Tuesday 30 June 2015

Coasting universities?

With seaside holidays approaching for many, it’s worth a look at a straw in the wind – in this instance, comment on Twitter about the concept of a coasting university.

The phrase clearly is drawn on the notion of a coasting school. A helpful blog post from Professor Michael Jopling at Northumbria University discusses coasting schools. The meaning of that phrase has undergone a transition from schools ‘at risk of failure’ in 2007 to “the ones whose results have either flat-lined or where they haven’t improved as much as they could have” according to David Cameron in 2011. That’s clearly a raising of the bar.

It’s a fantastically problematic concept. If you look at value added, you get quite a different picture of which universities are doing best – here’s the top 6 on value added from the Guardian league table 2015:

Abertay Dundee
Edinburgh Napier
Liverpool John Moores

I don’t imagine that these are the Universities that government ministers have in mind when they think of top universities, but they’re setting the pace when it comes to not coasting.

There’s another problem with the concept, which is about the nature of higher education.

School education – up to the age 16 – is compulsory. Like it or not, you have to go to school. It gives you the chance to learn and to be able to play a part in society and the economy, and adds to the country’s capital. It makes sense to regard the state as a stakeholder, and therefore for the state to have a concern about the standard of what goes on. (nb that I’m not saying I agree with what the government are doing … and I do know that my characterisation of the point of compulsory education is a limited one.)

But higher education is different. Yes, there are high level skills and knowledge, tested by examinations, but it’s much more than that. It’s about changing the nature of the person who studies; about giving them a new way of understanding and engaging with the world; about become a complex actor in a complex environment. University helps you to change the world, not just to be a good citizen. I’m actually quite bothered by the notion that the state might decide what sort of university is right, because this puts a potential brake on what Acemoglu and Robinson call creative destruction.

I’m not trying to argue that all universities are the same; they clearly aren’t. But a slogan which supports the notion that there’s a clear and easily understood purpose in higher education, that ranking universities is easy, and that there’s a simple approach to telling which ones need to do better is just plain wrong.

I do hope that it’s just the impending holidays getting into ministerial speechwriting …

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Value for money?

Earlier this week the BBC headlined a survey conducted by ComRes on their behalf which asked final year undergraduates three questions about their university experiences.  The headline figures were:

1 Which of the following comes closest to your opinion about your university education?
It has been value for money
It has not been value for money
Don't know

2 To what extent do you feel that university has prepared you for the future?
A great deal
Not really
Not at all
Don't know

If you could start university again, which of the following do you think you would do?
I would take the same course at the same University
I would take the same course at a different university
I would take a different course at the same university
I would take a different course at a different university
I would not go to university at all
Don't know

The headlines were clear – 40% of final year students didn’t think that their university education had been value for money. And with this being the first cohort to have paid £9k per year fees, that’s quite a story.

The sector response – if that is what a quote from the Chief Executive of Universities UK amounts to – was to defend universities’ record, drawing on the National Student Survey results.  Nicola Dandridge was quoted by the BBC as saying “The last national student survey reported that 86% of students were satisfied overall with their course. It shows that universities across the UK are responding to student feedback and working hard to improve the academic experience.”

The 2015 NSS results are set to be published by HEFCE on 12 August, and it’s a fair bet that many universities will be watching carefully not only because of their significance for league tables, but to see what effect the £9k fees have on student responses.

It seems very likely that there will be an effect: the ComRes survey broke down answers by subject of study and by region of university, and in Scotland, which does not charge fees to Scottish students, fully 79% said that their university education had been value for money, compared with 52% across all responses.

But there’s other interesting data too.  The third question is revealing: if they had their time again, only 3% of respondents would not go to university at all.  63% would go to the same university, with about a quarter of these opting for a different subject. 64% would choose the same subject, mostly at the same university.

Same university
Different university
Same course
Different course

This tells me quite a different story – fewer than half of students made the right university/course choice; but most got at least one of the variables right.  So, much to be done on advice and guidance at application, but less of a panic, it seems to me, about the perceived value of higher education.  

Maybe the need to get this right will push post-qualification application back up the agenda.  If universities focused on the needs of students and learners rather than their own staff convenience, students might make better university and course choices, and so be happier. Just a thought …

Friday 19 June 2015

The Groves of Academe

The world of higher education owes a lot to ancient Greece – the very term academic derives from the name of the place where Plato taught.  And the continuing saga around Greece’s economic and political travails look like a path to exit from the Euro and possibly the EU. If this happened, what would be the impact on UK HE?

First, some numbers: non-UK EU students account for just over 5% of the UK total student population (about 125k out of just shy of 2.3m in 2013-14, according to HESA).  Greece contributes the fourth highest number – just over 10.5k, about 8% of the non-UK EU students in the UK.

Data from HESA
The other top domiciles are Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, and Cyprus, which tells me that in Greece, Ireland and Cyprus going to the UK is a significant cultural pattern (think of the different populations of those countries.)

A decent number of these students are undergraduates.  Greece in 2013-14 had the third highest number of new undergraduates – just over 5000.  As EU citizens, undergraduates are eligible for student loans form the SLC in the same way as UK students, and this enables the continuation of what has been a pattern of EU students studying in the UK for their first degrees.

Data from HESA again
The same countries form the top 6 – again showing that there’s quite a habit of studying in the UK in Greece, Ireland and Cyprus.

So what would Greek EU exit mean?  Hypothetically, of course.

Without access to SLC funding, it’s unlikely that as many Greek students would travel to the UK to study. 5000 new undergraduates is the intake of a large university, so the impact would be felt over the years as fewer students applied to UK universities.

And there’d be immediate questions to address.  The politics make this interesting.  There aren’t any rules or procedures for a country leaving the EU, and my guess is that the politics of such a change would be disorderly and dramatic rather than with a planned transition.  So, just for a change, there wouldn’t be clear policy from the UK government.

And universities are bound by rules and regulations on this. See, for example, the University of Exeter, which has a very clear policy on fee status for EU accession candidates. If a country stopped being a member of the EU, then the natural consequence is that the students from that country would become, in terms of fee status, overseas. Universities can choose to set whatever fees they like, and so could continue to charge the home fee for such students, but since students would become ineligible for state funding, current Greek students would in any case face immediate financial uncertainty and pressure.

Visa status is a further uncertainty. Would Greek students need tier 4 visas? It would be tricky for the current government to be relaxed about this. My understanding is that the direction of UKVI policy is that overseas students who need a visa extension would be required to leave the UK to apply for the extension.  So overall my guess is that Greek students would need tier 4 visas; and would be asked to leave the UK in order to apply for such visas from outside. What chance that many would do this and come back?

This is obviously speculation – Greece hasn’t (yet) left the Euro and the EU, and maybe they won’t. But it might be worth universities checking how many students they have from Greece – if there’s a student support and a financial policy question coming, knowing the scale of it in advance might be wise.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Duff degrees

My recent reading on trips to and from a client has included the very informative and entertaining Degree Mills by “FBI Agent Allen Ezell (Retired) and John Bear PhD”.  It makes interesting reading, particularly alongside the news item last week about the government’s “crackdown on fake degrees”.
A good book. ISBN 978-1-61614-507-1

It seems that BIS has asked HEDD - Higher Education Degree Datacheck - “to proactively address issues concerning bogus institutions and the misuse of the word ‘university’ as well as to tackle the related area of degree fraud. It aims to reduce the burgeoning number of unaccredited institutions by increasing prosecutions through investigation and awareness-raising.”

The word University is a protected term within UK trade law, meaning, broadly, that if you use it without actually being a university you are liable for some sort of trouble. Exactly what trouble varies, as enforcement is usually down to trading standards teams within local authorities.

Compare this with the USA, where University is not a protected term, but those who run degree mills, when prosecuted, are prosecuted for fraud, with lengthy prison sentences.

Ezell and Bear’s book shows that there’s a real problem in the USA – with different approaches in individual states, and no monopoly accrediting body. Indeed, one of the interesting things that seems to be happening is that as well as degree mills (that is, organisations which sell degrees without requiring academic work) there are now also accreditation mills – fake accrediting agencies which give a veneer of respectability to degree mills.  And of course these can be one and the same operation.

The UK’s infrastructure in this respect is strong – the QAA does provide a good check on standards, and the Privy Council via HEFCE, is jealous of the term university. But there’s no room for complacency: the growth in private providers means that knowing all the UK degree awarders becomes more difficult, and if you’re not in the sector, how easy is it to tell if a place is a university?

The UK can be a plausible base for such operations: Ezell and Bear list institutions of which they are suspicious (25 pages of them in their book), and there’s a fair few in the UK. Here’s a selection to give a flavour: Abingdon University, Ashford University, Athenaeum University, Chelsea University, Lamberhurst University, Somerset University, University of Doncaster, Westhampton University. Now some of these look odd – but without looking on the web are you absolutely sure that some of these aren't legitimate?

Anther practice which encourages degree mills is the habit – which I, haven’t come across in the UK – of employment contracts which give a higher salary for a higher qualification. The financial benefit of having a master’s degree or a doctorate becomes very real, and the ROI for a fake degree – if you’re not found out – is pretty good.

Ezell and Bear have a chapter, though, which really works for me: Animals with degrees. As part of the prosecution, it seems that investigators have made a habit of buying degrees for animals. And so there’s a catalogue of qualified pets of various sorts – my favourite is Dr Zoe D Katze.  And if you kept a snake, wouldn’t it be great to have a Mamba, MA MBA?

Zoe D Katze, PhD
HEDD are doing an important service, and it’s good that BIS are making this a priority.  But unless the will to prosecute is there, is it going to make a huge difference? I know from experience that local authorities do not put tackling the production of fake degree certificates at the top of their priority list, and they’re getting ever more stretched. Time to treat degree fraud as a more serious crime?