Posted tagged ‘United Kingdom’

How to destroy Britain’s international reputation for higher education

August 31, 2012

The issue of immigration, with which so many people in Britain are unhealthily obsessed, is right now threatening to inflict significant damage on the country’s higher education system. Under rules adopted over recent years, universities (and other institutions) can recruit and teach international – i.e. non-EU – students if they secure ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status awarded by the UK Border Agency (UKBA). This requires institutions to meet a number of conditions relating to how students are recruited and how they perform, and what measures are taken to monitor them. The bureaucratic complexity of the system can be gleaned here.

It is worth stating in passing that the system is hugely labour-intensive and also places the university in a rather different relationship with its overseas students: not just teaching them, but controlling them and observing (one might say snooping on) their lives. From student feedback, particularly feedback they deliver in their home countries, the UKBA régime is being interpreted as showing hostility by Britain to international students. Even without the events described below, this has visibly damaged efforts to recruit such students, and this in turn has had a direct financial, and of course educational, impact. It is, to be frank, complete lunacy; though of course all universities have no option but to follow the rules.

And now, the UKBA has stripped London Metropolitan University (a very large institution) of its ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor’ status, as it was not satisfied with the performance and abilities of some of its overseas students. This has not only resulted in the university being prevented from admitting any new overseas students, but has also placed existing overseas students at risk of deportation unless another, UKBA approved, university can be found for them at very short notice. This is not likely to happen. In the meantime the university has rejected the alleged findings of the UKBA.

The result of this is a major disaster for Britain’s reputation as a destination for international students, and it will affect pretty much all other universities. Moreover it is the kind of disaster from which there can only be a very slow recovery, if that. It is almost impossible to understand how any government body could consider this a good idea. The impact on the UK’s higher education system could well be catastrophic. It is time for the UK government to address this, and to take steps to avoid this calamity.

Job losses in universities?

July 8, 2010

In England the university sector is currently bracing itself for further significant budget cuts. In his recent Budget, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced that the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (along with other departments) would have its financial allocation cut by 25 per cent. Now the University and College Union (which represents academics) has calculated that a 25 per cent cut in the higher education budget would lead to at least 22,584 job losses, out of a total of some 262,000 employees across the university sector.

In Ireland as in the UK (indeed more than in the UK), salaries make up a very large proportion of overall expenditure. Therefore it is difficult to absorb cuts in government allocations without reducing the number of those employed in the sector. So far – though not without difficulty – universities have managed to maintain programmes despite significant cuts in budgets and staffing (the latter achieved without any compulsory redundancies). It does however need to be understood that the capacity of the sector to manage this has come to its limit. I believe that all the university presidents in Ireland are anxious not to reduce staffing further. However, further significant cuts cannot easily be handled without some significant pain. It is time to decide where in the country’s priorities higher education stands.

Educational markets

May 26, 2010

If you are following what the new British coalition government is announcing, particularly with regard to education, you might want to have a look at this article in yesterday’s Guardian by Estelle Morris. Ms Morris (actually now Baroness Morris of Yardley) was herself Education Secretary for a while in Tony Blair’s government;  in 2002 she resigned, having rather disarmingly said she did not feel up to the job – I have always had a soft spot for her since then, as such honesty and modesty is not a common political trait. She also has a university background, as she subsequently was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland.

The main theme of her Guardian article is the ‘marketisation’ of education, and in particular the extent to which this is at the heart of the new government’s policies. The question of course has to be that if education is to be in a ‘market’, then what are the key ingredients of that market: i.e. what is being sold, and who are the purchasers and vendors, and what are the factors influencing supply and demand? If the ‘commodity’ is education, then you are only going to have a free market if all education is private and if quality is reflected in price, so that wealthier people can afford to buy the best education, and poorer people buy a lower quality version or maybe end up not being able to afford it at all. But in reality nobody wants a market quite like that, and anyone advocating it wouldn’t fare too well politically. So instead the ‘market’ concept has revolved around something much more limited, which is the competition between schools for students, or really for parents. At the heart of this is the belief that you need to inject ambition into educational establishments, and that this will only materialise if they have some discretion as to which students they will select.

Markets are an important and generally effective device for distributing goods and resources and services, but education is not particularly suited to this kind of approach. Education determines all sorts of social, economic and cultural issues in society, and a modern country needs to ensure that quality in education does not particularly follow privilege and wealth. A political imperative must be to raise educational standards at the lowest social level; but a market will depend significantly on a strong differentiation in quality between the best and the worst.

It seems to me to be right that schools should be free to be creative and entrepreneurial, and they should not be bureaucratised and controlled. Equally there needs to be transparency as to quality and performance, so that league tables ought to be beneficial. But allowing schools and parents to build up a class-based educational system is not one of the things we should tolerate. It is, I think, too early to see what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have in mind, but we should watch this space with some interest.

The UK: the cuts begin

May 25, 2010

Somewhat later than in Ireland, universities in England are now experiencing the first wave of serious budget cuts as the new British government seeks to control public finances. The most tangible result in the first instance will be a reduction in the number of university places available this autumn from what had been planned by the outgoing Labour government. But more generally British universities can now anticipate a changed environment in which expansion will come to an end or will at least slow down, and where funds for discretionary purposes will become scarce.

Loose lips sink ships

April 29, 2010

You cannot – or at any rate, I cannot – help feeling sorry for Gordon Brown. Everything he touches now seems to turn to horse manure. The bright idea of his advisers to send him out amongst the people has turned into a nightmare story about the British Prime Minister, thinking he was out of earshot of everyone, being recorded (and then broadcast) complaining about a voter who had just questioned him. And then the whole thing is, in my view, compounded by the totally daft decision for Brown to go and visit the same voter at home to apologise in person.

Gordon Brown is, I think, a complex man doing a job for which he is not a natural fit. But he is not a bad man, and for that matter he is not a bad politician. Silly and all though yesterday’s gaffe is, it shouldn’t matter; except to the extent that it exposes some terrible campaign management and a catastrophically bad sense of political judgement.

I do however wonder about the ethics of the broadcasters publishing these comments in the first place. And I wonder about the self-righteousness of some of the responses. And I am horrified at the train wreck that is this Labour campaign.

The UK Liberal Democrats and higher education

April 17, 2010

Well, now that the pundits are saying that British Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, was the outright winner in the television debate between the three party leaders, it may be time to have a look at what the Lib Dems are proposing for higher education in their manifesto. Here is the relevant extract, in full:

• Scrap unfair university tuition fees for all students taking their first degree, including those studying part-time, saving them over £10,000 each. We have a financially responsible plan to phase fees out over six years, so that the change is affordable even in these difficult economic times, and without cutting university income. We will immediately scrap fees for final year students.
• Reform current bursary schemes to create a National Bursary Scheme for students, so that each university gets a bursary budget suited to the needs of its students. These bursaries would be awarded both on the basis of studying strategic subjects (such as sciences and mathematics) and financial hardship.
• Replace wasteful quangos (the Skills Funding Agency and the Higher Education Funding Council for England) with a single Council for Adult Skills and Higher Education.
• Scrap the arbitrary target of 50 per cent of young people attending university, focussing effort instead on a balance of college education, vocational training and apprenticeships.
• Start discussions with universities and schools about the design of a trial scheme whereby the best students from the lowest achieving schools are guaranteed a place in Higher Education.

Note the promise to abolish tuition fees, alongside the commitment to do so ‘without cutting university income’. Whatever views anyone might have on the acceptability of fees, the idea that they can be scrapped without reducing funding for the higher education institutions is almost certainly unrealistic – as the Irish experience has shown. A similar commitment was given in Ireland in 1995 and was manifestly not kept. It is probably a promise that is simply unaffordable.

Note also the suggestion that higher education participation targets are not helpful, and that some who are now being admitted to universities might have better vocational training elsewhere. Others are suggesting something similar, but whether it is really possible (or desirable) to reverse the massification of higher education may be questioned.

Overall, the chances are that the Lib Dems will have a major influence on the formation of the next British government, and so their election literature and their campaign are worth watching.

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.


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