomorrow I shall be in Halifax, Nova Scotia).

As I travel I get a chance to read things I don’t normally have the time to tackle. This time it has been Pnin by Nabokov; Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens; and The Silent People by Walter Macken. Alongside that, and for real entertainment, a book on monetary economics.

I hope some of my readers are also enjoying a break. Back to normal service for me next week.

The nature of argument

Posted July 19, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, society


One of the key demands made of a democratic community is that it must be capable of critical argument. Nobody can be sure that an idea, or a policy, or a proposal has merit until it has been properly tested in debate. However, as Monty Python pointed out (or not) some time ago, conducting an argument is not the same thing as hurling abuse. And yet that increasingly is what it has become, at any rate in certain political quarters.

Right now I am visiting the United States. It is an interesting time to do so, as we are just into the Republican Party Convention. Perhaps unwisely, I spent a little time this evening watching the proceedings on television, and the sum of the speeches, interjections, interviews and commentary was simple enough: Hillary Clinton is a crooked liar. That’s all you need to know, and let’s not assess the evidence too much, it confuses the message.

But before those who dislike the Republican Party and maybe feel superior to the United States get into their stride, the last few days have seen bucketloads of abuse thrown around in Britain also, a good bit of it at the Conservative Party; in fact, there is a popular hashtag on Twitter that reads #Toryscum. I am not an apologist for the Tory Party, but I cannot help noticing that all too often its detractors detract less with reason and more with vilification.

Political debate is becoming increasingly coarse, and all too often those conducting it seem to assume that they will fare best if they succeed in attacking the bona fides of their opponents rather than the merits of their opponents’ arguments. The result of this is popular cynicism, which in turn corrodes democratic processes.argument

Of course there are some politicians who deserve censorious denunciation. But not all of them do, and not even all in a particular party with which you or I might disagree. Real argument is more intellectually laudable than personal abuse. In fact, abusive anger is never attractive and rarely appropriate, in whatever setting we might be tempted to apply it.

I’ll probably go back to watching the GOP tomorrow. I have asked my family to prod me if I mutter anything abusive.

Irish higher education: the funding dilemma

Posted July 11, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

As Irish readers will know, yesterday saw the publication of the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education (chaired by Peter Cassells), Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education. Its recommendations had been well trailed in advance of publication, so while they merit discussion of course they are hardly new. Indeed they are not new in another sense: most of what is analysed in the report, and indeed of what is recommended, had been analysed and recommended 12 years earlier in the OECD report, Review of Higher Education in Ireland. Very similar conclusions were reached back then, particularly in chapter 10 of that report.

The problem requiring a solution is not hard to state, and has been a matter of pretty solid consensus for well over a decade: Irish universities and colleges are seriously under-funded. The consequences include an increasingly unacceptable student-staff ratio, degraded facilities, high levels of student attrition, an erosion of international competitiveness. The solution is very easy to state also: more money. The conundrum for politicians is who should pay for this, or where this money is going to come from.

The Cassells expert group has identified three possibilities: (i) let the state pay for everything, but more generously than at present; (ii) maintain the current system of a €3,000 student contribution with additional state funding to make up the required amount; or (iii) an income-contingent loan system, under which higher education is free at the point of entry but where students contribute through re-payment of a loan once their income has reached a certain threshold after graduation. The report assesses these options, sets out the advantages and disadvantages of each, and in effect settles for option (iii), though not explicitly.

In the end this will not turn out to be a matter of choosing the best option, but of securing a policy that will not be damaging to anyone politically. The fate of Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the UK – who promised not to allow any increase in tuition fees but who were then in the government that did just that and ended up losing seats at the subsequent election – will be on everyone’s mind. If this is a problem that can be dodged it probably will be. After all, the OECD report has gathered dust for 12 years.

I confess I am hugely sceptical about an income-contingent loan scheme. Australia is held up as an example to follow, but the critical thing to note about the Australian model is that it has led to massive unpaid debts, estimated to lie at around or above a staggering AUS$40 billion. As the scheme also involves subsidised interest rates for the loans, it has been estimated that the cost to the taxpayer could be about the same as state funding for the system, but less predictable in its impact.

If it is our intention, as it should be, to ensure that access to higher education is unimpeded for those with the necessary talent, whatever their socio-economic background, then there are really only two options. One is full state funding: but this is meaningful only if that funding is generous enough to secure excellence, quality and international competitiveness. This in turn is unachievable unless taxes are raised to secure the necessary funds, and the revenues are hypothecated – i.e. ring fenced for expenditure on higher education only (which is not possible under current budget systems).

The other option is to have tuition fees for those who (subject to means testing) can afford it, free tuition for those who cannot, and perhaps loans-assisted fee payments for middle income groups.

There is no other realistic option that will actually work in practice and in the long run. There isn’t an easy silver bullet that requires no difficult decision by politicians. And because this is so, this report too may start gathering dust. I would love to think that I am wrong however, and that at least some steps will be taken to ensure that the erosion of excellence in Irish higher education is halted.

Getting to the point

Posted July 5, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: ,

In this blog I have asked every so often whether slide presentations are good or bad in higher education. When I last wrote on the subject I think I concluded that they had become a distraction from teaching rather than being a pedagogical tool to support it, in part because they were often not well thought out. It’s a topic that regularly crops up in higher education journals and websites, most recently here.

I was reminded of the questionable merits of such presentations at an event I attended recently, where one of the speakers had seriously over-achieved in the design and formatting of his slide show, but at the expense of intelligent comment. One of his slides just had the one word ‘Yes’,  but with the word set in the middle of an explosion of clip art and psychedelic colours.

Having given up on Powerpoint and similar tools a while ago, I returned to it recently and tried something different – a parade of slides automatically progressing in the background while I spoke, with each slide containing a famous work of art; with no explanation, so inviting my listeners either to work out what the connection was, or to get relief from my talk with something aesthetically pleasing. I was quite happy with the engagement it appeared to prompt – though I consider it only appropriate as a one-off, or it would become a cliché.

I suppose that what I now think is that Powerpoint, like any tool, has its uses as long as one knows what these might be. I’ll try to keep an open mind.

Coming to terms with ‘Brexit’

Posted June 28, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, politics

Tags: ,

Maybe most people didn’t see that one coming, but I had harboured a suspicion for several weeks that the UK electorate as a whole would vote to leave the European Union; and in that belief had urged people supporting that position to be clearer about what it would mean in practice, and what the consequences would be.

And now, several days have passed since the vote and nobody knows anything at all. We don’t know, even in outline, what kind of relationship with the EU those who campaigned for Brexit actually want, or what the UK’s negotiating position will be. We don’t know whether the UK can or will be in the EU’s single market. We don’t know what the actions of investors will be, or indeed of domestic consumers. We don’t know what will happen to the UK’s currency, the Pound.

I imagine that many of those who voted to leave will have done so in the expectation that immigration (from the EU and indeed everywhere else) will fall dramatically; and yet we must suspect it almost certainly will not, whatever new regulatory framework emerges.

And of course we don’t know what will happen to Scotland – will it now leave the UK, or will there be some accommodation that allows Scotland (and maybe London?) to keep special ties to the European Union within a United Kingdom that has left?

In the university sector, a large number of questions now arise, some of them of fundamental importance. Will they still be able to recruit faculty and students internationally, in the EU and beyond, as before? Will they still have access to the same research funding? What about Erasmus and other student exchanges? How will our friends and partners across the world now view us?

I began my academic career in 1980. Over the years since then I cannot recall any period of such uncertainty as the one we face now; made more difficult by the fact that almost none of our questions will be conclusively answered any time soon. We will be living in very interesting times.