Saturday, 27 August 2011

Fees for English Students Studying in Scotland

Today the newspapers reported that Aberdeen University had officially decided to set the fees for new English undergraduates wanting to study at the University at the highest permitted level, namely £9000 per year, from academic year 2012-13. However, the pain is alleviated somewhat by the supermarket-like offer of four years for the price of three. In other words, the total fee for the standard four-year undergraduate degree will be capped at 'just' £27,000. My own and other Scottish institutions will no doubt be announcing similar decisions quite soon. And one can see why. Money is tight, the Scottish government is not really in a financial position to pay up to the extent that institutions need, and where else are we supposed to find the money?

That said, making the new fees stick might not prove straightforward.

For one thing, even before the Aberdeen decision, the idea of charging higher fees to English students was already facing a legal challenge on the grounds that it might contravene various sections of our anti-discrimination and/or human rights legislation. Not being a lawyer, I have no idea what to make of such claims. My instinct is not to be very sympathetic, but we shall have to see what the courts eventually determine. Interesting!

For another, even if the legal issues do not prove too troublesome, there is the issue of market forces. Will English students be willing to pay Aberdeen's proposed fees in sufficient numbers to make the decision worth while? Since, just as in England, students will not have to pay fees up front, the initial burden will not be a problem; however, after graduation, student loan repayments start once the graduate is earning £15,000 per year, whereas in England this threshold has already been raised to £21,000. So in due course, unless the schedules are amended, English students graduating from Scottish universities will face a rather steeper repayment scheme than those who remained in England. However, I doubt whether such arcane details will make a big difference to many potential students.

More important, in the longer term, will be two other factors: (a) the size of the cohort of (mostly young) people ready to go to university in a given year; and (b) potential students thinking harder than they have had to hitherto about the prospective costs and benefits of their higher education.

On the first point, we already know from population projections that the relevant age cohort will be falling in the next few years, so unless universities can attract more older students to enrol (or even pensioners?), the total demand for university places across the UK can be expected to decline quite regardless of any pricing issues. No doubt the fall in demand will not be distributed evenly across all institutions, so one can expect that a few will face really severe recruitment, and hence funding problems. Whether any of these will be in Scotland, we don't of course know yet, but we are hardly in a position to exclude such a possibility. Falling demand will certainly sharpen up the competition between institutions for the best students (in some cases, for any students!), something that might lead to some re-thinking about fee levels.

On the costs and benefits point, I'm not sure how far young people (or their parents) think this through. I know I never did myself, but then in my day few people went to university, all fees and living expenses were paid by the state (so one graduated with no debt), and good - graduate-level - jobs were pretty easy to find. Nowadays, the government wants around half the relevant age group to go to university, but is unwilling or unable to fund that in the way that used to happen; and the job market has changed beyond recognition. There are still lots of graduate-level jobs around, but one reads of many new graduates struggling to find their first job, and apparently around a quarter of graduates are doing jobs that don't call for a degree in any case. All this makes the cost-benefit balance less attractive, and over time, some students (and their families) might take the view that getting a job at age 18 is a better bet than going to university.

For the economy, that might not be so bad, but it would obviously not be great for some of our universities. The universities that thrive under these tougher conditions will, I suspect, be of two main types: first, the academic leaders that deliver the very highest intellectual standards; and second, the institutions that do the best job in terms of offering programmes with strong pathways into the world of work.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

REF - Transparency and Feedback

The latest issue of Times Higher Education includes an article by Mark Burnley about the REF. He complains that when the results of REF2014 are eventually published, while individual units of assessment will receive their grading in the form of a distribution (or profile) rather as occurred with RAE2008, individual academics will not get any direct feedback telling them how well or otherwise they are judged to have performed. Mark Burnley is clearly unhappy about this situation, and thinks it should be changed.

One of the reasons he gives is that if a given unit is assessed as having, say, 10% of its research of outstanding, world class quality, how can it know which 10% and who delivered that spectacularly good work? His point, I think, is that if the unit doesn't know that, it can't learn from the outcome of REF2014 and do even better next time. More generally, he claims that academics need individualised feedback from the REF to enable them to understand where their weaknesses are and hence, what they can do about them (for next time). However, I think this way of using the REF results is inappropriate, it's not what the system has been designed for, and there ought to be other ways for academics to get the feedback they need. Let me explain.

(a) The REF has been designed to evaluate units of assessment, not individuals, and its fundamental purpose is to provide performance indicators that will be used by the Funding Councils to allocate the research component of their grants to institutions (hitherto, the QR stream) for some years following REF2014. Thus its function is to guide the allocation of financial resources, not to evaluate individuals.

(b) Next, if a unit of assessment does indeed have 10% of its research adjudged 'outstanding' then it seems to me quite bizarre to imagine that members of that unit, or managers in the relevant institution, might find it difficult to identify which parts of their work are so extremely good. If they can't figure out for themselves which elements of their research are world class, then surely something is badly wrong......... After all, we would surely like to think that the REF panels, etc., will do their work as fairly and objectively as reasonably possible, so the designation 'outstanding' is hardly going to be conferred pretty much randomly. One hopes not, anyway!

(c) Last, quite regardless of the RAE, and now the REF, most academic institutions that are serious about developing and improving their research already have systems in place for assessing individual staff - setting targets periodically, monitoring performance, providing training, and so on. Not always, but very often, promotion is the reward for successful delivery of quality research output over a period, and for most of us, promotion is a rather strong incentive to perform well. Of course, acknowledging all this doesn't stop many of us from griping about the iniquities of our internal evaluation systems, and I'm sure many of us don't much like this sort of thing. But it's bound to be more finely tuned to suit a given institution than the rough and ready REF could ever be, so whatever we do internally is likely to give most academics a fairer hearing.

Overall, therefore, the REF has an important job to do, so let's simply allow it to do that job well, without trying to give it additional tasks for which it was never designed. And in case the reader might wonder, I'm not a huge fan of the REF, but it's there, and is not about to go away. We just have to live with it - it's part of our university world nowadays!

Friday, 12 August 2011

What does it take to get a degree?

There's lots of debate nowadays about what it takes, or should take, to get a degree. Some of the discussion is quite mundane, such as commentary on student contact hours (actual, and whatever is presumed to be desirable), expected student workloads, numbers of essays and other items of submitted work, and so on. It seems to me that this whole discussion has moved on a good deal since the time, over 40 years ago, when I was a student myself. Some of the movement, though, doesn't seem to me to have improved how things work in our universities, nor has it necessarily improved the student experience either. Let me explain what I mean.

When I first went to university (Cambridge) I didn't have much of an idea what was supposed to happen there. No one in my family had been to university before, and my parents had even less idea about such institutions than I did - except that my mother thought I might meet and marry a princess. In that respect, though, I was a complete failure!

Luckily I had a couple of outstanding maths teachers who had both been to good universities, and they encouraged me to apply to their respective institutions - Manchester and Cambridge. For the former, I was accepted on the basis of my A-level results (four at grade A, plus one grade 1 Scholarship level - there wasn't an A* in those days), but for the latter I was turned down (which nowadays might even be regarded as quite scandalous, but at the time such daft ideas didn't occur to anyone) - to get in, I had to sit Cambridge's own entrance exams, which I duly did, and passed comfortably.

During my three years at Cambridge, the student experience was amazing and truly life-changing, but not just for the conventional reasons to do with contact hours and the like. Of course, we did have lectures, six days a week in fact (though in my first year, classes were over by 11am each morning!); and we had regular tutorials with at most one other student, sometimes taken by senior academics, sometimes by young graduate students. Back then I had no idea what a privilege it was to have tutorials in such a small group. And it was quite sobering, sometimes, to find that the tutors couldn't always answer our questions, mostly based on problem sheets handed out in lectures. The presumption was that if we did enough work and thought about the problems for long enough, we would figure out the answers for ourselves; and mostly we did. There was no spoon feeding, but academic staff were there to help, and sometimes took the trouble to answer questions in huge detail.

I was never required to submit any problem sets (or essays) for marking, and all assessment was based on exams at the end of each year. That suited me fine, though I know many students these days find a mix of exams and continuous assessment more manageable.

It seemed to me that any student who survived the three years without being thrown out, and who turned up for the final exams, was likely to get some sort of degree. The idea seemed to be that merely soaking up the atmosphere of Cambridge for three years was enough! For instance I knew one maths student, supposedly a Polish minor count, who rarely did any work as far as anyone could tell; in the final exams, he claimed to have written one very long essay - continuing over all four papers - and he graduated with a third. In those days - before grade inflation, and when there were few graduates - even a third from Cambridge was a worthwhile degree, so he did OK.

But aside from the basic degree work, what made Cambridge special was two things. First, in order to find out about lecture times you had to buy a copy of the Cambridge Reporter that had information on all lectures in the university. As matriculated students, we were allowed to attend anything that took our fancy, so I sometimes went to lectures in architecture, philosophy, history, and a little economics - the subject in which I ended up spending most of my working life. It was great to have such an opportunity.

Second, there was an enormous range of student societies on anything you can imagine - political, cultural, social, etc. For me, starting out as a very shy individual, these also gave lots of opportunities to meet people other than mathematicians, through quite a range of activities. One thing I never did, though I met lots of folk who were very enthusiastic, was to engage in any sport. I'm not against exercise, but I've never much liked competitive sport. In my final year, the rooms I had in college turned out to have been home to the Science Fiction Society, and their books were still there. So the year started with three weeks of reading solid sci-fi. Then one day the books were taken away and I settled down to work.

Overall, a really big lesson from all this is that university is what you make of it. It offers fantastic options to anyone who looks around to see what is on offer, usually much more than the basic degree course one signs up for. No one has to take part in anything other than their degree programme, but it seems a shame to miss out on everything else universities can offer. They're amazing places, and about much more than the conventional views about gaining an education in a specific discipline suggest!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Straws in the Wind: Markets in Higher Education

The government's recently published White Paper on higher education reforms in England, bringing in higher fees from AY 2012-13, relaxing some of the formerly very tight recruitment constraints, and lots of other lesser changes, is starting to make some institutions think more competitively, as if they see themselves as inhabiting a market-type economy - as indeed they do!

This change in attitude has to be welcomed, in my view, because it might encourage HE institutions to deliver better services to their students - increasingly seen as their 'customers', whether one likes that or nor - and perhaps even to their staff, who need proper incentives in order to deliver what institutions want.

High-flying students with AAB or better at A-level (or equivalent other qualifications) will no longer be subject to number controls, so universities will be able to take as many of these students as they can attract. Lots of people tried to get into universities for AY 2011-12, to win places before the new fee regime comes into operation; and demographic changes mean that the age group eligible to enter university will anyway be down by about 10% for 2012. Hence the competition between universities to attract the best students will be pretty tough in a year's time, and a few institutions have already announced scholarship schemes offering discounted fees - not means-tested - to entrants with top grades.

This is not unusual in the US, since institutional reputations are often linked to the quality of student they can attract. But it is new for the UK. As one might have guessed, no special deals have yet been offered by the top ranking institutions, since they already attract plenty of high quality students, though they might be thinking about it. Rather, plans have been announced by middle-ranking institutions seeking both to protect their student numbers and to rise up the rankings. It will be most interesting to see how this competition plays out, once we have seen it operating for two-three years.

And for university staff there are increasing rumblings from various institutions thinking about leaving the national pay arrangements and setting pay locally. Imperial College London has already left the national system, and Exeter and Durham are apparently among those currently considering following suit. This could have several effects.

First, local pay levels could come to reflect the local or regional living costs better than they currently do.

Second, institutions will be able to do more, pay-wise, to attract and retain the very best staff than the current national pay-spine allows. However, one should not overdo this point, as senior administrative staff and professors have had more flexible pay for years, often based on measures of their performance. So leaving the national scale only affects less senior staff, and even there there was always scope for institutions to offer a few more points on the scale to secure a particular person. Hence this may be less of a change than it appears.

Third, institutions charging high fees and succeeding in attracting plenty of good students will be able to afford to pay more to all their staff, and some will probably choose to do so - something that staff would welcome after three years of severe pay restraint. However, the campus unions worry that local deals will put management in a stronger relative position, and that universities might demand measurably higher productivity as a quid pro quo for higher wages. This is possibly true, but at the end of the day good staff can vote with their feet and move elsewhere if they don't like their working conditions. This will surely place some constraint on institutions' ability to over-exploit their staff, one hopes.

At the moment, these points are just 'straws in the wind', but they could herald the start of some major changes in English higher education. Some of what is happening will also pose difficult challenges for those of us based in Scottish universities, and for now we have no clear way forward. We're still waiting for funding decisions from the Scottish Government for 2012-13.