Posted tagged ‘Conservative Party’

Higher education as seen by David Willetts

October 7, 2010

I’m open to correction, but I suspect that not too many readers of this blog will have spent the last couple of days closely following the proceedings of the annual British Conservative Party conference. In fact, I haven’t done that either, but I did spend a moment trying to find out what (if anything) was said about higher education. In that context a report in the Daily Telegraph of a speech by Universities Minister David Willetts did come to my attention.

I’m not sure whether the comments he made add up to a coherent perspective on England’s universities (higher education in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is not run out of London), but here are the main points he is reported to have made.

• Tuition fees will need to rise substantially to off-set public funding cuts, but people from wealthier backgrounds should perhaps pay more, not just in fees but in loan repayments. Interestingly, he suggested that having a university degree ‘on average … boosts [the graduate’s] earnings by £100,000 over a lifetime’ – which seems to me to be rather less than the actual ‘boost.’
• There should be more two-year foundation degree and degree programnmes (and here he is picking up a point made by the previous UK Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson). In fact, Mr Willetts said that there was a need for ‘more two-year degrees, more part-time students, and more courses with placements in business. That’s the future of higher education under this Coalition Government.’

If English higher education is to continue to be seen as world class, those who are working out a policy framework for it must stop just thinking about funding and budgets all the time. Of course it is not possible to have a system with real excellence if it is not properly resourced, but before you get to that you ned to have a sense of what it is you are resourcing.

It seems to me to be obvious that the whole concept of higher education is due for a re-think. My concern is that politicians, and sometimes the universities themselves, address all this purely in structural terms: what should the institutions look like, how should they be run, how should they be funded? These are important questions, but they are secondary to the larger questions of what the purpose and meaning of education. The detached, disinterested model of the university, pursuing knowledge for its own ends, would probably no longer be accepted for the higher education system overall (though perhaps it might still work for individual, generally very rich, institutions).

David Willetts is an interesting man, and he would probably have interesting things to say on this topic. He should get on with that, and until he has done so he should worry less about two-year degree programmes and the like.

Higher education policy in the UK

May 21, 2010

The new coalition in Britain has now published its programme for government, Freedom, Fairness, Responsibility. One of its 31 chapters concerns ‘Universities and Further Education’, and it contains some old and new proposals for England (Scotland and Wales have their own systems not run from London). Here’s a statement that caught my eye:

‘We will publish more information about the costs, graduate earnings and student satisfaction of different university courses.’

It is difficult to know what exactly is intended here, but publishing data of this kind has for some time been part of the Conservatives’ political frame of reference. The better availability of impartially gathered data about university performance is supposed to allow students and their families to make informed choices as to the institution chosen for him or her. How this will link to the established newspaper league tables for universities remains to be seen.

The programme also goes on to say:

‘We will ensure that public funding mechanisms for university research safeguard its academic integrity.’

Clearly the value of any research strategy is undermined by any doubts that may exist in people’s minds about the integrity of the institution and its staff. Ultimately however this is a matter for each university, and I cannot immediately see what the Cameron/Clegg partnership can aim to do here.

The funding issue is another matter. The coalition document undertakes to ‘ensure a properly funded university sector’. With reference to Lord Browne’s ‘independent review of higher education funding and student finance’, the programme for government gives the Liberal Democrats an opt-out from any decision to increase income from student fees for the universities.

In my view there are some good aspects to this programme, but there are also some warnings. England, like Ireland, is at risk of developing a highly bureacratised system for monitoring and controlling universities. This kind of outlook sees education as a process, and it will usually lead to greater administrative burdens without particularly prompting substantive education reforms.

English universities are now overseen by two politicians (Vince Cable and David Willetts) who are both highly intelligent and curious; but they must not be tempted to adopt the prevailing control-driven culture. For our English colleagues, there is much to play for.

Tory higher education

April 14, 2010

Still keeping an eye on the UK election campaign, the British Conservative Party has now also published its manifesto. It’s a very long document, like a research paper presented in a rather folksy style. It weighs in at 119 pages – some 40 pages more than the Labour manifesto – and I cannot help wondering whether anyone, including party members, will actually bother to read it cover-to-cover.

But let us get to the higher education stuff. You can find it at page 17, but for ease of reference I am going to reproduce the entire content here:

Universities contribute enormously to the economy. but not all of this contribution comes directly – it can come from fundamental research with no immediate application – and universities also have a crucial cultural role. We will ensure that Britain’s universities enjoy the freedom to pursue academic excellence and focus on raising the quality of the student experience. To enable this to happen, we will:

• delay the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework so that it can be reviewed – because of doubts about whether there is a robust and acceptable way of measuring the impact of all research;

• consider carefully the results of Lord Browne’s review into the future of higher education funding, so that we can unlock the potential of universities to transform our economy, to enrich students’ lives through teaching of the highest quality, and to advance scholarship; and,

• provide 10,000 extra university places this year, paid for by giving graduates incentives to pay back their student loans early on an entirely voluntary basis.

Leaving aside that the Conservatives are here offering to stall one of the Labour Government’s projects – the Research Excellence Framework – there is nothing here that suggests a different approach by the Tories to higher education. There may turn out to be a different management style should they take office, but the basic principles look as if they will be pretty much the same. If I were looking at this election from a UK higher education perspective, I would probably be inclined to make my judgement on the basis of which party will bring about a more sustainable financial settlement for the sector. There seems little else to distinguish between them.

Labour’s higher education

April 13, 2010

As the British general election campaign gets under way, it will be instructive to see what election promises or plans are published by the political parties regarding higher education. First out of the blocks is the Labour Party, with its manifesto A Future Fair for All (clearly drafted by someone with a fondness for alliteration). It contains a section on higher education entitled, well, ‘World Class Higher Education’.

The key messages: the party wants to expand further the number of those taking higher education programmes, and wants universities to reach out to disadvantaged schools and communities in order to widen access. Thrown into that particular objective is the intention of encouraging ‘highly able students from low-income backgrounds to attend Russell Group universities’. Why, you’d have to wonder, the specific reference to the Russell Group? Even if you subscribe to the view that the Russell Group’s member institutions are all most excellent, there are a good few other universities that can match and beat universities from the Group.

The other key statement in the manifesto is this:

‘In the coming years, priority in the expansion of student places will be given to Foundation Degrees and part-time study, and to science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, as well as applied study in key economic growth sectors.’

This reinforces the trend that can be observed globally of governments persuading and cajoling universities to develop their strategies to support current national economic priorities. I strongly believe in the need for most universities to focus on specific strategic objectives, but I would be less confident that these will work if they are in fact nominated by government.

Of course British trends often travel quite quickly in our direction, and so it will be interesting to observe what gets said on education during the current campaign. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at the Conservative manifesto; always assuming that it will say something about higher education.

Enlisting the bloggers in politics

March 25, 2010

It is interesting to see that the Conservative Party in the UK is using bloggers to marshall their arguments in response to the British government’s Budget. The idea is, apparently, that the Party has been publishing details of the Budget and seeking support from bloggers in analysing it, thereby allowing the Tories to issue am informed response. I am not sure whether this relies on the active and deliberate participation of bloggers, or whether the party is simply trawling the web to assemble what they need. At any rate it is an interesting idea.

Ever since bloggers appeared as a real influence in US presidential elections, the role of blogs in public commentary has been increasingly a matter of attention. It is clear that this is also becoming a phenomenon in Ireland. At the same time, the visibility of blogs in political debate here is still limited – maybe this will change in the run-up to the next election?

And this is how it’s playing in the UK

March 3, 2010

Just as we are getting ourselves all worked up about grades in Irish schools and higher education institutions, the issue has also come up again in the United Kingdom. The Conservative Party’s education spokesperson Michael Gove has drawn attention to some research apparently conducted by Durham and Coventry universities (though I have not been able to find any direct details of this) which, he says, shows that it was ‘easier to secure good pass marks at A level now than a generation ago.’

Whether this accurately describes the research is something that we will need to check when details of the study are released, but in the meantime the Tory Party is proposing certain steps which may have a significant impact on universities. What Michael Gove is suggesting is that the universities should be charged with setting the curriculum and the examinations for A levels:

‘So we will take control of the A-level syllabus and question-setting process out of the hands of bureaucrats and instead empower universities, exam boards and learned societies with the task of ensuring these qualifications are rigorous. The aim of the next Conservative Government will be to have a school examination system which is the most rigorous in the world, safeguarded by the nation’s guardians of academic excellence.’

It is difficult to see exactly how this would work, but on the other hand it would be interesting to consider how universities, which often rightly complain that the final school examinations don’t properly prepare students for higher education, might influence the curriculum to overcome issues that now affect secondary education. Perhaps there might be some merit in having this discussion in Ireland.