Saturday, 29 May 2010

Examining a PhD thesis in Kazakhstan

A couple of years ago I was asked to examine a PhD at a university out in Kazakhstan, and since I really love the place, having done some research out there a while ago (see one of my April posts), I could hardly pass up the chance to visit again. The thesis was on energy policy in Kazakhstan and was written in Russian. Luckily, I can read Russian quite well but I asked that my report be written in English as my written and spoken Russian are fairly basic. This was agreed.

Hence on a very hot morning in early June, I arrived in Almaty (the old, Soviet-era capital), a lovely town with lots of trees, surrounded by snowy mountains, and full of brand new buildings, reflecting the country's booming economy. Since then it has not been booming quite so strongly, as the banking sector was hit hard by the world financial crisis. But it's already recovering, I gather. The university was very welcoming, and there were a couple of free days before the formal business, during which I met several PhD students besides the one I was to examine and gave advice on their research when I could. The British consulate in Almaty (the embassy now being in the new capital, Astana) also held a reception one evening to mark the Queen's official birthday, so I was invited to that, having met the Ambassador on a previous visit to the country.

The formal business turned out to be unexpectedly interesting. A bit naively, I had tended to assume that everyone examined a PhD in pretty much the same way as we do in the UK, an unduly Anglo-centric view of the world I must admit. But not at all! For a start, the examination was quite public in the sense that the candidate, his family, various other students and diverse academics were present. The candidate gave a 15 minute presentation on his thesis, I then presented my own report (which had been translated into Russian), and this was followed by an hour or so of general discussion. It was hard for me to follow everything, but I managed well enough. Then the chairman asked everyone to leave except the four members of the examinations board, of which I was the external member. We discussed the thesis a little and agreed that it was a good piece of work, a clear pass.

Out of the blue, the chairman suddenly asked me what mark I wanted to give the thesis. I explained that in the UK we don't give marks for a PhD thesis. But that wasn't acceptable, so I proposed a mark in the low 70s per cent. This caused immediate consternation - the chairman informed me that such a mark was virtually a fail in their system. Eventually, I gathered that what the board was looking for was a mark in the range 95-100 per cent - no one had thought to explain their system to me, and I had just assumed it would be like ours. Now that I understood their system, however, I gave a mark of 96 per cent, and was amused to find that my mark was the lowest. One member of the board said very positively, "I give the maximum, 100 per cent." Amazing.

After the formal business a nice lunch was laid on for everyone, including the students and their families. Lots of soft drinks were on offer, but I was a bit surprised that there was no vodka. I mentioned this to the exam board chairman, and he explained that it wasn't like the old days when vodka was brought out on every occasion. Apparently there were new regulations about such matters. However, as I, the foreign guest, had mentioned this lacuna in the arrangements, the new rules could be suspended, and within a few seconds several bottles of vodka appeared. We then drank several toasts to " the success of the new PhDs", "the Kazakh economy" and "success for Kazakhstan in the 2010 football World Cup." You get the idea. That rounded off a very pleasant and interesting visit to Kazakhstan.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Cuts in England - The first round

So now we know, higher education will not be immune from cuts in public spending, not that anyone really thought it would be. But I imagine lots of people were keeping their fingers firmly crossed until they heard the Queen's Speech earlier today, hoping the universities would be lucky, at least for now. A few months ago, the previous government had announced that for 2010-2011 it would make available through HEFCE sufficient funding to support an additional 20,000 student places in England. The Queen's Speech indicated that there would now be just 10,000 extra places, the other 10,000 being cancelled.

This is not a massive cut, but some universities might already have taken on some extra staff in anticipation of the additional students they envisaged admitting, and they will now experience some financial strain as a result. Other institutions, already under financial pressure, will have been looking to these extra students to ease their problems a little. And of course more potential students will be disappointed when they find there are no places available to them later this year. Thus even this quite small funding cut will leave a trail of financially stressed institutions in its wake, plus unhappy would-be students. And this is only the first round of what is likely to be a succession of cuts over the coming years, as the country strives to restore its public finances to something like balance.

On the face of it, therefore, the outlook for higher education is quite bleak, and not only in England but also in the rest of the UK. However, I am an optimist by nature, and I think that endless worrying about where the next cuts might fall in the coming years is a sure recipe for depression, low morale, and general gloom across higher education. Instead, it seems far better to accept the unpleasant reality of cuts as quickly as we can, and start looking forward constructively to the sort of higher education system that will be able to flourish in the new conditions. Such a system, I would expect, will have a lot in common with where we are today, so the tendency to panic and engage in apocalyptic fantasies is hardly justified. So how might our HE system change - both in England and in the UK as a whole? Here are few initial thoughts, all needing lots of elaboration (but not today):

(a) The system might be somewhat smaller, conceivably 5-10% smaller in terms of student numbers by 2015 or so. Watch out for mergers, possibly even the occasional closure of a university.

(b) The system could adapt to the financial pressure by teaching more and more students 'on the cheap', but I doubt (and hope) that this would prove self defeating and politically unacceptable. In a world of fees, universities cannot ignore student views about the quality of their experience, and nor should they. But delivering a high quality of teaching is not cheap.

(c) Personally, I think that universities have probably reached a point where they are rather over managed, even excessively micro managed, and I'm convinced that modest savings are achievable in that area without detriment to students. Some other costs might be cut back, but I suspect not easily or by much.

(d) Hence the best way forward must be to seek new forms of additional revenue. This could come through non-EU students (paying high fees), through research and contracts, through other commercial activity, and through fees paid by UK students - preferably not up front, and ideally paid for through an income-contingent graduate contribution (extending the present English system). Another source of funding, not much used in the UK except by a handful of leading institutions, is private donations - we really need to create a culture more akin to that in the US where it is more usual for alumni and private businesses to make donations and offer sponsorship to universities.

How we manage all this, especially (d), is not yet very clear to me. But I'm sure when we survey the higher education landscape in five to ten years' time, we shall find that the most flourishing institutions will be those that have treated the cuts that are just beginning as an opportunity for change and innovation, and even growth, rather than as an excuse for endless griping at the government. Of course the environment is going to be difficult, but let's take it as a challenge, not as a threat!

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Who should go to university?

The short answer, I suppose, is 'anyone who is suitably qualified and who can benefit from the experience of studying for a degree.' The required qualifications depend on the chosen degree programme and university, and these days can easily be found on institutional websites. As for the second part of the answer, 'who can benefit....', one would think in terms of motivation, willingness to work hard (no one ever said that university study was supposed to be easy - though occasionally I have encountered students still harbouring such a misconception), and a fair amount of self confidence. One should also never forget the crucial factors of luck and serendipity in influencing both which university to apply for and attend, and the course to pursue.

In my own case, for instance, no one in my family had ever been to university before and it was hard to find out much about them in pre-internet days - I was applying in 1963 to start university in 1964. So where should I go? The only university I knew anything about was Hull, my local institution, but most of us at that stage at my school were thinking of going somewhere away from home. I don't think we were especially rebellious, but getting away was definitely seen as an important part of growing up. So we had nothing against Hull except that it was home.

As it happened I had two particularly good maths teachers, one who had studied at Cambridge, the other with a degree from Manchester. They each told me that their respective universities were good for maths, and as I certainly had no reason to dispute their judgement, I applied for both. My school qualifications (including Latin, still needed for Cambridge then), all top grades, got me a quick offer from Manchester, but Cambridge turned me down - in those days no reasons were ever given, and perhaps that is still the position. However, I still had the option of applying for Cambridge directly and taking their own entrance examination, and this is what I decided to do. This, and my entrance interview, took place in Cambridge on a couple of damp, cold, November days that made the whole place look quite grim and unwelcoming. Some weeks later I heard that I had been accepted. I immediately left school, got a job and worked for nine months before starting my studies - more on this in a later post.

My parents were delighted as Cambridge was a university they had heard of, so they thought it was probably OK to go there. My mother even thought that I might meet a princess, but I never did - in that respect my years in Cambridge were not a success.

Not everyone follows the conventional route into university that I did. All sorts of personal, family, health and other reasons can get in the way of gaining the standard qualifications at the 'normal' time. At age 18 or 19, some people simply lack the motivation to take their studies any further, even if they clearly have the necessary ability. Many people lack the confidence, or imagine they might not fit into a university environment. Some schools - that should know better - are reluctant to encourage even their better pupils to apply to university, let alone to the top institutions. And without that crucial support, opportunities are missed, talent wasted or not developed to its full potential.

For these reasons, the widening availability of so called 'access courses', mostly run in Further Education (FE) colleges and often in partnership with a local university is a hugely important step forward. Lots of people who didn't do well enough at school - for whatever reason, it doesn't really matter - get a second chance to gain the qualifications needed for university entry. Access courses don't generally seek to replicate the material that would have normally been done in secondary school, but they do develop English, Maths, IT and other foundation subjects that are vital for most university courses. Successful students from these programmes are older and usually more mature than the typical school-leaver students, and are often very highly motivated to succeed. They do well.

This part of the 'access agenda' is therefore very valuable and easy to support. Another aspect, however, is more problematic, in my view. Our universities, especially the leading ones, are often criticised for taking 'too few' students from state schools as opposed to private ones; and for taking too few from certain relatively deprived areas of the country. Some funding is even available to encourage (or 'incentivise', to use a horrible modern term) them to give more weight in their admissions criteria to indicators of deprivation. It's not hard to see a rationale for this sort of approach, but it seems to me to be a very dangerous, slippery slope, that tries to put right one sort of injustice by creating new ones. I don't think it is, or should be, any part of the duty of a university to assist the government in the conduct of social policy. That's not what universities are there for, surely.

If the government thinks that secondary schools in some areas are failing in some sense, then it should be taking direct and appropriate action to remedy the identified deficiencies. Meanwhile, our universities should concentrate on their core tasks of educating suitably qualified students to first degree level and beyond. That's what the country needs.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Universities as an 'industry'

Thought of simply as a branch of the economy, UK universities have some interesting features. For a start, we employ a lot of people and generate a lot of income - our contribution to the UK's GDP; and we export a great deal, since taking foreign students counts as an 'export of educational services', and winning foreign research contracts (e.g. from the EU) counts as an 'export of research services'. The university 'industry' thinks of itself as operating in an increasingly competitive environment, and in some respects this is correct. On the other hand, it differs from a typical private sector, profit-seeking industry in several important respects:

(a) Although universities are supposed, from a mix of revenue sources, to cover their costs, they are not in business to maximise profits - indeed they enjoy charitable status.

(b) The university 'industry' is remarkably static, in the sense that there is little exit from the sector, very little new entry, and not much merger and acquisition (M&A) activity. Apparently this might all change, as several institutions are reportedly on funding council watch lists due to their precarious financial condition. We shall see how things turn out.

(c) Compared to most commercial businesses, the ownership and governance structures of UK universities are not as clear and transparent as they might be, despite recent improvements. This was brought home to me on a visit to Russia some years back, when I was asked by an official in the Russian HE ministry, who owned UK universities. I replied that we are technically classified to the private sector (unlike many continental European universities whose staff are civil servants), but that we cannot normally buy or sell assets without permission from our funding council, or even from HM Treasury, if public money is involved. So the matter is quite complicated - there wasn't a simple answer.

Despite these huge differences, there is one way in which universities are getting more like business, namely in their internal organisation. Let me explain what I mean.

Traditionally, universities were an amalgam of academic departments, some small, some quite large, plus a centre that provided general services to everyone: e.g. library, computing/IT, HR and finance, plus student-related administration (Registry). In the past, academic departments were not treated as cost centres, and heads were expected to be academic leaders, not managers. But this is all old hat, and hardly to be found any longer. Instead, the past 10-20 years has seen the tentacles of managerial thinking and organisational structures speading across our universities.

Increasingly, departments have been merged into larger Schools which are now normally key cost centres; and in bigger institutions, Schools are grouped into Colleges. Very often, these changes are proposed on the grounds that they will strengthen academic performance and facilitate collaborative teaching and research, but not many people really believe that and the evidence from experience provides little support. Thus such arguments are largely bogus. Rather, establishing Schools is a handy way of strengthening management control over the institution by reducing the number of units with which the institutional centre has to relate. Is this shift towards more managerial universities good or bad for the continuing success of our HE system? I guess only time will tell; and probably more on this theme in later posts.

But the debate is far from over, and the following observation suggests where it might lead us. Back in the 1970s, firms in the old Soviet Union underwent an interesting reorganisation, through the formation of industrial associations of various kinds, essentially merging or grouping firms together into larger units. The new, larger groupings were held to be more efficient, more productive, etc., but few believed that. The practical effect was to make central planning a bit easier by reducing the number of organisations that had to be sent plan targets. And did it work? Well, we all know what happened to the Soviet Union and all that central planning..............

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Education vs. transferable skills

In recent years it has become standard practice in most UK university courses to emphasise the 'transferable skills' that our students are supposed to gain by studying for their degrees. The term 'transferable skills' seems to mean a diverse range of skills that will supposedly be useful to the students when they seek employment in the job market, and includes such things as: presentation skills; the ability to develop and sustain an argument in an essay; facility in the use of standard IT tools; quantitative skills at an approriate level; and various other things. I've always been a bit sceptical about the merits of highlighting such skills, for two key reasons:

(a) I usually have no idea what career any given student might wish to pursue, and hence cannot judge what particular 'skills' might prove useful to him or her. And in any case, students who do have a fair idea what they wish to do (or who have sought advice from the Careers Service), will be able to work out for themselves what 'skills' they need to acquire - and they are the ones who surely have the incentives to make sure they learn what they need. It seems to me that students should be treated as young adults, and that we should refrain from spoon-feeding them material we think ought to be useful to them - for how can we know?

(b) More importantly, I hold the old-fashioned view that universities are fundamentally about educating people, not really about the inculcation of generic 'skills'. By education, here, what I mean is in part the transmission of an established, and often still evolving body of knowledge in a given subject area or discipline; and in part, encouraging critical and analytical thinking about that body of knowledge. This is a difficult, challenging and frequently exciting task, especially when students come up with unexpected questions that lead to novel lines of argument, or when you (the teacher) realise in the middle of a lecture that a supposedly standard argument is actually not quite right - as I have sometimes experienced.

Not long ago, when I was culling and binning lots of old material in preparation for moving office, I found myself thinking again about this issue of education vs. skills. For I came across some of my old lecture notes from the early 1980s. They were hand-written - no word processors then, and I had evidently not chosen to have them typed up by the departmental office. More interestingly, while they were obviously a bit dated, they were entirely about economics. There was not a word about skills, transferable or otherwise, nor even anything about course or lecture objectives, nor statements about what wonderful new things the students would be able to do after following my course. Yet despite these shocking lacunae, I thought they were pretty good lecture notes - they stood the test of time surprisingly well.

This made me think that a lot of what goes into our teaching material these days - almost everything except the core academic content, in fact - is not there because it necessarily makes our teaching better than it used to be, but more often it is there to tick the boxes of the various teaching appraisals to which our universities are increasingly subject. So called transferable skills are thus part of the game we play with those who evaluate our teaching, and I remain quite sceptical of their benefits for our students.

Just to be clear, by the way, I should add here that I am not against skills in general. But to a large extent, it does seem to me that the skills we teach through our courses are mostly quite low-level skills that anyone with the right incentives could learn for themselves quite rapidly as and when they needed to do so. I think a university education should transmit high-level skills such as flexibility and adaptability in the workplace; the ability and willingness to learn new things; and initiative and independence. These are surely far more important for people throughout their lives, whatever they end up doing.

Monday, 10 May 2010

How many people should go to university?

Now that a new government is about to take office (though we don't yet know its exact shape), it seems a good moment to think about this question, since for at least the last decade it has been government policy to aim for 50% of the relevant age group going to university (or other higher education). In Scotland, university participation has exceeded this target for some years, while in England and Wales participation has been in the low 40s percent. How far does this make sense, should there be a target at all, and if so what should it be?

There are two arguments for going to university. The first is the personal one, namely that it is a wonderful, life-changing experience, during which students mature - they learn (we hope!), they change, they discover and develop their abilities and talents. And they do all this in a setting that offers tremendous freedom, tremendous opportunities (and risks), and lots of independence.

The second argument is more practical and mundane, namely the claim that the job market needs more and more graduates, and that an important task for the universities is to help the country satisfy that evolving labour market demand. Part of the argument here is the observation that the structure of the labour market is changing: away from agriculture and industry towards ever more complex services; from low skilled to higher skilled occupations; from manual work towards more intellectual work. The changes are actually quite complex, and are not always as dramatic as the popular media would have us believe - thus there are still lots of manual jobs needing to be done. The evolving situation in the job market is often summed up in the phrase 'the knowledge economy', though our understanding of what this means is itself also constantly evolving!

For individuals, one of the signals that the economy needs more graduates is the job-market premium such jobs offer. One can debate how to measure the rate of return on a university education, and the result depends on the course that is studied and a variety of other factors - but on average, gaining a degree does enhance lifetime earnings quite markedly. On the other hand, this calculation does not imply that all graduates will do well financially. Some take jobs that were not previously thought to require a degree-level qualification - so they get the personal benefit from going to university, but society doesn't get the putative economic benefit.

None of the above implies that the target of 50% participation by young people in higher education is the right one, though it pretty certainly implies that the country needs many more graduates than it was getting 20 or 30 years ago, when participation was still not much above 15% of the relevant age group. So to help us think about more clearly about participation rates, what questions should we be asking? Here are three questions:

1. How many graduates at various levels does the economy actually need, both now, and with some probability in the next 5-10 years? (This is an attempt to pin down some concrete projections about how the labour market is really behaving, rather than continuing with vague statements about 'national needs').

2. What proportion of young people can truly benefit from a university education?

3. What scale of university system can the country afford, and how should it be financed?

The questions are inter-related, of course, and raise a whole lot of other issues to do with 'access to university' (an aspect of question 2), views about the job market, priorities in public spending (linked to question 3), and many other things - to be discussed in future postings. My own provisional view is that to aim for 50% participation is probably too ambitious, both in terms of how many people can benefit (Q2) and in terms of what we can (or are willing to) afford (Q3). Hence if I set a target at all I would set one rather lower than 50% of the age group.

It will be interesting to see what view our new government takes about all this, especially as higher education was hardly mentioned in the election campaign, and only figures quite briefly in the various manifestos (see the first posting in this blog).

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Metrics and research impact

When the Research Excellence Framework (REF) was put forward as the new approach to assessing research in UK universities (replacing the RAE), it was widely claimed that it would offer several advantages over its predecessor, most notably:
  • it would be a less costly system to run;
  • it would measure the volume and quality of research better than before by making extensive use of metrics; and
  • it would find ways of evaluating the impact of research carried out during the assessment period.

In this note, I consider each of these in turn.

Cost of the exercise

So how costly is costly? I have seen estimates produced by HEFCE and others suggesting that the former Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) cost around 1% of the funds eventually allocated as a result of the exercise (namely the QR funding stream discussed in an earlier post). To this one might want to add another 1-2%, perhaps, to allow for the costs incurred by individual institutions in preparing their submissions, and other institutional costs. This gives 2%, possibly as much as 3% of the research funds allocated using the RAE. Not a trivial sum, but not terrible either, especially when one compares it with the reported costs incurred by the ESRC and other research funders when they allocate responsive-mode research funding by evaluating individual research project proposals. The costs involved here are apparently around 20% of the research funds actually paid out. Two conclusions follow:

(a) The RAE wasn't all that costly, so it is quite hard to believe that saving money was a key reason for shifting to the new REF;

(b) If we really are worried about the costs of allocating research money, there should be more concern about the responsive mode as it is a lot more costly; and it would be far more so if evaluators and reviewers were actually paid for what they do.

Measuring research using metrics

As originally understood, 'metrics' in the REF referred to some of the more widely used citation indexes, and databases that logged publications in a wide range of outlets, supplemented by measures of journal quality and impact. The hope was that using such publicly available resources would save on costs by making it less necessary for institutions/units of assessment to assemble all their output data for themselves. On closer investigation, this approach turned out to be less appealing than initially thought. For even in the sciences and engineering, publications coverage was incomplete and in the arts and humanities the general picture was pretty hopeless. Citations, too, were incomplete, and reflected very much the different research practices of different disciplines. The situation might evolve, of course, but for now it seems that in many subject areas these fancy new tools might only be usable as supplements to what was already being done. Moreover, it quickly became evident that once metrics of some sort were agreed, they could give rise to lots of undesirable game playing, such as colleagues citing each other multiple times. If such distortions were thought to be widespread, the whole approach could be discredited (after all, people do respond to incentives!).

Research impact

The latest idea, quite a silly one in my view, is that we should pay a lot of attention to the 'impact' of our research - and hence look for ways of measuring and evaluating this impact. Impact on what, one might ask. Fundamentally, I suppose, we ought to be interested in the impact on 'knowledge', hard though that would be to judge. In my own area of the social sciences, we are supposed to think about the 'impact on society', and more specifically, in economics, 'impact on the economy', and sometimes even 'impact on UK exports' (yes, seriously!). This is such a ridiculous idea that I find it hard even to discuss it seriously, but let me try, at least briefly.

First, the impact of a piece of research is something that takes time to become apparent, sometimes decades, so evaluating research impact over as short a period as 5-10 years is generally nonsense. Second, within any research group, e.g. an academic department or School, there is a normally a very wide distribution of research output, with 2 or 3 individuals often producing more than half the output of the group. Moreover, for any of these highly productive individuals, their own output will vary a good deal in quality and (potential) impact - for most good researchers are lucky if they produce more than a couple of really startling ideas in an entire career. A lot of what they do simply builds on and develops earlier ideas. Given these normal features of quality research, an insistence on measuring impact, as currently proposed, will result in a lot of artificial and trivial indicators of impact being developed. Thus we might measure the number of invited lectures a researcher gives, the number of radio broadcasts, the number of TV appearances, and so on - these are the sort of measures already collected for the old RAE, part of the 'esteem' aspect of research. But none of this gives much of a clue as to the longer term social benefit of the research concerned - but the trouble is, I'm not sure that we can often say much about that until long after the research has been done.

It would probably help if those who are keen on measuring the impact of research would try harder to explain what it is they really want to measure.