Saturday, 25 June 2011

Wisdom, and learning to think

What is it that universities really do, or ought to be doing, especially in relation to their main business of teaching?

These days we hear lots about transferable skills, the various (practical) skills that students supposedly need when they enter the job market or, as we sometimes say, 'they join the real world'............ It certainly can't be a bad thing for young people to learn about teamwork, presentation skills, communication and the like, or even more technical things such as IT, quantitative skills and the ability to write good prose. If these attributes are developed as a by-product of a general university education, that seems all to the good. But one hardly needs to attend university to acquire them, so there must be something else going on in universities that we consider important. What could that be?

Part of the story presumably has to do with learning whatever subject the student is at university to pursue, whether mathematics, history, medicine or whatever. Each subject has its own typical modes of instruction and learning, diverse mixes of lectures, tutorials, seminars, practical classes, essay writing and so on, and guidance from academic staff usually plays a significant part in these endeavours. However, nowadays, much of this can be done through distance learning and on-line courses, often delivered in a highly professional manner and sometimes taking less time and incurring a lower cost than would be entailed by attending a traditional university.

Thinking along such lines naturally leads one to wonder what the real value added of a good university education might be, if it's not just about picking up transferable skills or learning a particular subject to degree level - not that I have anything against either of these two forms of 'output'.

My view, which I have referred to in previous posts, is that easily the most important attribute that we would like our students to pick up from their time at university is the ability to think - logically, creatively, imaginatively, and deeply. From my observation over many years, I would says that this is not an easy attribute to pick up, in fact it's both complex and difficult - but it's surely the key to leaving university as an educated person. And I don't think it can easily be picked up on-line, without the personal academic contact that students enjoy at university.

The trouble is, it's quite hard to pin down and measure exactly what we mean by this attribute, 'ability to think', so I realise that I'm open to attack for being idealistic and vague, whereas the fashion these days is to quantify everything as far as possible. But perhaps we know it when we see it?

Personally, I see the 'ability to think' as partly a generic characteristic applicable to all areas of life - this relates to an older conception of what being a graduate was all about, and explains why classics graduates in the 19th century frequently found employment across various outposts of the British Empire as colonial administrators.; there was a presumption that a graduate could turn his (in those days it was rarely 'her') hand to anything. And partly , the 'ability to think' is something that can be given a more concrete meaning for particular subjects.

For instance, we sometimes observe that someone is 'thinking like an economist', and that means a lot more than just trotting out the latest theory just because it happens to be (dimly) remembered, it means recognising which - if any - theory is relevant to the problem or question at hand, what data are needed and/or available to help understand it, what the key issues might be, and what numerical indicators would look reasonable. It also means acknowledging and understanding what we don't or can't know. Last, it means possessing some economic 'common sense' - so if someone says their economy is growing at 10% per annum while it is only investing 5% of its GDP, one should immediately be sceptical, without even needing to know anything else about the country. This sort of understanding, I find, is not readily gained from textbooks, but it can be learned from experience of a wide range of problem solving and empirical exercises. Writing a dissertation can help to impart such understanding, as can wide-ranging and diverse discussions with tutors. But it's never easy, but very satisfying when it works.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Time to liven up our marketing of degree courses?

This week's Times Higher Education (June 16th) really hit the nail on the head when it commented on the lamentably dull way in which most universities present their main 'products', namely their degree programmes.

Who would rush to sign up for this, for instance?

"Study at the University of X and you'll receive lectures, seminars, formative and summative assessment, all culminating in some learning outcomes and, hopefully, a degree."

But who could resist this far more appealing offering?

" inspired and rewarding life, nestling on a bed of ancient learning sourced from free-range minds, temptingly accompanied by a compote of premium knowledge and rich insight, to-die-for handmade tuition and heady intellectual infusions."

For the full article, follow this link.
(Quotes drawn from the article without permission, and I'll remove them if anyone objects).

So, it's clearly time for us all to re-think how we write our various course brochures, handbooks, web-pages, etc. Universities are really exciting places to work and study, and we really do need to get that idea over far more forcefully and effectively than we do.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

How much mathematics do students need?

A report came out yesterday (Tuesday) showing that many UK university students are poorly prepared for the mathematical requirements of the courses that they register to study. The report was produced and published by a not terribly well known institution, ACME, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, an independent body based at the Royal Society. The latest report is in three parts - an overview/summary plus two substantive papers - and it is the outcome of a two year project run by ACME on the topic, Mathematical Needs.

The findings of the report make rather dismal reading, for they show that about two-thirds of the UK students who enrol for degree courses that require some mathematics, do so without the proper mathematical foundations that they need, with the result that many universities have to run remedial maths classes to bring students up to the right level. Better late than never, I suppose, but much of this extra maths could so easily have been done in secondary schools. Employers, too, are widely dissatisfied with the mathematical knowledge and skills of those they employ, so the problem is not just about preparing for university entry.

The fact is that we live in a world where mathematical expertise (or at the very least, a basic competence) is needed in all sorts of different areas of work. Yet as the ACME report shows, UK school students are increasingly lagging behind those in other advanced and emerging economies both in terms of the share of such students who continue with mathematics beyond age 16, and in the academic levels they aspire to and achieve. This is really quite a distressing situation, given our intensely competitive world - how on earth will UK young people be able to compete for and occupy the best and most productive jobs if this critical dimension of their education is so weak? Not surprisingly, therefore, the report includes lots of advice on ways of improving mathematics curricula and teaching in order to strengthen the UK's position in this important area.

Moreover, quite aside from this strictly utilitarian and functional approach to mathematical knowledge, surely we ought also to put a bit more weight than we do on the sheer joys and delights of mathematical explorations? Curiously, it seems to be socially acceptable in the UK to be 'bad at maths', whereas it most definitely isn't so acceptable to admit to functional illiteracy. There is also a widespread perception that 'maths is a difficult subject'. Both these views seem to me complete nonsense. They are not shared by our leading competitor countries, and they create a culture that makes it far too easy for the UK to under-perform. In my view (though I do admit to being a bit biased here), maths is no harder than anything else provided that students are prepared to put in the necessary hours of effort - I've always found history much harder going than mathematics, for example.

And mathematics is full of beauty and elegance, once one advances just a little beyond the routine (and rather dull) mechanics of basic calculations. For instance, lots of interesting geometrical shapes - plane or solid - can be constructed using elementary methods known to the Ancient Greeks, many important equations are both simple and beautiful, and by moving up a dimension or two some truly amazing objects arise.

Just recently, I managed to buy from a company in California an intriguing item, a Klein bottle, depicted here. The company concerned is actually the ACME Klein Bottle Company, though its name has no relation to the organisation referred to above. It is the only company I have ever dealt with that asked me to state the dimensionality of space in my neighbourhood, showing that at least some mathematicians have a sense of humour.

As I have tried to explain (unsuccessfully) to my wife, this object really requires us to be in four-dimensional space, and what I have purchased, therefore, is merely the projection into our familiar three-dimensional space of the real thing. But isn't it lovely? As it happens, I can't think of any economic applications of this sort of object, nor indeed any applications at all, but who cares?

And wouldn't it be great if more people took the same delight in discovering a new equation, or a new geometrical result (here I probably reveal that my maths is slightly old fashioned, as little geometry seems to be taught nowadays, sadly), as they do when they discover a new writer?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Support for higher education in England

Personally, I've always found it rather hard to make committees sound at all exciting, and at first sight parliamentary committees sound worse than most. But such a hurried judgement is actually wide of the mark, as many of our parliamentary committees do some really interesting and important things, investigating and reporting on topics that governments would often prefer not to pursue in such depth, or topics that reflect popular or topical concerns. They provide a valuable channel of accountability both for government departments, and for various public bodies and publicly funded activities.

Higher education is a case in point, and earlier this week our Public Accounts Committee (PAC) (and what could sound more boring than that?) published a report entitled, Regulating financial sustainability in higher education. Like all parliamentary reports nowadays, this report is available free from the PAC website (unfortunately, only as a web-document, rather than as a more useful pdf-file), part of the general UK parliamentary website.

Focusing on higher education in England, and hence the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the report highlights several important issues that have been a bit neglected, possibly even conveniently 'forgotten about', in the recent debates on student fees and the new student fee regime that comes into effect from academic year 2012-13. So what are these issues? Actually the report identifies many, and is therefore well worth a read simply to find out what they are and why they matter. Here, though, I focus on just two, of which the first breaks down into two subsidiary questions.
  • New student funding system (higher fees, lower HEFCE teaching grants) will very likely put some institutions in a difficult financial position. This raises two points to think about:
  1. How will HEFCE monitor and report on the financial position of higher education institutions?
  2. How would an institution's (financial) failure be managed?
  • Then there are the public finance implications of the new higher education funding model. Because many institutions appear to be setting their fees for 2012-13 at or close to the permitted maximum, the budgetary impact will prove rather higher than Ministers expected (or hoped).
Let us now discuss each of these points in turn.

HE institutions in financial difficulty
Traditionally, institutions running up unmanageable losses in the UK, for whatever reason, have tended to be merged with a neighbouring institution in better financial shape, usually with some accompanying job losses and other structural changes. Basically, though, the institutions keep going in some form, and students taking degree courses are not disadvantaged - they can still finish their courses and get their degrees. I call this the 'socialist model' of higher education restructuring, because it mirrors exactly what used to happen to failing socialist enterprises in Eastern Europe when the region operated under communist government (i.e. until 1989).

It's possible that this could happen again, once the new fee and funding regime settles down. But if it turns out that the overall scale of our HE system or the structure of provision by broad subject area has to change, then the old approach might not prove workable any longer, and a few institutions might, in the end, need to close. Clearly, closing a university is going to be rather harder than shutting down, say, a biscuit factory, since the latter doesn't typically have long-term contracts with its customers, and the customers always have readily available alternatives in their local supermarket.

Students enrolling for a degree, however, expect the institution to be in place until they've completed and graduated, and so naturally think of themselves as having a long-term contract with their university or college (though course credits could be transferred to another institution if needed). Thus the idea of a university going out of business - going bankrupt - is bound to be a trickier process than bankruptcy for a 'normal' business. Think of all the concern just now over the possible closure of care homes for the elderly (notably parts of the Southern Cross chain), where it is quite clear (politically if nothing else) that homes will not be permitted simply to close, with the old folk then turfed out onto the streets. While not as traumatic, it is equally clear that universities will not be allowed to close as abruptly as other businesses do. Yet we actually do not have, at the moment, an orderly and well understood procedure to help us manage such a potential closure. The situation is not unlike that for banks, where at the time of the financial crisis in 2007, 2008, we had no procedure in place to help us manage a failing institution. For the universities, this is an area that would benefit from a great deal more thought in order to formulate workable - and not excessively costly - procedures to manage institutional closures.

As for HEFCE, it regularly monitors the financial state of the institutions it funds, and maintains a list of 'institutions at risk', presumably also offering some fairly heavy 'advice' to the financially most vulnerable universities to get them to take whatever decisions are judged necessary to get them through their financial difficulties. HEFCE does not publish its list of financially fragile institutions, though the PAC report seemed to think it could provide more information than it currently does. I'm a little doubtful, as surely publishing the list would largely destroy student recruitment at such universities, and would hence prove to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is an area where I'm not convinced about the merits of greater openness.

Budgetary implications of higher education funding
The emergence of this issue should not have come as a surprise to anyone, though apparently it has.

First, it was moderately predictable that most institutions would choose to set their fees for 2012-13 at or near the maximum permitted level. Why? Well, unless you think that demand for places from students will be highly responsive to the price (the fee), that's the way to maximise revenues from teaching. Second, the new funding system ensures that students can get loans to cover the fee (and often part of living costs as well); these loans are on favourable terms and repayment is income contingent, so no one has to worry about the costs of being a student until they are already earning a decent income. These facts tend to support my expectation that student demand will not respond much to price.

Puzzlingly, the Government failed to see things this way and kept claiming that the average fee would come out at about £6500 to £7000 - I have no idea where that 'guess' came from! The result, though, is that funding the Student Loans Company will cost the government's budget a lot more in the next few years than Ministers had bargained for. More fool them is all I can say to that, they should have known better.

So, at least in England we are embarking on a more student-led model of higher education funding and it will be most interesting to see where it takes us. Probably a few institutions will close, some new ones will start, and a fair amount of systemic restructuring will take place. What all this might mean for higher education in Scotland is another story all together, one that I shall come back to at a later date.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Inequality and higher education

Whenever there is debate about student fees, one of the issues that invariably pops up is that of inequality and fairness. "Surely charging fees will lead to greater inequality in society", or "fees will deter students from less well off families from applying", etc. These and similar arguments crop up all the time, usually with little or no regard for the actual evidence that exists - from the experience of various countries - about the truth or otherwise of these claims.

At the weekend, another idea was reported that has already given rise to criticisms about inequality and elitism. This was the idea being promoted by a group of leading academics (including AC Grayling, Niall Ferguson and Richard Dawkins) to establish a new private college, the New College of the Humanities (NCH), based in London and awarding University of London degrees, with plans for the first intake of 200 students to occur in Autumn 2012. NCH aims to attract highly qualified students (at least 3 A grades at A-level) and will charge very high fees of £18,000. Hence the charge of elitism.

However, the charge is surely nonsense, since such a small institution can hardly make a measurable impact on the composition and social background of the UK undergraduate student body, or on overall (social) inequality however we decide to measure it. More positively, moreover, it seems to me that we should support experiments like this - assuming that it gets off the ground in due course - as a potentially valuable contribution to the diversity of higher education provision in the UK. NCH is clearly being set up as a commercial venture, free from the government controls to which most of the rest of our higher education system is subject, and it may or may not succeed. But innovation and experimentation are always to be welcomed and I wish it well. Nor shall I lose any sleep over its possible impact on our social inequality.

That said, the recurrent debate about inequality, and the often voiced suggestions that our universities should engage in some form of social engineering to assist potential students from 'less favoured backgrounds' - if I may express it so delicately - to gain entry to degree courses, raise some tricky issues that could benefit from a little more clarity. Specifically, what do we actually mean or understand by the notion of inequality that is forever being bandied about in such an ill informed manner? And to what extent does it, or should it fall to our universities to promote whatever conception of equality or 'fairness' we opt for?

Now, inequality can be thought of in two principal ways. The first is inequality of outcomes, by which we mean, thinking of education here, that everyone should end up essentially the same in terms of the qualifications they achieve. That would mean allocating massive resources to those less able (including to those socially disadvantaged) in order to bring them up to the level of those more fortunately endowed (with inherent brainpower, and/or with the social attributes and supports that facilitate effective learning). And taken to its logical conclusion, such an approach to the allocation of educational resources is manifestly absurd - it is highly inefficient for one thing, ignores the likely preferences of many of those being educated, and probably ends up seriously under-investing in the very young people who could benefit most from the best and most demanding forms of higher education. So let us not pretend any longer that we want everyone to turn out essentially the same, as that's neither possible nor desirable!

Instead, the second approach has a bit more going for it, I think. This involves thinking of inequality much more in terms of inputs and opportunities. On this view, we would like everyone capable of benefiting from higher education to have that chance, or opportunity, whether the benefits take the form of higher future wages, or simply a wider knowledge and understanding of the fascinating and diverse world we live in (or even, more controversially, the sheer enjoyment of being a student for three or four years). We might not be too keen to undertake a great deal of 'spoon feeding' of the students, e.g. by providing additional help for those less able, but if we care about inequality and see higher education as a tool that can help reduce it, we might still go a little way down the road of offering such help.

I can certainly see the sense in that line of thinking, but I wouldn't personally want to travel a long way down the road just referred to. This is not because I am against helping and supporting students, far from it. Rather, it's because I see the problems faced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds originating much earlier in their lives, and I suspect that social intervention of some sort is needed long before anyone gets to the stage of thinking about going to university. It seems to me that what young people need from an early age is self confidence, independence, and ambitious goals for themselves (grounded in reality rather than fantasy). More mundanely, but just as important, is a range of communication and social skills (basic socialisation, really), the habit of reading (little is more depressing than hearing a student complain, as one does sometimes, "Oh, no, I don't have to read the whole book, do I?"), and good work habits. These are very typical middle class values, generally absorbed very early in life.

How to instil such critical values into children with materially and emotionally poorer backgrounds is a nightmare for well-meaning social policy, involving lots of issues and approaches that are still not as well understood as they should be. Hence there is still massive uncertainty over how best to address these issues. This is simply a fact of life, albeit an uncomfortable one. But I don't think it's right or fair then to turn on the universities and criticise them for being elitist or for promoting inequality in society, and nor is it right to attack innovative ideas like the proposed NCH on similar grounds. It is the duty of the universities to provide high level education to all who can benefit from it, not to solve all the social problems that no one else seems able to deal with!