Douglas Burnham

About Douglas Burnham

Professor of Philosophy

Digital Future

The House of Lords report entitled ‘Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future’ has just been published. It is extraordinarily wide-ranging, covering everything from infra-structure, to industry to education. With respect to higher education it makes several recommendations, all of which I find interesting.

First, the report takes a dim view of the recent decline in research funding to Universities (paras 151, 153) and also, and this is most interesting, clearly argues for a reversal of the concentration of research funding into a small number of institutions. This is the subject of a lengthy discussion (paras 240-269) in which it is recognised that high tech industries tend to grow up in clusters around Universities, but that the UK has only two examples of this (not surprisingly, in Cambridge and in London). They call for a greater role by the Research Funding Councils in reversing the trend, and assisting a number of regional strengths and clusters.

Second, the report takes a number of swipes at current education immigration policy, particular with respect to postgraduate research students, who should be seen as a resource rather than some kind of threat. (See specifically para. 152, but also throughout)

Third, the report suggests that one factor holding back the upskilling of the UK population is inflexibility in education provision, and Universities should be encouraged to offer more short, part-time courses. Fair enough. Utterly bizarre, then, was the omission of distance learning courses from the menu of recommendations to Universities (see paras 198-200), despite the fact that the OU is one of their case-studies.

External engagement, a trans-Atlantic perspective

This opinion piece in the Chronicle for Higher Education gives an overview of the problem of external engagement by researchers, in the US environment. Notice, though, that external engagement has a particular flavour here: it is not primarily about interesting the public or communicating findings or even encouraging regard for higher education. Rather, it is about well-informed commentary on the ‘bigger picture’ — in other words, about participation in the crafting of public policy.

Are Universities efficient with their funding?

Interesting poll reported in the THE: Among Members of Parliament, UK Universities are given a poor rating in the ‘value for money’ / ‘efficiency’ category. This no doubt reflects the political hot potato that tuition fees still are, especially with the prospect of them increasing further. No self-regarding politician, a few months prior to an election, wants to suggest that Universities are doing the best they can with the fee income. And no doubt there is waste in the system, although probably less than many think.

Also reflected in these results is that the decision is now close on how to distribute — and indeed also reform — research funding in the light of REF2014. Reality is more clear here. Even the United States, which has a history of concentrated funding, is moving away from this. Any one concerned about ‘value for money’ in research funding need only glance at the REF results. Take Staffordshire University for example. With research funding amounting to a rounding error on that received by some Universities, internationally excellent and world-leading work is being achieved. A denser concentration of research funding into the hands of fewer Universities is certinly not going to improve the ‘bang for the buck’.

REF 2014

This THE article shows a remarkable consistency in REF submissions that contain exactly 14 or 24 full time staff. Why should this be? Because, if one submits more than 14 full time staff, then one also has to submit three (rather than two) impact case studies. Having a poor impact case study in one’s submission is much more damaging than not having one (even two or three) members of staff included — regardless of how good their research is. Not being included in a REF submission is a potentially career-damaging event. Even those who unequivocally agree that research should have an impact, and that impact should be measured, should find depressing the unintended effects of the REF rules.

On part-time postgraduate study

Here is an article in the Guardian, about part-time postgraduate study.  As a quick recap of how p-t study differs from full-time, and what specific opportunities or challenges it presents, this is a good piece. It distinguishes between effectively three types of course: (i) part-time on-campus study, which is the traditional mode but at a more leisurely pace; (ii) courses that are a hybrid between on-campus study and online learning — perhaps a brief week-long intensive residency, followed by online support; (iii) courses that are entirely online, and have no on-campus dimension. However, what the article does not do is fully articulate these differences in a way that would be useful to prospective students, or to the Universities offering courses.

All three of these are part-time — but the ‘pros and cons’ are quite different, as is the ‘feel’ of studying in these ways. The first type is, in fact, much more like a full-time traditional degree than anything else. I think the The Guardian could have said more about these differences. The distance learning Masters and PhD programs in which Staffordshire University is a pioneer, are type (iii) (although attendance for the PhD final oral examination is normally required).

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