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.

Stoke on Trent Literary Festival 2015

The 2nd annual Stoke Literary Festival is nearly upon us, which includes such luminaries as Michael Palin and Margaret Drabble. Everything is pretty much sold out, which is good news for the Festival and the city, but not such good news for anyone who still wanted to attend! The program includes research on Arthur Berry by our own Emeritus Professor Ray Johnson and Visiting Research Fellow Dr. Catherine Burgass.

How is education funded in the United States?

Until fairly recently, the vast majority of funding for came from two sources: the students themselves, and State governments. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, the last year or so has seen some desperate maneuvering by State legislatures to cut the higher education bill (see here and here, for example). But this has been going on for a decade and a half, with a real crescendo around the time of the global financial crisis. A new report from the Pell Trusts provides overwhelming evidence of a massive shift in funding from States to Federal government. Now, since most of this shift is in Pell grants — the major Federal support given to low-income students — perhaps this is no surprise, what with a major recession and all. However, what the recent battles have shown is that the trend towards Federal dependence is not reversing, and States are refusing to pick up the slack again in improving economic circumstances, but rather have taken advantage of Federal funding to permanently reduce their higher education budgets.

Even free is not free enough — World Bank

This article in University World News reports on some statements by Francisco Marmolejo head of tertiary (further and higher) education policy at the World Bank. The headline idea is that in many areas of the world, free higher education does not greatly increase participation rates among the poorest sectors of society, and is ‘regressive’ — i.e. serves to consolidate wealth inequality rather than either overcome it, or increase social mobility.

There are a number of factors here: tuition fees are by no means the only cost incurred by a student. Obviously, there is the additional cost of living for 3 or 4 years. But more importantly is the cost of spending those 3-4 years not in employment. Where the employment prospects of graduates are very high, then all these costs become insignificant in the long run. However, this is determined not by higher education itself, but rather by the wider national economy, specifically the value placed on graduate-level employees, and the ability of bright young men and women from poor backgrounds to break into what high paying professions may exist. In many developing countries, it is simply not worth it for a young person and their family to make the sacrifice. Only the affluent can afford these costs.

But ‘regressive’? Marmolejo means that making higher education free for everyone leads to an under-contribution of the affluent to the costs of such education, relative to the benefits they receive. Whether his analysis is meant only to apply to developing countries (obviously the World Bank’s primary focus), or whether he would make the same claim more broadly, is not made clear. (The reporter clearly takes his claim in the latter sense, because it goes on to report on tuition fees in the UK and their rationale.) [UPDATE: Amazing how news stories kind of have a life of their own, spawning similar reflections half-way across the world. Here at the THE is a story presenting the evidence that, in the UK too, that background you bring with you to university determines the available career options after university. Specifically, that students with poorer backgrounds are excluded from access to the most lucrative careers. Just like Mexico, according to the World Bank.]

The piece also makes the observation that the very existence of Marmolejo’s role at the World Bank is a departure for the organisation. Previously, the WB had focused exclusively on primary and secondary education; only recently has its activity suggested that higher education is now part of its remit.

Problems in the private colleges in the USA

Rolling Stone has a good  article on how higher education is being dismantled in many parts of the USA – a word of warning for those that would like to see more market forces being allowed to run free. The UK seems to be following down this road at the moment as been discussed here

Only one University in the UK (as far as we know) ever got into very serious trouble , the question is would any Minister want to be the first to have a University go bankrupt on their watch? I suspect not.

In the US the latest problem in the private sector is “the high-profile bankruptcy of Corinthian Colleges earlier this month amid a wave of fraud investigations shows that the expansion of for-profit schools has hit its limit.”  I am unsure of the latter point given the worship of market forces and the general disdain for the public sector in the USA.