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.