Posted tagged ‘Million+’

Understanding student applications data

November 29, 2011

In the United Kingdom the Universities and College Admissions Service (UCAS), which handles student applications to higher education institutions, yesterday released the current applications figures for the coming academic year, and the numbers are significantly down on the comparable figures for last year. UK-wide the number is down 12.9 per cent.

On the face of it the reduction does not appear to be a result of the new fees régime in England, since the numbers are also down in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

University mission groups such as the Russell Group and Million+ have been quick to put their own interpretation on the data, but both have shown signs of nervousness about the numbers, and their statements are designed to persuade potential students to go ahead with their applications – and these can still be made in the UK until mid-January.

The truth is that we really don’t know right now what is happening. We don’t know whether the publicity around new funding and tuition fee arrangements has influenced student choice – and it is quite possible that some students are not aware that the position in Scotland is different. We don’t know for sure whether there are other demographic reasons for a decline in numbers. We don’t know what impact the recession is having, or fears about future economic developments.

What we do know, or at least imagine we know, is that we are heading into a much more uncertain era for higher education. In this setting, a greater sense of public policy stability and continuity will almost certainly be a good idea. The rather chaotic state of higher education strategy in England over the past year, if continued, could start to do serious damage.

An ‘Oxbridge obsession’?

September 20, 2011

The British university mission group Million+, which perhaps slightly awkwardly describes itself as a ‘think tank’, has issued a pamphlet in which it expresses its doubts about the British government’s higher education policy for England. The chief concern of the group relates to the policy of trying to secure the admission of some talented students from lower income groups into the higher ranking universities, which Million+ believes could compromise the capacity of its member institutions (which are all post-1992 universities) to have a rather greater impact in bringing disadvantaged students into higher education.

Anyway, what struck me in all of this was the call in the pamphlet for the government to ‘move beyond the Oxbridge obsession’. What the group means, presumably, is that governments and others spend too much time trying to secure access to Oxford and Cambridge and to fund these institutions excessively, neglecting the contribution made by other more modest institutions.

There may be a bit of special pleading in the pamphlet, but there are also some points worth making. On the one hand, if the ‘Oxbridge obsession’ is shorthand for a focus on excellence and a desire to ensure that a reasonable cross-section of the general population can  experience higher education as offered in the best endowed institutions, then there is at least something to be said for it. But if it expresses the view that the Oxbridge model of higher education is the only model that has the capacity to deliver world leading education, then we should pause to think. It is probably true that the Oxbridge model is similar to that adopted by some of the other heading universities of the world, such as Harvard and Princeton, but on the other hand it is quite different from that of other global leading institutions such as MIT and Caltech.

The risk in all of this is to the idea of higher education diversity. On this side of the Atlantic there is some acceptance in theory of diversity, but in practice the assumption appears to be that only one kind of university can strive to be world class (whatever that means). That is not good for the system, however. Diversity of mission is important for all sorts of reasons and should be encouraged, not as a way of identifying a hierarchy of excellence, but as a way of meeting different social, cultural and economic needs. But within that setting universities should still strive to be excellent and to produce outcomes in teaching and research that can challenge the best in the world. That should ultimately be the goal of all universities.

Going clubbing

May 4, 2011

During my ten years as head of an Irish university, one of the things I appreciated most was that there were no university groups or associations in Ireland apart from the Irish Universities Association (of which all are members). Well, almost no such groups: University College Dublin (UCD) is a member of the international group Universitas 21, and of course UCD and Trinity College Dublin formed the ‘Innovation Alliance‘. But certainly until the latter alliance was formed in  2009, when the university presidents met we never had to be wary of the other associations of which one or the other might be part.

That makes Irish higher education somewhat unique. In Britain you cannot move for university groupings: the Russell Group, the 1994 Group, the University Alliance, Million+, Guild HE. Most of these do not have a major presence in Scotland, though some Scottish universities are members of one or the other of these. However, mostly these groups are so totally focused on England that any Scottish membership is not much affected. RGU, thankfully, is not a member of any of them.

The key objective of all of these groupings is, one must imagine, to lobby government and its agencies with a view to securing special benefits for their members. In some cases they also aim to provide a badge of special status, particularly when the group sets out exclusive membership conditions. Here the intention is to brand members as belonging to a special elite. Although most of these groups won’t see it that way, they can have the appearance of a cartel, and occasionally I suspect they may have price-fixing on their minds.

Occasionally it goes wrong for some members. In the United States the Association of American Universities, which describes itself as consisting of the ‘pre-eminent private and public research universities’ of the US and Canada, has just expelled one of its members, while a second member university left the association before they were pushed. In both cases their membership came to an end because, according to the association’s method of calculating research performance, the two institutions had been unable to maintain the required results.

Of course universities must be free to form and join whatever associations they fancy. Equally it is true that while all universities share some major interests and goals, there will be a wide diversity of mission and strategy. Surely it must be good to form groups around these different missions, so that members can share information and sustain each other? The problem is that the group objectives can quickly seem more important to members than those of the wider higher education system. As a result trust and confidence can be hard to maintain.

Unfortunately I fear that these groups are here to stay. So now, all I hope is that their activities do not compromise the overall levels of collaboration or the capacity of the sector as a whole to make a united case to government and the public. That is needed more urgently than any agenda that might be pursued by selected (and selective) groups.


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