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About Douglas Burnham

Professor of Philosophy

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!



It’s not often that I agree with Boris Johnson…

But in this case, I do. The context here is the same changing profile of international students in the UK, that I drew attention to in my previous post. There I talked mainly about the future effect of exchange rates on the affordability of UK university places for Chinese students. The longer term story is about UK visa and immigration controls, which has left students from many countries believing that they are unwanted in the UK and indeed viewed with suspicion. Johnson (the Boris version) has written to Johnson (the Jo version) asking for urgent reforms to the student visa system, as the number of Indian students coming to the UK has halved in the past three years (a drop of 20,000 per year). An historical and hugely beneficial relationship with India is in danger. The Government’s official line is that there is no limit on the number of students coming into the country; technically true, but then there is also no limit on the number of people who can hit themselves over the head with a ballhammer. Yet the popularity of that particular pastime has never been high. In other words, it is not an undistorted market. Not surprisingly, those missing 20,000 students, plus a fair few more, are studying in the US.

The Jo version, on his part, has been talking recently about prioritising teaching quality, and about encouraging competitiveness in the HE sector. On the latter point, it is worth noting that there is not, and never has been, a truly open market in HE in this country. For one thing, the ancient Universities were given truly enormous assets at the moment of their founding, and in the centuries thereafter, most frequently at the largess of the governments of the era. When Staffordshire (for example) was made a University, no one said ‘Hey, here’s a billion quid — go out and be world-class!’. For another, there are all kinds of caps and incentives and variable bits of funding straight from Government coffers. The £9000 fee cap is the most obvious; but lesser known is the funding received to aid disabled students, which has fallen through the floor, disproportionately affecting students without financial assets of their own. In future, I suggest not only that Jo listen to Boris, but also that he mask his patent ignorance of market economics.

Currency exchange rates and exports

If country A’s currency becomes less valuable with respect to the UK, then their cost for goods from the UK goes up — and, everything else being equal, the number of sales drops. When politicians, economists and city commentators talk about how currency exchange rates might affect the UK’s exports, their words are generally illustrated by manufacturing names: the sales of Jags and Land Rovers to China, for example. Well, no one is too worried: both the Telegraph and Guardian note that only 4-5% of UK exports go to China, so the overall effect on the economy will be modest.

However, there is one industry whose exports disproportionately go to China: higher education. We are not used to thinking of this as an export industry, but that it is — and a very successful one at that. Not only are there more Chinese students studying in the UK than students from the whole of the EU, but there are also as many Chinese students as the next five biggest non-EU nations combined. (See also this comment piece in the THE.) All in all, roughly 20% of all non-UK students are from China. It follows, again roughly, that a ten percent drop in the number of Chinese students in the UK would be a £140m annual loss to UK Universities in tuition fee terms, and as much again in associated economic activity. But of course the direct financial cost is not the only thing here: also a long-term loss would be cultural and political connections between the UK and China, that aids both prosperity and peace. I would like to know what the UK government is doing to help what could easily be a crisis in the higher education sector (other than macho posturing on immigration targets, which hardly helps)?

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.

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.


Standardised testing and university admissions

The latest trend in HE admissions in the United States is to move away from standardised tests. George Washington University has just joined the well populated ranks of universities who feel that the tests may be doing more harm than good in expanding the range of their student bodies and allowing them to pursue their access agendas. Advocates of tests like the SAT or ACT in the United States have always argued that they can evidence a student’s intellectual abilities, regardless of that student’s background; critics have argued that such tests are more closely correlated to zip code, and to hot-housed test preparation, than to anything else. Wesleyan University has found that using school grades (as determined by individual schools and teachers) as a predictor of university success not only works well, but increases the intake of first generation and minority students.

Curious, then, that the UK should be so adamant that moving from course work to standardised national tests is the only way forward. I am thinking of the currently-being-introduced changes to GCSE and A level — although to be fair, these are subject exams rather than general aptitude tests. Curious, also, that in the US there are calls to expand the standardised testing that takes place after graduation from university.

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.

The forgotten among the forgotten

THE reports on a study done for the HEA about the attitudes of part-time students at UK HEIs. P/T students feel like an after-thought at Universities, even including the OU (and, perhaps surprisingly, even more so at the OU). The way terms and classes are scheduled, deadlines, library loan periods — all are founded upon the traditional full time students, and part-timers just have to fit in best they can. It’s not a pretty picture, and although the main drivers for the dramatic decline in p/t are of course financial, this doesn’t help.

Nevertheless, the report doesn’t distinguish between undergraduate and postgraduate students — to me it reads as if undergraduate just assumed to be the big issue and postgrad is left to be an … after-thought. Full time pg numbers have held up pretty well over the past five years (other than a significant dip in 2013), but part-time pg numbers have been falling dramatically: 40,000 down from 2009 to 2013. P/T postgraduate students are the forgotten among the forgotten.

Numbers wise, they are hardly an after-thought, though: fully one third of all part-time students in the UK are postgraduates. Moreover, p/t pgs make up a much larger proportion of total pg numbers (just under half, believe it or not), than is the case in ug numbers (less than a fifth). Therefore, more of a problem, not less.

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.