Category / Universities

Higher education bon mot of the week December 20, 2012 at 5:51 am

From Worthwhile Canadian Initiative:

we’re teaching students what we want to teach. Sometimes that’s what students want to learn. Sometimes it’s not.

A chase to the bottom? November 8, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Stefan Collini writes in the LRB:

Nobody should pretend that all is well with British universities in their present condition. For one thing, expansion of numbers on the cheap has dramatically diluted the level of attention to individual students that most universities can provide: nearly all parents with children at university hear disturbing reports of overcrowded ‘seminars’ and minimal contact hours or attention to written work.

It is nice to see someone being honest about the state of British Universities, especially someone who works in one of them. Before we can properly oppose the Government’s misguided and destructive policy over University funding, we have to acknowledge that University education has changed markedly for the worse in the last twenty years. Many academics, especially at the ‘better’ universities, view undergraduate teaching as at best a chore, to be dodged whereever possible. Anyone who takes teaching seriously is viewed as a dope in many departments. Universities try to (and mostly succeed) to pretend that courses with minimal teaching contact and little marked work somehow form an acceptable education for a degree. This is the real hole we need to escape from: how a better system is funded is an important part of the question, but being honest about the scale of the problem is needed first.

What’s fair vs. What’s right October 13, 2010 at 8:29 am

Vince Cable is struggling to get his University fees bill through parliament. Good. At first sight the policy seems fair and sensible, especially to an economist. People who benefit from University education – graduates – should pay for it when they can. Those that don’t earn high salaries don’t pay, and richer graduates support poorer ones. At the same time the fees will help to ameliorate what has been a thirty year crisis in University funding in the UK. What can be wrong with that?

The answer is prospective students are not economically rational. Some, especially those from lower income families, have a fear of debt. They don’t see being in hock to the state for £30,000 to be a price worth paying for a lifetime of higher earnings – even if it is – they see it as an impossible and stifling burden. Despite the progressive economics, in other words, Cable’s bill will reduce access to higher education for the less well off.

The skew between subjects is wrong, too. Universities will charge more for the courses that are more expensive to run, primarily science, engineering and medicine. These are exactly the subjects we need more graduates in. A bright multi-skilled student should not be encouraged to study Law because it is cheaper than Chemistry.

Cable deserves to lose this one, then. It is more important to do something that is right – enhance equality of access to higher education – than to do what is fair.

Bringing higher education to its knees January 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm

From the Guardian:

Top universities accuse Gordon Brown of jeopardising 800 years of higher education, warning that they could quickly be “brought to their knees” by the government’s spending cuts of up to £2.5bn, thereby damaging Britain’s ability to recover from recession.

Quite right, and exactly as we said before Christmas when these plans first came to light. It really does hurt for a labour government to be doing this.

Education, education, education December 28, 2009 at 10:25 am

Consider three recent news items. We begin with France:

Sarkozy unveils €35bn ‘big loan’ boost for French universities and museums

Then two from the UK. First

Peter Mandelson cuts higher education funding by £500M and proposes shorter, cheaper ‘degrees’.

(The original letter can be found here.) And –

Call for universities to charge well-off students £30,000 a year.

The French, of course, get it: Mandelson doesn’t. Now is exactly the right time to be investing in higher education and skills. Unfortunately we currently have a University system which does not suit the country’s needs well: there are too many people doing media studies and not enough engineers; too much concentration on short term applied research and not enough high quality truly academic research; and the poor subsidise the education of the rich.

Here’s what Mandelson should have done.

  • Let Universities charge undergraduates the real cost of their degrees.
  • Introduce a comprehensive system of scholarships, allowing the less well off who want to go to University, and who have the qualifications, to do so without being loaded with debt.
  • Target both undergraduate and research funding mostly, but not exclusively, at those areas the country needs including science, engineering, and mathematics. If people want to do MBAs, that’s fine, but they can pay for that themselves via a student loan.
  • Police standards of undergraduate and graduate teaching much more tightly. Single digit contact hours a week are a disgrace, as is the degree-by-cheque that is the masters’ programme in some institutions.
  • Ensure that a small amount of research funding is not peer reviewed. That may sound odd, but in times of budgetary constraint, peer review often ensures that it is the most mediocre research that is funded – the stuff that everyone can agree will work. If you know it will work, it is likely that it will not to be very original or innovative. So some mechanism is needed to ensure that real blue skies research is kept alive.

We could have a University system that works a lot better, does not privilege the rich over the poor, and provides world class teaching and research. It would generate more wealth and educate people better. All Peter needs to do is to have the courage to ask for it.

Student loans May 10, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Cambridge TowerAre student loans a good idea?

Certainly as they are implemented in the UK, they serve no one well. The level of tuition fees is set too low to fund Universities properly. (The under funding of higher education gives the lie to Blair’s ‘Education, Education, Education’. Schools might have done well under Labour, but Universities have not.) Yet they are set high enough to discourage some students from applying to University, particularly those who have a higher aversion to taking on debt or less experience at doing multi-year cost/benefit analysis – and that is primarily the children of the less well off.

In short, we have a classic Nu-Labour half a hard on situation (as in there is nothing worse than…) Either fees need to raised very substantially, so that at least Universities are not losing money on every undergraduate educated. Or England needs to follow Scotland in ending the experiment with loans, with a more-than-matching increase in government spending on Universities.

The quality of teaching in English higher education is falling; contact hours are declining; and equipment is often laughably bad. The only thing that will fix these issues is money. If we want as many students in University as we have at the moment, someone is going to have to spend more. And even if we don’t, accepting that the Blairite push to higher numbers was overdone, then the spend per student needs to increase. If it doesn’t, the English University system will keep getting worse.

English and Welsh Universities November 8, 2008 at 11:16 pm

The Guardian has a provocative piece entitled Now is the time for a thorough review of our university system. I certainly agree with the sentiment expressed in there. The English and Welsh* University system has been sliding towards mediocrity for years. Here’s my take.

  • Student fees do not compensate institutions for the cost of providing world class education. Just look at the comparison between what Stanford or Harvard charge and fees in England and Wales.
  • Fees are however high enough to put some people off going to University.
  • Either we need to raise fees to an economic level, and allow our institutions to compete globally, or we need to remove them, and dramatically increase University funding. My preference is for the latter, but even the former would be better than letting our institutions wither and further.
  • Thus far some of the gap has been made up via charging fees for Master’s students. Non-EU students are a cash cow for nearly all institutions in England and Wales; some (like the LSE) even extend that dubious practice to EU students. Many of these Masters courses now have a lower standard than undergraduate degrees. Surely it cannot be to the credit of our University system that a UK MSc is now worth less than a BSc? And even if you ignore the reputational risk and the waste of effort on students who can’t even speak English let alone reach the standard of a postgraduate degree from an institution with some self respect, this source of funding is going to be much harder to come by going forward. That, combined with business plans in some Universities which require postgraduate numbers to grow by 10% a year, is going to be a problem.

The Blair and Brown governments have done a reasonably job in dealing with school funding, the academies mess aside. But higher education has not been properly resourced since the 70s. Student fees have failed in two ways: they don’t address the funding gap, and they put prospective students off. We need more money from somewhere, and it isn’t going to be from yet more non-EU Masters students. If you want a Keynesian stimulus, Universities are one good place to start.

* The situation is slightly different in Scotland as there student fees have been abolished. However, funding issues remain even for the Scottish institutions. To my shame I have no idea of what the situation is in Northern Ireland.

The University of London – a really good idea gone horribly wrong August 3, 2006 at 1:34 pm

It seems as if the chances of the University of London breaking up are increasing. Imperial and UCL have been trying to escape for some time, with others not far behind. This is really a great shame, as the University of London is a good thing, and it would be a better one if it had some teeth.

First the logic. Land in London is expensive. Centralisation of function works in some cases. And large University departments often work better than smaller ones. So it makes sense for some functions,-the student union, the careers service, the library and so on,-to be provided centrally rather than by each college. The University provides these to the benefit of all.

Now for the more difficult bit. There are some genuinely world class departments at many Unversity of London institutions. Most of the science or engineering departments at Imperial, Asian languages at SOAS, theology and law at Kings, quite a bit of UCL for instance. There are also frankly pretty mediocre ones, and there is a lot of duplication. Is the University’s reputation really enhanced, say, by physics at Kings, Royal Holloway or Birkbeck when it is done so well elsewhere? Perhaps, but the case is at least arguable. A University of London with teeth would be able to enforce quality control and would allocate resources where they could do the most good: it makes little sense for colleges to try to compete in subjects they are not world class in when they could spend the money in their best departments.

Of course, the colleges hate this idea. The idea of the University of London actually enforcing high quality standards seems to terrify them. They appear to prefer duplicating facilities and offering lower standard courses than cooperating with their colleagues a few miles down the road. Together, the colleges of the University of London could be a world class institution. Separately they are not nearly as strong. But pride and hubris seems to be pushing them apart.