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

Posted January 5, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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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

Posted December 21, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

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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?

Posted December 15, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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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.

Culture wars on American campuses?

Posted December 8, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: students, university

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As we all know, youtube videos can go viral, and here is one that has done so recently. It shows an exchange of views – if we can call it that – at Yale University. Should you wish to learn a little about the background to this incident, you can read it here. And finally, here is another account from a participant of sorts, published in the Washington Post.

Should you not wish to read the stories, here is a short summary. A Yale academic, Erika Christakis, sent out an email in which she reflected on the potential benefits of students and others being allowed to express themselves (in this case in the choice of Halloween costumes) in ways that could include being ‘a little bit inappropriate or provocative’. Some students took offence at the email, and this in turn led to the recorded confrontation between Dr Christakis’s husband (who was defending the email) and some students.

The question that all this raises is one I have covered before in this blog – whether there is on a university campus (or for that matter, anywhere else) a right not to be offended. Do universities have an obligation to ensure that no one is troubled or disturbed by what they see or hear? And of course, how does all of this affect freedom of speech?

Of course universities do have a duty of care towards their students, including a duty to ensure that students are not the victims of discrimination or bullying and that they can learn in an environment that encourages them and supports them. I do not believe, however, that universities are obliged to ensure that no student ever hears anything they do not like, or that they never meet anyone who disagrees with them. Intellectual inquiry is about hearing every point of view, even offensive ones.

As a result of the backlash against her email, Erika Christakis resigned from her Yale University teaching post. That, I would suggest, was not a good day for the university.

Managing debt. Or not.

Posted December 1, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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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.

Very frequently, not unique

Posted November 24, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: society

Tags: ,

For all you academic authors out there, what you need to know about the title of this post is that you must never ever use any of the words in your writing. Nor should you ‘feel’ anything ‘eagerly’, or indeed ‘frequently’, and ‘finally’ you should ‘never’ write about ‘the public’.

Who says? Well, it’s a support service for writers called Tameri, and they have a guide for writers that contains a  list of words and phrases to avoid. And indeed they also suggest you stop using adjectives and adverbs; and infinitives. Only then will your writing be perfect. Or not, as you mustn’t use ‘perfect’.

An office for students?

Posted November 24, 2015 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , , ,

The major higher education event in the UK this month was probably the publication of the UK Government’s plans for English higher education in their Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. It is amongst other things a fairly comprehensive statement of the priorities and intentions of the new UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson. In his introduction the Minister sets out his agenda:

‘We will reward excellent teaching with reputational and financial incentives; widen participation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds; provide greater focus on employability; open up the sector to greater competition from new high quality providers; and reform our regulatory structure so that it drives value for money for students and taxpayers.’

Each of these elements has a section within the Green Paper, and I shall return to each of them in due course. On this occasion I want to comment on the Green Paper’s proposals for a new regulatory structure, or as it is put in the document, for ‘simplifying the higher education architecture’. At the heart of this is the UK Government’s proposal to establish a new ‘Office for Students’, which would be a ‘single, light touch regulatory system for all providers of higher education’, and would be both a ‘regulator’ and a ‘student champion’. This new agency would combine many or all of the functions of the current nine public bodies regulating or supporting higher education; but it would also have a particular focus, based on what the government regards as they key reasons for government intervention:

‘(i) information asymmetries between students and institutions and insufficient demand side pressures to ensure quality; (ii) the inability of students, in the quantities desirable for society and the economy, to finance higher education at the point of entry without support; and, (iii) the broader benefits to society of having a highly educated population.’

The frame of reference therefore guiding this reform is that higher education operates in a market which the government needs to regulate to protect the consumer (i.e. the student). This can be compared with the role of the current primary higher education  regulator in England, HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England). This is how HEFCE explains its role:

  • ‘ensure accountability for funding and be a proportionate regulator
  • act in the public interest and be open, fair, impartial and objective
  • be an effective broker between Government and the sector and in doing so, ensure that we are implementing government policy effectively.’

The role of HEFCE is to act as an intermediary between universities and government, and in that setting to recognise and protect also the standards of higher education and the interests of students. That is not the same role as the one now being proposed for the Office for Students, and the Green Paper contains little analysis or argument about what this change might imply and how it might change higher education practice. HEFCE is what is generally referred to as an arm’s-length body – this is a body that ‘delivers a public service, is not a ministerial government department, and which operates to a greater or lesser extent at a distance from Ministers.’ In the higher education field such bodies generally channel public money to universities and monitor performance under various headings; but they provide a voice for the sector in the sector’s dealings with government. If the new Office for Students is principally concerned with student interests, a key support function for universities will be lost – not a minor issue at a time when some institutions are thought to be very vulnerable.

But in any case, it must be doubted just a little whether the new agency will in practice primarily work to support students; not least because most student representative bodies are pretty hostile to the system being implemented.

This reform may not be the wrong reform; but it may need a more explicit narrative that recognises and assesses the fairly fundamental shift in higher education assumptions that it is introducing. That is what is missing.


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