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About Douglas Burnham

Professor of Philosophy

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.

Interesting data, poor inferences

Apparently, the UK higher education system is a ‘knock-out’ performer.  Although the UK system is ranked 8th in the world — not bad at all — what is holding it back on that measure is central investment. Per capita, that is, higher education is not well funded in the UK, and the system as a whole pays the price. However, we can compensate for that, correcting for the relative poverty of the country (compared to, say, the US or Switzerland) and thus its relatively low level of public investment. This yields a different ranking, with the UK way up in second place. (Behind Serbia, interestingly.)

All very interesting. It makes you wonder from where all the calls for the UK system to be over-hauled in one way or another are coming (how marking and degrees are scaled being an old chestnut). If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other hand, is also makes you wonder what would happen if there was some higher level of investment…

The THE article first cited though, goes one step further. The reason why the UK system punches above its weight in this way is the Russell group — i.e. the concentration of funding into roughly 15% of the institutions. (We should also include a few other Universities who are not technically in the RG, but who enjoy big funding and strong research reputations, such as Leicester or Durham.) The article, or rather the chap being quoted, cites the recent REF results as evidence. Evidence for what, exactly? That research is concentrated, to be sure; that funding is concentrated, definitely. But it is certainly not evidence that concentration delivers ‘bang for the buck’. On the contrary, the fact that an army of researchers, working at the other 85% of institutions, are still doing international quality research with bread-crumbs of funding, much less infrastructure, and no endowments to speak of… THAT is bang for the buck. The cost per international-standard research publication at a ‘new’ university is a fraction that of the Russell Group, and I can prove it.

For example, let’s take two random Universities: Newcastle University and Northumbria. Now, Newcastle did pretty well in REF2014, staying in the top twenty nation wide. They submitted a total of 2806 outputs rated 3 and 4*. Northumbria are quite a way down the REF table, but comfortably in the top 100. They submitted 823 outputs at that quality rating. Now, clearly, there is a concentration of research in Newcastle, who produced three and a half times as many quality outputs. However, Newcastle received 35.6 million pounds in recurrent research funding in 2009-10, while Northumbria received … 3.26 million. In other words, with ten times the funding, they only managed three and a half times the number of quality outputs. It’s the same story when we compare Teeside and, say, York. The former required £6440 to produce an international quality paper, while York required £11,900.

Now, I know this is not the whole story. There is a difference between 3 and 4*, and also we may be comparing inherently expensive forms of research (laboratory sciences) with cheaper ones. On the other hand, in the above calculations, I haven’t included other big sources of funding, which are also highly concentrated, such as Research Council grants, European funds, and so forth. In the absence of more study, the evidence clearly goes against the ‘funding concentration’ hypothesis. (Hold on, who wrote this report that the THE is cheering about? — Universitas21 — and who are their UK members: all Russell Group. I’m seeing a pattern emerging.)


Studying in the provinces

Many newspapers ran a story about a study by London First and PWC — here is the THE’s version. The headline number is that between tuition fees and living expenses, international students in London are worth £2.3 billion net. By ‘net’ here meaning subtracting an estimate of the costs to the health service and other such services. What the THE didn’t add, is that fewer than a quarter of the international students in the UK are studying in London: it’s not difficult to estimate then that international students bring in the fat end of 10 billion to the economy. (Source: HESA.) These figures are borne out by a UniversitiesUK report found here (see Annex A). Add to this the more than hundred thousand EU domiciled students nation-wide, some of who to be sure pay less in tuition fees but just as much to live day to day, and the figure is more like £12 billion. Higher education in the UK is a major export industry, something that occasionally gets lost in the various debates.

What should a PhD thesis look like?

Fascinating feature piece in the THE on the PhD thesis as a written document.The basic contrast being made is between the traditional 80 thousand word dissertation and a thesis which is a bundle of peer-reviewed and published papers. The latter is not at all far from the PhD by published work, and as it happens only last week I was part of the examination of just such a PhD.

There are a handful of practical issues here. How long does it take to write up a thesis (time which, it is assumed perhaps wrongly, is not spent in the lab doing real work). If the bundle comprises a set of multi-authored papers, how will the examiners discern the candidate’s contribution? Are examiners able to give as much attention to a long traditional thesis, as distinguished from six or eight papers? Given the lead time in publishing papers, might such an approach result in a delay in a candidate obtaining their doctorate? In some subjects where book publication is valued, the traditional thesis is the obvious practical choice for a young, would-be academic.

But these practical issues are, frankly, technicalities which well-written guidance for both students and supervisors would solve. Tougher are the big issues. First of all, is the writing of papers — and especially of shorter pieces that can be published quickly, and get out there having an impact — profoundly more relevant in the contemporary research environment? That is to say, all other things aside, is a traditional PhD deeply misaligned with how science works?

On the other hand, a PhD is and always has been about a large-scale project — conceiving of it, planning it, and executing it, and doing so with independence and resilience — so how does the set of individual papers demonstrate these important skills?

[Update, May 30th: This report confirms what has been anecdotally known for a while: that most PhDs will not not get permanent academic posts. This means that preparation for work in a research environment outside academia is all the more important, and thus also making the shape of a PhD thesis suitable.]

How to win friends and misuse statistics

The 2016 version of one of the big league tables is out, accompanied by a commentary. The commentary is all about how the huge rise in tuition fees several years ago resulted in an equally huge increase in services University’s offer. (Actually, this may have had more to do with the fact that bond yields were historically low; so Universities could borrow more cheaply.)

One piece of evidence for this was the drop in SSR — student to staff ratio — over the period. Great. Except… this figure is not by any means equivalent to ‘class sizes’, as the commentary claims. Indeed, the claim is made that investment in advance of the Research Excellence Framework contributed to lowering this statistic. RAE investment is not primarily investment in teachers. Instead, it is likely investment in senior researchers, whom undergraduates will never see; and in part-time or zero-hours teachers who soak up the load so that headline staff can work on that research project.  The number of academic bodies around the place rises, relative to student numbers, but class sizes may in fact go up, as students are herded into big rooms to be taught by a handful of faces whose photographs were not in the prospectus.

And by the way, this is another of the league tables that includes entry points as a measure of quality. People across the University world have been complaining about this for years, but one more time: Imagine, for a moment, that you are reading a movie review. The review says that the plot is incomprehensible and silly, the acting wooden, and the direction lazy. But, it concludes, the film is popular among cinema-goers (who have never seen the movie), and therefore it must be good. Five stars! Movie of the year!

Science as a hammer

This is an interesting one: a MOOC on climate science, but with an important difference. It is not simply presenting the science, in the objective way that we all believe science is supposed to work. Rather, it is presenting strategies for swatting aside climate change deniers. It is essentially weaponising a scientific position. Many of us won’t object to this, since after all the position is one we support and, moreover, climate change deniers have played hard-ball for years now. Nevertheless, I for one am a little uncomfortable, in a way analogous to the way I am uncomfortable with any other ‘fighting fire with fire’ approach: fighting criminals who would impose upon our freedoms by … restricting our freedoms; or fighting religious extremism with …  satirical extremism. Something to think about anyway.

UPDATE: On the other hand, when you’ve got this to contend with, maybe real science could do with being weaponised.

Common or uncommon sense?

The Washington Post ran a big piece yesterday contrasting the expansion ambitions of HEI systems in New York state and in California, with the gridlock on higher education expansion experienced in Washington. The unquestioned assumption in the WP, however, is that expansion is a good thing: that future economic development depends upon an ever larger provision of degree-educated workers. The Presidency agrees, but getting anything done in Washington is like pulling teeth — on a really annoyed, rabid dog.

But it is just this assumption that is being questioned, from both right and left. Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and the nation’s favourite liberal economist, argues that recent evidence suggests graduate-level employment may have plateaued, in part because automation can deal with sophisticated, graduate-level tasks much more easily than it can with skilled but ‘common sense’ tasks, like installing an air conditioner or pruning a pear tree. Interestingly, an opinion piece in Forbes agrees. Both conclude that tackling income inequality through higher education is a mistake.

The UK experiment with vastly expanded higher education provision would seem to be relevant here. Are graduate level jobs holding up, and graduate level unemployment staying low? Another, very different question arises, the answer to which everyone above just assumes: is access to higher education only about the economy? Even in the domain of equality (see the immediately previous post), is income equality the only measure?

Revealing storm re university funding in the US

Over Easter weekend, the New York Times published an editorial about university funding, the headline conclusion of which was that the cost of higher education (i.e. tuition fees) was rising not because of decreasing state support, but because of ‘bloated’ administrative costs. Although one might want to sympathise with the latter half of the claim — especially given the UK pay survey reported in the THE at roughly the same time — the web erupted in anger over the first claim. See comments here and here.

It seems to me, however, that both sides are enlisting statistical facts in a disingenuous manner. There are some costs associated with running a higher educational institution that are not directly proportional to the number of students. (Running a football team would be a facetious example; running a library, producing marketing material or giving a lecture are a better ones.) The crisis in small liberal arts colleges should be understood — in part — in just this way. This means that a doubling of student numbers does not in principle need to be accompanied by a precise doubling of funding. This explains the NYT contributor’s bizarre analogy of military bases. But, it does not prove his case, since there are few if any costs that have no correlation at all to student numbers.

However, the lesson for us in the UK is that a proliferation of small institutions, each running their own show, is a recipe for funding difficulties now and in the future. This is, by the way, the other side of the too-much-concentration argument that Jon and I have been rehearsing on this blog. The relationship between size of each element, and the number of elements (likewise the diversity of missions of each), surely can be optimised for any given system of provision. At the moment, though, it is not optimised on either side of the Atlantic. Here, for example, official policy encourages a proliferation of small HEIs, but then only adequately funds roughly 20% of them.


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.

Of course they will

THE reports here that the BIS is considering whether to restrict new postgraduate — and specifically PhD — loans to the sciences. Or, more carefully and revealingly expressed, to restrict loans to ‘specific subjects where the scientific and economic case is strongest’. I’m surprised this even requires consultation, and wasn’t part of the original proposal. The Arts and Humanities Research Council has had real term cuts in its budget of 20% in the past five years, and that budget is already tiny in comparison to the sciences, broadly speaking. (The sciences budgets have ‘merely’ been frozen in the same period, representing a roughly 10% real term cut.) Funding in this area is politically an easy target, and especially if it is framed as a kind of competition between science and humanities funding, rather than a question of overall central research funding. Overall research funding as a proportion of GDP in the UK is already pitifully low — lower than any other large economy other than Italy, Spain, Russia and India. See the data here and (with particular reference to the sciences) here. So, there are two issues here: the blatant sacrifice of the future of the country because of overall funding cuts to research; and the political framing of the issue as only being a choice of what to cut.

UPDATE: A nice piece in the Guardian/Observer today that portrays at length the frustrations felt by those in the arts and humanities. The weak part of the article is that is is long on whining, but short on data. It portrays, for example, the removal of a central grant to these subjects, replacing it with tuition fees, as a ‘cut’. This is simplistic, since humanities and stem subjects were always differentially funded and remain so, to roughly the same extent. Similarly, it bemoans the rising number of technocratic managers and their salaries, without adducing data tht would show how disproportionate this change has been.

By the way, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, to any VC or Dean who really knows what they are up to, humanities and social sciences should be seen as cash cows. No need for expensive labs, high powered computers, technical assistance — even the books and journals we use cost less and have a longer shelf-life.

The death knell of liberal arts education?

A well-known women’s college in Virginia is closing (stories here and here). While it is always sad to see a venerable institution go under, there is a much bigger underlying story here about quite radical changes in the shape of higher education. There is some current debate about whether these kinds of events mean that ‘liberal arts’ education per se is declining in America (in favour of vocational education, for example). The account here, for example, argues that liberal arts is alive and well in the ‘Honors Colleges’ that are part of big state universities. (An Honors College is an institution within an institution, providing a richer curriculum to high achieving students.) What is more clear is that the model of the liberal arts college — generally small, private, not-for-profit institutions staff by enthusiastic teachers and without much of a research profile — is declining. For more than a century, this model has been a big feature in the higher education landscape. Those colleges that are surviving are doing so by expanding their student numbers far beyond the intimate numbers for which they were famous and valued, or linking up with larger institutions. What the tale of Sweet Briar College makes clear is that the demographic of students has changed enormously, so such colleges draw students by offering more and more financial aid and scholarships, and fewer and fewer pay the full tuition fees. Another lesson, it seems to me, simply has to do with the cost ratios of providing higher education. The level of facilities and services demanded today, means that a small college will pay proportionately more of its income on keeping the place running, as opposed to just paying teaching staff. Just as in the UK, then, institutional mergers look to be an increasingly likely solution. The fact that Sweet Briar is on 3200 acres and has a couple dozen historical buildings no doubt doesn’t help…

Janet Napolitano on Higher Education in America

Despite a bit of hyperbole — not surprising given Napolitano is a former Governor of Arizona, and possible Democratic contender for the White House in 2016 — this Washington Post piece is a thoughtful review of the current state of the American higher education system. She rejects as knee-jerk over-excitement the common claims that the US system is in crisis. However, she does see a worrying erosion of the state (both local and Federal) backing for public universities. The point being that both State and Federal governments are losing sight of the value of higher education, particularly in its traditional face-to-face, bricks and mortar guise. However, we need to notice that, she is writing very specifically about public research universities — Napolitano is currently President of the University of California, several campuses of which are joined on the THE World Rankings (for whatever that is worth), by Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Wisconsin and Texas, just in the top 50.

Although recognising the disproportionate rise in tuition fees in most States, Napolitano prefers to see this simply as a general funding issue rather than as a specific social inequality issue — an idea she raises and then rejects too quickly for my taste.

There is also a recognition of the importance of basic research, by which I believe she means something other than headline-grabbing research. Every University would pursue and support the latter, if they could. But basic research — upon which the headline-grabbing variety depends absolutely — is dropping down the order of priorities. Indeed, one of the books she reviews here suggests separating the teaching and research units of Universities. Napolitano dismisses this idea — but of course endorses it in a different form precisely by having chosen to defend public research universities, rather than the system as a whole. What should be clear to anyone who understands the ‘economy’ of knowledge, is that 100 world-class scientists will not be able to pursue world-class work without a small army of scientists behind them doing the groundwork. Where that army is located is a different issue. And this is true, quite separately from the issue (which Napolitano pointedly does not discuss) of just how good an educator could be without some involvement in new knowledge-creation.

UPDATE: See similar and sympathetic remarks by the present of the North Carolina University system, Tom Ross, also locked in a real struggle with his State’s legislature. I wonder how he felt writing the phrase ‘just edging out Walmart’?

Still more ‘distant mirror’

You wait ages for significant international developments re student choices and tuition fees, and three come along at once! Here is a major report from France, putting forward a vision for the future of French Universities, and especially their international competitiveness. At the moment, in France there is no tuition fee premium based upon residence: everyone pays the same really very low fee. The headline proposal is to charge non-EU students full economic cost — interestingly, with the exception of doctoral students, who are seen as research assets in and of themselves. The money gained is to be plowed back into French higher education, and there this is to be accompanied by no decrease in the level of central funding (good luck with that one). The point is that, by dramatically improving the product that French universities can offer international students, France’s market share will increase despite the rising fees.

This proposed move is broadly in keeping with the ‘super-university’ proposed for Paris, Paris-Saclay, which will join 19 universities together in a single entity, the better to compete in international league tables. While this model can work for Paris, one wonders what might in store for regional institutions who don’t have geographically near-by HEIs with which to merge.

Beyond the MOOC — degree level study for a new age?

Interesting, if rather sketchy, piece in the New York Times on future ground-level transformations in degree level study. MOOCs, the author claims, have failed to transform the higher education landscape, not because they are not popular (they are, and looked at historically, spectacularly so), but because of the accreditation gap. By this is meant the meaningfulness of any study certification to employers. Taking a MOOC, or even twelve of them, is a hobby. Certification of the study of individual MOOCs does not evidence knowledge or skills, and certainly not a comprehensive competency in any subject. These latter features — standing for definite and guaranteed knowledge, skills and subject competency — remain the preserve of traditional degrees.

What is changing now is not just that some course offerings are upping the rigour of their certification process, but that series of courses or systems of certification are arising. Now, take twelve MOOCs from this series, and the certificate means something; collect ‘badges’ from various sources, and again this demonstrates something to an employer.

Now, this is directly analogous to standardised schemes of credit accumulation, such as CATS. The system in the United States is among the oldest and most well understood such scheme. A student can take 30 credits at the University of X, add 60 more from Y College, and then round it out with another 30 earned while working for Z Corp — and that is a degree. Those three institutions know this; employers know this. Does it work? Well, sort of. It is certainly easier to transfer between institutions than it was 50 years ago, but it is still not exactly common. (A degree itself remains much more portable: taking your BA from X to study for a MA at Y is very common indeed.) However, the relative rarity of intra-degree transfers likely has more to do with geography than some other form of intertia. Usually, one has to physically change residence to get from X to Y.

Online education changes this. Now, the problem is that Mozilla, Coursera or EdX are not recognised degree-granting brands. So, even if their systems for accumulating elements of online study are robust, it will take a long time before they serve the above purpose with respect to employers. So, there will remain a role for traditional education providers, as providers of course, but also as brands that carry recognised weight.

UPDATE: The President of Stanford University weighs in on this issue. His is what you might call a centralised or federalised vision of higher education, where the best providers (i.e. the best teachers, i.e. those at Stanford) provide digital content for other universities, with some local help. Well, duh: that’s what university-level text-books have been for a century, with later enhancements like video (pioneered by the OU) and dedicated web-sites. The real innovation would be finding a way to make this responsive to individual student needs and interests, a goal that Hennessey does not seem to realise cuts right against the centralised model.

More ‘distant mirror’

As part of an overture to the state legislature, in the middle of a funding allocation cycle, the University of California system has volunteered to cap out of State and international student numbers. See the Reuters report. The issue is a familiar one to us. International students pay premium tuition fees and thus are sometimes seen a subsidising domestic students — or, more cynically, seen to be subsidising other University expenses. (In the UK, the international premium is less at undergraduate level and only really pertains to postgraduate study. Also, in the United States, state universities charge different fees depending upon whether the student is resident in the ‘home’ or ‘another’ state. So, a big chunk of California’s premium fee income is undergraduate out-of-state students.)

In California, just as it sometimes is here, the perceived problem with this arrangement is that the recruitment of international students edges out domestic students. Interestingly, the issue of whether international students are getting a good deal somehow never arises… Quite the contrary, in fact, as this rather snide report shows.