Saturday, 12 June 2010

Changes are on the way

This week David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science in the new Coalition Government, made a thought-provoking speech at Oxford Brookes University (follow this link to see the text). After setting out some background information and noting the high quality of research produced by our universities - second only to the United States according to international surveys - he drew attention to what he saw as 'a couple of weaknesses in our HE system.'

His first point, expressed extremely mildly I thought, was the observation that 'excellent teaching is not universal.' Now, when I see mild statements like this in reports from the World Bank or IMF (International Monetary Fund), which I'm more used to, I know to read between the lines, preferably armed with a bit of independent knowledge of the country concerned. Thus when the Fund suggests that monetary policy could usefully be strengthened in some country, or that the exchange rate regime could be more efficient, they tend to mean that these policies are utter disasters and need urgent attention to fix them. So in our UK higher education context, what might Mr Willetts have meant? He did go on to say that our system lacks incentives for institutions to pay attention to good teaching and mentioned recent student surveys that reveal some dissatisfaction with teaching.

Then he moved on to his second point, the financial model under which higher education operates - and here I should make clear that he was mostly referring to England, since Scottish universities come under the devolved administration and the funding model is no longer quite the same as that in England. He claimed that the English financial model suffered from inflexibility, and had 'no room to reward excellent teaching.' While we await the outcome of Lord Browne's review of university funding later in the year (there was little more in the speech on funding), it is worth trying to understand better what the Minister might have meant here. For at first sight, the claim that we can't reward teaching doesn't make a lot of sense, as far as I can see.

After all, once universities receive their money from the Funding Councils - for teaching, research, and anything else - they are largely free to allocate it internally as they see fit. Consequently, of course universities could most certainly reward excellent teaching, if only they chose to do so. Perhaps what the Minister meant, and expressed quite delicately, therefore, was that not enough institutions are making such a choice, and that far more should be doing so. That at least is my initial guess as to what he might have meant as regards teaching.

The Minister was concerned about the information available to students about courses, university life, and more concretely about the career options that degree courses led on to. He plans to make English universities publish so called 'employability statements' to help fill this last gap. On the face of it this sounds like a neat idea, but I think it would be too easy to fake a good story for HEFCE and the institutional website (the usual institutional game playing) unless there is an insistence on publishing some very well defined (and hard to fiddle) quantitative indicators. For instance, data on the fraction of graduates in work or further study six months after graduation are already collected and published, so presumably the Minister thinks this is insufficient and would like more detail. What sort of detail is not yet clear.

Last, Mr Willetts was clearly having a go at squaring the circle of getting more people into HE while not imposing more of a burden on public funds. His idea, floated for discussion, was to emulate something like the University of London external student model. This involves students either working alone or at some approved FE college taking courses leading to a degree, where the actual exams (and any other assessment) are set and marked by London University. So it is almost like a way of franchising the 'London University' product to a range of other colleges. The idea is that it could widen access, save some public money (as studying at an FE college is cheaper than at a conventional university) and give more students a reputable degree at the end. The model effectively separates course delivery/teaching from examining and awarding degrees, a fascinating notion. The interesting question here is which universities might wish to franchise their degrees in this way, and how they would do it. What would be the costs and benefits for the degree-awarding institution, and how would the associated FE colleges be supported? These financial details are as yet ill defined, but I imagine that lots of university finance offices will already be thinking through a variety of possible cost models.

It's good that the new Minister is prepared to contemplate new thinking about the universities, even though many details are still to be worked out. The next few months promise to be both scary - because we all know budget cuts are coming - and exciting - because there are new ideas in the air. Hopefully our university sector will be able to cope with the cuts and manage the coming changes in a way that preserves the sector's established strengths and delivers outstanding services to our students.

Meanwhile, up here in Scotland the picture seems even less clear than that in England, as our students pay no up front fees, the Scottish government is opposed to fees in principle, and yet public sector spending is set to be squeezed just as it is in England. The only concrete suggestion I have seen for funding Scotland's universities was a suggestion made in the Scotsman newspaper this week, namely that they should seek to build up endownments. Great idea, and in time it might be the way to go, but it's not going to happen at all quickly. For now, therefore, we might be left trying to adapt English ideas and models to Scottish circumstances.

Perhaps we should be having a separate Scottish debate on organising and funding our higher education system in the difficult times that lie ahead.

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