Wednesday, 9 September 2015

A curate's egg

Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson’s speech to Universities UK this morning presages an interesting few months. He set the scene for a forthcoming green paper, with four broad themes.

Firstly, teaching excellence. The idea of a Teaching Excellence Framework was set out in July; we now know a bit more, but I’m not certain that BIS have a clear idea yet. On the one hand, they know their target: it’s the idea of students’ workload, with the Minister comparing a busy engineering student at Bristol with a drop-out humanities student at ‘a prestigious London university’.  And there’s the notion of a disengagement contract.

The Minister quotes Palfreyman and Tapper; it’s worth looking at the full quote (from Reshaping the University: the Rise of the Regulated Market in Higher Education):
The last item paints a grim picture indeed of ‘limited learning on college campuses’ based on an extensive research project funded by the US Social Science Research Council (this is not some hysterical polemic to be brushed aside by the HE establishment): students’ ‘academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades’ from some 40 hours per week in the 1960s to about 27 in the 2000s, and the ‘faculty cultures and orientations’ of ‘the college professoriate’ has much to answer for, since they have struck a ‘disengagement contract’ with their students (along the lines of ‘I don’t want to have to set and mark much by way of essays and assignments which would be a distraction from my research, and you don’t want to do coursework that would distract you from partying: so we’ll award you the degree as the hoped-for job ticket in return for compliance with minimal academic requirements and due receipt of fees’; and on the Party Pathway through HE as some HEIs come to resemble country clubs see Armstrong and Hamilton 2013).
The words quoted by the minister are italicised; the whole sentence shows that the authors were describing a US study of a US issue. There may well be issues with teaching in UK universities, but I’m not sure that it’s right to raise the temperature by scare stories from across the Atlantic. And increasing the marketization of HE is precisely moving us towards a US model, not away from it.

That aside, there’s also a little bit of muddle between what they’re seeking to encourage. There’s speak of excellence in teaching, assessment, feedback and employment skills. From students being busy, and the Minister’s recollections of university life (Oxford, Balliol, Modern History) we also get an implicit elision to contact hours. So do we care about students being busy, or being in the classroom? They’re not the same thing.

And there’s an emphasis on information to applicants so they can see what they get (presumably KIS hasn’t done the trick). It’ll be good to see what this actually looks like when the Green paper is published; but there’s also a clarity that it’ll matter. Success in TEF will enable a university to increase its £9k fee in line with inflation. Ouch!

Second up is Widening Participation. The Minister has two issues in his sights: participation by black and minority ethnic students with a Caribbean background, and participation by white British boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. Participation by both of these groups is low, and I think that the focus is spot on in this regard. And there’s talk of better data to enable this to be understood (be still my beating heart!)

Third up, a blast form the past. Having spotted that alternative providers need validation to be able to award degrees, and that this presents a potential conflict of interest, there’ll be a consultation on ‘alternative options for new providers if they do not want to go down the current validation route’. Which sounds an awful lot like the return of the CNAA. The old Gray’s Inn Road building looks like rental office space now – I wonder if that could be used …
Parts of the speech are excellent

And finally, a level playing field. There’s a recognition that the current regulatory environment is complicated, with different levels of scrutiny for different types of provider, and, now that HEFCE funds universities less and students themselves fund more, a more limited range of sanctions are available to regulators. If you only have a nuclear option, you never use it, which isn’t good for regulation. Wales has got this a bit better – by having HEFCW oversee access agreements, there’s a more nuanced approach possible. I wouldn’t be surprised if HEFCE and OFFA went the same way.

Another aspect of a level playing field is recognising that entry to the market implies the possibility of exit from the market, and the promise of consultation on ‘measures to require all providers to have protection measures in place so that students who benefit from greater choice and diversity do not lose out in the event of provider failure’. An insurance bond scheme for universities? It’s an idea from the travel market, but the costs of securing provision elsewhere would be potentially large: I’ll be interested to see how the economics of this play out.

So lots to come, and some good and necessary issues flagged, but there’s still woolly and ideological thinking in there.

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