Monday, 21 February 2011

Do we still need bricks-and-mortar universities?

Nowadays, with high quality IT services, including high-speed internet access, pretty much ubiquitous, and with distance-learning provision of higher education proving ever more popular, one has to ask whether there is still 'room' for the traditional bricks-and-mortar university. Perhaps this long hallowed institutional form has reached, perhaps even passed already, its sell-by date, as a result of advances in technology. For nowadays, the students can be anywhere when they study; and academic staff can work from home increasingly effectively, communicating with their students mostly by e-mail.

Even the administrative side of delivering university courses might not need much physical space, as admin staff can also work from home and might only need to come into a 'central office' for meetings and such like, perhaps hot-desking when not actually meeting. So who needs an office any longer? Moreover, even meetings might soon be conducted increasingly on line as video phone calls (including conference calls) become more common and improve in quality.

Evidence for this IT-based and interactive view of higher education can be found in admission figures for the UK's Open University, which are rising rapidly and include an increasing fraction of younger people who would formerly have gone to a conventional university; in the fast growth of distance learning provision; and in the rapidly expanding literature on subjects like e-learning, using IT to support higher education, and the like. An example of the latter is an interesting article in the latest issue of the BBC's science magazine, Focus, entitled 'Education 2.0'. This makes the case for a new approach to higher education, emphasising that this would not merely be driven by evolving technology, but that it would also be encouraged by rising fees charged by the traditional universities.

The article does, however, sound a note of warning, by pointing out that university education is more than just a matter of learning new knowledge - where modern technology can definitely help - but is also about personal development. At a traditional university, the presumption has always been that our students not only learn about their respective academic subject areas, but that their social skills also develop, along with their self confidence, through a mix of joint projects, supervised activities (e.g. dissertations), presentations, and simply mixing with fellow students from diverse backgrounds. At present, it seems to me, these essential aspects of higher education are not delivered at all, or at best not very effectively, through IT-based and distance learning modes of higher education. Given this, I would argue that the traditional university still offers a very substantial 'value added' to the student, as compared to more modern modes of delivering higher education.

This 'value added', though, is something we need to nurture, especially these days when universities are facing severe budgetary pressure. It is all too tempting to save resources by cutting out a tutorial here, a seminar there, but this dilutes the learning experience for our students and weakens our claim to be offering something massively superior to a computer screen and a load of distance learning material. We surely want our students to graduate as people who have matured and changed enormously during their university careers, and that isn't going to happen if we go on cutting back on teaching hours to save resources. A good traditional university, housed in real bricks-and-mortar buildings, is inherently costly, and we should not pretend otherwise by trying to do it all on the cheap, as we are often under pressure to do.

Personally, I think the traditional university education with lots of face-to-face contact between academic staff and their students is a wonderful thing - our students learn to think for themselves, to be creative, and it's a sheer delight to see that happening. I'm really not convinced it can or does happen so much via the more modern modes of higher education - but you never know, in another 10 or 20 years I might take a different view. Meanwhile, I shall continue to enjoy my individual office in my traditional university, a lovely environment both for thinking about research and for interacting with students.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Service standards in academia

In the service sectors of the economy, everyone is interested in receiving a good quality of service whenever they can, and organisations commonly claim that one of their goals is to 'deliver high quality services to their customers.' Fine!

The problem is that in most activities measuring and monitoring service standards is incredibly difficult, and getting it wrong can often lead to terrible distortions. And even where one aspect of service quality can be measured very precisely, problems in other areas can prevent it from being achieved. While I mostly want to comment on measuring quality in universities here, I shall start by illustrating the last point from a recent personal experience in the telecommunications sector.

Thus on January 27th the BT phone line coming to my house broke - no idea how or why, but obviously I needed it fixed as rapidly as possible. Clearly, no phone service can be delivered without the phone line, so this is an easily measurable dimension of the service standard. Moreover, both on its website and in personal communication it was stated that BT normally expects to repair such line faults within three working days. Now, that doesn't strike me as a terribly impressive standard to aim for, but it was nowhere near achieved in our case. In fact our line was not restored until the late afternoon of February 10th, day 15 of our loss of service.

So what was the problem? As I see it there were several: (a) a dreadful faults helpline; (b) inaccurate diagnosis of our fault (very surprising because we had reported the broken wire); (c) failure to find our address (yes, really); (d) engineers not showing up as promised, or showing up and doing nothing. Basically, we experienced a whole series of mistakes and miscommunications from BT, and it took great pressure and persistence finally to get the line fixed. In the end I was so exasperated and annoyed by the whole experience that I wrote to the BT chief executive to tell our sorry tale, something I rarely do. The response was pleasingly quick, but otherwise pretty pathetic: a verbal apology, and an offer of one month's free line rental by way of compensation - absurdly, the recent snow was also blamed, though it clearly had nothing to do with my problems.

Now, this shows just how much can go wrong when the service standard is easily measured. But in universities, the situation is immensely more difficult because it is far from clear what can or should be measured. Yet in the news recently I have seen several articles suggesting some very specific measures, most notably to do with the typical weekly contact hours (lectures, tutorials, labs, etc.) that a student can expect to experience during his/her course. Indeed it is even being proposed that universities should be required to publish information about contact hours for each of their courses, as part of the information made available to potential applicants. This seems to me a seriously bad idea. Let me explain.

Of course, contact hours have always differed a good deal between subjects, for quite understandable reasons. Thus science students often have to spend time in labs to conduct experiments as part of their courses, while history students are expected to spend more time in the library (or nowadays, on line) collecting information for the various essays they have to write. This is all quite normal. For a given subject, there will probably be a bit of variation in contact hours between universities depending on how each institution chooses to structure the degree course and deliver the material. In their advertising material and course brochures, institutions might or might not choose to say how a typical student week will be structured, but I don't see why they should be compelled to reveal this or that detail, including exact contact hours.

Requiring institutions to publish their contact hours implies - for most people studying the information and comparing courses and institutions - that more is better. But we simply don't know whether that is true for university education. It's probably not great to have zero contact hours, for why be at university in that case; and having a very large number is probably not good either, for then university education becomes far too much like spoon feeding, with insufficient room for independent learning. So somewhere in between there is no doubt a happy medium, located at different points for different subjects. But I'm not aware of any evidence that more contact hours are systematically correlated with a 'better' university education. So I would let universities decide for themselves what contact hours to offer, and what information they choose to publish about their courses. This is surely not an area that needs regulation.

Moreover, while in my BT example the broken line implied 'zero service' (and therefore should have called for priority attention), the number of contact hours in a university course has little or nothing to do with the quality of higher education being delivered. Do you think people want to go to the university offering the most contact hours, or the one with the best academic reputation? I would have thought the latter.

The quality of service offered by a university is a highly subjective notion, hard to pin down in precise numerical indicators - it's one of these puzzling things that we can't define all that well, but we know it when we see it. Contact hours are thought to be an easy indicator to measure, but this is not a good reason for drawing a lot of attention to it. In practice, too, if contact hours were used in the way proposed, it would quickly turn out that they were subject to all the distortions that afflict all quantitative indicators of institutional performance - universities would find ways of inflating the figures to make them look better, for instance. In the end, what matters most for universities is the quality and number of graduates they produce at the end, their 'output', not a whole lot of intermediate inputs such as contact hours.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Ability, Motivation, Potential

What is it that gets young people (or older people, for that matter) into a university? I've always thought that the two most important things are ability and motivation.

Ability itself is never enough, as for most people being smart in some sense doesn't in and of itself mean either that you can do something or that you know much. Initial ability, or signs of ability or talent, have to be nurtured and worked at in order to flourish, and in order to reach the level that corresponds to the normal starting point of a university level degree course.

So for ability to mean much, it usually has to be combined with a good deal of sheer hard work to develop it to its full potential. Some of this is fun, some will be sheer grind - but the reward is the amazing satisfaction that comes from achieving something thought to be difficult, like learning a foreign language, discovering that maths is really exciting.

Parents and other adults (such as inspiring teachers) often encourage and stimulate their children to develop whatever talents they appear to possess, whether these be academic or something totally different like sport, or a technical skill such as wood-working or cookery. Such encouragement often helps to instil the disciplines of hard work and regular practice into whatever activity the young person is seeking to master, but in the end, the motivation to continue and further develop the activity has to come from inside the person. After all, once someone goes away from home to college, university or whatever, parents or teachers are no longer around to provide encouragement, and any motivation simply has to be internal.

To this point, then, we can see the importance of ability and motivation in getting young people to study, to pass the needed school exams, and prepare themselves for university entry. It is then up to the universities to decide whom to accept, given the various offerings from potential students who apply. This has always been the normal course of events, at least until fairly recently.

For nowadays this whole area is becoming more complicated and contentious. What is complicating the admissions system is the idea that universities should, when deciding whom to admit, try to judge not only what the applicant can already offer in terms of ability and achievement, but also try to assess the applicants' potential.

In some ways this is not a new idea. For example, aside from the normal entry path via the standard qualifications, many universities have linked up with colleges running access courses in recent years. These are for students who, for whatever reason, didn't get the right qualifications at school. A college-based access course doesn't quite replicate what they might have done at school, but the aim is generally to bring the students concerned up to a level where they can cope academically with the demands of a university course; access courses generally include study of English and mathematics as a minimum. These courses have helped quite a number of people to get into university, and these students have sometimes done very well. Thus universities have shown themselves to be quite flexible in terms of being willing to judge applicants' potential on the basis of diverse qualifications.

But going beyond this is surely not such a great idea. For instance, why should a university give a place to a poorly qualified person from a 'difficult background' over someone much better qualified? It doesn't make sense. Yet there are proposals floating about now that this is exactly what universities should do, and that they might even be penalised in some way if they don't. I think this is a crazy idea, not least because I can't imagine how some regulator can ever judge applicants' true potential better than the universities themselves.

This issue could lead into a lengthy discussion, but I shall confine myself to making two points.

(1) The first was made for me by Alice Thomson (Times, February 9th 2011), where she argued that what is really critical for young people is to be inspired at school, and encouraged to aim high, from an early age. She is absolutely right, but one all too often gets the impression that many schools are not very ambitious for their pupils, don't have high expectations of them, and hence achieve weak results. Quite aside from what is good for the individual pupils, we live in a tough competitive world and we need all our young people to learn the disciplines of hard work, building up their skills and achieving their full potential. Unfortunately, when politicians talk about this it often comes over as just another slogan. But it is not. So school - and the family, I would add - is where young people should be drawing their inspiration, developing their talents, and where it is right for them, preparing for university.

(2) The second point is that universities are not properly resourced to bring up to their full potential students who are not well prepared for university in the first place. It is not, or should not be, their job to undertake this sort of social engineering. That said, it has become more common in the past decade or so for universities to provide remedial maths and English courses for those students who, despite having good grades in relevant school subjects, still struggle in these areas. This reflects rather badly on the standard of these school qualifications nowadays, it seems to me. Beyond this, though, would be quite hard to manage. Some universities have even suggested that if they had to take many students who were under-qualified, then they would have to extend degree programmes by an extra year - and who is supposed to pay for that?

Thinking about all this, it seems to me that some of the current ideas about university admissions, particularly to bring yet more social engineering into our universities, are not very sensible and need to be reconsidered. The new ideas are likely to be costly, and I greatly doubt their academic merit.