Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Higher education and growth

Last weekend I spent some time reading a very strange report, in fact the more I think about it, the stranger it seems. The report in question was produced by the think-tank, Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), for the University and College Union (UCU). Entitled Further Higher? Tertiary education and growth in the UK's new economy, the report was published earlier this month. It's discussing some really interesting and important issues, and to that extent the report is to be welcomed. However, some of the report's analysis is pretty shaky and quite confusing, and so in my view it should be read with great caution, and in a critical spirit.

In a nutshell, the report's line of argument goes like this:

1. Both the social and private returns to higher education have been substantial and will continue to be so.

2. The UK economy needs to get back to growth, and the opportunities offered by low-carbon sectors offer a good way of doing so. Two sub-sectors are examined in more depth, wind power and low-carbon vehicles.

3. These sectors are R&D intensive and call for a skilled labour force, including lots of graduates, especially in engineering. Hence there is potentially a big role for higher education in supporting such development.

4. And we all live happily ever after...........

Actually, the last point is my own addition, but you get the idea! The argument is clearly set out in the report, has a nice logical structure, and ends up with conclusions the universities will like. But let's not be too hasty to accept the whole thing at face value, for there are some flaws.

First, while the analysis of returns to higher education is broadly OK, it fails to take into account one factor emphasised in the more technical economic literature on the subject, namely so called selection effects. This is the point that those who go on to university are presumably drawn from the brighter and/or more hard working segments of the population, and many of them would have done well (i.e. earned more income) even without going to university. Hence the standard ways of measuring returns to higher education might overstate the returns to some extent. Universities are great places for work and study in any case, so we don't need to exaggerate their benefits.

Second, I thought the choice of sectors on which to focus was rather unfortunate, especially wind power. Technically, wind power is all that the report claims, but there was not a single word on the truly dire economics of wind power. Wind power requires massive subsidies to be viable at all, when compared with other means of generating electricity, and eventually we consumers pay - either through higher taxes, or through higher electricity prices. Now, I am not against some state support for new technologies in cases where there would be significant learning effects or other public benefits from support. However, I'm quite sceptical as to whether such a case can be made for wind power.

Last, the report's old fashioned approach to manpower planning was less than convincing. It tends to highlight a sector, project some growth and translate that into new jobs, and then note that much of the new jobs are in STEM subjects or management, finally implying that universities need to be supplying the additional graduates. Only once did the report mention that high salaries - in other words, incentives - might be needed both to draw more people into engineering, and to attract engineers into new sectors.

The conclusions of the report focused on two areas, namely: the problems of ensuring that we have a sufficiently skilled labour force; and creating better conditions for innovation, especially from universities to industry. One can't really disagree with these points, though more on incentives, worker flexibility (with lots of movement between sectors) would have been nice. But these are just my own views, and what really struck me when I reached the end of the report was just how little we understand about either of these issues, i.e. promoting a more highly skilled labour force and promoting innovation.

Monday, 11 June 2012

From open access to open study?

In some recent posts I have talked about moves towards open access for universities' research publications. Whether we shall get there or not remains to be seen, though pressure to move in that direction has certainly been building up. Meanwhile, the 'open online world' has been making its presence felt in the area of teaching, with increasing numbers of universities, including some of the leading ones in the United States, making some or all of their teaching material freely available to everyone - at no cost.

A few years ago now, MIT started putting its teaching materials online. What appeared ranged from hand-written notes and diagrams, presumably scanned in, through Powerpoint slides, to detailed and beautifully presented lecture notes. The material covered virtually all subjects taught at MIT. In one sense one could see all this as a marketing exercise, allowing MIT to show off the sheer quality and diversity of what it taught, and I imagine this would have helped both student recruitment and faculty recruitment.

At the same time it was the start of a novel approach to student learning. Students (or anyone, in fact) could download what they wanted, study it at leisure, and then move on to some other topic, or the same subject at a higher level, or whatever. Of course, without actually registering at MIT, and paying a fee, these students could not have their work assessed, they were unable to get any form of certificate showing they had followed a particular course and passed it, and they were unable to graduate with a degree. For some folk, just wanting to dip into a subject or update existing qualifications, this wouldn't matter at all; for others, really wanting and needing some paper qualifications, it would matter a great deal. Perhaps getting a taster of MIT's material will have encouraged quite a few people to take up serious studies, either at their local college or university, or even, in some cases, at MIT itself - if they could get through the highly competitive selection process for admission there.

More recently, other universities have been getting in on this act. Thus Stanford, in partnership with Michigan, Pennsylvania, Princeton and UC Berkeley, has established a business, Coursera, through which diverse courses are already offered for free. This business has been started with the help of some venture capital, though as yet it is not wholly clear how revenues will be generated - but I imagine students will need to register and pay a fee to get credits for the courses they have completed.

These amazing developments - that would have seemed like science fiction only a decade ago - seem to offer the possibility of wholly new ways of thinking about higher education, and getting a degree. For instance, suppose a student pays fees to various online providers to gain credits for particular courses, then decides to complete his/her degree by registering for a final year at a suitable institution operating in the traditional manner, and completes successfully. Overall, the student will have done enough for a degree, but whose degree will it be - the institution where he/she spent the final year? For a model like this to work, the credit transfer system would obviously have to be pretty flexible, and I suppose there would have to be some means of  monitoring the quality of the various courses - unless we relied on a highly uncertain mix of 'the market' and reputation to do that job for us.

And what about the implications of these developments for conventional bricks and mortar universities? Well, I'm sure some will survive, whatever happens, rather in the way that diverse handicrafts survive and even prosper in a largely mass production economy. Academics might find their jobs changing, with some writing course material for online providers (for a suitable fee, naturally), doing some research from home (perfectly feasible for many, especially in the arts and social sciences), and giving tutorials and advice sessions from home using Skype and the like. This sort of diverse and highly decentralised way of working is becoming increasingly possible - and therefore, I suspect, likely. With change along these lines, in another 10 or 20 years perhaps not many of us will still need our University offices........

Thursday, 7 June 2012

More on open access publishing

Over the past few weeks the debate about open access publishing has been getting even more heated, though I'm not completely convinced that much light is being cast over the issue - there is a great deal still to be settled, it seems.

In mid-May, the Times Higher Education reported (May 17th, article by Elizabeth Gibney) that the EU was planning to insist that most of its 80 billion euros of research funding through the Horizon 2020 Programme should lead to outputs that should be published though an open-access model (probably from 2014 or so). This is in principle a huge boost for open access, though a lot will depend on the particular models of open access publication that evolve.

Last week, though, a study by the UK Publishers Association, The Potential Effect of Making Journal Articles Freely Available in Repositories after a Six-Month Embargo (not, it must be said, the nicest of titles!), claimed that some publishers of academic journals could go bankrupt if open-access policies became the norm. This might in fact be true, but the claim rather suggests to me that publishers remain wedded to the traditional, long established model of model of publishing research output, where the reader (or subscriber) pays. Surely publishers themselves should be thinking more about other possible models - then they might be able to lead rather than follow change, and be prepared for whatever new models might become the norm.

Later this month, a UK study group on open access led by Dame Janet Finch (former vice-chancellor of Keele University) is expected to report. This group is apparently thinking what fee levels would likely be needed to support publication of research papers - to be paid by the researcher, and hence forming part of the researcher's grant in the future. They appear to be thinking in terms of a so called 'cost neutral' fee of around £1450 per paper. To me this sounds quite a lot of money, and it has already attracted criticism for failing to address the controversial issue of publishers' profits.

Moreover, for researchers in disciplines where almost all research needs research grants, such charges for publications - access then being free for the reader - might prove manageable. But what about researchers in the arts and social sciences, where many good papers are written - and published - without the support of an external research grant? Will these academics, in the future, simply be told that of they want to publish anything,  they had better get themselves a grant to provide the funding?  I can't see this being very easy, but equally, departments might not want, or be able, to pay for publications by their staff either.

Likewise, what will be the implications of 'open access' for refereeing papers (peer review), refereeing research grant applications, journal editing and the like, all services that academics have traditionally performed more or less for free, as part of their job? None of this is yet clear, so there is much interesting discussion to come.