Saturday, 24 September 2011

Mergers and restructuring in Scottish higher education

How many universities does Scotland need?

That's not a question we have needed to ask for quite a while, and the country has a very long tradition of valuing higher education and fostering some very high quality institutions. This week's bombshell from the Scottish Government, coming down to the universities concerned via the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), will bring this whole debate about the number and size of institutions right out into the open. The casus belli, if I may put it that way, was the decision (and there's no other way to describe it) that the universities of Dundee and Abertay Dundee should be instructed to enter into immediate discussions with a view to merging, a decision that was communicated in a letter from the SFC to the two institutions.

Both institutions profess to be 'totally surprised' by these developments, as well they might. And senior people at Dundee have already said that while they will examine the proposed merger, they would only want to go ahead if it makes 'academic and financial sense' for them. No doubt this is true, but I would bet that the SFC has ways of making the merger look like 'academic and financial sense'.  We shall see, and probably fairly soon. I can't imagine the institutions being allowed to mull the whole idea over for a couple of years........

And what's in it for the Scottish government? Well, it's hard to see why they would push for the merger unless they anticipated some real cost savings to come through, meaning, I expect, job losses at all levels. This hasn't been said yet, but the announcement surely has no rationale otherwise.

More interestingly, the announcement raises questions about universities elsewhere in Scotland. For Aberdeen has two, Glasgow and Edinburgh both have four universities (including the University of the West of Scotland in Glasgow's). Will these numbers prove to be sustainable, and who might be next on the SFC hit list? In these days of spending cuts, it would be surprising if the merger proposal already announced turned out to be the only one. In the past, several Scottish Universities have sought to grow by merging with various colleges - sometimes for good academic reasons, sometimes simply seeing security in greater size. Now we can expect to see university-university mergers, as the Scottish Government seeks to square the circle of preserving the strengths of Scotland's university traditions, while nevertheless cutting system-wide costs. Difficult times lie ahead, I think.

Meanwhile, what are other institutions to do?

In some ways the situation for our universities is a bit reminiscent of the problems firms faced when the Soviet Union collapsed back in 1991. At the time, some firms I visited were saying, 'we don't know what to do, we are waiting for our next plan instructions', but other, more forward-looking firms were already looking around for new partners and markets, and were determined to survive in the new environment. So what will our universities be doing now? Perhaps some will sit and wait, hoping the SFC never notices them, never sends them 'that letter'. Others might be more strategic and pro-active, picking out good partners and going for them long before any official intervention from on high.

Given all this, we might now expect a mix of more or less forced mergers, plus some cherry picking by stronger institutions. This cannot be an easy or comfortable time to be running a university up here in Scotland.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Who should go to university?

The simple answer to this question is this: those who are well enough qualified to go, and who have the motivation and drive to enable them to succeed in their chosen course.

But that's a bit glib, and leaves aside some important points that crop up frequently in discussions about whether or not to go to university (and why), what to do there, and how to make the best of the university experience. So let me take these points in turn and offer a few comments, based on the experiences of family and friends, as well on my own experience of advising students over many years.

Whether to go (and why)
This is really the key question, I think. These days it seems to be a standard assumption that anyone able to obtain the necessary grades in various school subjects should proceed to university, and the Government has certainly wanted to raise the share of young people going there. For those young people who know what they want to do, have the ability and qualifications, and who are well motivated, I'm sure that moving on to university is a great idea.

For many others who get the grades but are really quite unsure what they ultimately want to do, I'm not so convinced. They might be better off working for a while, perhaps taking professional qualifications while doing so. Sometimes, working can mean virtually any job - and some work experience is always better than none; but it can also mean finding work closely related to one or other of the subjects that a young person has already studied, which helps him or her to assess whether it really is what they might like to do in the longer term.

It's also tempting to suggest a gap year of some sort, but the snag with that (aside from its likely cost), is that it merely delays important decisions without doing anything to clarify options and hence help the decision-making process. No doubt it's often fine, however, for a young person already clear about where they are heading, educationally.

The worst option of all, faced with indecision, is to laze around doing nothing at all, perhaps hoping for some inspiration to pop up from somewhere. Sometimes it might, but mostly, I suspect, it won't. Hence time is wasted, and since we only get to live our lives once, that's a terrible shame.

It seems to me there are two good reasons for going to university: (a) you're good at something and want to pursue it further (and hope that it might lead to a job at the end); or (b) you want to make yourself more employable and there are courses you could take to achieve that (and hopefully they are subjects you like and are reasonably good at). No one should go just because family and friends tell them that they should.

What to do there
Once there, what do you do?

Obviously, the main thing is to pursue the degree programme that you applied to do. Two points here - first, lots of universities provide for some flexibility, making it possible to change what you are doing if you realise that your first choice was a mistake; or you fail parts of the course; or, more positively, you realise you like something else even more.

The second point - take care over your choice of subject/course in the first place. After all, it's something that will take up three years of your life (usually four in Scotland, and in a few English universities), so it really helps if it's something you like and are good at. You may have in mind future career options, and it's always sensible to think about these, but it's not smart to torture yourself doing a degree you don't like, based on the idea that good jobs lie ahead. For what makes you think you'll like doing the subject as part of a job any more than you did as a student? So think carefully about what you do.

How to make the best of it
Here I can only reiterate points made in previous posts, namely that university is not only about studying (which reminds me of a couple of students I knew some years ago who were bright but performing badly - they were really amazed when I pointed out to them that they needed to do more than one or two hours of studying per week, in addition to lectures!). Universities offer diverse social activities, sports clubs, all sorts of other clubs, travel opportunities, and so on. So by the time you graduate, you can not only feel educated, but also hugely enriched as a person, ready to embark on the adventurous world of work.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

STEM subjects and the next generation of academics

Once again there are worries about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects in the UK. Not so long ago, the concern focused on recruiting sufficient good quality undergraduates into these subject areas, especially students with good mathematical skills. That may indeed still be perceived as a problem, but the latest issue seems to have more to do with postgraduate students, specifically getting more UK students into STEM MSc and PhD programmes. Reportedly, UK postgraduate student numbers in these fields have been static or declining, while available places are being increasingly filled by overseas students. This brings in some very welcome fee income to institutions, but raises questions about the viability of many university departments if this was thought of predominantly in terms of provision for UK students.

There are several issues wrapped up in all this, that we need to disentangle and think about carefully.

First, does it matter that an increasing share of our postgraduate students in the STEM subjects come from overseas? From the standpoint of the providing departments, surely not - they are only concerned to fill their available places and ensure that their provision is properly funded. Moreover, for many people, one of the benefits and attractions of postgraduate study is precisely the huge diversity of the student body. However, this benefit might be less clear for someone who finds himself/herself as the sole UK student in a class of 40-50 mostly Chinese students, say. So there will at times be an issue of balance to think about.

Second, both at undergraduate level, and even more so at postgraduate level, there is a great deal of student mobility around the world, with the best students seeking out opportunities in countries that offer the sorts of course and/or research programmes that they seek. Much of this mobility involves students from poorer parts of the world, or parts of the world lacking high quality universities, coming to countries that are both richer and better endowed. Some of these students stay and work in the country where they studied, many eventually return home. Relatively few UK students take part in this international mobility, partly because the UK is well endowed with good universities already, partly because most UK students lack good language skills and this would constrain where they could study (e.g. within Europe, though increasingly European universities do offer  English language programmes).

Third, why do we need (more?) STEM graduates with MSc and PhD level qualifications? Part of the argument is about providing the next generation of academics as the current faculty head off into the sunset and retire. Of course, recruitment of new academic staff is itself increasingly international, but most departments tend to feel they should include some UK academics among their numbers, and this is said to be becoming increasingly difficult. That said, I'm not aware of situations where significant posts simply cannot be filled.

We also apparently 'need' more STEM graduates at all levels to meet the demands of the wider economy. But do we? We are often told that 'industry' needs more engineers and mathematicians, but when I look at the jobs pages in various publications I don't notice all that many especially attractive salaries being offered. This makes me wonder where the alleged demand is to be found. It may well be that UK students are being completely rational in their reluctance to pursue STEM subjects to a high level. To encourage more to do so, I imagine we would need a mix of far better funding to support UK postgraduate students in the STEM subjects, and a sense that there really are lots of excellent - well paying - jobs at the end of the line. There's plenty of food for thought here, but we shouldn't just bemoan the lack of UK students taking STEM subjects.

Monday, 5 September 2011

More on those university rankings.....

This morning there was another round of news about university rankings, this time an update of the QS rankings. Just under 3000 of the world's higher education institutions were surveyed, with 712 of them being ranked; the top 300 institutions in the ranking have just been published. The methodology underlying the QS rankings is quite complicated, involving:

(a) the collection of data from institutions on such indicators as student-staff ratios and publications per member of academic staff;

(b) a survey of over 16,000 employers to find out how they judge the quality of graduates from different institutions; and

(c) a survey of over 33,000 academics to find out how academics rated other institutions (usually in their own discipline) (I was among those surveyed, and provided information on my own discipline, economics).

So, masses of information, some of it quite objective, some unavoidably subjective and personal. At the end it is all put together to form the published rankings, an enormous task.

As in previous years, the UK, with 19 institutions in the top 100 in the world, comes out rather well. Cambridge remains at number one, and in Scotland, Edinburgh is now in the world's top 20 and Glasgow has come up the rankings by 18 places to 59th. Needless to say, those institutions which have done well - by holding onto an already high ranking, or by coming up significantly - will draw attention to this in their publicity. For whatever they really mean, institutions commonly perceive that good rankings are helpful in recruiting both staff and students. Institutions that come out less well might undertake some sort of internal review to figure out ways of doing better next time, but they will say little or nothing publicly.

Some will try to use these new rankings as a stick with which to beat the government. The argument goes like this: First, the UK has done really well in the rankings; second, it is assumed the government would like to see the UK's strong academic performance continuing in the future; third, with public funding cuts, the introduction of much higher fees, and more competition, the environment in which our universities operate is becoming more difficult; hence it would surely make sense for the government to back off a little, slowing down or even reversing reforms to ensure that our universities have the funding to remain competitive. This is quite an appealing argument, but not ultimately a very convincing one.

In the end, though, I'm convinced that our best universities will manage to steer a path through all the changes going on in our higher education system, and will continue to perform well (though deep down, we all know the rankings don't mean very much, don't we.........).