Posted tagged ‘higher education reform’

An office for students?

November 24, 2015

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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The university debate: academic expertise in the conversation

October 15, 2013

If you are interested in how the university system is changing, or perhaps how it should change, there is plenty for you to read. A number of notable writers, including a fair number of university heads or former heads, have offered their analysis of higher education and how it will, should or should not change. Some of these contributions have been angry complaints about a system that, the authors believe, has abandoned (or perhaps been forced to abandon) its traditional values; others have suggested that change has not gone far enough. But there is no shortage of public analysis.

Now however one researcher into higher education reform has suggested that the debate lacks expert academic input. Kevin R. McClure, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, has suggested in an article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, that there is a ‘vast reform-industrial complex’, but a missing academic input:

‘The questions surrounding higher education’s future demand input from academics whose livelihoods are tied to rigorous scholarship, imbued with an understanding of history, theory, and data, not from policy centers pursuing a political agenda or entrepreneurs shoring up business. Yet out of the multitude of works on higher education I have read over the past year in completing my exams and writing my dissertation proposal, surprisingly few for general audiences are written by higher-education scholars.’

When a year or two ago I chaired the higher education governance review for Scotland, my colleagues and I came up with a similar finding: that there is an expert research gap in higher education literature. We recommended therefore that funding should be found for a Scottish Centre for Higher Education Research. This has not yet happened, but it seems right to me that a significant dose of scholarly expertise should be injected into this debate. Of course those, both within the system and outside it, who wish to use their experience of higher education to comment on it should have space to do so. But the time has also come for this debate to be informed by higher education scholarship; and I hope that in the near future more than one centre dedicated to this work will emerge.

The university debate (guest blog)

October 13, 2013

Over the next while this blog will host occasional contributions to the debate about the future of the university. Right now in many countries, though not Scotland,  public funding for universities is falling (in some cases dramatically) and traditional assumptions of how they should operate are under pressure. Have these changes reinvigorated the idea of the university, or undermined it?

Here a view is offered on changes in the Irish higher education system, by Professor Ronnie Munck of Dublin City University.

It seems to me that the Irish university system is heading down a particular path without much debate or even basic reflection by those driving it down that path. The economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has led to the austerity policies that the IMF once imposed on the developing world. University managers have agreed to a man (yes) that what the universities need is more of the market logic that brought us to this impasse in the first place. Just as with neoliberalism in it’s heyday (before the small detail of the 2008-09 global crisis) ‘there is no alternative’ and there is but one path to salvation.

This is politics, you might suggest. Our job is just to run the universities as best we can in conditions that are not of our choosing. But these are political choices that have been made and, always, people and societies can make other choices. Trade union members at Dublin City University have put out a ‘charter’ laying out ten basic principles they feel are core values of a progressive university fit for purpose in the 21st century. Given the severity of the crisis facing the Irish university (amply demonstrated in this blog) we should probably spend some time reflecting in a safe environment what we feel about this statement. I think all the points are debatable but at least we can agree that some of the right questions are being asked.

To rephrase the ten principles of the DCU Charter as questions we might ask ourselves:

1. Is the university a public good and if so, what does that mean? What level of industry input in its teaching and research agendas are we all comfortable with?
2. Do our university strategies reflect the needs of society at large and do staff and students feel they ‘own’ them?
3. Is our teaching designed to increase the employability of our students and nothing more?
4. Should the research agenda be driven to the extent that it is by economic and state interests, and is there an alternative logic?
5. We all claim to be engaging with society but is this really ‘core business’ in an era of austerity?
6. Are our students consumers of knowledge or our ‘customers’ (customer satisfaction include follows), or is there some other definition of student we might appeal to?
7. Is the current employment control framework, Haddington road, etc a sustainable human relations policy for the university?
8. Are MOOCs simply the only way to go and can we just ditch traditional teaching methods?
9. Are the too many senior posts at the university under present conditions, a slightly different question, are they over-administered?
10. Do we still value collegiality and creativity, or is it a case of ‘needs must’ and we need to run universities like businesses?

So over to you all. We were all once students and we should be able to respond coherently and persuasively to these questions. After all we ask our students to do this all the time!

Subverting Irish university autonomy

September 24, 2013

Over the past three or four years a significant change has been taking place in Irish higher education. Since the publication of the Hunt Report in 2011 (National Strategy for Higher Education), there has been a visible shift of public policy in the direction of a more centralised management of the system. The state now regards it as appropriate to set a national strategic purpose to be reflected in individual institutional plans, and also to manage what has become known as the higher education ‘landscape‘ – the latter being the configuration of the sector and the identity and management of the individual universities and colleges within it.

And now, with remarkably little public attention regarding the implications, the government has announced its intention of introducing in 2014 a new piece of legislation in the form of a Universities (Amendment) Bill, the purpose of which is declared to be ‘to give the Minister the power to require universities to comply with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the University sector’.

The picture that is emerging from all this is an interesting one: the government and its agencies will set an overall strategic context for individual institutions, will determine in which institutional configuration they will operate, and will determine centrally their staffing and human resources policy. Someone may have arguments in favour of such a higher education policy, but it will have to be stated clearly that it is completely incompatible with any – even limited – understanding of university autonomy.

No major policy shift should be undertaken in any area without a clear understanding of how it will produce benefits; such an understanding does not exist in relation to current plans for Irish higher education. It is acknowledged throughout the world that autonomous universities perform much better and produce much greater benefits for their host countries. Ireland’s universities are now being directly threatened. There should, at the very least, be a vigorous debate, and the universities should be vocal in it.

Reforming higher education in Wales

July 17, 2013

For those (like me) who are not always aware of what is happening in the Welsh university system, there are some current developments worth noting. Yesterday the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, announced his legislative programme for the coming year. This includes plans for a Higher Education (Wales) Bill, which will have the following purpose:

The Higher Education (Wales) Bill will provide the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) with a robust regulatory framework within which to operate to ensure quality of higher education and provide assurance about the financial health and governance of higher education providers and the quality of their provision. It will also enforce fee controls and to safeguard equality of opportunity for those accessing or intending to access higher education.

This announcement follows the Welsh Government’s recent Policy Statement on Higher Education, published last month. This set out a number of objectives for the system, including more ambitious research goals, a greater focus on access, better integration between higher and further education, and a drive to ensure that innovation in higher education benefits economic growth.

It will be interesting to see how the proposed Bill addresses the regulatory backdrop to all this. There have already been considerable structural changes in Welsh higher education over recent years, and it seems that further change may lie ahead.

Higher education: an era of radical change?

March 12, 2013

As readers of this blog will know, I have taken the view for some time that there is room for a new university model within higher education. I am of course not alone in that view, nor is this second decade of the new millennium the only period in which such thoughts have been explored. I recently looked at some public lectures given in various universities in the 1940s, and one recurring theme – probably prompted in part by the re-thinking of pretty much everything at the end of World War 2 – was that universities needed and would experience radical change.

Predictions of a sweeping away of traditional higher education models have become commonplace. The most recent contribution to this genre has come from the UK think tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research. In an essay (An Avalanche is Coming) published this month by the left-leaning Institute, the authors argue that we are about to face ‘an avalanche of change’ in higher education that may ‘sweep the system away.’ The growth of lifelong learning, the so-called MOOCs and the arrival of non-university competitors in higher education are amongst the developments the authors (led by Sir Michael Barber) believe will trigger this cataclysm. They fear that universities may be swept away because in the university system change has been too slow and incremental.

Leaving aside for a moment a tendency by the authors to nurture their snowy metaphor beyond what is serviceable, are they right in predicting this violent disturbance? The clue lies in part in how they interpret recent higher education history. The authors correctly describe a large number of important developments that have had an impact on higher education, but then seem to assume that these have not fundamentally altered the system. But their own metrics suggest otherwise. Numbers have exploded, research and publication has become pervasive, technology has changed pedagogy, economic development has influenced funding, and so forth.

Their case for the suggesting that nothing much has changed is based on their view that success in the system is one-dimensional: it is all about research outputs. The model for a successful university is Harvard (or maybe Oxbridge), and everyone is trying to the best of their ability to mimic the Harvard way, often inadequately. This, the authors suggest, is silly. Instead, they believe they can identify a coming taxonomy of higher education institutions, based on the idea that ‘distinctiveness matters’. There will be five university ‘models’: (1) the elite university; (2) the mass university; (3) the niche university; (4) the local university; and (5) the lifelong learning mechanism.

The essay does have a number of interesting insights, and is worth reading. But its five ‘models’ are not revolutionary – they (or something like them) are long in place, and it is not difficult to attach a model number to almost any existing university you might care to mention. The problem is that, as listed, they express a hierarchy, and indeed a hierarchy both of esteem and of resourcing. The trick in establishing a new higher education model that is not Harvard-like but is recognised as representing strong value and educational quality is to show it as exercising thought leadership. That is the essence of a different new university model.

Unlike the authors of this report, I don’t think there is an avalanche coming that is materially different from past changes, in the sense that fairly significant change has been a feature of higher education for the past four decades or more. I also suspect that some of the current ‘radical’ moves, including many of the MOOCs (a term that increasingly irritates me), will eventually flop because they lack a business case and because the pedagogy has not been as well thought out as some may think. But I do believe that there is scope for a radical new university model that can challenge the traditional elite. That is the quest I would like to be on.

The Irish higher education ‘landscape’

January 17, 2013

As part of the process that will, we are told, produce a newly reconfigured Irish higher education system, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has produced another document pointing further in the direction of where it would like the system to go. In this latest document, entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, the HEA sets out its intentions as follows.

‘System reconfiguration is aimed at creating a reduced number of higher education institutions of more significant scale and critical mass in the best interests of students. A key objective is to protect the distinctive roles and mission of universities and technological institutes within the Irish system while delivering the quality outcomes in teaching, research and engagement for students and stakeholders envisaged in the National Strategy.’

In fairness to the HEA, its objectives have been stated repeatedly in previous documents and follow a clearly discernible path. It wants fewer higher education institutions; and in particular it wants mergers amongst the institutes of technology, the absorption of teacher training colleges into universities, and a much higher level of specialisation in all institutions including universities. It believes that this will remove or lessen inefficiencies and produce what it calls ‘scale’, or critical mass. It also wants regional clustering, so that institutions in the same general area (though ‘area’ is understood in a somewhat elastic way, as it seems for example to include the entire west coast of Ireland) form part of a coherent structure. It also wants the development of a centralised national strategy that will inform individual institutional direction. All of this is to lead to what the document describes as a ‘co-ordinated and consolidated higher education system’.

The objectives being pursued here have become part of the public narrative of higher education in Ireland, and are repeated by officials and politicians in a manner to suggest that they are obviously appropriate. But whether they really are appropriate, and certainly whether they are necessary, has not ever really been established through the presentation of anything that might count as evidence. Rather, a set of largely unproven assumptions – with some assumptions that have been shown to be highly questionable if not simply wrong, such as that of ‘scale’ – have taken on iconic status. They are driving policy making, and are threatening to create a new layer of bureaucratic control. They are set to replace the traditional principle of institutional autonomy, on the again quite unproven assertion that this no longer serves the interests of Irish higher education or society.

It would be unfair to suggest that all these plans are wrong. Coordinating institutional objectives with national priorities is potentially useful. Encouraging strategic collaboration is right. But the picture emerging here goes beyond that, and reveals a higher education ‘system’ that is structured to fit a centralised bureaucratic model.

The HEA has overall been a good friend of the higher education sector, but it has allowed itself to be persuaded that something is wrong where there are no real signs of anything untoward. In consequence attention that could usefully be directed to some much more obviously beneficial reform, particularly given the changing pedagogical and demographic trends of recent years, is now being focused on a structural reconfiguration that hardly seems called for and that could actually undermine innovation and creativity within the sector.

Probably this path is now set, and there are few signs that there is any resistance from the institutions themselves. I still doubt it is the right path, however. Furthermore, the journey down this path is beginning just as other countries, for example Germany, are moving in the opposite direction, as they have come to realise the importance of university autonomy. It’s a strange world.