Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Funding higher education in Scotland

Since mid-November, this blog has been silent, largely because I was still out in the Caribbean - specifically St Kitts and Nevis - working on the EU-funded technical assistance project mentioned in a couple of earlier posts. There just hasn't been enough time to keep up with what was going on in higher education back home in the UK, while also working on my project. Now I'm home - after a day's delay due to snow at Gatwick (and the Caribbean is not such a bad place to be stuck for an extra day!) - and have enjoyed a quiet, relaxing family Christmas, so the time has now come for me to start catching up.

And a lot has been happening while I have been away, with the English decision approving higher fees for undergraduates studying at English universities from academic year 2011-12, the Welsh Funding Council announcement that it expects the number of higher education institutions in Wales to fall in the next two-three years, Scottish and English Funding Council announcements on much tighter institutional budgets for the coming year and last - in Scotland - the recent publication by the Scottish government of a consultation paper on higher education funding in Scotland (the Russell Green Paper).

What really caught my eye this week, however, was an article in the latest Times Higher Education by Kate Smith, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University, in which she asserted, while referring to the above Green Paper: "Scotland must stand against tuition fees and preserve universal state-supported access to higher education or risk a return to Dickensian darkness". This is such a ridiculous statement, that I couldn't resist commenting on it here.

For a start, talk of 'Dickensian darkness' is just nonsense, whatever decisions are taken about funding Scottish higher education. Scotland has a good higher education system and some outstanding institutions, and that is not going to change in a hurry. It doesn't therefore seem to me very conducive to intelligent debate to have such apocalyptic warnings thrown around. Yes, of course, things could get difficult financially, and quite possibly some Scottish institutions might sooner or later need to restructure, merge, or even close down altogether in the coming years. But none of that, uncomfortable though it might well be, marks the end of civilisation as we know it.

The more sensible parts of Kate Smith's assertion really say two things, namely:
  • Anyone who is suitably qualified should be able to get a place at a Scottish university (I assume this is what she means by universal access);
  • Scottish universities should be funded by the Scottish government, with no use of fees levied on individual students (either up front; or deferred and income contingent as in the English system).
In the first of these points, the word 'anyone' is ambiguous. I assume it means anyone resident in Scotland, for otherwise Scotland might find itself offering free higher education to the entire EU, and perhaps even more widely. I don't think anyone seriously expects this to be Scottish policy. But then Ms Smith is apparently opposed to fees in general and is not happy about the idea that Scottish institutions might charge English students significant fees, even when Scottish students enjoy free access to higher education. However, what would then stop large numbers of English students from migrating north to enjoy good quality - and free - Scottish higher education? This is not clear.

The second point argues for government funding of the university sector, but in conjunction with the first point it seems to imply a disturbingly open-ended financial commitment. For if anyone suitably qualified can get a Scottish university place, and the government has to pay, then the scale of the Scottish higher education system is determined wholly by the effective student demand. In a world of shrinking budgets, this simply cannot make sense. No government, even in good times, would accept such an open-ended funding model, and in bad times it is completely out of the question.

So if the Scottish government accepts that there will be no fees - either up front or deferred - then surely it follows that it has to decide how large a higher education system it can afford to support. In other words, the scale of Scottish higher education - essentially determining how many students can be admitted each year - must be a government decision. Once the scale is determined, institutions would receive an allocation of places, and they would presumably determine whom to admit by setting suitable entry standards, sufficiently high to ration demand to the available places. One could argue that this would be a good way of gradually raising the academic standards across Scottish higher education, though it would be accompanied by a good deal of pain as some institutions down sized or possibly closed. On the other hand, I can imagine that some would see this as a rather elitist way of handling the current funding difficulties, something that the Scottish government might not be too happy about.

But again, if we are not to have fees for Scottish students, what are the alternatives? The only alternative that I can see is that our unit of resource - the amount we get from the Scottish Funding Council per student - could gradually be allowed to decline, enabling us to keep on admitting the same number of students as at present, or even more. However, the problem there is that it would be really hard to do that without drastically worsening the student experience, as we would have less and less resources for the sort of individual student-teacher contact that is so vital to effective higher education. Maintaining a reputation for high quality would be increasingly difficult under these conditions.

Hence my own - not necessarily very popular - conclusion is that we should either move towards a smaller, more elite higher education system in Scotland, fully funded by the government, or we start to accept the realities of life and adopt some form of fee-based system, preferably something like the English model with no up front fees and future repayments being income contingent - this seems to me very fair.

Monday, 15 November 2010

How to decide on academic promotions

The latest research findings on promotions practice could save us all a huge amount of trouble, and even save some resources.

For a recent study by three Italian researchers has shown that random promotion is pretty much as good as anything else we can come up with. Their analysis was based on a multi-level hierarchy in which, in each period, some promotions were going to take place, some people left the organisation, and new people came in at the bottom. At each hierarchical level, people were ranked according to their performance in the tasks needed for that level. And then selection for promotion could be based on choosing the best, the worst, or a random person at each level for promotion to the next level. If, as is often the case in real life, and demonstrably so in academia, the skills needed at one level of the hierarchy are not highly correlated with the skills needed one level higher, then good performance at one level is not a good predictor of how well someone would perform when promoted. Under such conditions, the finding that random promotion is pretty effective in terms of overall organisational performance is perhaps less surprising than one might have thought.

But what does this mean for the way we ought to handle promotions in a university? All that form filling, interviews, promotion boards and the like, is it all a waste of time and effort? Well, perhaps much of it is! For even with all the effort we put into the process, it's still quite common for people to ask, 'why did he get promoted this time?' and 'why didn't she succeed as expected?'. For despite all our efforts to be 'objective' and thorough, I'm sure there are still big elements of subjectivity in promotions exercises - we promote people like ourselves, we promote 'agreeable' people who don't make too many waves, we promote a 'safe pair of hands', sometimes we even take a risk and promote someone known to be outspoken and opinionated.

And do we always get it right? No, of course we don't. We can all think of folk who've been promoted and somehow flopped at their promoted level, not really delivered the goods. Equally, now and again there is the unexpected promotion, someone not thought to be 'ready', whatever that means, who rises to the challenge and does surprisingly well.

So if universities in the UK are coming under pressure to cut costs, here's an area where some savings could be made. Introduce random promotions, saving on HR and administrative costs 'at a stroke'.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Thinking about a small open economy

Sitting out here in St Kitts, as the Caribbean sun is setting, it's rather easy to see why people are attracted to come out here as tourists. So it's no surprise, when we study the economic structure, to find that tourism is one of the biggest sectors, in terms of the employment and income it generates for the local economy. However, the past couple of years, in the wake of the financial crisis and world recession, have been pretty grim, with visitor numbers and spend per visitor both well down and hotel occupancy rates very low. Naturally, everyone out here hopes this situation won't last too long, but the signs are quite mixed. On the one hand, the US and other major economies are slowly recovering from recession and that might soon bring more tourists back to the Caribbean, including St Kitts and Nevis; and visits by cruise liners did very well last month. On the other hand, some of the local facilities look a bit 'tired' and need more investment - though the best are wonderful - while some countries have raised taxes on long-haul flights (e.g. the UK, just last week). So as things stand right now, it's quite hard to predict how the tourism sector will develop.

Last weekend we managed a really interesting trip around the island of St Kitts, a total drive of just 30 miles, with nice views of the coast for most of the way and impressive views of the (dormant) volcano in the middle of the island as well. For lunch we stopped at a Plantation Inn, shown in the picture. Well kept grounds, ruins from the former sugar industry (finally shut down in 2005 when the EU changed its 'sugar regime'), and a great hotel; and a nice lunch, too.

Thinking more generally about the economy here, we're on a very small island with a highly open economy. Yet when we read various reports on the economy, as part of our project here, it's hard to find much that pays serious attention to foreign trade, either in goods or in services. It's hardly mentioned except in passing in routine reports on the economic situation. Yet there has to be some potential here for expanding exports both of goods (the island already has a successful niche in electronic components) and of services. On the latter, one surprise was to find several US universities established here, including a veterinary school and part of a medical school. These offshore education establishments appear to be doing well and must be contributing significantly to the island's GDP - except that this contribution is not yet being measured! It's not totally clear what has attracted these institutions here, which makes it hard to assess whether there is potential for further expansion; but we suspect there probably is. In any case, we'll soon visit one or two of these institutions to learn more about them.

Meanwhile, my colleague and I are extremely busy right now preparing material for our first training workshop, due next week. We've already written a lot but we're still debating exactly what we should present this time, and what to leave until December. Personally, I think it's vital that we emphasise the regional and international setting in which this small economy has to operate, and that includes highlighting some of the trade issues - and opportunities - which I've been thinking about this week.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The new world of fees, post-Browne

Since the recent publication of the Browne report on university funding in England, and the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), the whole way we need to think about fees and funding universities in England has undergone a sea change. So let me try to sketch how things now look for English higher education. Since the options and likely budgets for Scottish universities have not yet been announced (other than an announcement that Funding Council grants to institutions for the next financial year might fall by 16%), discussion of Scotland will have to wait. For now, I focus entirely on the evolving situation in England, with particular attention to the arrangements for undergraduate teaching.

We used to think of the fees charged to students - whether paid up front or deferred until after graduation - as a sort of 'top up' fee, implying that there would be some form of base funding in place. Up to the present that has certainly been the case, with institutional grants from HEFCE (The Higher Education Funding Council for England) providing several thousand pounds per undergraduate student (in amounts varying by broad subject area), based on approved student numbers. Indeed when fees first came into effect in England, one of the concerns was exactly over the point whether the new stream of fee income would genuinely be 'additional funding', which all universities said they badly needed; or whether the government might find a way of paring back the base funding coming through HEFCE, leaving only part of the fee income as a real addition to university budgets. For the most part, though, it seems that the government played fair and didn't try to manipulate funding streams too much, so most of the fee income did go to the universities.

All that is about to change, since the CSR was seriously bad news for English universities. For the Browne report envisaged a £3.2 billion cut in the annual teaching grant, with nothing going to the arts, humanities and social sciences; only the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects would still receive public funding to support undergraduate teaching. The CSR largely confirmed this position, with a £2.9 billion cut in funding by 2013-14. Official statements have since emphasised continuing government support for the STEM subjects, with no mention of funding for other subject areas.

Thus instead of fees being a handy 'top up', in future, in many subject areas, they will be the funding stream that pays for everything. I actually wonder how far universities really understood all this when they made their submissions to the Browne Review, including comments on the future fee levels they would like to see. For the existing fees of just over £3000 per student per year of study will soon be equivalent to a base fee of roughly £7000 - for once HEFCE's teaching grant for non-STEM subjects is removed, institutions will need to be levying a fee of around £7000 just to stand still financially. In that context, the government's announcement this week that it will allow fees to rise to the range £6000 to £9000 per student-year is less of a change, financially, than it appears to be. I can't see how any university can gain by charging a fee at the lower end of this range, and perhaps all will end up charging the maximum. We shall see, it all depends on how competition between institutions works out, in the new student-led environment. The last phrase is the critical one, for any institution that fails to attract the requisite student numbers will quickly be in deep trouble financially.

As for the students themselves, there will be loans available to enable the fees to be paid to institutions up front, when the teaching costs are being incurred, but students will only start to pay back the loans once they have graduated and are in jobs earning over £21,000 per year. The loans, however, will no longer be interest free; instead, interest will be charged at the rate of 3% above the rate of inflation each year. Any debt still outstanding after 35 years will be written off. Overall, this is not a bad model for the students, and I doubt whether its provisions will put many students off higher education.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The joys of European regulation

One of the big surprises, when I started working out here in St Kitts and Nevis, was the discovery that how we manage our working time seems to be regulated by various provisions of the European Working Time Directive (EWTD). I had no idea that EU rules like this actually extended this far!

We first encountered the question of the EWTD when the draft contract for this project was sent out to us, for we immediately realised that as it stood, it was technically impossible to fulfil it. Each of us working on the project is expected to deliver 60 days of input to the project (including, I think, the days of travel at the beginning and end), but the contract only allowed for a working week of five days, and we had to complete the contract in the period October 2nd to December 20th - a period that includes just 58 working days (including travel time). To give ourselves more flexibility, therefore, we formally requested the consulting firm for which we are working to allow us to work a six-day week, and this was conceded. There was no way we were going to be allowed to work seven days in a week - and that's not because the EU particularly cares whether we go to church on a Sunday, but more that officially they don't want us to overwork.

Anyway, the concession allowing us a six day week brought us up to 68 possible working days within the period, but in practice, I doubt whether we take off more than half a day each week, especially when it's taken into account that our 'official' working day is only supposed to be seven hours. In our view, all this strict regulation of the 'input' we deliver to the project is pretty silly, though I realise that we have to fill in time sheets at some point to verify which days we were working, which we were not. But we aren't allowed to tell the truth, as we cannot claim for seven days in any given week (as far as I understand the rules).

Moreover, what really matters, surely, is not the detailed regulation of our inputs, but the outputs we deliver to our client, namely the Government of St Kitts and Nevis. Our terms of reference make no mention of how much we work, beyond noting the requirement for 60 days' input from each of us, but are more concerned with what we do. We are expected to deliver an analysis of the macroeconomic framework, some training workshops and a training manual by the end of the project, which we shall do. In order to achieve these goals, I fully expect that our 'input' will exceed the 60 days for which we are formally contracted, and I don't suppose anyone really cares how much we actually work. In a sense that's our problem, and we simply have to manage our time to deliver what is needed.

Formally, the consulting firm employing us will be able to claim, at the end, that the requirements of the EWTD have been met, quite simply because we shall not be allowed to claim for days that violate the rules - whether we worked extra days or not. Naturally, we realise that whatever we do we shall only be paid for a maximum of 60 days each, but it seems a little strange to be working within a set of rules, on the one hand, and with terms of reference on the other which, taken together, will force us into some mildly dishonest practices (i.e. working when we're not supposed to).

But that's the EU for you - good intentions and well meaning regulation, with unexpected side effects in situations like ours where we basically have to complete some specific tasks, and where the bottom line is that no one really cares how much we actually have to work to achieve that. And nor should they.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Yet another silly acronym!

The last few weeks have been rather busy because of my project on St Kitts and Nevis, which continues to be absolutely fascinating. I've been getting on with reading papers and reports, thinking about the material collected from lots of interviews, and starting to write big chunks of what will eventually be our report on the macroeconomic framework. I suppose I'm doing what I've often advised my students to do, namely to get on with the writing quite early in the project, partly because it is always good for the morale to start generating some 'output', partly because it helps to identify gaps and weaknesses in our argument - and in this case, it's good preparation for our next round of meetings.

The result, though, is that I've had little time to update this blog, a pity as lots of interesting things have been happening recently in the higher education world. However, this weekend I'm trying to catch up a little. And I've just been reading a few short policy papers circulated by e-mail around my department back home, one of which contains the fascinating acronym, EPCR. Apparently our academics should now be taking this on as one of their responsibilities, but luckily, as I'm essentially retired, it doesn't really apply to me. So what does this strange new acronym actually mean?

Well, EPCR means 'employability and professional career readiness', rather a mouthful as you'll agree. I'm not exactly sure what else it means beyond what we normally do in terms of teaching courses, imparting some useful transferable skills, and so on. More importantly, I find myself worrying a little that this new responsibility is seemingly ours rather than our students'. After all, who is it who actually needs a career when they graduate from the university? Surely it is our students, now transformed into fresh graduates, and surely that means it is they who have the incentive to make sure they have the skills, competences, or whatever they need to prepare them for their various careers. Of course we can provide help, support, guidance, as needed, but I must admit to being quite sceptical about the idea of EPCR beoming a new academic responsibility. It has the feel of the latest fad, and I imagine it will fade away when the next 'big idea' comes along.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Browne Review: Implications for Scotland

The long-awaited Browne review on higher education funding in England - Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education - was published today, and it makes fascinating reading. There are not really any big surprises, but there is strong confirmation of some proposals that have already been aired in the media for some months now, all set in a well developed framework.

The 'big idea' in the report, if I can put it that way, is to lift the current cap on the fees that universities can charge for undergraduate courses. In fact, it is proposed that the current £3000 cap should be removed all together, so that universities will be free to charge whatever they wish. However, if they choose to charge more than £6000, they will be taxed on the excess, to ensure that institutions are less likely to set fees that cannot be sustainably financed. No up front fees will be required from students and loans will be available to cover both fees and living costs, repayable over 30 years (maximmum), interest being levied at the government's basic rate. repayments are only made when the graduate's income exceeds £21,000 (as against the present threshold of £15,000).

The report places great emphasis on informed student choice and sees competition between institutions as helpful for driving quality improvements in teaching and the student experience more generally. At the same time, the proposed new funding model is expected to raise participation somewhat, in part by offering the same funding conditions for part-time students as full-time ones would enjoy, a long overdue improvement.

At a time of severe public spending cuts - with major announcements due from Government very soon when the spending review is published - something along the lines of the Browne Review was very much to be expected. And it may even be good for many English universities, once fully implemented. What a pity then that Mike Russell, Scotland's education minister, instantly reacted to Browne by restating his vehement opposition to up front fees in Scotland. Apparently various ideas for university funding in Scotland are being considered, but it seems they are not to involve fees. Again, with spending cuts looming on the horizon, it doesn't seem very wise to exclude in advance a major potential source of funding for universities. After all, where else can the money come from?

Of course it's perfectly possible that, as spending cuts start to bite in Scotland, some very serious reforms will be forced on the university sector - such as restructuring degree programmes to shorten them by a year, possibly some institutional mergers or even closures. Such changes might even be desirable under some circumstances, but surely it's not ideal to have them come about under severe financial pressure. They are better considered more carefully, and implemented slowly. So please, let's stop the nonsense of asserting that 'fees have no place in Scotland', and let's have a more sensible debate about university funding, ruling out nothing.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Off to the Caribbean

Retirement is not quite working out as planned.

For in the past month or so I’ve found myself undertaking trips to Dubai (teaching at our campus there) and then a few days in Budapest (for some academic business at the Institute of Economics) – see my recent postings for more on these ventures. And now I’m out in the Caribbean, working with a colleague on an EU-funded project to advise on the macroeconomic framework for St Kitts and Nevis. So far, we’ve been out here for just a week, and the project runs until a week before Christmas. It’s going to be a busy few weeks, with lots of people to meet, data to collect, reports to write and training to deliver.

Why do I do these crazy things, I sometimes wonder. Well, one reason is simply that I like travel, especially when it involves visiting somewhere new and different; and it’s even better, of course, if someone else is willing to pay. The downside of that is that I then have to do some work to justify getting paid, but the old brain still seems to be functioning quite well, so that’s not too bad really. Indeed, with luck this latest project will turn out to be both interesting and quite challenging, the best kind of work.

Another reason for doing these trips is more practical, namely that at home we have lots of animals, quite a diverse mix in fact; and from time to time we run up shockingly high vet bills. Since both my wife (Cindy) and I are from a generation that was brought up to be very cautious financially, and to avoid debts wherever possible, we’re not keen to allow our savings to run down too much to pay vet bills. Hence I take on extra projects from time to time to supplement my pension, so we can manage more comfortably. In the longer term, as Cindy’s children’s writing takes off and she earns more herself, I shall be able to take more of a back seat – supporting her, but otherwise working and travelling much less.

What about St Kitts, and our work here? The place is quite small, two islands and a total population of around 50,000. Thus it’s a very small country, with a medium level of income, about US$ 10,000 per capita. Each island has a large mountain in the centre, old volcanoes, no longer active as far as I know. St Kitts being small, the sea is never far away, though until yesterday it wasn’t terribly welcoming. In fact this didn’t feel like the Caribbean for the first few days, as we mostly had wind, rain and even some localised flooding; offices closed early on Thursday so people could get home. Finally yesterday the sun came out and I managed my first swim once we had finished our meetings for the day – a wonderful end to the week!

While here we are based at the Ministry of Sustainable Development – see first picture. People there are proving amazing helpful and friendly so we’re accumulating lots of reports and data to support our work, with quite a few meetings already set up for next week. The Ministry is on the edge of the tiny capital, Basseterre. We’re only about five minutes’ drive from the town centre – see second picture; so it doesn’t take long to slip out for lunch and other local business, as needed. We haven’t had time yet to get out of town, but might manage a short trip during the weekend. If so, that might be something for my next posting.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Can we learn anything from World University rankings?

In the last few weeks a lot of attention has been paid to some new World University rankings. First came the QS rankings, based on a variety of indicators to do with research quality, success in placing graduates in the job market, teaching quality, and measures of how international the student body and academic staff were. None of these indicators is very easy to measure in an objective way, and it is therefore virtually certain that elements of subjectivity and even perhaps outright bias will have crept into the evaluations. That said, Cambridge University came top, followed by Harvard, Yale, UCL, MIT and the University of Oxford.

Second, the Times Higher Education (THE) magazine’s own rankings were published. The underlying methodology for these has been revamped this year, supposedly to make the rankings more ‘rigorous, transparent and reliable’. The result is to place Harvard first, followed by CalTech, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, with Cambridge and Oxford Universities coming in joint sixth. The UK has just five of the top 50 universities in the world, the USA has 72 of the top 200. Nevertheless, the rankings show that the UK university system retains overall second place in the world after the USA.

But what are we to make of these rankings, and can they tell us anything interesting or useful about either individual universities or national university systems?

Judging from the diverse correspondence and articles written for THE, Guardian Education, and elsewhere in the past two-three weeks, lots of folk think these new rankings should be treated with considerable scepticism. One point made quite often is that since universities are so diverse, it can’t make sense to evaluate and compare them using a single set of indicators. Part of the problem is that there is no agreement over what an ideal university ‘ought’ to look like, and beyond that there are still diverse views about how to measure different dimensions of university performance. And the latter problem gets even worse when we acknowledge the different practices that prevail in different disciplines, making the whole picture hard to get hold of without risk of ambiguity and confusion.

Needless to say, institutions that get a high ranking, or a markedly improved ranking, are inclined to react positively to the ranking exercise, while those that come out less well tend to be more dismissive. That's all very understandable, though it doesn't seem to me to reflect a particularly intellectually respectable standpoint. For surely if someone thinks these ranking exercises are worthwhile, they should not be influenced by their own position in the outcome; and likewise for those who are hostile to the rankings. To oppose or support the rankings people need sound general arguments, not personal prejudice!

For what it's worth, my own view is that the rankings do tell us something interesting, at the very least in a broad-brush sense. The rankings, for all their evident shortcomings, do tell us roughly where the best institutions are to be found and which they are. And while one could argue for hours about whether some institution should be at position 52 or position 39, there isn't much at stake in arguments at that level. What matters more, surely, is whether some institution is ranked in the top 50, or the top 100, say, and whether it seems to be holding position, improving, or slipping back. Moreover, the country-level distribution of top class universities provides some intriguing information - thus, for instance, the world's two largest countries (in population terms), China and India, include remarkably few of the best universities, though both are advancing as they put more resources into higher education. Most of Africa has far too little money to invest heavily in universities, despite many recent reports advising on the need to do so to boost labour-force skills. And despite its impressive historical record of starting some of the oldest universities and fostering high-level learning over many centuries, the modern Muslim world also has almost no world-class universities. One hopes that is not a situation that will last for much longer.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Evaluating research – Hungary

Hungary is easily my favourite country in Eastern Europe, and Budapest my favourite city, in both cases probably because I have been so often, know the place well, and have many good friends and colleagues there. So a few months ago, I was delighted when the Hungarian Academy of Sciences invited me to join a new committee they were setting up, namely the External Advisory Board (EAB) for the Academy’s Institute of Economics. Like many things that academics do, this is not a paid position, but the Institute does cover the expenses to get me out to Budapest for meetings. And the first meeting of the EAB took place in Budapest earlier this week.

Accommodation was arranged for me at a guest-house of the Academy, located in the old Castle District of the city, though when we got to the designated address my taxi driver didn’t believe it could be right, as it looked like an ordinary house or apartment building, albeit dating from the 18th century. Luckily, a tiny sign beside the imposing solid wooden door read, ‘MTA Vendégház’, confirming that we were at the right place. Once inside, the welcome was friendly, facilities were fine, and all was well.

Next day our EAB meeting took place at the building that houses the Institute of Economics, a truly horrible concrete edifice whose sole redeeming feature is that once inside, it affords – at least when looking west – lovely views of the southern end of the Buda Hills. We were there to assess the Institute’s annual report for 2009 and to offer advice on its research strategy, but naturally I cannot comment on such things here since our formal business is confidential between the Academy, the EAB itself, and the Institute. However, I can say that the quality of the Institute’s work, and its leading researchers, bears no relation to the quality of their building; they do lots of quite outstanding research and many researchers at the institute have well established international profiles. Given that, it is always a pleasure to visit the Institute, and it was nice, while there, to encounter several researchers I know well from previous visits.

Just like universities in the UK, the Institute faces severe funding pressures these days, and this is forcing it to diversify into more ‘commercial’ types of research and research-related service provision simply to balance the budget. I imagine that some researchers, who are used to the more old fashioned, traditional model whereby they could spend a lot of time ‘sitting and thinking’, must find such trends quite uncomfortable and unwelcome. But again, just as with us, funding pressures are not going to go away, and we all have to find ways to live with them.

What about Budapest itself? As ever, it is a lively city, with lots of tourists still wandering around, both individually and in orderly groups. Some older buildings, such as the main cathedral on the Castle District, are undergoing restoration, and some major construction projects are also on going, notably the fourth metro line, Metro 4. Otherwise, everything seems as normal, except for one surprise when I went down to Moscow Square, a major public transport hub (metro, buses and trams all link up there). For I discovered that my favourite tram-line, the number 56, no longer exists! This is the tram I’ve taken for decades when going out to the Buda Hills – it went all the way out to a little place called Hüvösvölgy towards the northern end of the Hills. Although on this trip I had no time, sadly, to visit the Hills, I was relieved to see that the route of another tram, the number 61, has been extended to go out there. So next time…….

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Open learning and new technology

According to the latest higher education conference (September, 2010) held at the OECD, Paris, the traditional university is coming under threat from the new challenges posed by open learning and new technology. Supposedly, the entire 'structure of the modern university' is facing a massive challenge, and we are apparently far too preoccupied with our more immediate funding worries to pay any attention. But I do wonder whether this apocalyptic vision of the university sector is quite right, and speaking personally, and more positively, I actually think that the traditional model of the university still has a lot going for it. It's perfectly true that we shouldn't go on doing something just because it's 'what we've always done', but in the case of higher education it does seem to me that how we do things does in important ways accord well with modern theories of learning.

So what about all this wonderful new technology, what can this do for us? By technology, of course, people mean the internet and modern IT facilities; and for sure they already make a massive difference in universities, not so much in what we do but in how we deliver our teaching. Thus even the most traditional of courses will have most teaching material on line, together with follow up exercises, essay questions, past examination papers and other useful resources. Indeed most of our students take such provision for granted these days, not unreasonably. Mostly the material we teach is made available on the university intranet, specifically on our virtual learning environment (VLE), rather than being posted for completely open access. What this means is that within the framework of a very traditional structure of university degree programmes, the most modern of IT services are now widely used to enhance our teaching, and hopefully to enhance the teaching experience as perceived by our students.

Such an application of modern IT facilities, however, in no way detracts from the fact that we still operate with quite a traditional model of the university - as a community of scholars. Thus although we make heavy use of IT, we still think that our students need to talk to each other and with members of academic staff. I suspect that only quite a small fraction of our students could manage successfully without the support and structure provided by our standard degree programmes. We don't just see our students as individual learners, but as part of a learning community. For most, this is vital.

For more mature students, including some of those who are very sure what they want to do and who are strongly self motivated, open learning is probably an attractive alternative to the traditional university; and the numbers of such students will undoubtedly rise as more and more people seek flexible approaches to study and learning. Fine. But that is surely a far cry from the claim that the traditional university has pretty much had its day.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Signs of intelligent life in Scotland!

At last, the so far very muted debate on higher education funding in Scotland is starting to get interesting, stimulated by an article in today's Scotsman newspaper by Lord Sutherland, former Principal of Edinburgh University.

Until today, all we've heard has been the refrain, 'no fees for Scottish students', coming from the Scottish Government, with a few recent hints that funding pressures might lead to some form of graduate tax. Deep down, when they think about it, everyone can see that a continuation of the current 'no fees' policy is just nonsense, and in an era of tough spending cuts it will not prove sustainable - unless we are seriously willing to contemplate the closure quite soon of some major Scottish higher education institutions. However, I don't see that that is currently on anyone's agenda, though I would not be greatly surprised if the next few years gave rise to institutional mergers here and there.

As for the graduate tax idea, touted about both in England, and to a lesser extent up here in Scotland, that, too, should be rejected outright. For a start, it takes a while for payments of graduate tax to build up to meaningful sums, so institutions needing more cash now will be disappointed. Also, there are unresolved issues over who should pay such a tax, for how long, and on what terms. For instance, should the tax just go with the status of being a graduate, or would the payment depend on the subject studied, the class of degree, the university attended, or any other such readily observable indicators? We don't yet know any of this. Moreover, unless such a tax were introduced for the whole of the UK, Scottish students might evade it by simply moving south. Administrative aspects of a graduate tax also seem quite tricky, I think, though I daresay we could make it work if we were sufficiently determined. However, in the UK, as I noted in an earlier post, we don't normally collect taxes for a specific purpose, such as higher education, so how could we ever know that all the tax collected as graduate tax was truly passed on to the universities? And who would decide how much each institution got?

A further complication has to do with EU rules. As these stand at present, member states are allowed to discriminate within the state, but not at all between states. Thus if Scotland chose to operate, say, a graduate tax for Scottish-domiciled students, it could still choose to charge fees to English students. However, it could not legally charge fees to students from other EU member states, as they would have to get the same deal as Scottish students. But then how could we collect the tax from, say, a Latvian student? So in effect, Scotland could end up providing virtually free higher education to students from other EU member states. Not a great idea, surely?

And this is why Lord Sutherland's ideas come across as so refreshing. For he cuts through all the verbiage clouding the current Scottish 'debate' and comes right to the point, arguing for fees to be determined course-by-course by each institution, with no arbitrarily imposed cap. This is absolutely the right way to go. Contrary to popular opinion, evidence from various countries (e.g. Australia, the US) shows that fees have little impact on HE participation by disadvantaged groups. Other arguments often raised against fees are also not too hard to dispose of. Thus there is no need, in a well designed scheme, for fees to be paid up front, but universities can still get their money early by using the private financial markets - through bond issues and the like. There is no need to boost public sector indebtedness. Likewise, what students pay back can be made income-contingent, just as in the present very sensible English scheme.

With luck, therefore, Lord Sutherland's article plus the Scotsman's supportive editorial comment will give rise to a more intelligent debate about university funding in Scotland than we have witnessed to date.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Managing academic staff

It has always seemed to me that managing academic staff and getting the best/most work out of them must be a totally thankless task. After all, why become an academic if you’re happy to have someone telling you what to do? The whole attraction – for me, at least, and I think for many of my generation – is that being an academic working in a university meant that aside from the basic teaching duties that everyone had to do, no one really hassled you about anything else. Hence it was possible to get on with doing research on anything that took your fancy, however obscure. If that just involved reading, thinking and writing, it didn’t even cost anything; and if it involved collecting data, interviewing people, and travel, then you could always apply for a research grant to do what you wanted. Either way, no one told you what to do. And where else could you get a job that offered such remarkable freedom?

But nowadays, a variety of fairly dire management practices have been creeping into our universities and spreading their tentacles far and wide. I’m quite sure, from talking to colleagues elsewhere, that my own institution, Heriot-Watt University, is neither better nor worse than many other places, but since it’s the place I know best it’s the one I report on here.

Now, in an earlier post I did mention some of the bizarre management-speak that has already reached us, with our PDR system (Performance and Development Review) set up to monitor staff performance through setting targets periodically and then reviewing their fulfilment via interviews with line managers. I suppose these systems are not fundamentally bad, but they are quite costly in terms of staff time and effort – filling in the necessary forms, participating in interviews, and so on. So for me, such systems can therefore only be justified economically if it can be shown that they give rise to marked and measurable improvements in overall academic staff performance (sufficient to justify the costs of operating the systems). Unfortunately, I’m aware of no solid evidence to demonstrate this.

The latest notion, circulated to all staff this week, is the idea that we should be thinking in terms of Performance Excellence (yes, capitalised – but I have no idea, as yet, what it’s supposed to mean), and there will even be Performance Excellence Expectations linked, apparently, to the Spirit of Heriot-Watt. It sounds pretty exciting stuff and I can hardly wait to find out whether it means anything of much relevance to what folk actually do in their jobs. Meanwhile, I’ll watch out for this mysterious spirit that might be lurking in the corridors….

This all makes me wonder, though, how we managed academic staff in the old days before these wonderful new management systems came along to ‘help’ us. The answer, I would have to admit, is generally ‘not very well.’ Given that, it’s easy to see why our top-level managers might imagine that introducing the new systems mentioned above ought to improve things, though personally I remain unconvinced that we are moving in the right direction. Let me explain.

Just over a decade ago, I was for about two and a half years the first head of our newly formed School of Management (expanded in 2002 to the School of Management and Languages, or SML). It would not be inaccurate to say that the three departments coming together back then were a bit reluctant, and not many people were really all that enthusiastic about the new venture. But no matter, it happened, and we made it work. More relevant to this post, when I was first appointed a surprising number of my colleagues would stop me in the corridor and say things like ‘right, now you can sort out X’, X being a colleague widely regarded as extremely lazy and unproductive. And the same X was drawn to my attention by many different people.

So how did I deal with this reported ‘problem’. First, I looked in X’s personnel file and found precisely nothing. In other words, not a single complaint about X had found its way into his file, neither from students nor from colleagues. Second, I sought advice from the university’s then HR director about how to proceed, and was advised that if I was minded to discipline anyone in any way at all, I would need to assemble extensive paperwork documenting the person’s alleged misdemeanours and shortcomings. Third, I duly followed the HR advice over a period of several months and did indeed assemble quite a pile of paper reporting things like unexplained absences, missed teaching, unavailability to students, failure to complete assigned administrative tasks, and so on. I also held some informal discussions with the person concerned to draw his attention to various issues about his work. Fourth, I took the pile of paper back to HR and asked how I could proceed in regard to initiating disciplinary action against X. They told me in no uncertain terms that I had nothing like enough paper to support my case, and that I could take no action. At that point, I concluded that I had better things to do with my life, and abandoned the venture in disgust. A year or two later, X was awarded a rather generous early retirement deal by the university, which disgusted me even more. But at least he was finally out of the system.

But what a shockingly bad way to manage academic staff. Did no one think what a terrible message this conveyed to other staff, namely that nothing all that terrible would happen even if you chose to be bone idle. Appalling! Or perhaps at that time our HR people just wanted a quiet life and didn’t want any trouble from the unions, etc. I don’t know for sure, though I have my suspicions. And I do wonder whether our HR people now are any tougher than they used to be then. I certainly hope they are rather more robust these days.

While this discussion has indicated how bad we were at dealing with underperforming staff, I’m afraid we have not been notably better at rewarding exceptionally good performance. True, sometimes a junior academic might gain promotion relatively early, or might occasionally be awarded a merit increment or two. So rewards for these staff have not been uniformly zero, but they have generally been very small. Likewise for senior staff, those already at the professorial level, there is provision for either salary increases and/or merit awards, the latter being tiny bonuses – in my own case I have never received a bonus that exceeded 3% of my basic annual salary (which might mean, of course, that I was never especially deserving, though at times I was told that I had done exceptionally well). Luckily, productive academics are not motivated solely by financial rewards, for if we were the university would never elicit good performance from any of us.

Overall, therefore, universities seem to have a very strange reward system in which there is usually no penalty for the most blatant of underperformance, and at best a modest reward for outstanding performance. Given this, it’s amazing that most people work as well and as hard as they do! Now, how do we expect our PDR system and its new variants to change any of this? It’s not clear to me that it’s really offering more reward to those who do well, except perhaps a few kind words from the Head of School – and I must admit that such personal recognition is sometimes appreciated. And how will the PDR system affect those who work less hard and deliver much less? I suspect very little. For all those in the middle, already working quite well, it will surely just be an unwelcome additional burden, with little impact on what they actually do. This curious mix of weak financial incentives and an over-bureaucratic PDR system is surely not the best staff management framework we can come up with.

After thinking about all this, I’m almost tempted to open a management textbook to see what pearls of wisdom I might uncover there!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

And now for the video……

Just to explain a bit more what we do at our Dubai campus, take a look at this YouTube video clip showing Michael Clarke, our Head of Management in Dubai, being interviewed recently. The clip is added to my blog with his permission.


I meant to add this clip to my blog a couple of days ago, but unfortunately a tree fell down on the green in our little village and cut our phone connection – so no phone line, no internet connection. Impressively, our local council came along to cut up and remove the tree and this was all done by 10am the next morning; fixing the phones took somewhat longer, naturally. It’s amazing how cut off one suddenly feels, especially as not even my mobile phone works from home since we live in quite a deep valley and no signal reaches us here. Luckily, I’m not one of the most sociable of people and don’t really mind being incommunicado for a little while.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

More on Dubai

As I start writing this post, I’ve now completed four days’ teaching out here in sunny Dubai, but it turned out that the last day and a half were rather compressed, as my last day here has actually been declared to be a holiday. The first picture here shows a general view of the campus where the two buildings we use are located.

Having lost a day of my scheduled teaching time, I did my best to cover as much of the material as I could in the available time. This wasn’t ideal, but there wasn’t much option. As far as I could judge, the students coped well, and in any case I did leave them with copies of the teaching material I used, plus diverse references and web-links to enable them to follow up and consolidate what we covered. They can also e-mail me if they need further advice.

But why was a holiday suddenly announced? It was called to mark the end of Ramadan, the Eid holiday. But this is not a fixed date, and the month of Ramadan does not appear to have a fixed length either. To determine the ‘correct’ date for the start of the Eid holiday, the government establishes a very high-level moon-sighting committee to judge when the moon will attain exactly the right configuration. As soon as this committee makes its judgement and reports back, the date is then announced publicly. Civilian life then adjusts accordingly, and that includes shutting down the university at short notice. But that’s fine, it’s an important aspect of the culture out here, so naturally it must be respected.

The result, for me, is that I get an extra day to look around, and since I’ve never been here before, that’s not at all bad. My plan is to visit the Dubai Museum, take a look at the Creek and the old markets in that area, and then see what else I have time or inclination to do, bearing in mind the intense heat – so I probably won’t want to be out and about much in the middle of the day. And anyway, when it’s just too hot to be outdoors, I have various bits of work to catch up with, so the day certainly won’t be wasted. The second picture shows that I did get to the Museum, which was actually more interesting than I had been told.

Having done one short spell of teaching here, it seems that Heriot-Watt might want me to come out and do some more teaching to a larger postgraduate class, instead of the small undergraduate group I had this time. That could be a lot of fun – also a lot of work, naturally – so I’ll quite likely agree to come out in February. It’ll be cooler then, and walking around will be much pleasanter than it is right now. By then, too, there should be some significant progress with our new buildings, and that will be interesting to see.

After one short visit, how do I assess Dubai? Well, even though I’d seen lots of pictures before coming, nothing really prepares you for the scale of the place, and the rapid pace of change even during this recession. Similarly, though I’ve visited universities in many places, I’ve never been to one in the middle of a desert – definitely a novelty for me. On the other hand, until this week I’ve also never been anywhere near a desert without seeing a single camel. People tell me there are some wild camels in some places, so maybe next time…….. Last, just seeing this incredible place and reading a little about it while here makes me want to read lots more about this region of the Middle East, so when I come back I’ll hopefully have a better understanding of how it works.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Building castles in the sand…..

What an amazing place Dubai is, built from almost nothing in barely a couple of decades, with tall buildings, supposedly 7-star hotels, and incredible infrastructure. The latter includes 6-8 lane superhighways, and a newly finished extremely elegant looking metro system – only one line at present, more to come when the economy picks up speed again (sadly, this all makes the endless delays in Edinburgh’s little tram system seem extremely petty). And how did all this massive development in Dubai take place? Was it the result of cautious investors doing the sort of expected profit calculations we teach to our students? Surely not! Rather, someone had a vision, allied with the will to make it all happen and the ability to raise the needed finance. It’s all about what Keynes long ago, and quite rightly, termed the ‘animal spirits’ of investors.

So here I am, over here to spend a week teaching research methods to a small group of students at Heriot-Watt’s Dubai campus, part of the Dubai International Academic City (DIAC). DIAC is located at the edge of Dubai city proper, and is mostly surrounded by desert – so very much a case of building castles in the sand. The first picture was taken from just outside one of our buildings, looking across the road.

The two buildings we use in DIAC are both more attractive and actually feel more solid than many of our buildings back home, interestingly. The second picture shows the one where I was doing my teaching. And our staff out here are unfailingly friendly and helpful, making for excellent conditions for the short-term visitor such as myself. True, it’s a bit warm, with outside temperatures in the low 40s Centigrade, but as I’m here to work that doesn’t really matter, as indoors everything is air conditioned. In any case, I don’t think this is a place I would especially want to visit as a tourist, though clearly lots of people wouldn’t agree with me. The tourism business here apparently does very well.

Becoming an advanced education hub for the Middle East is just one of Dubai’s ambitious goals, and a number of western universities have signed up to the concept and established facilities out here. It’s not an easy business, as students have to be recruited, good quality courses offered and run, and academic standards maintained. At the same time, costs obviously have to be kept down so the whole operation can be viable. Getting all this right is quite tough, but having been here several years already, Heriot-Watt seems to be managing. For our students out here, getting a good British degree still carries a certain cachet, and that definitely helps. So much so in fact, that we’ve just started work on some new buildings that will, in not much over a year, boost our capacity in Dubai to 4500 students. Indeed our own Principal was so enthusiastic about the whole thing that he recently came out here to operate a digger to get the construction properly under way. Perhaps even academics can experience just the same ‘animal spirits’ as other investors.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Does learning a foreign language matter?

In the olden days when I first went to university, I had to have an 'O'-level pass in Latin in order to be admitted. At the time, I don't recall thinking how unfair that was, or how onerous, for it was just a fact of life. So anyone wanting to go to Cambridge just got on and did it, without making a big deal of it. Nowadays, of course, not only is Latin no longer a requirement, nor is any foreign language qualification at all. Aside from language courses themselves, my understanding is that knowledge of and qualifications in a foreign language are no longer a requirement for entry to any UK university. This reflects the general view in the UK that learning languages is not, or is no longer, considered to be all that important, and decisions by education ministers a few years ago to make language learning no longer compulsory up to age 16 (GCSE stage).

But as lots of recent press correspondence indicates, many people do still think that language learning is important for young people in the UK, and I suspect that lots of them would like to see a foreign language becoming a compulsory part of the national curriculum once more. Indeed some have even proposed making a foreign language qualification a requirement for university entry. While I wouldn't necessarily go that far, there are some important issues here that need wider discussion and debate.

For a start, the attitude that 'languages don't matter' is surely bad for the UK's standing in the world and, more practically, its ability to do business effectively. Sure, we can always import people with language skills when we need them, and we already do so on a large scale. But what impression does it make on a German firm, say, if the people they meet when doing business with a UK firm are actually German nationals (with good English, naturally) hired by that firm; or even worse, if the people they meet just assume that 'everyone speaks English'? It's true that English has become a sort of lingua franca for doing business anywhere in the world, but even so it does seem rather arrogant to take that for granted and not bother learning the language of one's trading partners. In contrast, wherever I go in Eastern Europe or elsewhere, most reasonably well educated people regard learning two or three languages as the norm - language learning starts early, is frequently supplemented by private tuition, and standards are high.

Second, there are strong cultural arguments for learning a foreign language. Education is not just about picking up skills and knowledge that will be useful in the job market, though all too often it is presented that way nowadays. For in addition to such immediately practical matters, it is surely also about understanding our place in the world - geographically, historically, politically, culturally and so on; and about understanding how our world works - hence science, engineering, etc. Foreign languages fit into this broader picture of education because they provide access to the culture and history of other countries, through learning to read their literature, their newspapers, or whatever.

Not only that, but even a very modest knowledge of a foreign language enables one to function practically when visiting the country, and in many countries people are delighted when visitors take the trouble to use the local language - it helps to break down barriers, and to make new friends.

Third, I think there are also huge intellectual arguments for learning foreign languages, which I would sum up briefly as follows: (a) it's hard to get far with a foreign language without learning a good deal of grammar, and that can have enormously beneficial effects on the learner's ability to think and write in English; (b) a little like mathematics, foreign language learning necessarily involves discipline, logic and accuracy - you have to get things right, and can't get away with waffle and general chat as is apparently possible in some other subjects. So as mental training, learning a foreign language is an excellent vehicle. And (c) because learning a foreign language is perceived in the UK to be 'difficult', successfully doing so and achieving a good level has to have beneficial effects on the learner's self confidence, something that is invaluable when doing almost anything else in life that is difficult and demanding.

Overall, then, we are surely immensely foolish as a nation to have allowed foreign language learning to decline as badly as it has in recent years, and to have allowed the standard of what we do teach also to decline quite markedly. It's time we started reviving the teaching of modern languages, and the sooner the better.

As for me, although I did Latin at school (as well as French and German) and was quite good at it, I don't remember liking it very much at the time. However, there's no particular reason to think that school syllabuses should be designed to ensure that we should like everything we do, that's just silly, a bit naive - the 'fun' theory of education. But nowadays, when I visit Roman monuments and see old inscriptions, it's quite spine tingling to be able to have a bash at reading them - usually I can figure out about half of any given inscription, enough to get the gist; I can't remember enough Latin to manage better than that. But even to experience such a tenuous connection with our ancient civilization is pretty amazing, making all the drudgery of learning Latin in the first place more than worthwhile. So let's bring back Latin!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Access to University for Children in Care

It is well known that in the UK, the state is a terrible parent, particularly when it comes to educating young people in care and preparing them for the world of work.

A shockingly high proportion of our children in care leave school with no formal qualifications whatsoever, and I read recently that barely 1% of such children managed to get to university in 2003, rising a little to 5% in the last few years. This compares to over 40% of the general population of young people going on to higher education. Now, it is possible that a high proportion of children in care come from social groups where education, in any case, is not greatly valued, so one could argue that even if they had stayed with their families this group might not have done very well. But frankly that is nonsense, and at best a feeble excuse for seriously bad performance by our care system. From what I read, German children in care - often looked after in family group homes - do immensely better than ours.

Children in care in this country generally leave the care system at age 18 and thereafter have little or no public support - financial, emotional and otherwise. This contrasts with most of our undergraduates who have family homes to go back to in the holidays, families who will provide lots of emotional and financial support whenever it is needed, and a supportive environment that values what they are doing and achieving. None of that is available to most children leaving care - they are largely on their own. Given that, it is perhaps not too surprising that few get to university, and that when they do they struggle.

So how could we improve this shockingly bad situation, that deprives many young people of really important life chances - not through any fault of their own or as a result of any formal prohibition, but sadly, as a result of official indifference and lack of support and encouragement? A few ideas occur to me, but there must be many other things that could be done.

(1) Perhaps most useful would be to establish networks of people willing to act as long-term voluntary mentors of children in care, supporting their education and encouraging ambition, achievement, working for longer term goals. Ideally, any given young person should have the same mentor for a number of years to foster consistency of approach and to facilitate the building of strong relationships. I might remark in this connection that with this idea in mind I approached two of my local councils a little while ago, through their social services departments. One never replied, the other replied positively, arranged one meeting, then the whole idea 'died'. This cannot be the best we can do!

(2) We could end the practice of just 'abandoning' young people in care when they reach age 18. After all, most young people in families, even those who feel quite independent, actually need and receive quite a lot of support for several years thereafter (though they don't often like to admit it) - and it's always nice to know that one's family is 'there' in case of urgent need. Young people, I think, need a mix of regular, routine support, plus the knowledge that in emergency there is always someone available to help them. Such knowledge helps to build the confidence to take on long-term projects, such as getting properly educated and going to university. Not many of us could do that without at least the assurance of support in the background.

(3) We need to find better ways of supporting young people financially, not particularly by handing out social security to support idleness, which is unproductive for everyone; but by supporting all forms of apprenticeship, further and higher education for those in care and for those who recently left the care system. Young people often need proper incentives to work, to seek more education, and funding mechanisms should be set up with that in mind.

(4) People who have been in care quite often want to take up education a bit later in life, perhaps 10 or 15 years after they left the care system. At the moment we don't make this very easy for them, I understand - we should be more generous financially, more helpful in enabling these people to find routes to suitable courses or training programmes.

(5) Last, what can universities do? We already accept students who come to us through unconventional routes, for instances via various access courses that prepare for university people who didn't do well at school at the normal time, for whatever reason. That's a good start. And I imagine that in the future more of our programmes will be taught in more flexible ways then they are now - mixes of full-time and part-time study, evening and/or weekend classes, various forms of distance learning, transferable credits (so people can do their study at more than one institution), and so on. All this will help to make university-level study more accessible to people with relatively difficult backgrounds that don't fit the conventional patterns very well.

Whatever we do, I'm certain that we can serve our children in care far better than we do now - and we surely must!

Monday, 23 August 2010

More on great universities - The case of China

To most westerners like myself, China is a country of contradictions. This is particularly evident in the country's higher education system, where there is a frenetic country-wide competition for places each year, mostly based on success in a very demanding examination. Yet when students show up at their designated universities and colleges, what do they find? Lots of competent and intensive teaching, to be sure, but not much in terms of real centres of excellence.

Despite growing rapidly for decades now, China's university system, according to an intriguing article by Steven Kuo in The Guardian at the weekend, is not notably characterised by 'critical scholarship' or liberal values. Indeed, thinking of the characteristics of great universities as discussed in my posting of July 5th, it seems that China's higher education system is quite deficient, and may not even be moving in the right direction - for increasing scale at a rapid rate does not imply that quality is also improving.

Building great universities, by which I mean universities actively engaged in research at a serious level, at or close to the world frontier in some areas, is not just a matter of throwing resources at the 'problem'. Neither a big university system nor a smaller élite system offers any guarantee of producing world level research. Nor does it much matter what governments say. They can make plans and express the intention of building world-class universities until they are blue in the face, but they won't succeed, in my view, unless the academic culture they foster is 'right' in some very important ways.

When I first started visiting Eastern Europe in the early 1970s, the academic culture did not seem to me particularly vibrant or healthy, for several key reasons:

(1) There was little knowledge of other countries, and more importantly, little knowledge of relevant research going on elsewhere. So competition in research was missing, and much that was done was repetitive, second hand, derivative; the resulting research papers were mostly of a poor academic standard.

(2) Research was done within a bureaucratic, hierarchical structure, also usually highly politicised - institute directors, for instance, were commonly (communist) party members or at least had party approval (so they belonged to the so called nomenklatura).

(3) Although I couldn't observe this directly, as an outsider, I gained a strong impression that while academic merit had some influence on appointments and over promotions, party approval and patronage had at least as much influence.

(4) Discussions and debate - both at internal seminars and at more open conferences - were typically constrained and formalised. I have never seen a senior researcher's work criticised in public, and it was normal practice for institute directors to be deferred to by all their junior staff - after all, jobs and careers were probably at stake. Often, discussion didn't even get going until the director had had his say. Yet in western universities, especially the better ones, lively critical debate goes on all the time, and the norm is that one should not take personal offence if a colleague criticises an idea or a piece of writing. That's just part of the normal process of developing research ideas. One needs a fairly thick skin, of course, and a degree of personal self confidence, in order to work well in such a critical environment. But this is indeed the 'culture' that enables a university to become great.

Since communist governments collapsed and transition started in 1989-91, there has been a process of slow reform going on in Eastern European universities and research institutes, generally in the direction of improving international links, raising teaching standards and strengthening research. But it is a slow process, since it is not easy to transform the academic culture of a country; such change always meets with resistance from the beneficiaries of the old model.

And China will be no different, except that the near decade long closure of most of the country's universities during the dreadful Cultural Revolution (CR) (1966-1976) has left a big 'hole' in universities' academic staffing. There remain some older professors, trained and in post before the CR, though their academic lives were badly disrupted and many of them will have been political appointees. There is also a rapidly growing cohort of younger academics, some trained wholly in China, but increasing numbers trained in overseas universities (such as the UK, Australia, the US) and returning to China.

This latter group, I think, are really important for the future vigour of China's universities, as they have experienced the more open, liberal, competitive ethos of western research universities. However, being away from China for some years will have loosened the personal connections that often help Chinese academics to find posts in good universities, and returnees might also find themselves less trusted politically than those who never travelled. All this makes changing the culture pretty difficult. China is still quite far from having a system of academic appointments based largely on merit and open competition.

Given the recent growth in the sheer scale of Chinese universities and research centres/institutes, we shall soon reach a position where over a third of the world's research publications in science, engineering and other disciplines will be written in Chinese. Some of this research will undoubtedly reach the highest standards to be found around the world, but one suspects that the prevailing academic culture - still only changing very slowly - will ensure that the proportion of top class research remains relatively low.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

UK Universities - Business Models

As I noted in an earlier blog posting (May 19th), who 'owns' UK universities is not entirely clear. More importantly, what sort of business model or business type should our universities adopt, in order to enable them to function best as universities? This is a surprisingly tricky question. For in practice quite a few business forms can be found across UK higher education, mostly the result of historical accident, statutory provision, and occasionally, private initiative.The result is a typically British, rather messy picture. Thus the varied landscape currently includes:

Private institutions, profit seeking

Private institutions, not for profit (e.g. University of Buckingham)

Companies limited by guarantee (e.g. London School of Economics)

Statutory corporations (with charter and statutes needing Privy Council approval for changes) (this covers most universities formed as a consequence of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992)

Chartered corporations (with charter and statutes needing Privy Council approval for changes) (this covers most pre-1992 universities)

Ancient universities, established neither by Act of Parliament nor by Royal Charter (Some changes need Privy Council approval) (Oxford and Cambridge Universities).

Unlike in some other countries, where universities are formally part of the public sector (and university staff are civil servants), UK universities are all legally independent bodies. They normally enjoy charitable status (which confers a variety of tax privileges upon them), and they each have a governing body responsible for all aspects of managing the institution, within the framework of whatever regulation and oversight is currently in force.

This is the background against which some new ideas need to be considered. Thus Nick Butler argued in yesterday's Financial Times that UK universities should be freed from much of the existing government regulation and control so that they can 'manage their own numbers, costs and charges' and hence be 'responsible for their own successes and failures'. This presumably would entail flexible fee setting, something that might come out of Lord Browne's on going review of university funding. And the resulting higher fees could be more manageable for the government, in principle, if the student loan book were also taken off the government's balance sheet and turned into a private sector fund. Thinking logically, too, an institution free to succeed is also free to fail, but I wonder how prepared our government would be to see one or more universities go under either as a result of generally tough financial conditions or as a result of particular bad (or unlucky) decisions. This is quite normal in the private sector, of course, but would this competitive mechanism be allowed to work in higher education? An interesting line of thought, though I have a feeling that actually doing it - making it happen - might be quite difficult.

Another idea was introduced by Simon Baker in the latest Times Higher Education. Instead of focusing on regulation, as the previous point did, this contribution makes proposals about university ownership. In particular, it suggests that the current UK government is contemplating new legislation that could result in universities being owned - wholly or partly - by their shareholders. This idea would turn universities, legally, into something like the familiar public limited company (plc). But why would we want to do that? The claim in Simon Baker's article is that transforming universities into shareholder-owned bodies would make it easier for them to raise money from investors. However, I'm not sure this is right, for several reasons:

(a) Why should anyone buy shares issued by a university unless they expect a decent return on them, namely a suitable mix of dividend payments and capital gains? Hence any university issuing shares will have to offer an attractive return to investors, but it can only do this by investing the funds so raised in sufficiently 'profitable' activities. Many universities might not be very comfortable at the idea of being pushed towards profit seeking in this way.

(b) A few universities have already issued bonds to fund some of their new developments, without any accompanying shift to a shareholding model of the university. It's not clear why this could not be extended without changing the basic 'model of the university', and I don't understand how adding shareholders would make such funding any easier.

(c) Most UK universities exist to deliver high quality teaching and research in a not-for-profit manner and this type of institutional goal sits quite uneasily, I think, beside shareholding and profit seeking.

Hence although there might well be room in the higher education landscape for some private, profit-seeking, shareholder-owned institutions delivering a variety of profitable, specialist courses, it's hard to see much of the existing sector moving in that direction. I fear that sitting and thinking in my office, which is what I like doing best, would not be greatly appreciated by shareholders seeking short-term profitability!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Research degrees and supervision

This summer marks the end of a significant aspect of my academic career, as both my last research students have recently submitted their theses and await their oral examinations (more formally known as the viva voce, or viva).

One of these students,a Ukrainian, has been doing full-time research for her PhD in economics at my university for over three years and I have been her principal supervisor. We have met often, or exchanged e-mails, and I have read several drafts of most of her work; other colleagues have made big contributions to the supervision, especially for the more technical econometric part of the thesis which has never been my forte. The whole process has been hugely interesting, and I keep my fingers firmly crossed that she will manage the oral successfully - in fact my last stage in advising her will take place next week, when we meet to enable me to advise her what sorts of question to expect in the viva. Other than that, I am not of course involved at all in the examination process, in keeping with standard UK practice (this would be different in the US, for instance).

My other student is a Norwegian whom I have not yet met - with luck we shall finally meet on the day that he comes over to Edinburgh for his viva, and I look forward to that. He is a distance learning DBA (Doctor of Business Administration) student of the Edinburgh Business School (EBS), where I was working part-time until end-April this year. Despite formally ending my employment at EBS, however, I agreed with the School that I would continue supervising this particular student through to completion, since anything else would have been quite disruptive to the student concerned. He is already employed and works full-time at a Norwegian consulting firm, so for the most part his research has had to be fitted into spare time, including holidays, though his employer is also very supportive. The research is not in economics, but in risk management, a subject quite new to me, and about which I have learned a great deal in the past couple of years.

Supervision 'at a distance' is very different from what I have been used to, and has taken the form of a mix of e-mails and telephone conversations, the latter almost weekly at critical points of the research. Some of the correspondence has involved detailed commentary on draft chapters or longer chunks of the thesis. What is missing from this sort of supervision is the quick informal chat resulting from a chance meeting in the corridor, the sort of link that has been very useful with my on-campus students. But I think we have nevertheless managed to establish a good working relationship and mostly communicate quite well.

Another complication, though, is that because the DBA is quite a new 'product' of the Edinburgh Business School, some of the supervision is - in effect - conducted by committee, something I haven't encountered before and don't like very much. What happens is that a draft of all or part of the thesis is circulated to some or all of the DBA research committee, with comments coming back to the committee for discussion, then being cast as advice to go back to the student. With the best will in the world this is a problematic approach to supervision, since it's extremely hard to avoid mixed and confusing messages going back to the student concerned, though I've done my best to act as a 'filter' where I thought this would be useful. Officially, though, I'm probably not supposed to do that as this could be viewed as 'diluting' the committee's views. That said, my guess is that this fairly inefficient approach to supervision will be largely dropped once the DBA is more established and the School feels more confident that good standards of research and scholarship are being maintained.

So, my last two research students, and two very different styles of supervision. This makes me wonder how I learned to be a supervisor in the first place. But I started supervising PhD students back in the mid-1970s, only shortly after I finished my own PhD, and I have no recollection of receiving any formal training at all. As far as I remember, my first few students always had someone more senior as principal supervisor, so I guess I learned quite a lot from observing their practice - this sort of on-the-job learning was standard in those days, as there was very little proper training for anything then. Before long, I was encouraged to take on students as a principal supervisor in my own right, and also saw the other end of the process as I was increasingly invited to serve as a PhD examiner by various universities. Gradually, therefore, I picked up the elements of what supervision was all about.

Nowadays, the same learning process takes place but it is more formally structured, with more systematic training of new supervisors (to which I have contributed on occasion); clearer codes of practice for research students and supervisors so everyone knows what to expect and how to operate; and regular reviews of progress to identify emerging problems in good time (I don't recall any reviews taking place in my early years as a supervisor). All this makes the supervision of research students rather more professional than it sometimes was in the past, though I doubt whether good practice has really changed all that much. Supervising bright and imaginative research students has always been fun, and long may it remain so!

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Funding Scottish universities

It was a little alarming to read in today's Sunday Times (Scottish edition, p2) that Scottish universities seem to be heading for a funding model that makes little economic sense, while rejecting out of hand the one model that - when carefully designed - offers a promising way forward. For the moment, sadly, politics seems to be ruling the roost, and is certainly well ahead of some basic economics in terms of its apparent influence on current thinking. Let me explain what this is all about.

Of course we all know the context, namely tough spending cuts that will shortly be feeding down from the UK government (spending review expected to publish its conclusions in October), through the Scottish government, then down to the Scottish Funding Council, and finally down to the budgets for individual further and higher education institutions. Given the scale of the UK's budget deficit, still exceeding 10% of GDP, and the determination of our new government to get the deficit down to more manageable levels quite rapidly - which I fully support - most UK government departments are likely to find their budgets cut by 10-20%, I imagine, and in a few cases by even more. For Scotland, which has already quite foolishly decided to defer this year's cuts, the budget reductions will in due course be no less severe. Hence it would be more than a little risky for Scottish universities to be planning for budget cuts of less than 10% in the next couple of years. We don't know the real numbers yet, but this indicates roughly the order of magnitude involved. The outcome might be even worse, but is unlikely to be any better than this.

So what should the Scottish universities do? Their first step seems remarkably sensible. The umbrella body that represents the Scottish universities and liaises between universities and government, Universities Scotland, has set up a working group of university principals to examine a variety of ways forward for the sector. Their remit apparently includes consideration of possible institutional mergers, reviewing the length of degree programmes (most Scottish honours degrees are four years, most English degrees are three years), and various funding options. On the latter, the Scottish government has already stated firmly that it is opposed to fees, whether these are paid up front, or deferred and paid back through the income tax system once graduates are in work and earning at a sufficiently high level (as is, in essence, the system already operating in England). Instead, the Scottish government has expressed support for some form of graduate tax, and the Sunday Times article claims that the university principals support this idea too.

If so, one hopes there will be some rapid re-thinking, as the graduate tax is not really a very smart idea, despite being widely 'floated'. Repetition, unfortunately, does not turn a bad idea into a good one! I imagine, though, that the idea is coming up not because many people really like it, but because of what is or is not perceived to be politically acceptable given present Scottish government policies. For in May 2011 there will be new elections for the Scottish Parliament, and one doesn't need to be unduly cynical to suspect that the present Scottish Government might be rather reluctant to modify any of its headline-grabbing, populist policies before then. One of these policies is their strong opposition to university fees.

Needless to say, no one greatly likes fees, any more than they like paying for any other large item such as a new car. But we don't expect our desire for a car to be met through a government grant, not do we expect to pay for it through the general tax system. Instead, we either pay cash if we have it, put most of the cost onto a credit card, or, if we want cheaper credit, we take out a bank loan and repay that over a period. We're all perfectly used to buying things that way nowadays, so why not something really important and valuable such as university education?

Moreover, a system of student fees can be set up in such a way that no one has to pay up front. Instead, students would take out loans and then repay them once they are in work. Ideally, this can be done in an income-contingent manner so those who don't earn a lot pay back little or nothing; and also be time limited, so outstanding debt is written off after 25 years, say. These are features of the current English model, and they are highly desirable ones. For universities, this scheme means universities get their fees when the students walk through the door, but the students themselves pay nothing until later, as indicated. Two aspects of the present fees system in England do need some reconsideration: (a) at present, a zero real interest rate is charged on student loans taken out to pay the fees, and this is both very inefficient (no one should get a 'free' loan) and very expensive for the public finances; and (b) the stock of student loans outstanding can be regarded as part of the overall public sector debt, and governments are not keen to see that going up at present for obvious reasons. This aside, the student loan scheme is an excellent one and should be extended to Scotland in my view. It will, in any case, be very interesting to see what Lord Browne's committee recommends in the Autumn when he is expected to report.

Meanwhile, we have the idea of a graduate tax popping up here in Scotland. As normally discussed, this would entail all graduates paying more income tax than non-graduates for their entire working lives, the differential not usually depending on the institution at which a person studied, the length of degree course, the subject area, etc. So unlike the fee system discussed above, where the associated loans that students get can depend very much on these features, the graduate tax is 'fair' in the sense that all graduates pay the same (as a function of their incomes, naturally). But this isn't really fair in any meaningful sense, for it means that what students pay bears no relation to the costs of the degrees they have undertaken. Why, also, should graduates pay higher tax for their entire working lives? That can't be fair surely?

In addition, it is worth asking when universities get their money. Is it only when students graduate and start paying their extra income tax? Or is it right at the start, in which case one has to ask where the money comes from. Thinking about this quickly pushes the graduate tax system more and more in the direction of the fees system that has apparently been rejected out of hand. All very confusing! Under the fees system, part of the income tax that graduates pay would go to repay their student loans without ever passing though the public exchequer. Is this also what is envisaged for the graduate tax? If not, then the revenue from the graduate tax becomes part of general government tax revenues, with a presumption that it will be handed over to the universities. But in the UK we have no tradition of hypothecated taxes, in other words taxes collected for a specific purpose - people often think of the car tax, or taxes on fuel, as such a tax, but they aren't, as there is no link - formal or informal - between such tax revenues and spending on roads, say. In fact the only truly hypothecated tax I can think of in the UK is the BBC licence fee. Can we really imagine the graduate tax becoming a new hypothecated tax, guaranteed to be handed over in full to the universities? And even if we believe this, what is to prevent the government from surreptitiously easing back its other contributions to the higher education sector. I think if I were ever running a university I would be feeling very nervous about these ideas. At the moment they are not taking us in a very sensible direction.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Teaching maths in the UK

Proposals put forward about a month ago by our new coalition government education minister, Michael Gove, to reform A and AS levels (essentially in England and Wales, since the normal school examinations are already different up here in Scotland) have already provoked a good deal of controversy. Mathematics in particular has attracted critical attention, with both Cambridge University and the Royal Society (via ACME, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education) opposing the announced reforms.

Now Michael Gove's intention is to scrap the present modular A and AS levels, and replace them with old-style two-year A levels, with assessment largely based on examinations at the end of the second year. The Minister's aim, supposedly, is to "revive the art of deep thought". It's hard to quarrel with the Minister's stated aim here, since the inculcation of better thinking skills in the population can surely only be welcomed. So why are Cambridge and ACME objecting to these reforms to the examination system, and are they right?

Several arguments have been advanced. Let me comment on the major ones.

(1) Harder examinations and the move away from modular courses might discourage more students from taking mathematics at school after age 16, and this in turn would reduce the pool of people from which future mathematics students are drawn. In the worst case, this could even lead to the possible closure of some university mathematics departments.

(2) Only a minority of students taking A level mathematics go on to do maths at university, but many others might well use their maths foundation in a wide variety of other degree programmes. Hence at the A level stage, it is more important to get lots of folk to do the course so that the general level of maths education is higher than it would otherwise be.

(3) In any event, for those who do actually wish to do mathematics degrees at university, A level maths has always been a necessary but not sufficient qualification for doing so. Rather, potential mathematics students have always been advised to take additional courses and/or examinations, such as Further Mathematics, AEA papers in mathematics (Advanced Extension Awards), or STEP (sixth term entry papers).

(4) Nowadays most university degrees are modularised, so surely it makes sense for the school exams like A levels to be modular too.

What should one make of these arguments? Point (4), I think, can be dismissed out of hand. It's a silly point, partly because it seems to imply that all stages of education should be done in the same way, and I'm unaware of any good arguments for that; and in any event, it wouldn't surprise me if the current university fashion for modular degrees eventually went into reverse, as I'm not sure there are terribly good educational arguments for such degrees either.

The numbers game
Points (1) and (2) are really about 'bums on seats', encouraging as many people as possible to take mathematics as far as A level, and if need be making sure the course is not perceived as 'too difficult' in order to achieve that result. I understand the argument, but must confess to finding it profoundly depressing as it seems to imply that school pupils in the UK are such a feeble bunch, and have such limited ambitions, that they cannot (or are unwilling to) cope with a course that is perceived by them, their parents, or their teachers as 'difficult'. This is a great shame, if true.

Why might we not wish to accept this line of argument? Well, I can think of lots of reasons. First, UK school pupils do not come out enormously well in objective international assessments of mathematical attainments - see, for instance, the OECD's PISA surveys. Yet our governments constantly remind us of the importance of international competition for the UK economy, and of the need to raise our achievement levels in science and mathematics, and rightly so. Thus simply accepting fairly weak performance as the best we can do is surely not really very satisfactory. Somehow, we need to shift the whole culture of learning in the UK so it is much more widely understood and accepted that young people need to work hard from an early age in order to learn and succeed. It sounds terribly boring, perhaps, but what's the alternative? And in maths, we might also need a new generation of superbly well qualified, enthusiastic and inspiring teachers.

Second, comparisons that I am able to make personally with other countries don't leave us looking good. Thus I have looked at syllabuses and textbooks from Russia, Kazakhstan, Hungary and to a more limited extent from Singapore, and the level they expect young people to reach is significantly better than what we expect in the UK. True, there is more rote learning than we seem to be comfortable with in the UK nowadays, and probably less 'problem solving', but in terms of basic knowledge and techniques we are well behind.

Third, from talking to my own students over many years, it is almost invariably the case that UK students struggle with the maths they need for economics, while our overseas students almost always cope far better. In fact a few foreign students have even commented to me how shocked they were to discover how little maths many UK students actually knew and could use. This is not a very comforting situation for the UK.

Overall, then, it seems to me that a case can be made for raising maths standards at all levels in our schools, and in that wider context the Minister's proposed reform is perhaps an important first step. The Cambridge and ACME arguments are not, in the end, wholly convincing.

University entrance
Point (3) is about doing maths at university, and the extras that good students need to secure university entry, notably to English universities where degree courses normally last three years. The situation is a bit different here in Scotland as most degree courses are still four years' long - though that might change soon if the forthcoming budget cuts really bite hard.

I'm familiar with these 'extras' partly because I taught STEP mathematics to my son to prepare him for Cambridge entrance, and he was successful; and partly because for the past three years I have taught some advanced maths to an out-of-school extension class at my son's former secondary school. The school itself, and I suspect many schools, is just not resourced sufficiently well to be able to cope with this level of maths teaching. Yet although the STEP syllabus is largely the same as most A level courses, or the Advanced Higher in Scotland, the type of question one encounters is a world away from the typical A level question. For the latter normally splits each question into a series of parts, each following logically from the one before. This is fine in terms of showing that the students have grasped a particular mathematical technnique, but is not so good in terms of creativity and problem solving.

In contrast, a typical STEP question basically says, 'here is an interesting question, solve it', without giving any clues about the area(s) of mathematics that need to be deployed, or the sequence of steps needed for a solution. This is a lot more challenging, especially when the questions have to be done under the usual examination-type time pressure. But this kind of maths is both fascinating and fun, and it would be great if more people could be exposed to it.