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 …

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