Forum on Postgraduate Education

I’ve just come back from a day long forum in Manchester (at the Radisson Blu – looks like a nice hotel, shame about the low-ceilinged, poorly lit, stuffy and cramped conference facilities.  Oh well). It was run by ‘Inside Government’ and comprised a series of speakers from all over the country on postgraduate education. Some things I want to magpie:

  • Most presentations were reports on particular, innovative projects at various universities. Some were on postgraduate taught courses (PGT) and some on (PGR. Almost no one reflected on both. They seem to be viewed, almost instinctively,  as entirely separate processes. I wonder if this is a trend on the increase?
  • Most, again, were focused on skills delivery, and of these, most on employability skills. It is flavour of the month (and for good reason, after all!), but I was taken aback at how few reflections there were on new types of route, new pedagogy, etc. Since the general consensus in the room seemed to be that ‘targeted’ PGT programs — programs designed for specific industries, even specific organisations — the focus on employability seemed to me particularly short-sighted. If all we can offer to a company is an enhancement of their employees’ ability to get a job elsewhere, that’s not helpful.
  • Some presenters spoke of p/t students, some of full-time. Few talked of both. Once again, the almost instinctive sense that these two groups might as well have been on different planets.
  • A PGT approach at Aston struck me as offering a great looking program, and a model for others: free language tuition, comprehensive peer mentoring, a specialist postgrad careers centre – these were a few examples of good practice. There was also an observation which hadn’t occurred to me before: that employers have a poor sense of what postgrad education offers by way of enhanced skills. We have to educate them. Not surprisingly, Vitae has taken a lead, with specific resources targeted at employers.
  • Data heavy presentation by Dr. Iain Cameron from RCUK, looking at some interesting conclusions drawn from HESA and other data-sets. Not a lot was surprising. More interesting to me were other instances of the ‘other world’ phenomena. There was a real sense that RCUK regularly distinguishes between haves and have-nots among PGR providers: big focus on doctoral training centres, for example, and some of the results (remember, we are talking about PhDs, here) were divided up by quartile of undergraduate admissions tariff (i.e. first year undergraduate selectivity).
  • A similar point was made by the presenter from Durham, who talked about some great PhD programs they run, always connected to a doctoral training centre. These were cohort based PhDs – in that way similar to a professional doctorate – except that these were full-time research council funded programs. Not many institutions, and fewer subject areas, would have the critical mass to do this. Are there now “two classes of PhD?” he asked, and “class” didn’t just mean type!
  • Finally, a good looking program from Edge Hill Business School. What struck me here was that the program was designed from the beginning to be both an MA route, and for individual modules to be available as CPD opportunities. That kind of flexibility should be a more common aim.


Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES)

As with both undergraduates and taught postgraduates, there is an official, national survey of their satisfaction levels with the University at which they study. For research degrees students, the survey is once every two years. I’m pleased to report that Staffordshire University’s results are out and look very welcome. Specifically, we are among the top slice of UK Universities in three categories — and important categories, I’d have thought! — quality of supervision, provision of research skills, and professional development (i.e. how well we improve the ’employability’ of research students).

The History of Philosophy — and the REF

An amusing, but also revealing, little piece in the Guardian. Which of the great philosophers would have been REF-able? Turns out not that many. The publishing industry didn’t have as firm a grip on our sense of research outputs as they do now. Even more recent figures, though, might have struggled: Heidegger (most of whose work were lecture notes not published until much later), or Wittgenstein (published at the rate of a book every two or three decades).

Of Graduate Schools

Well, so Staffordshire University now has a Graduate School, and I am its Head. Run for the hills!

I thought it might be worth thinking about what is a Graduate School?

Coming as I do from the States, the phrase ‘Graduate School’ has two very distinct meanings. On the one hand it means, as it does here, a part of the University in some way responsible for ‘graduate’ students and their studies. A Graduate School is a place, a thing. It often has a building, or set of buildings — sometimes a whole campus! On the other hand, though, it is most commonly used to mean exactly the same as ‘I am studying for a Masters/ a Doctorate’. So, an undergraduate might be asked ‘Are you going to graduate school?’. By this the questioner simply means ‘Are you planning on studying for a Masters/ Doctorate?’ ‘Graduate School’ here is an activity or a pursuit, not a place or thing. Up to last year, a student could be at graduate school here at Staffordshire, even though we didn’t have a Graduate School.

Why is this important? For someone in my position, a newly appointed Head and trying to set up the GS, it is a salient and humbling lesson. What is being set up here need not and perhaps should not have an identity of its own, as a place or thing would. It does not need and again perhaps should not have a shiny new building (which is fortunate, ’cause that ain’t going to happen), nor a fancy name (although The Charles Darwin Graduate School springs to mind — we have as good or better claim to that name than anyone else). The Graduate School first and foremost should be a service, designed simply to help the graduate-level education that was already happening run a little more smoothly.

Tenure track and its branch line … some speculative thoughts

A report here from Canada where career-teaching positions are becoming increasingly common, along side career-researching positions. Some interesting data is presented, such as the facts that career higher education teachers produce students who are more enthusiastic about the subject, and receive higher grades, than when taught by research staff. I don’t find this surprising, but I suggest it reflects more the lack of professionalisation of higher education teaching than any intrinsic difference of quality or approach. The fact is that we train researchers to the nth degree, and train primary and secondary teachers likewise — but as near as I can tell, world-wide, higher education teaching remains a stubbornly amateur field.

The report also reflects the idea that higher education teachers must be engaging with up-to-date research, if they are going to be able to work at that level. It follows that teaching-tenure staff are just research staff with a lot less time on their hands, which is not a terribly productive situation for anyone.

One admittedly rather speculative way of thinking about this is in terms of what a university degree is supposed to mean in terms of the quantity of skills or knowledge acquired. Originally, the highest degree that would be obtained was a Masters, equivalent to the University of Paris’ ‘License to Teach’ (Licentia docendi).  When the first ‘modern’ universities appeared in German at the beginning of the 19th Century, what we now call a research degree was introduced, but remained a rarity. The initial four (or however many) year period made a student into an expert, and only a very few research degrees were offered and obtained.. By the middle and end of that century, the PhD idea had become very popular in Germany and then the United States as a way of extending one’s knowledge and establishing one’s research credentials. The UK introduced PhDs as late as 1917. This is normally understood in terms of the increasing need for an valuing of researchers, both within and outside universities, and in terms of the need for specialisation in all disciplines. However, can part of this long historical development be understood in terms of the increasing quantity of information and skills needed to become proficient in any given discipline? Or, in brief, there is just so much more to know?

If so, and if this trend continues, the first years of a University degree are or are becoming — for all practical purposes — essentially what the last years of a secondary education were for decades ago. A grounding in basic knowledge and skills: e.g. mathematical tools, lab techniques, etc. It would follow that there is no reason why a University should not have teaching-tenure staff, who need not participate in research activity, and who may quite rightly be unaware of what is happening in the latest journals in their field. They are no less useful at this level than good teachers are in high schools.

HOWEVER, there is a sting in this tale. Once this is admitted, then ALSO the standard model of university education has to change. It becomes plausible to argue that no longer are three or four years sufficient for anything beyond what a high school diploma or set of A-levels meant thirty-odd years ago. It becomes plausible to argue also that university education should be a requirement of all citizens, rather than an option — in the same way that many countries have compulsory education up to 16 or 18; and that what we now call post-graduate degrees should be the first optional stage; and moreover that research of any kind should be no more expected of undergraduate teachers at any university than it is among those in secondary schools. The funding implications would be enormous, the cultural change no less so. We haven’t had a reform of further and higher education of that magnitude since … well since Germany in the first years of the 19th Century. Maybe it is time.

Sutton Trust research on student loans

Please see this account in the Guardian. The conclusion is that the Government’s proposed changes to the student loan scheme, although apparently minor, in fact would have significant impact. While, much less surprisingly, the changes to maintenance grants would have a still greater impact. So, more debt for students. The important subtlety to the report is that this ‘more debt’ would affect certain groups much more than others, women more than men, students from poorer backgrounds more than those from wealthy backgrounds. The net result is yet another increase in income and wealth inequality.

I might add that, unless there are other measures in place, the changes would affect most precisely those services the Government says it wants to encourage: teachers and nurses, for example.

PTES results

The Postgraduate (Taught) Experience Survey has just released sector wide scores and averages. I am pleased to inform you that Staffordshire is streets ahead of the sector average in SIX areas (including the really high profile ones such as teaching quality), equal in the seventh, and just 1% behind the sector in the eighth. So it is not surprising then that overall satisfaction is also way above the sector average. An extraordinary achievement and testament to the skills and professionalism of staff here, and our very appreciative students. Staffordshire is THE place to come for a taught postgraduate degree.

And the winner is…

One of the BIG league tables is just out, the QS World University Rankings. The BIG news this year is a change in methodology that means some BIG names drop or climb unexpectedly. So, Imperial drops from 2nd to 8th, Princeton drops out of the top ten altogether, to be replaced by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The change in methodology concerned the way that citations (research work that is then used by others) are counted, so as not to over-emphasise the ‘hard’ sciences and medicine especially. This gives those institutions whose research and reputation is found more heavily in social sciences, humanities or arts more of a chance. This new method works well for some, with the LSE, for example, popping up from 75th to 35th place!

Just to be clear, these changes of place have little or nothing to do with that the institutions concerned have done over the past twelve months — the data collected by QS is on a five year cycle. But if changes that dramatic can occur because of a change in methodology, it does make you wonder just how valid such tables are. Another look at the QS methodology shows some interesting and far-reaching decisions taken, for no particular reason. Some of the most heavily weighted measures are clearly related to the size of an institution. This leaves the mostly smaller UK universities playing catch-up — how can even a large organisation like Bristol compete with Michigan or UCLA both of whom are at or above 40 thousand students. Other measures do not, but the weightings of the various factors (why is this 40% of the score, and that only 10%), just seem arbitrary. See my brief discussions of a similar issue here and also here.

And another thing: with enormous real-terms slashes in funding for arts and humanities over the past five years here in the UK, this table leaves the Government with egg on their faces. Presumably there was a calculation made about how higher education world-wide is judged, but then someone went and changed the rules!



A dozen of the EU projects at Staffs University

Just some of the projects we are working on at the Staffordshire University. In some cases we are the lead for the project in others a project partner. Funding is through ERASMUS PLUS or the predecessor funding stream.

Key Contact Project Title Brief Description
Mark Webster RESIDENCY In 2014 the Residency team involving staff from Staffordshire University, Warsaw University and University of Barcelona embarked upon delivering artist residencies in Poland, Spain and the UK, each involving an artist from a partner country. The project secured EU Lifelong Learning funding through the Leonardo Da Vinci programme to explore how residencies could be used to train and support people in how to use community and participatory arts to promote civic engagement
Kim Slack RECOVEU RECOVEU aims to develop innovative learning activities to help adults in addiction recovery prepare for college or university. It brings together partners working in the fields of drug addiction and education based in the UK, Romania, Cyprus, Italy and Ireland.  Staffordshire University is the lead partner. The learning activities will form a ‘taster’ representative of a complete syllabus which will seek to support participation in adult learning and enhance opportunities for social inclusion for people in addiction recovery. A key feature throughout the project is the active involvement of service users and providers

Rosie Borup DESTINY It is well known that EU member states are in a time of economic challenge.  There is an acknowledged need for more innovation and entrepreneurship among our businesses, to foster economic growth and provide jobs for our unemployed (or under-employed) labour market,  but while our youth and adult job seekers leave schools and Universities with educational qualifications, employers complain of a mismatch in skills WORK SEEKERS (WS)  offer, and skills employers require.  The rationale of DESTINY is to develop, implement, test, refine a method for HEIs to PROMOTE + SUPPORT the use of MOOCs as a tool to address LLMN SKILLS SHORTAGES, thereby supporting regional ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT +  improving the EMPLOYABILITY of  youth and adult learners.
 Jon Fairburn SILVER WORKERS SILVER WORKERS will look to assist people in their 40s and 50s to set up a business. This is the most common age for business start ups but many businesses fail because they do not get sufficient guidance when starting up. As the Potteries has one of the lowest start up rates in the country it will help to meet a strong local need.
Jon Fairburn SMARTOUR SMARTOUR will look to develop a new curriculum and qualifications for those in the tourism industry. It will be targeted at accommodation and facility providers and look at a broad range of sustainability topics. An online tool will be developed for the delivery of courses. Staffordshire University is the lead partner, there are two partners form the UK (including Newcastle under Lyme College), as well as partners in Finland and Italy.
Claire Gwinnett EFEN The Development of a European Forensic Education Network (EFEN)’, funded by ERASMUS+ Strategic Partnerships aims to create an inclusive and sustainable network of HEIs and industry partners working within the criminal justice system.  This network will improve European collaborations within forensic investigations by sharing best practice in forensic learning and teaching and linking industry with higher education. A main output of this project is the creation of a postgraduate award in International Forensic and Crime Science that will offer an insight into forensic science and policing practices across Europe and the rest of the world in order to create awareness of cross-border investigation protocols and provide professional development for individuals planning to work or already working in investigations that involve multiple countries.
Bobbie Fletcher MINDSET The objective of the @MINDSET project is to actively support diversity management within education settings, by equipping teachers with the appropriate tools to deal with diversity issues, while better encouraging students to become active citizens and empathizing adults. The project will identify the most common types of diversity in the school environment and develop on one hand the tools for the teachers to better manage it within the classroom and the school in general. While on the other promote the issue of diversity and what it entails within society for pupils and help them embrace it.
Rosie Borup IDEATE Staffordshire University is part of a major 3 year EU funded project, working with partners in Slovenia, Finland and Lithuania, from 2013 to 2016. The project aims at changing higher education through the use of innovative, interdisciplinary teaching methods. The project will enable a ‘pilot’ of  4 groups of inter-disciplinary  students to learn entrepreneurial skills and knowledge through trans-national intensive learning mobilities themed around employer led projects.
Peter Kevern PEP This Grundtvig-funded project grew out of a shared concern: that the rapid rise in the numbers of older people with care needs across Europe was creating the conditions for neglect and abuse. It brought together agencies from 6 countries, representing a wide diversity of perspectives  and social roles, for a series of exchanges which proved by turns both frustrating and mutually enriching. The presentation will outline the structure, conception and management of the project, along with some of the key findings, the learning points and possible directions for future projects.
Steve Kelly PERFECT Developing a curriculum for the procurement industry and supply chain activities.
Iraj Hashi EUFORIA This project aims to establish and develop links between universities and enterprises in order to enhance teaching and learning, upgrade the curricula in line with the needs of enterprises and improve the financial sustainability of HEIs in Kosovo.Enterprise managers will be appointed to a number of university committees as the voice of the private sector to help the universities design programmes of study in line with the needs of enterprises and the labour market. Universities will send a number of their lecturers to companies for a short placement period to observe the working of the company and, in consultation with company managers, identify challenges facing them. The lecturers will use their knowledge of the companies and insights they have gained to formulate case studies for their subjects. Experienced EU partners will assist the Kosovar lecturers to write case studies which case be used in the classroom. The use of case studies, particularly those based on Kosovar companies, is rather unusual in Kosovo and will require a change in teaching, learning and assessment strategy. It will have a profound impact on students’ learning experience and their preparation for the labour market.
Louise Rutherford SUCCEED SUCCEED (Shaping University Curricula to Critical Infrastructure Employer Needs) aims to look into ways to help tackle terrorism and cybercrime through education and partnerships. Research and consultation with key employers will inform strategic HE curriculum development.




New EU project – EUFORIA-Entrepreneurial Universities for Industry Alliances

This project aims to establish and develop links between universities an enterprises in order to enhance teaching and learning, upgrade the curricula in line with the needs of enterprises and improve the financial sustainability of HEIs in Kosovo

Specific objectives.

  1. Establishing bilateral links between partner country HEIs and enterprises on a formal basis to arrange representation of enterprises on university committees and placements for staff and students
  2. Improving teaching and learning methods by developing and using case studies based on partner firms’ specific experiences
  3. Conducting surveys of companies and using feedback on student placements to identify skills and knowledge shortages of university students and graduates and upgrading the curricula by embedding these skills, thus enhancing the employability of graduates
  4. Enhancing the financial sustainability of partner country HEIs by enabling them to develop additional sources of income (e.g., by organising training courses and offering services to companies based on their identified needs)
  5. Setting up advice centres for SMEs run by staff and postgraduate students


This project aims to establish and develop links between universities and enterprises in order to enhance teaching and learning, upgrade the curricula in line with the needs of enterprises and improve the financial sustainability of HEIs in Kosovo.

Enterprise managers will be appointed to a number of university committees as the voice of the private sector to help the universities design programmes of study in line with the needs of enterprises and the labour market. Universities will send a number of their lecturers to companies for a short placement period to observe the working of the company and, in consultation with company managers, identify challenges facing them. The lecturers will use their knowledge of the companies and insights they have gained to formulate case studies for their subjects. Experienced EU partners will assist the Kosovar lecturers to write case studies which case be used in the classroom. The use of case studies, particularly those based on Kosovar companies, is rather unusual in Kosovo and will require a change in teaching, learning and assessment strategy. It will have a profound impact on students’ learning experience and their preparation for the labour market.

The project will also identify the knowledge and skill gap in university graduates through a Survey of 50 largest companies in Kosovo. The results of the Survey will be used by universities to revise their curricula in order to embed in their programmes the knowledge and skills which are required by enterprises. EU partners will support the Kosovar colleagues in enhancing their curricula by employability skills on the basis of their own experiences.

The universities will, through staff visits and the Survey, identify the training and other needs of enterprises and will offer to provide these services to companies. In particular they will offer training courses to company employees organised jointly with EU partners, who will also provide updating visits for some of the teaching staff of Kosovar institutions. The provision of these services will improve the financial sustainability of Kosovar universities.

Finally, universities will establish SME advice centres who would work with SMEs to identify their specific problems and provide appropriate advice for them.

Partners in EU: Staffordshire (Coordinator), Nottingham Trent, Ancona and Zagreb universities and Munich University of Applied Sciences

Partners in Kosovo: Universities of Prishtina, Peja, Gjakova, Gjilan and Riinvest College and four SMEs

Coordinator: Prof Iraj Hashi (Business School)

Starting date: 15 October 2015

Universities, jobs, apples and oranges

Reports here and here (and, not surprisingly, in a dozen other newspapers) of a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, with the headline claim that 59% of UK university graduates are in sub-graduate level jobs. This contrasts with Germany and the Netherlands, who have only a 10% rate. Now, what are we to make of this? Depending upon your political persuasion — and thus what newspaper you are likely to read — this means that the UK is producing too many graduates and should focus more on vocational training, especially given the debts accumulated by university students; OR it means that the UK economic recovery over the past few years has produced some low-pay low-skills jobs but very few jobs that demand university-level skills, a bad sign for the economy’s balance and its future.

More immediately important, however, is the confusion over the numbers. You see, the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey reveals that only 32% of graduates are in non-graduate employment — and this survey is only counting recent graduates and its measurement point is six months from graduation. That means the real number — where we give graduates a bit more time to get on their feet — is likely to be considerably lower.

That’s a big difference.

What? You don’t suppose all this fuss is about nothing more than a difference in the definition of ‘graduate level employment’, do you? Oh, yes I do — although no one is publishing their definitions or how the data is gathered (students, what have I always said about defining your terms!?).

The study by the Chartered Institute uses European data; the Destinations survey uses UK data. If there is a difference in definition, likely it can be traced to the differences in the conception of universities in the UK and on the mainland. Historically countries like Germany have had massive systems of vocational education, and have not experienced nearly as huge a broadening of university systems. By contrast, in the UK the university system is much larger than it was only a couple of decades ago. This increase is greater than the increase in students studying classics, theoretical physics or philosophy; instead, it has been achieved in great part because courses that tended to be mainly in the vocational sector, are now increasingly taught at universities: design subjects, for example. Journalism, nursing and education schools are now much bigger than they used to be. It would not be surprising, then, if the definition both of university level subject, and also graduate level job, were different between mainland Europe and the UK.

Engaging with key stakeholders – Ruth Smeeth MP

Here at Staffordshire University our focus is on applied research, many of us carry out research in the area with local organisations businesses and residents. Having strong links with Members of Parliament is important – academics can provide evidence and reports, MP’s can raise questions or topics they would like to see investigated.

Ruth Smeeth came into see some of the work and projects and to start our working relationship.

Ruth Smeeth with academics

From left to right

Jim Pugh – Acting Head of the School of Education interests includes primary teaching, access to education, also works extensively with international partners. Current research the impact of tuition fees on access to higher education.  @Jim_Pugh

Dr Chris Gidlow   – (Associate professor) – Primary care-based health and physical activity promotion, natural environments and health. Extensive experience of researching health in Stoke on Trent with key stakeholders.  @cgidlow_staffs 

Clair Hameed – Programme manager for Enterprise, all things enterprise. Clair has been extensively involved in start-up programmes including student start-ups @beinspiredsu 

Ruth Smeeth MP    @RuthSmeeth

Dr Katy Vigurs – the elected co-convenor for the British Educational Research Association’s Special Interest Group (SIG) on Social Justice and Education. Katy was also a key member of the BERA team that produced the Fair and equal education manifesto. Katy currently runs the post doctoral programmes in education. @drkatyvigurs

Jon Fairburn (Professor of Sustainable Development) – environmental justice, energy and sustainability, economic regeneration, tourism. Extensive experience of EU projects, has worked with many govt departments and the World Health Organisation  @BusinessStaffs

Geoff Pugh (Professor of Applied Economics) – education policy, international economics and macroeconomics. Current research agenda is focussed on small business development: in particular, on SME diversification and innovation. @BusinessStaffs

After a round table discussion of common interests  it was over to the Science Centre where Dr Roozbeh Naemi explains the new equipment being developed to help patients in the biomechanics lab @StaffsBiomechanics

Ruth Smeeth MP and Dr Roozbeh Naemi

Prof Nachi Chockalingham explains the process…

Ruth Smeeth and Nachi Chockalingham


Then it is time for Ruth to have a go…looking a little nervous ruthontreadpad


And the results are very good….



Onto the Geographic Information System laboratory with Dr Ruth Swetnam @drruthswetnam old maps of Tunstall digitised including former bottle banks and potteries

Ruth Smeth and Ruth Swetnam

Ruth Smeeth and Ruth Swetnam

So the end of our first big conversation together and plenty more to come hopefully.

University systems at a cross-roads

The person most likely to be the next President of the United States, Hillary Clinton, has made of higher education an election issue that it has rarely been before in the US. Her plan, costed at above £200 billion over the next ten years, seeks to control the spiraling costs of higher education and ensure that students can afford it with a minimum of debt. The plan may or may not be realistic for economic and political reasons, but it is a hugely important move in the American political landscape.

Meanwhile, in the UK, two announcements. First, from the Chancellor George Osborne, that maintenance grants for University students will be eliminated and replaced, like tuition was, with loans. The loans will have generous repayment and forgiveness terms, but nevertheless the burden of paying for higher education will now fall almost entirely on individual students (or their families). Second, from the man currently the front-runner for the leadership of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, a proposal not only to reverse that decision but scrap tuition fees altogether. This, presumably, in the interests of social justice and in recognition of the vast contribution that Universities make to the UK, and not just by way of individuals and their job prospects.

As I noted in a recent post, it is difficult to imagine (in the real world, I mean) a more polarised set of visions of what higher education is, and who or what is it for.


What is university for?

There are two schools of thought, and never before have they been so polarised. The first school of thought is that a university education is all about economics, both for the individual (higher lifetime earning prospects) and the nation (gdp growth). The second school of thought is that such an education is about self-improvement, again both for the individual (becoming a skilled, critical, reflective member of the world community) and the nation (clear-thinking, responsible adult citizens). I have written about this polarisation before, e.g. here.

Probably most people beliefs are somewhere in the middle, or rather a combination. Yes, going to university is for self-improvement, but getting a good job ain’t a bad idea either. Or, yes university is my path to lucrative employment, and if I learn a few things about myself and the world along the way, that’s all good.

So, in the UK, the league tables of Universities have an uncomfortable job of trying to quantify both of these polarised positions simultaneously, in order to satisfy everyone. There are scores for student satisfaction, the quality of staff research, and class sizes (all of which are meant to be broadly correlated to the quality of the self-improvement experience), and there are job prospect ratings also. One of the reasons why these tables give such dramatically different results (a university ranked 50th on one might be 30 on another or 80 on the third) is the weight they give to these various opposite views.

In the United States, Money Magazine has admirably avoided this nettle. It has produced a ranking based entirely on economics, on return on investment. (Typically, you might notice, it is all about the economic benefits to the individual, since on this view of matters the wider benefits could only be achieved in that way). See the nearly ecstatic Washington Post discussion here. I say ‘admirably’ — what I mean is, this is a hard-headed way of denying any validity at all to the other way of thinking about the value of education.

If anything, an underestimation…

THE reports on a study by KPMG, commissioned by Hefce, the headline claim of which is that UK Universities spend a cool billion pounds on quality assurance. (The full report is here.) Now, paragraph 68 lists the kinds of activities that count as quality assurance. Some are obvious: validating new courses, or completing and discussing annual monitoring. However, the list also includes ‘assessment of, and feedback to, students’. Hold on, there. That counts as quality assurance? Then, paragraph 74 tells us that the average academic staff member spends 8% of their time on quality assurance. The rule of thumb used to plan staff workloads is that one quarter of the total time allocated to teaching is spent on assessment (another quarter on preparation, and half on delivery). Everyone knows that this is a lousy rule of thumb, but even assuming it is correct, a not particularly grueling teaching load would yield around 15% of total academic staff time spent on assessment. So we’re already nearly double KPMG’s figure, and we haven’t even sat down in a meeting… Now, KPMG puts academic staff time as roughly 37% of the total economic cost of quality assurance; so, we have to add at least another 37% to their overall figure to compensate for that absurd value for the assessment of students. So, make that a super-cool 1.37 billion.

The publication of this work corresponds to an announcement of proposals to abolish the six-year cycle of institutional reviews. The two news items are obviously related, since a big part of the KPMG brief was to estimate the savings that eliminating these reviews would yield (the whole of section five in the report is devoted to this). This savings was difficult to estimate and KPMG has to resort to a pretty silly methodology in order to arrive at a figure (see paragraphs 11 and 154; basically, they cherry pick the data to exclude any institutions that didn’t believe there would be much savings — all you young researchers out there, please do not try this at home…) Their artificially inflated figure for savings is 90 million. A fair whack, to be sure, but less than a tenth of the total; no doubt BIS was hoping they would have been still more selective in their cherries.

Suppose we accept the figure. It still means that above 90% of the quality assurance cost is self-inflicted. Obviously, quality assurance is necessary — especially if it includes assessment of and feedback to students, and likewise no one would want universities to offer courses on a whim, nor allow any of their services to operate without oversight. Nevertheless, the opportunities for internal cost savings are absolutely enormous.



FE and HE: skills, funding and sneering

This opinion piece by Alison Wolf, Professor of Public Sector Management at KCL takes a serious look at the distortions caused by different funding regimes for further and higher education. The incentives of these regimes mean that vocational training at FE level is a neglected option for most post-19 students, who tend to rush towards university degrees instead. The result, she claims, are serious long-term labour supply problems ahead.

I am inclined to quibble with certain tenets, though. For example, she insists that Universities are not equipped to offer vocational training for two reasons: first, that they cannot maintain industry-like conditions and equipment, and second that university staff are distracted by research instead of focusing on teaching. This is disingenuous, at least in many subject areas. Not only do universities have the financial clout and critical mass to invest in facilities, but there are huge incentives already in play for working closely with industry on training. Staffordshire’s own journalism and product or games design departments are excellent examples of this. Moreover, precisely those universities that might feel the need to expand into areas that are underfunded in FE are also precisely those universities that are not as research intensive, so the tension she describes is not decisive there. All of which means that this proposal from BIS may be barking up the wrong tree.

Another, much more general quibble is with the assumption — which we see over and over and which is still unquestioned — that the only benefit to a university degree is the financial one. Professor Wolf can thus argue that the personal economic benefits to individuals of taking a degree (the pay differential) are not the same as the benefits to the economy as a whole. Indeed, although that pay gap is persistent despite the many prophecies of it disappearing. More importantly, there are non-economic benefits to higher education.

One of those benefits, I dare suggest, is reflected in the declining circulation figures of the Telegraph. Their own opinion piece concerning Professor Wolf’s work, typically masquerading as news, is found here, and its tone explains the last word in the title of this blog post.

The European Union – the benefits to education and research in the UK

The European Union provides enormous benefits to UK students, UK academics,  and UK Universities in supporting and carrying out teaching, knowledge transfer and research.

Examples of European support for students includes the ERASMUS exchange scheme which supports students to study or work abroad in a company. The European Union also supports the development of new and innovative teaching at all levels of education primarily through the ERASMUS+  funding mechanisms.

Similarly, with respect to enterprise and knowledge transfer, if you are thinking of starting up your own business you may want to take part in the ERASMUS young entrepreneurs scheme; or if you are an established business (trading for more than 3 years) hosting someone from another country in Europe.

In terms of research funding,  the results of the recent Research Excellence Framework (2014) in the UK demonstrates just how important Europe has been and it is likely to become even more important for funding of research in the UK in the future.

To give one example – Panel C of REF covered the following disciplines (Units of Assessment in the jargon): Architecture, Built Environment and Planning, Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology, Economics and Econometrics, Business and Management Studies, Law, Politics and International Studies, Social Work and Social Policy, Sociology, Anthropology and Development Studies, Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, Leisure and Tourism. Figure 1 clearly demonstrates a precipitous decline in UK government funding since 2004-05  (about 50% or 80 million) — remember those heady days of evidence-led policy! Secondly, research council funding  also declined in real terms due to inflation with every other source of funding static except the EU government.

Remember that we are talking here about only the best University departments and best academics being entered into the REF exercise. So despite extensive efforts by academics and government to get more money and investment from the private sector it is not happening and UK government sources of funding are in decline. Ominously, there is still no word on what will happen with QR funding and it may well be cut again as it was in the last funding round. The only source of funding that increased since 2007-8 is the EU government i.e Commission.  

Sources of funding panel C in British Universities

The most recent results for the EU annual call for research funding are here (2014). This shows that  the UK was the second largest beneficiary of Horizon 2020 funds in the first round of calls, with nearly EUR 527 million received by more than 500 UK organisations. UK universities do very well in Europe and are well regarded.

Given this overwhelming evidence of the many valuable European benefits to UK higher education, it is not surprising that campaigns are beginning to counter misinformation on Europe, and thus influence a referendum vote. This post in the Guardian describes potential impacts on science research of pulling out of the EU and scientists are already mobilizing on social media and here on twitter. British Influence has established a website and campaign to support us staying in the EU and to put the positive case.

Universities UK which represents 133 UK universities is also supporting a pro European REMAIN campaign. So from Vice Chancellors to the National Union of Students, the University sector is overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the EU. 

Of course most of this post has just dealt with the financial aspects of funding, but international collaboration provides a much wider range of tangible and intangible benefits. Being exposed to new cultures and sharing of knowledge leads to new innovation and research as well as providing us with insights to what has been tried before. My personal experience of working on a number of EU projects over the last 5 or 6 years has given me  a number of new friends and colleagues, and has directly lead to collaborating and sharing to improve the economies and societies in Europe.