Posted tagged ‘Peter Mandelson’

Student selection and social engineering

January 7, 2010

A big row has broken out in Britain over the UK government’s policy on student admissions to the country’s universities. The Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, reportedly called on higher education institutions to ‘look beyond raw exam results when selecting applicants’. This is part of a broader UK government policy encouraging universities to use ‘contextual data’ in the admissions process. That of course is the cue for the Daily Mail newspaper to come forward with its view, and let me tell you that it doesn’t like what the government is looking for, not one little bit. And why? Because Lord Mandelson is clearly being horrid to the unfortunate middle classes; or as their headline writer puts it: ‘Middle-class students face university place struggle as Mandelson backs giving poorer students two-grade ‘head start”. And also, they take the view that any framework that recognises background and context will be at the expense of real excellence, and therefore will amount to dumbing down.

As for me, I find nothing particularly remarkable about what Peter Mandelson is reported to have said. Access programmes in Irish universities have long allowed access students – i.e. students from disadvantaged backgrounds -to  enter colleges with lower points than would be required for others, provided they meet minimum entry requirements. This has not produced any ‘dumbing down’ in that access students have on the whole out-performed their non-access fellow students, probably in part because they become highly motivated.

Nevertheless, if contextual data are to be used more widely for student admissions they will create operational problems, as making use of such information can be very time-consuming. A good illustration of that can be seen in this article which outlines the selection methods used by Oxford University. The large number of interviews conducted, for example, would be unmanageable for institutions that don’t have the special funding and resources enjoyed by Oxford and Cambridge.

All of this can however serve to remind us that a purely examination results-driven admissions system has one sure aspect: the best predictor of success in seeking entry to the university programme of your choice is not your documented school performance but rather your address. If you come from a strongly middle class area (like, say, much of Dublin 4) then you will get to do what you want at university, because the public and private resources available to you as you go through school will be so much greater than those available to people from poorer districts.

I have previously argued that the CAO points system is increasingly counter-productive. We need to put together a whole new way of  selecting students for higher education, that matches social needs and national policy ambitions.


Two year degrees?

December 28, 2009

In a recent post here I drew attention to the annual ‘grant letter’ which the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson, had sent to the English founding council. But apart from the issue of university funding that the letter addressed, there was also one other matter raised by Peter Mandelson in passing which has attracted a lot of attention. Here’s what he said:

‘We want to see more programmes that are taken flexibly and part-time and that a learner can access with ease alongside their other commitments. We also wish to see more programmes, such as foundation and fast-track degrees, that can be completed full-time in two years.’ (para. 4)

It would be fair to say that this didn’t go down very well, with almost any audience. Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU, the academics’ trade union), said:

‘Reading between the lines here it sounds like a two-tier university system where the privileged few have the pick of the university park and everyone else has to make do with what they can afford.’

Media comment was also almost universally hostile, as in this example.

In fairness to Peter Mandelson, I’m not wholly sure that he said what has been attributed to him by some of the critics. He did (as seen in the quote above) refer to two-year programmes, but I don’t see the immediate evidence that he was holding this up as the general model to be applied. Rather, he seems to have been concerned with the need to have structured programmes that are accessible to those who are not traditional university students. For all that, he said what he said, and he certainly does seem to be contemplating some two-year courses. And if that is so, it is indeed necessary to examine where such courses would fit into both the Bologna framework and, more generally, our understanding of the pedagogy underlying university degrees. The problem is that the rather high volume of the responses may make a dispassionately analytical discussion with the Secretary of State difficult.

This is also an important topic for us in Ireland, and one that should be addressed in the higher education strategic review now under way, and in the resulting discussion. Right now there are three-year and four-year undergraduate programmes in Ireland, and some niche ones that have other structures. It is time to reach an agreement on what educational aims we expect to see satisfied in degree programmes and how the total period of study affects that.

UK universities facing cuts

December 23, 2009

It was always clear that the recent experience of Irish universities of significant cuts in the light of the economic downturn was also going to be a feature of British higher education funding. Yesterday the UK’s Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson (whose remit covers higher education), wrote the annual ‘grant letter‘, which is a letter by the Secretary of State to the English funding council (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are handled locally) indicating what funds will be available to the sector. This year the main emphasis is on efficiency gains and cuts. As is sometimes the case when politicians address the sector, the main message is one of expecting the probably unachievable: Lord Mandelson is here found suggesting ‘greater efficiency, improved collaboration and bearing down on costs’, all to be done with ‘a commitment to protect quality and access’. Well, it is Christmas.

The new cut to budgets contained in the letter amounts to £135 million. Some of the money will be taken from capital budgets, so that the cut to teaching allocations will be £51 million. Taking the overall teaching budget of England, this is a cut of around 1 per cent. I suppose one might say, from an Irish perspective, that this isn’t all that much – after all, we have just been cut by 4 per cent, on top of cuts in the previous year. Nevertheless, the cut, along with Lord Mandelson’s reflections on how universities need to develop their strategies and his intention to protect but ‘concentrate’ research funding, is another instance of the pressures currently being applied that are necessarily going to have to lead to a re-assessment of what model of higher education we can now pursue that will leave universities globally competitive.

It is clear that governments, and those advising them on education strategy, no longer consider the traditional university model to be desirable or viable. On the whole the response to this from the universities in these countries has not presented a strong case for an alternative strategy likely to be seen as realistic by the politicians. This is now an urgent priority. I propose to set out some of the issues in a series of posts on this blog early in the New Year.

Customers, consumers, traders? What are students?

October 22, 2009

Just over a year ago I raised the question of whether it is appropriate or helpful to think of university students as customers. Are they buying something from us (or is the state doing so on their behalf), and if so, what does that suggest should be their attitude and ours to the ‘transaction’ between us? Across the Irish Sea in the UK, this is a question that is being asked with increasing frequency. In part this is because in England (and Wales and Northern Ireland, but not in Scotland) tuition fees are now payable, and indeed are rising. This has prompted the question whether students, conscious that they or their families are paying, are becoming more demanding as they insist that they receive the appropriate service.

I dislike the latter way of looking at it. In fact, I dislike it a lot. I believe that students have rights when they enter a university, and that these rights are not in some way different because they either do or do not make a financial contribution themselves. They have a right to expect a good education, just as they have a responsibility to contribute active participation and effort. Education is a process experienced in partnership between the student and her or his tutors. It costs money, and somebody has to pay it (though in Ireland we don’t appear to have grasped that yet, properly), but the exact identity of the purchaser isn’t critical, it seems to me: the beneficiary, with all rights, is the student.

In the UK the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, has now entered this debate, and he has suggested how students should approach their courses:

‘It’s a change in culture and attitude that we want to encourage. As students who go into higher education pay more, they will expect more and are entitled to receive more in terms, not just of the range of courses, but in the quality of experience they receive during their time in the higher education system. If there is a degree of passivity then, I hope, that without rejoining our student population to take to the barricades, that they become pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience. Therefore teacher quality and the quality of the teaching experience is going to become more important.’

Lord Mandelson’s speech contains further reference to the changing assumptions of higher education, to the prospects of reduced public spending and the need for universities to diversify their income while also expecting closer scrutiny and control – themes with which we are now well familiar in Ireland. But what this shows is that the shifting patterns of funding and the current tight budgets are having an unpredictable impact on financial and operational autonomy for universities. It is clear enough that the old assumptions are dead, but we don’t yet have new ones. If we are to have a confident and internationally competitive system of higher education, we need a greater consensus around this. Let us hope that our own current strategy processes will help to deliver that.

The search for a new economic order

April 20, 2009

Ever since the wheels began to come off the global economy last year, there has been a lot of chat about whether there should be a new model of economic policy, both for global trade and within individual countries. Furthermore, all this happened while, in an iconic moment, the Bush administration in the United States was replaced by that of Barack Obama. Much of the commentary focused on the assumption that we were experiencing a major crisis of confidence in capitalism, and that what would now happen was that free markets would be replaced by a highly regulated system. The recent G20 summit in London spent some time on all this, with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, in particular emphasising the need for regulation (and threatening to walk out if his approach was not adopted).

There are a lot of lazy assumptions in all of this. One of them is that the world economic order before last year was based on totally unfettered markets. Furthermore, the view that George W. Bush was a free market leader is also highly questionable; his administration was economically one of the most interventionist in US history, and presided over an intricate set of regulations, particularly post-Enron. In fact, it could be asked whether the experience of the past few years tends to show that regulation actually does not always work very well. After all, after the events at Enron and Worldcom, people were led off in handcuffs, and yet this appears to have had a minimal effect on the big bonus earners in parts of the financial sector.

Nobody can reasonably presume that nothing needs to change now. Clearly it does. But it must be questioned whether the Franco-German view of regulation (which may be no more than bureaucratisation) is the right way to go. Setting up new regulatory offices whose main effect will be to slow down decision-making and ensure it is increasingly risk-averse is almost certainly not the answer. On the other hand, encouragingthe  people holding the world’s financial levers to take crazy decisions, sometimes based on nothing more than their aspirations for another bonus is also not right. It seems right that we must look at ways in which the conduct of key persons in industry and in the financial sector can be guided into ways that benefit society.

But that won’t bring about recovery. Perhaps the newly unveiled strategy of the UK’s Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, Peter Mandelson, represents an interesting basis on which to consider a new role for governments to help steer both local and global markets. His strategic document published todayNew Industry, New Jobs – sets out a more activist agenda for government in order to identify and support growth areas that can generate employment and prosperity. There is also an interview in the London Independent newspaper in which he explains both the opportunities and risks. In short, what is being suggested here is that growth does need at least some element of strategic planning which looks at future trends and needs and identifies areas to be targeted for growth and support. That may be a more urgent exercise than coming up with even more intricate models of regulation.