More testing, that’ll work

The Economist weighs into the timely debate about higher education in America. The piece makes several major points, all of them poorly considered.

The first is that there are two models of higher education funding, a European model of equal funding for all institutions, and a ‘market-oriented’ model in the United States. This is patently false. The European model is that it takes a certain amount of money to education a student to University standards, and all providers receive just this funding. This may happen by way of a grant from central government or (in the UK more recently) by a more or less fixed level of tuition fees. But in every other way, European Universities are not ‘equal’. Not only do the ancient Universities have enormous endowments, but are granted special privileges (Oxford and Cambridge, for example, are exempted from the ban that applies to all other Universities concerning invitations to ‘extremist’ speakers.). Most importantly, research funding is heavily concentrated — in the UK now at least as much as in the US (and see here). Broadly similar arrangements are found in all the other ‘European’-model systems of which I am aware. In other words, expressed crudely, the European model recognises that universities have two jobs — teaching and research — and also recognises (indeed helps to create) a rich, old and distinguished/new, urban, cash-poor gap. Research is allowed to drop off the radar for the second category of institutions; it is just that this model refuses to allow the relatively cash-poor institutions to also fail in their teaching role by being completely starved of funds.

The second is that universities world wide have a problem with the ‘added value’ they give to their students. The Economist claims that, for the most part, students gain nothing in terms of knowledge or skills, and that the main value of attending an elite institution is having been selected to go there in the first place. (Note that the evidence adduced here is both anecdotal and all from the US.) Now, it may well be the case that the quality of education is variable and in some cases very poor. But this claim becomes absurd if generalised: the implication would be that, in most cases, a high school teacher with a degree in English from the University of Wherever has no more knowledge of English than his or her students; and that an engineering graduate of the University of Somewhere, designing gear-boxes for GM, would have been better doing so straight out of high school shop class. No doubt this sometimes happens, but it is difficult to conceive that it might be very common, and no one has noticed before…

Third, the answer to all this poor education is generalised testing of graduates across the board. Look, this test already exists, and has done since 1949. It is called the Graduate Record Examination, which comes in two flavours (general and subject-specific) and is one of those tortures routinely supplied to university Seniors. To be sure, the GRE is not actually required. However, given that it is part of the admissions requirements for many US Graduate Schools, it is widely enough used (800,000 tests taken annually) so that, if there were some undergraduate institutions that were failing their students, the data would be there. In the UK, there is an alternative system which is a combination of internal moderation of courses and marking, and external oversight (external examiners and the QAA). It is important to realise that these mechanisms are actually more light-touch now than they were 15 or 20 years ago, as the many millions spent on such procedures gradually revealed that there wasn’t a problem to begin with.

Of course they will

THE reports here that the BIS is considering whether to restrict new postgraduate — and specifically PhD — loans to the sciences. Or, more carefully and revealingly expressed, to restrict loans to ‘specific subjects where the scientific and economic case is strongest’. I’m surprised this even requires consultation, and wasn’t part of the original proposal. The Arts and Humanities Research Council has had real term cuts in its budget of 20% in the past five years, and that budget is already tiny in comparison to the sciences, broadly speaking. (The sciences budgets have ‘merely’ been frozen in the same period, representing a roughly 10% real term cut.) Funding in this area is politically an easy target, and especially if it is framed as a kind of competition between science and humanities funding, rather than a question of overall central research funding. Overall research funding as a proportion of GDP in the UK is already pitifully low — lower than any other large economy other than Italy, Spain, Russia and India. See the data here and (with particular reference to the sciences) here. So, there are two issues here: the blatant sacrifice of the future of the country because of overall funding cuts to research; and the political framing of the issue as only being a choice of what to cut.

UPDATE: A nice piece in the Guardian/Observer today that portrays at length the frustrations felt by those in the arts and humanities. The weak part of the article is that is is long on whining, but short on data. It portrays, for example, the removal of a central grant to these subjects, replacing it with tuition fees, as a ‘cut’. This is simplistic, since humanities and stem subjects were always differentially funded and remain so, to roughly the same extent. Similarly, it bemoans the rising number of technocratic managers and their salaries, without adducing data tht would show how disproportionate this change has been.

By the way, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, to any VC or Dean who really knows what they are up to, humanities and social sciences should be seen as cash cows. No need for expensive labs, high powered computers, technical assistance — even the books and journals we use cost less and have a longer shelf-life.

The death knell of liberal arts education?

A well-known women’s college in Virginia is closing (stories here and here). While it is always sad to see a venerable institution go under, there is a much bigger underlying story here about quite radical changes in the shape of higher education. There is some current debate about whether these kinds of events mean that ‘liberal arts’ education per se is declining in America (in favour of vocational education, for example). The account here, for example, argues that liberal arts is alive and well in the ‘Honors Colleges’ that are part of big state universities. (An Honors College is an institution within an institution, providing a richer curriculum to high achieving students.) What is more clear is that the model of the liberal arts college — generally small, private, not-for-profit institutions staff by enthusiastic teachers and without much of a research profile — is declining. For more than a century, this model has been a big feature in the higher education landscape. Those colleges that are surviving are doing so by expanding their student numbers far beyond the intimate numbers for which they were famous and valued, or linking up with larger institutions. What the tale of Sweet Briar College makes clear is that the demographic of students has changed enormously, so such colleges draw students by offering more and more financial aid and scholarships, and fewer and fewer pay the full tuition fees. Another lesson, it seems to me, simply has to do with the cost ratios of providing higher education. The level of facilities and services demanded today, means that a small college will pay proportionately more of its income on keeping the place running, as opposed to just paying teaching staff. Just as in the UK, then, institutional mergers look to be an increasingly likely solution. The fact that Sweet Briar is on 3200 acres and has a couple dozen historical buildings no doubt doesn’t help…

Three key articles on the changes in Higher Education

Prof Stefan Collini’s article in the October 2013 London Review of  Books is partly based on the review of two books from key individuals (see notes 1) . His article is very strong, detailed and beautifully written. Some quotes -“But for all their differences, these two books provide a chillingly convergent description of the huge gamble that is being taken with higher education in England: an unprecedented, ideologically driven experiment, whose consequences even its authors cannot wholly predict or control.”

“Future historians, pondering changes in British society from the 1980s onwards, will struggle to account for the following curious fact. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record (frequently posting gigantic losses, mostly failing to match overseas competitors, scarcely benefiting the weaker groups in society), and although such arm’s length public institutions as museums and galleries, the BBC and the universities have by and large a very good record (universally acknowledged creativity, streets ahead of most of their international peers, positive forces for human development and social cohesion), nonetheless over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the second set of institutions to change so that they more closely resemble the first.”

Marina Warner writes from her personal experience and how she was forced out at one University and the proliferation of gagging orders at Universities, March 2015 London Review of Books.

Andrew McGettigan brings us right up to date with the student loan book, the possible sale of the loan book and the impact on the national debt. Here is just one of the quotes “It is now thought that the new higher education funding system will add more than £100 billion to the national debt before repayments reach a significant level in the mid-2030s. At that point, the OBR thinks, the borrowing to create student loans could constitute one-fifth of national debt.”

All articles from the London Review of Books – excellent for long thoughtful reads.

Note 1

The books reviewed in Collini are:

Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education by Roger Brown, with Helen Carasso Routledge, 235 pp, £26.99, February 2013, ISBN 978 0 415 80980 1 and

The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education by Andrew McGettigan
Pluto, 215 pp, £16.99, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 7453 3293 2

Professor Iraj Hashi awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit for Kosovo

Professor Iraj Hashi was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit in the list of honours awarded on the occasion of the 7th anniversary of Kosovo’s Independence on 17th February 2015. The Medal of Merit is awarded to people who have contributed to Kosovo society in specific fields such as education and science.

The nomination for this Award was made by a group of staff from the Faculty of Economics, University of Prishtina and the Central Bank of Kosovo, including some of the former and current PhD students of Staffordshire University.

The Award is in recognition of Professor Hashi’s work with various universities and research institutions in Kosovo which has resulted in improvements in the quality of academic programmes in economics, business and management and building the capacity of educational and research institutions in Kosovo.

Professor Irah Hashi (left) and the Prime Minister Prof Isa Mustafa

Professor Irah Hashi (left) and the Prime Minister Prof Isa Mustafa

Professor Hashi was the coordinator of three large scale EU funded Tempus projects and a scholarship programme jointly funded by Staffordshire University and the Open Society Foundation (and until 2010 also by the UK Government’s Chevening Programme).

Through these programmes a large number of Kosovar academics were provided with updating opportunities to learn about the latest developments in their subject area as well as teaching, learning and assessment methods in various EU universities. A large number of young university graduates were also offered the opportunity to continue their education towards Masters or PhD degrees in Economics at SU. These graduates, all of whom have returned to Kosovo, are now working in universities,  research institutions, the Central Bank, commercial banks and various government ministries, contributing to the development of their country (two of these graduates are now serving as Minister of Finance and Minister of Trade and Industry, and one of them is the Chief of the Cabinet and Advisor to the Prime Minister).

Janet Napolitano on Higher Education in America

Despite a bit of hyperbole — not surprising given Napolitano is a former Governor of Arizona, and possible Democratic contender for the White House in 2016 — this Washington Post piece is a thoughtful review of the current state of the American higher education system. She rejects as knee-jerk over-excitement the common claims that the US system is in crisis. However, she does see a worrying erosion of the state (both local and Federal) backing for public universities. The point being that both State and Federal governments are losing sight of the value of higher education, particularly in its traditional face-to-face, bricks and mortar guise. However, we need to notice that, she is writing very specifically about public research universities — Napolitano is currently President of the University of California, several campuses of which are joined on the THE World Rankings (for whatever that is worth), by Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas, just in the top 50.

Although recognising the disproportionate rise in tuition fees in most States, Napolitano prefers to see this simply as a general funding issue rather than as a specific social inequality issue — an idea she raises and then rejects too quickly for my taste.

There is also a recognition of the importance of basic research, by which I believe she means something other than headline-grabbing research. Every University would pursue and support the latter, if they could. But basic research — upon which the headline-grabbing variety depends absolutely — is dropping down the order of priorities. Indeed, one of the books she reviews here suggests separating the teaching and research units of Universities. Napolitano dismisses this idea — but of course endorses it in a different form precisely by having chosen to defend public research universities, rather than the system as a whole. What should be clear to anyone who understands the ‘economy’ of knowledge, is that 100 world-class scientists will not be able to pursue world-class work without a small army of scientists behind them doing the groundwork. Where that army is located is a different issue. And this is true, quite separately from the issue (which Napolitano pointedly does not discuss) of just how good an educator could be without some involvement in new knowledge-creation.

UPDATE: See similar and sympathetic remarks by the present of the North Carolina University system, Tom Ross, also locked in a real struggle with his State’s legislature. I wonder how he felt writing the phrase ‘just edging out Walmart’?

Still more ‘distant mirror’

You wait ages for significant international developments re student choices and tuition fees, and three come along at once! Here is a major report from France, putting forward a vision for the future of French Universities, and especially their international competitiveness. At the moment, in France there is no tuition fee premium based upon residence: everyone pays the same really very low fee. The headline proposal is to charge non-EU students full economic cost — interestingly, with the exception of doctoral students, who are seen as research assets in and of themselves. The money gained is to be plowed back into French higher education, and there this is to be accompanied by no decrease in the level of central funding (good luck with that one). The point is that, by dramatically improving the product that French universities can offer international students, France’s market share will increase despite the rising fees.

This proposed move is broadly in keeping with the ‘super-university’ proposed for Paris, Paris-Saclay, which will join 19 universities together in a single entity, the better to compete in international league tables. While this model can work for Paris, one wonders what might in store for regional institutions who don’t have geographically near-by HEIs with which to merge.

Beyond the MOOC — degree level study for a new age?

Interesting, if rather sketchy, piece in the New York Times on future ground-level transformations in degree level study. MOOCs, the author claims, have failed to transform the higher education landscape, not because they are not popular (they are, and looked at historically, spectacularly so), but because of the accreditation gap. By this is meant the meaningfulness of any study certification to employers. Taking a MOOC, or even twelve of them, is a hobby. Certification of the study of individual MOOCs does not evidence knowledge or skills, and certainly not a comprehensive competency in any subject. These latter features — standing for definite and guaranteed knowledge, skills and subject competency — remain the preserve of traditional degrees.

What is changing now is not just that some course offerings are upping the rigour of their certification process, but that series of courses or systems of certification are arising. Now, take twelve MOOCs from this series, and the certificate means something; collect ‘badges’ from various sources, and again this demonstrates something to an employer.

Now, this is directly analogous to standardised schemes of credit accumulation, such as CATS. The system in the United States is among the oldest and most well understood such scheme. A student can take 30 credits at the University of X, add 60 more from Y College, and then round it out with another 30 earned while working for Z Corp — and that is a degree. Those three institutions know this; employers know this. Does it work? Well, sort of. It is certainly easier to transfer between institutions than it was 50 years ago, but it is still not exactly common. (A degree itself remains much more portable: taking your BA from X to study for a MA at Y is very common indeed.) However, the relative rarity of intra-degree transfers likely has more to do with geography than some other form of intertia. Usually, one has to physically change residence to get from X to Y.

Online education changes this. Now, the problem is that Mozilla, Coursera or EdX are not recognised degree-granting brands. So, even if their systems for accumulating elements of online study are robust, it will take a long time before they serve the above purpose with respect to employers. So, there will remain a role for traditional education providers, as providers of course, but also as brands that carry recognised weight.

UPDATE: The President of Stanford University weighs in on this issue. His is what you might call a centralised or federalised vision of higher education, where the best providers (i.e. the best teachers, i.e. those at Stanford) provide digital content for other universities, with some local help. Well, duh: that’s what university-level text-books have been for a century, with later enhancements like video (pioneered by the OU) and dedicated web-sites. The real innovation would be finding a way to make this responsive to individual student needs and interests, a goal that Hennessey does not seem to realise cuts right against the centralised model.

More ‘distant mirror’

As part of an overture to the state legislature, in the middle of a funding allocation cycle, the University of California system has volunteered to cap out of State and international student numbers. See the Reuters report. The issue is a familiar one to us. International students pay premium tuition fees and thus are sometimes seen a subsidising domestic students — or, more cynically, seen to be subsidising other University expenses. (In the UK, the international premium is less at undergraduate level and only really pertains to postgraduate study. Also, in the United States, state universities charge different fees depending upon whether the student is resident in the ‘home’ or ‘another’ state. So, a big chunk of California’s premium fee income is undergraduate out-of-state students.)

In California, just as it sometimes is here, the perceived problem with this arrangement is that the recruitment of international students edges out domestic students. Interestingly, the issue of whether international students are getting a good deal somehow never arises… Quite the contrary, in fact, as this rather snide report shows.

International conference – Health from the Outside In: Urban Design, Green Space and Human Health

There is growing evidence that close contact with nature brings benefits to human health and wellbeing, but the mechanisms are not well understood. This conference aims to bring together leading researchers in the area of natural environments and health to share new and ongoing research, and to consider how to turn the evidence in to practice.

This one-day event will include latest findings from the EU FP7 PHENOTYPE project and a range of invited speakers and panel discussions.

Full programme and how to book on this link



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