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.

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