Monday, 31 January 2011

Language learning and EU students

In a post earlier this month (January 18th) I commented on the high costs for the Scottish Government in supporting EU students coming to Scottish universities to study, given the present situation where Scottish students pay no fees. Since writing that piece there have been further articles in the UK press on the topic, and an important issue came up that I should have paid more attention to last time. This is the simple point that Scottish (or other UK) students going to study at universities in other EU member countries also pay no fees, or pay whatever - usually very low - fee is levied on nationals of the country concerned. Such students are therefore subsidised by the government of whichever EU country they have chosen for their studies.

So there is a two-way traffic going on here, with subsidies to the universities paid by the government of any country receiving an incoming student from another EU member state. That all sounds perfectly fair, doesn't it? And it's a nice example of how the EU, almost accidentally, encourages some highly desirable cross-border mobility by students. As usual, though, it's not that simple. For in practice the flows of students are much more asymmetrical with lots wanting to come to Scotland (and also England), not many at all seeking to move from Scotland to another EU country to study. The reason is quite simple, hardly any Scottish students learn a foreign language to a sufficiently high level that they could seriously contemplate studying elsewhere, in that language. In contrast, huge numbers of EU students learn English well enough to be able to cope with studying in an English-speaking country.

So in a way, we can think of the problem not so much as one of finance and fees, but rather it has much more to do with learning foreign languages. And it seems to me that Scotland - and Scottish students - lose out badly in the modern world. For if not many of our young people learn foreign languages to a high level, then I would have thought this would tend to reinforce the insularity of Scotland in the world economy, and would weaken our ability to operate successfully in other cultures, using other languages. What a pity that is!

Somehow, therefore, our schools need to re-think their whole approach to the teaching of foreign languages and their students also need to re-think their attitudes to such learning. The area needs a lot more energy, commitment, and sheer hard work from all involved. And let's not forget, learning a language well enough to use it abroad is one of the most satisfying things a young person can do, a really worthwhile achievement. It can also be enormous fun.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Building a Smarter Future (2)

Returning to the Scottish Government's recent Green Paper (GP) on the future of higher education, today I focus on financing options. In other words, how should Scottish universities - and students - be funded in these difficult times of public spending cuts and generally tight budgets?

Unfortunately, the GP makes life difficult for itself by rejecting right at the start the most obvious and natural solution, namely a system of fees rather on the English model with nothing paid up front by the students, repayments being made after graduation, through the income tax system, on an income-contingent basis (i.e. those on low incomes pay nothing).

Setting that option aside, let us now consider what funding methods the Paper does put forward. On p.32 of GP, six options are listed and then discussed in detail; these are:
  • State retains the prime responsibility
  • State retains the prime responsibility but requires some form of graduate contribution
  • Increasing income from cross border flows of students
  • Increasing donations and philanthropic giving
  • Increasing support from business
  • Increasing efficiency
The first two are variations on a theme, the second easing in by the back door a limited form of fee system (but not payable up front). The basic philosophy, though, is that it is fundamentally up to the state to fund our universities, and the Paper does point out that Scotland's public contribution to universities, at around 1% of national income (GDP) is rather low compared to the public funding provided by major competitors. This suggests that there might be scope for a bit more public largesse to help the universities, to bring Scottish spending more into line with other countries (including England). Nice thought, but I'm afraid it's not going to work. For with budgets being cut all over the place, where is any extra money going to come from? The big trouble with budgets, sometimes forgotten, is that you can only spend the money once! It's a real shame.

The last three options all make good sense but in financial terms will achieve very little, especially if the university system needs extra money as soon as 2012. Donations are great, but they are not a well established part of the Scottish tradition. With great effort (not free, by the way) and lots of time (say 5-10 years), there is no doubt that Scottish universities could start to pull in more donations. As the culture shifted towards seeing such giving as a more normal part of the funding framework, I dare say inflows would gradually rise, so in the longer term this approach can help. But nothing much is going to happen by 2012. The same is likely to be the case for increasing support from business, but there, too, there is probably some long term potential.

As for efficiency gains, surely no one can object to those - or can they? Actually, this whole area is not as straightforward as it sounds, for over the past 20-25 years there has already been a good deal of efficiency saving in our universities. Some of this has cut out real waste, but a lot of it has also tended to worsen the student experience in various ways, such as larger class sizes, fewer and larger tutorials, fewer marked assignments, generally less personal contact between the students and academic staff.

I imagine some folk might react to my comments here by suggesting that my notion of higher education is getting rather old fashioned, with too much emphasis on the traditional 'craft' model of university education, with lots of personal contact and individual or small group tuition, and not enough attention to modern methods using IT more and more intensively. This is true, I do greatly value the traditional approach to university education, and my unhappiness at its gradual erosion is one of the reasons why I am now retired. As I see it, students learn better and have a better university experience overall if they get more personal contact - but there just aren't the resources to offer that in the way we used to.

So yes, efficiency savings can indeed save a bit of money, but we do need to take care that we protect what I see as the core values of our university system.

Up to this point we don't seem to have found much spare or additional money for our universities. That leaves the last funding option, extracting more money from cross border flows of students. Actually, what this means is simply getting more money from the English students who come to Scottish universities - for the position of EU students was discussed in my last posting (same fee as Scottish students, currently zero), and non-EU overseas students already pay high fees and have done for many years (which is why my university was pleased that Norway voted to stay out of the EU, as we have lots of Norwegian students). There is thus room for debate about what level of fee should be set for these incoming English students, but I can't see this making a big difference to the funding of many universities, especially as the Scottish Government would not like to see well qualified Scottish applicants being turned away.

Overall, then the Green Paper offers lots of funding options, most of them mildly appealing, but none of them offering a big injection of money in the near future. Hence I think this is very much a case of 'back to the drawing board' for some re-thinking about possible funding options. I certainly don't see a great new Scottish Solution in all this!

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

EU rules and funding Scottish universities

An intriguing feature of EU rules is that member states of the EU are allowed to discriminate in various ways within a given state, but they are not allowed to do so between states. I'm not sure what the origin of such a rule might have been in the distant past, though it might have been part of a mix of policies designed to create a level playing field across Europe for business activity, leaving individual states free to conduct regional policy within their borders. Whatever the origin of the rule, it has some unexpected and unwelcome side effects, which always seem to catch people unawares.

The latest of these was revealed in a number of press and BBC website articles last week, where it was reported that for Scotland, funding EU students studying at Scottish universities was now costing £75 million per year, a sum that has apparently quadrupled over the past decade. How could this be and what does it mean?

The problem is that a few years ago, the Scottish Government decided that for Scottish students attending Scottish universities there would be no fees payable by the individual students, either up front, or following their graduation through some form of additional tax. At the same time, English students coming up to Scotland were expected to pay a fee, currently around £3000 per annum I believe. However, students from other EU countries wishing to study at a Scottish university have to be offered the same funding terms as Scottish students - in other words they pay no fee. But their education is not of course free in terms of its resource cost, and the Scottish Government apparently ends up paying the Scottish universities to cover the costs - hence the enormous sum of £75 million mentioned above!

Of course, neither the Scottish universities nor the Scottish Government like this situation, and would like to stop it. There has been talk of Scottish ministers going to Brussels to find a way of getting round this rule in a legal way, but I'm not convinced that will provide a workable escape route. The other possibility would be for the Scottish universities to stop accepting EU students, but I suspect that would rapidly fall foul of legislation to do with discrimination, or even with European Human Rights legislation. So that's probably not a good way forward either. In any case, some of our best students come from other EU member states, and it would be a great shame to lose them.

In the end, I suspect that the solution will be found through Scottish universities charging fees to Scottish students - which EU students would then also have to pay. But more on that in my next posting.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Building a Smarter Future (1)

The heading of this post comes from the Scottish Government's Green - consultation - Paper on higher education in Scotland, published in December 2010 and inviting comments in the next couple of months. The whole process has been set up with a view to arriving at specific proposals about Scottish higher education for whatever government we have in Scotland after the May 2011 elections to consider. If all goes according to plan, any new arrangements are supposed to come into effect from academic year 2012-13, so there isn't a great deal of time to reach agreement, pass the needed legislation, and prepare for implementation.

In this post I want to comment specifically on the section of the Green Paper dealing with research, while in the next one I shall comment on proposed funding arrangements for Scottish universities. There are lots of other topics covered in the Green Paper, and I would encourage all readers to get their own copy by using this link. In addition, the Scottish Government has set up a website to facilitate discussion about the issues raised in the Green Paper; again, just go to this link.

General remarks
There are three general points I would make before talking about my main topic of research.

(1) Given the amount of discussion about funding research and funding students across the UK that has already taken place, it seems a little surprising for Scotland to be embarking on this consultation exercise with a virtually clean slate, apparently open to any ideas that might come forward - except for the taboo topic of tuition fees. The whole process has the feel of re-inventing the wheel, and I only hope we don't come up with a square one just for the sake of being different from England! It's hard not to think that at least in part, what is going on in Scotland is a delaying tactic to ensure that no controversial decisions about the Scottish universities are taken prior to the May election.

(2) A term used widely in the Green Paper is 'learner journey', referring to the diverse pathways taken by students from application to a university through to getting a degree. To me, the term has a somewhat patronising feel to it, though I dare say that was never intended.

(3) The Paper is clearly aiming to come up with what it calls a 'Scottish Solution' to the conundrum of financing and organising Scottish higher education in these times of falling budgets and limited resources. Personally, I'm quite sceptical that there is anything uniquely Scottish to be discovered, so I await the outcome of this whole exercise with enormous interest.

Research is one of the core activities of a good university, along with the teaching of undergraduate and postgraduate students. And in the best cases, the more advanced teaching ought to be able to draw on the research findings of academic staff, a process that often benefits both teaching and research.

Research in UK universities is funded through several channels - research grants for specific projects (from diverse sources, including the Research Councils); from the relevant funding council for research infrastructure; and also from the funding council as a result of the most recent research assessment exercise - the last of which was RAE2008. In the future, the RAE is to be replaced by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), but as presently envisaged, it too will be used to allocate part of the public money for universities on the basis of research performance.

For Scotland, the Green Paper (GP) asks some important questions about how research should be supported and funded. One quite fundamental one (GP, p17) asks whether we need to retain research in all of our universities. It seems to me that the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) might reasonably decide not to allocate any public research money to a given university, let us say, but this would in no sense prevent it from doing research. Individual academics would still be free to pursue their research interests, and could support them by winning research grants. So I would certainly want to see in Scotland a situation where all universities were free to undertake research, without necessarily insisting that all should receive public funding.

The GP (p17) also asks whether research funding should be more concentrated or focused on larger research groups. If our concern is to achieve the highest possible good quality research output from limited resources, this seems a poor way to achieve that, as there is very limited evidence that larger research groups are more effective, or more productive than smaller ones in most fields.

More controversially, GP (p18) raises the idea of focusing research funding on Government priorities, supposedly to 'have a greater impact on increasing sustainable economic growth'. This idea seems to me complete nonsense, not because I am against growth, but because I am absolutely certain that the Government has no idea what particular research would stimulate faster growth. No doubt there are lots of connections between research and growth, but they are terribly poorly understood. This relates a little to the whole 'impact' agenda that has become fashionable these days. Again, most researchers have no idea about the possible or likely impact of their work, though we can all make up stories if our research administrators tell us to do so. But really, it doesn't mean a great deal.

An aspect of GP that seems to me quite weak in the research chapter has to do with international aspects of research. True, this does get a mention on p18, but there ought to be far more to it. After all, Scotland is a small country, competing and operating internationally in numerous areas of research, and this international dimension must have a lot to do with Scottish universities' remarkable success in research. Our natural research partners are not necessarily other Scottish universities, or Scottish firms, but they will often lie much further afield - in the UK, Europe, or anywhere else in the world. Finding and nurturing these international links seems absolutely critical to Scotland's future as a nation that values the research that universities do, and I would hope that whatever Scottish Solution finally emerges later this year will include some very strong acknowledgement of, and support for all this. The last thing we want is a set of institutional and funding models that foster more parochial thinking in our universities. The whole world is out there for us to study and explore, and it's an exciting place.