Tuesday 26 August 2014

Should I stay or should I go now?

Last night’s TV debate between Alec Salmond and Alastair Darling brought home to me that the prospect of Scottish independence is possibly very real.  I’m not foolish enough to prognosticate publicly on the rights and wrongs of the question, but it is worth looking at what Scottish independence might do to higher education in the UK.  For this post I’ll look at the student side; research comes another day.

It’s a moot point as to whether there is a single UK higher education sector.  Funding and oversight has been through national funding councils (or similar mechanisms) for some time. And being a devolved matter, quite different approaches to funding of institutions and students have developed in the four UK nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  On the other hand, the mission groups (the Russell Group, Million+, University Alliance and the now-departed 1994 Group) and Universities UK, the sector umbrella body, have always worked on a UK-wide basis.  

HESA publish data on undergraduate student mobility between the four nations (the raw data is in a table at the end of this post), and these show what looks like a politically and sociologically interesting pattern.  For starters, here’s the absolute numbers (2012-13 data) in each of the four nations who choose to study in their home country (‘stay’) or study in one of the other UK nations (‘go’):

2012-13 HESA data; first degree students only

The disparity in scale between the four nations is clear here: England has 85% of student numbers. Not surprising really: it has more universities and more people anyway.

But when you look at percentages a striking picture emerges:

2012-13 HESA data, first degree students only

On this view, England and Scotland are very similar: 95% of students from England and Scotland stay in their home nation.  And Northern Ireland and Wales are also similar: about two in three students from Wales and Northern Ireland stay in their home, but one in three go elsewhere (mostly to England, by the way.)

It’s possible to make broad historico-political points here, about Scotland and England being sustainable polities, and Wales and Northern Ireland being places from which that some people see the need to leave to thrive. But I’m going to refrain from that. 

The balance of trade is interesting too (that is, the difference between total numbers of students from the nation studying the UK, and total number of places taken by UK students in that nation). England and Northern Ireland are net exporters of students, and Wales and Scotland net importers. Also, despite the vastly different sizes of the sectors, the actual numbers have a very similar order of absolute magnitude – between 11,000 and 13,500 for each of the four nations.

Balance of trade Students:
From In Balance
England 924,680 912,615 12,065
Wales 51,095 62,180 -11,085
Scotland 95,930 109,450 -13,520
Northern Ireland 41,370 28,830 12,540

Overall, if Scotland left the UK, the HE sectors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland probably wouldn’t be much affected. The blunt truth is that compared to the whole, not many Scottish students leave (a short 5,000), and most of these go to England, where their number is but a drop in the ocean. Scotland might notice a change more: 16% of home students at Scottish universities – over 18,000 - come from other UK nations.

I don’t imagine that the vote on 18 September will be swayed by the impact on the university sectors. Nor, by these data, should it.

Here’s the raw data I promised:

Nation of institution
Origin of students England Wales Scotland NI Total
England 880,210 29,610 14,195 665 924,680
Wales 18,725 31,955 400 15 51,095
Scotland 4,515 165 91,200 50 95,930
Northern Ireland 9,165 450 3,655 28,100 41,370
Total 912,615 62,180 109,450 28,830
The numbers are from 2012-13 HESA data (did I mention this?) and refer to first degree students only.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

A desire to learn

This month’s Scientific American has an interesting piece by Carl Wieman, Stanford University’s Nobel Prize winning physicist and educationalist. There is, apparently, compelling evidence that university science taught actively (ie experiment first and then lecture) leads to higher pass rates than the same subjects taught passively (ie lecture and then lab later).  And yet most teaching continues in the customary, passive way.

Wieman gives three reasons why this might be so (I paraphrase, but not much - I think that this is what the word trenchant was invented for!):

  • Habits – teaching methods haven’t yet adapted to the invention of the printing press;
  • Misunderstanding – faculty think that learning is about listening, not doing;
  • Lack of incentives – advancement in universities come from research funding not teaching quality.

If you’ve won a Nobel Prize you’re allowed to say what you want, although I’d guess that Carl Wieman probably sees research-intensive university activity more than other undergraduate teaching. But, what he says does resonate.

It strikes me that in seeing students as partners in learning, which is good, universities can forget that students need to be motivated as learners. The act of enrolling for a particular degree programme probably proves that there was a moment when the student found that subject interesting, but we all know that our interest waxes and wanes. Do universities always remember to look at students’ motivation to learn?

There’s a counter-argument, of course, which is that students in higher education are independent learners; and that the transformative nature of higher education (pace Ron Barnett) makes it imperative that students manage their own motivations. And there’s something in this.

We also know as managers (and as people who are managed!) that one of the roles a manager has is to motivate and enthuse.  Great managers do this all the time, but every manager should try to do it. Great teachers also enthuse their students about the subject.  Shouldn’t motivation and enthusiasm also, therefore, be part of the everyday brief for university teaching?

Please be clear that I’m not having a go at university teachers. It’s more a point about the institutional environment that universities can create: making enthusiasm for learning an everyday concern, visible to all, rather than an assumption which underpins the delivery of teaching.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

On regulating student behaviour

Mike Ratcliffe has been posting some wonderful photos on twitter, from Freiburg University’s 1497 student regulations.

Thanks to Mike Ratcliffe for letting me use this image
I’ll leave you to look at the other pictures themselves in Mike’s Twitter feed, but here’s some of the text of the regulations:

No one shall have the right to open locked doors and windows in the house of wisdom
Dice, cards and sticks for casting lots and all games of chance are forbidden. Disregard of this rule will be punished with the loss of wine for a week. Chess, however, is allowed
So clearly Freiburg in 1497 had a problem with people sneaking into locked rooms, and gambling. If in doubt, rule it out. Or get them to play chess instead.

Universities are steeped in this tradition.  The ancient universities had Papal Bulls and Royal Charters which gave them legal autonomy from the towns and cities in which they were located. This gave the university meaningful legal power over its students.  Universities were corporations, in the same way that medieval towns and cities were corporations with charters.

And as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben says, "with great power comes great responsibility": not only could universities discipline their students, they were responsible for their students’ behaviour and therefore had a positive duty to intervene.

But the presence of a rule does little to enforce it. Consider this from the Rule of St Benedict (the regulations for another medieval corporate body with responsibility for its own members):
This order of Matins is to be kept on Sundays in both the summer and winter seasons– unless by chance they get up late (which should not happen) and some abridgement of the readings or responsories has to be made. But great care should be taken that this does not happen, but if it does, the person whose carelessness it has occurred must make adequate satisfaction to God in the oratory.
The legacy of these kinds of rules is still to be found in universities today. There’s all sorts of apocryphal stories about Oxbridge students demanding free beer at exams, and the like, but more modern foundations also have student disciplinary regulations, with clauses like:
Any act or omission, whether occurring on University premises or elsewhere, which improperly interferes with the functioning or activities of the University or of those who work or study in the University, or otherwise improperly damages the University or its reputation, shall constitute misconduct under these Regulations, including but not limited to the following:
d.      Violent, indecent, disorderly, threatening, intimidating or offensive behaviour or language;
(These are taken from a UK university’s student regulations, but as it’s to make a general point I’m not saying which one.)

When you think about it, this isn’t really that far removed from Freiburg’s wish to prohibit the unlocking of doors and windows.  But Freiburg had the legal power to do something about it.

The Office of Fair Trading’s reports – in the last throes of its existence before the Competition and Markets Authority (SMA) took over its functions, had a fair amount to say about this. Let’s pull together two of the strands.

First, who has the power?  The OFT thought that
Generally undergraduate students can be considered vulnerable and in a relatively weak position compared to the university. Some are likely to have limited experience of contracts …
(This comes from the OFT’s February 2014 report on Universities' terms and conditions - OFT 1522. I can't find a working web link, I'm afraid)

And yet to allow a student to enrol, universities often seek to bind them to an entire regulatory framework: that is, when they sign on to study they are agreeing to be bound by regulations which cover a broad range of matters.

Secondly, what service is being provided?  Again, from the OFT February 2014 report:
We have concluded that use of and reliance upon contract terms that allow the university to withhold graduation or progression or otherwise to exclude students from tuition for non-payment of ancillary services, in a blanket fashion and regardless of the circumstances, is open to challenge as potentially unfair under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 ('UTCCRs') and/or may be unreasonable under the Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 ('UCTA').
This is beginning to sound threatening. To unpack it a little, the OFT thought that the bundle of services which a university provides for its students (for instance halls of residence, libraries, IT as well as tuition) cannot automatically be considered as one whole package, in the way that university regulations often seek to, at least in abstract.

Now, let’s be clear. The OFT wasn’t saying that universities cannot have disciplinary codes. Nor were they saying that it wasn’t ok to have library fines and the like.

What they were saying was that universities need to sort out their contractual relationship with students. That means a university understanding clearly what is covered by its educational offer; and having a clear contract for that (which students can understand and which they can access if they want to). And understanding what other (ancillary, to use the OFT’s word) services it provides, and recognising that these are a separate contractual matter from a student’s registration at the university.

This sounds like a more consumer oriented approach, which will sit badly with the culture of higher education and the classroom. But it has the virtue of relating to today’s legal framework, not that of 15th century Freiburg. Perhaps it’s time for universities to review their student contracts and the framework within which they sit.

Monday 4 August 2014

The American Dream

Slowly, slowly, the distinctiveness of the UK higher education system is diminishing. Perhaps this is a good thing, perhaps a bad – I’m not trying to make a judgment. But here’s some evidence.

One quarter of the UK’s Russell Group universities have moved to US-style academic job titles – that is, away from the hierarchy of lecturer, senior lecturer/reader, and professor; towards a hierarchy of assistant professor, associate professor, and professor.

Not the 51st state just yet

The rationale is simple.  As higher education internationalizes, and in particular as international league tables force comparisons across national boundaries, universities have to stand comparison. So giving academic staff titles which can be understood against the US norm makes sense.

The move isn’t there yet.  Amongst the six Russell Group universities which have moved towards the US convention, there are four distinct versions:

  • One has only two grades – Associate Professor and Professor: the former being Lecturer and Senior Lecturers; and the grade of Reader being abolished.
  • Another has four grades – Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor and Professor: effectively retitling Readers as Associate Professors

  • Another still has just three grades – Lecturer, Associate Professor, Professor: merging Senior Lecturer and Reader and retitling them as Associate Professor

  • And the fourth has three grades – Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor: with Assistant Professor equating to Lecturer, and Associate Professor to Senior Lecturer/Reader.

The last of these looks most like the US norm.  But without a UK consensus on the migration of UK to US academic job titles it may not be that effective in helping the world understand our universities.

Friday 1 August 2014

Doctor, doctor!

Sorry – not a doctor joke, but a look at what 2012-13 HESA data tells us about doctoral study.

I used the data in HESA Table 15 – HE Qualifications obtained – and looked at the intensiveness of doctoral study. Here’s a scatter plot showing the proportion of degrees awarded at doctoral level against the total number of degrees awarded in 2012-13.

(I excluded three institutions whose data were outliers: the Institute of Cancer Research, with almost 43% of its 70 degrees awarded being doctoral; the Open University which awarded almost 24,000 degrees, with less than 1% at doctoral level; and the University of London central institutes, which awarded 130 degrees, of which almost 20% were doctoral.)

Well, this seems to me to show that there isn’t a scale factor – up to about 8% of degrees at doctoral level you can find institutions large and small.

What if you look simply at the number of doctoral degrees awarded? I think it gets a bit more interesting here.  The plot below shows – using the same dataset with the same exclusions - the absolute number of doctoral degrees awarded in 2012-13 and the proportion of the whole which these represent.

I’ve picked out two clusters – one, in the red oval, are those institutions which are both large in absolute terms (all over 700 doctoral degrees awarded a year) and a high proportion (>6%).  The other, the blue oval which overlaps, are what looks to me like the institutions at the upper end of the trend line – over 350 doctoral degrees per year, but fewer than 10% of all degrees.

It looks a bit like the premier league in recent seasons – there’s three that are at the top and unshakeable, three struggling to break into that top pack; and a fair few that won’t make it any time soon, no matter how hard they try.

I’ll leave it to you to identify which institution is which. There aren’t any surprises.

Does this matter? There's many good universities doing many good things outside the blue and red ovals, and league tables often fail to show this. But in terms of university culture, the red (and to a lesser extent the blue) is where many a vice-chancellor would rather be.