Monday, 15 August 2016

It's character building...

Marking now over...

As a Oxford alumus I was rather alarmed to read last month the THE article: Oxford told to address fears over 'excessive' student workloads.

I thought that was what you signed up for. Lots of work, lots of detailed feedback, being pushed way out of your confort zone. It is an important part of developing into the best person you can be - and isn't that what universities should be about?

And that is why I am concerned. This follows on from petitions in some US inversities for a reduction in workload for 'activism'. But given some of the rather violent antics that passes for student activism over the pond, workloads could well benefit from perhaps raising in order to keep the peace.

My advice in response to the QAA, is for the university to enact some policy aimed at cutting off the tail of the tutorial workload. Clearly a few tutors are lettiing the side down.

Seriously as a student with at best so-so prior social capital (son of a tradesman), I was grateful of the hard currency that a difficult degree in a prestigeous university gave me.

Most of the students I've taught were not blessed with high prior social capital. They needed the encouragement and push to develop their knowledge and skills. And the reassurance that the time they invested with us would bear fruit. I still fondly remember meeting many of them at graduation, when they shook my hands, thanking us for helping them get jobs with Google, Microsoft and Accentre.

Pushing students to become the best they can be I would say is a kep  part of what we do. High social capital students may still be able to do well if they stay within their comfort zones, but not all students are in such a happy position. We abdicate our responsibilities in HE if we do not do this.

I will close with a final point that there is an informal contract between universities and past, present and future students. All in reality work together to estabish and preserve the reputation and credibity of the degree they that take; as at the end of day it is the quality of the graduates that sustains a university's reputation. This hard work should not be squandered.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Don't worry, give value...

A break from marking projects...

The HE press and lobbying groups are getting in a lather over referendum this week. And before that there is the usual rather undue focus on policy and lobbying with the state (in its widest sense) as the primary actor.

I just can't get away from the feeling that we have missed the point and have been for a long while.

Yes, we exist in a regulated industry. Yes, the world does not owe us a living. But we seem to forget that the reason why the UK HE sector does well is because we actually do deliver value to those we educate and do research with.

UK universities have become successful because they done this (and government has not got in the way THAT excessively). No matter what the imposed market structures may have been the research and teaching offer in the UK is sufficently strong for students, organisations and researchers to come across the world to engage with us (and often pay serious money for this).

Whatever the structure and policy of the state (in its widest sense), it is how we ensure that we keep providing value to our stakeholders that counts. The sector is full of committed and talented people who will find a way to make scholarship pay the bills.

We've had universities survive and thrive over a number of historical shocks for that reason. The sector has shown a remarkable capacity for reinvetion. We can continue to do so whatever happens, despite any shocks, so long as we focus on why UK HE has been successful up to now.

Like the economy in general, if you can offer something that gives real value to others, then they will come. We will do well to focus on that, and ask the state to allow us to do that.

We would also do well to help incolate this mindset into our students, so we can help them realise their potential when they become our alumni.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Academics ARE biased (but that's usually OK)

It was with interest that I read in the Times Higher Education an interestiing article exploring bias in EU-funded public policy-related professors when speaking about Brexit.

And it lead me to think - well of course. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I doubt if anyone really wants to make a career in what they do not believe in. As they are only human, they do have a point of view and it will leak out even if they are trying to be neutral. Of course, the funding system may (and I would argue does) distort the civil discourse in higher education on a more systemic basis. But to dismiss an individual on that alone would be wrong - that would be an ad homineum attack.

We just need to know where the argument is coming from and what outside influences may be in play (as in common in medical research). Then people can make up their own mind who or what they believe.

And making people to be able to make up their own minds about something (even if one may not agree with it) is surely what we working in higher education are about..

We can never remove bias, but for universities to maintain their role as a neutral space they can be transparent.

The article also notes the efforts of the academics concerned not to abuse their position.

And for those reasons I really see no problem in the situation that the article covers. What worries me are academic and orther 'independent' reports where the funding and influences are not in the open. I am unsure that the Brexit debate has been free of those.

Monday, 6 June 2016

How to burn an opportunity for universities to shine...

Marking can be time-consuming - but at least a break! And a chance to catch up on emails.

I received a rather distrubing email from one of my former universities. Since it is an open letter, I have no qualms about posting a link to it.

In summary, it is an open letter signed by the Principal and their Students Association President. It makes that case that the university gets a lot of EU funding and that Brexit would make this uncertain, so alums should think about this when voting.

A theme I will be likely to come back to again and again is the idea of the university as a 'neutral space'. Another is the corrupting influence of the state on the ideals of the university.

Now the role of the Students Association is a different matter. But for the University to have signed this off, I think was ill-advised.

First it gives an impression that the only reason that the university cares about the referendum is its funding stream. Wider aspects such as informing the debate in society are demoted.

Second, there is a danger that the Universty will alienate or further distance stakeholders, who may be more firmly in the leave camp.

Third, I cannot see that this letter would not have a 'chilling effect' on a free and open debate. Publically disagreeing with a stated position of the university will inevitably make some people pause for thoughr. Yes, there is a lot of softening language in the letter, but it is taking a position,

The first of the two are reputational. As an alumus I am not happy, but the University's reputation is its own to manage.

The final goes against what I believe universities are there for. What this letter loses sight of is that the university has a wider role in providing a neutral space for debate. The Brexit argument is also not really economic, it is really about issues of national vision and governance. The letter mentions this as an afterthought (in a way that could lead one to suspect that the 'debates' will be aimed to influence an agenda rather than get people thinking through all sides of the argument).

The above said, I would be a bad person to ask for a donation in the near future.

Friday, 20 May 2016

This should worry you...

I've been thinking about blogging again, especially regards concerns such as the creeping power of the state in higher education and how universities are buying into this (and not for the reasons that the Islington Guardian reading set and professional left wingers would have you believe).

But you know, other stuff got in the way (contracts, travel)...

So this article 'THE: Higher education bill seeks powerful Office for Students'.worries me greatly and disturbed my morning cup of coffee.

The article outlines  the Higher Education and Research Bill 2016-17. The part that alarmed me was:
"The OfS [Office for Students] would also have the ability to revoke an institution’s right to call itself a university, even if that right was granted by Royal Charter."
Just in case one were to look at that in disbelief, the wording of the draft Bill is as follows:
"43 Variation or revocation of other authorisations to grant degrees etc
(1) The OfS may by order vary or revoke an authorisation given to an English
higher education provider or an English further education provider—
(a) by or under an Act of Parliament, other than under section 40(1) of this
Act, or
(b) by Royal Charter, to grant taught awards, research awards or foundation degrees.
(2) That is the case even if the authorisation was given for an indefinite period.
The journalists seem to have their facts straight here. In short, the new OfS formed by this bill could revoke Cambridge University's Royal Charter without recourse to Parliament (and even an Oxford graduate would not wish this upon them).

The issue here is HEI autonomy and the levers that the state can use/abuse to align HEIs with its agenda. It is supposed to be hard to remove degree awarding powers, as that is a protection for HEIs against the state.

Now the state does have a legititmate say in how any monies it gives to HEIs are spent. That is covered by the contracts universties enter into (e.g. the HEFCE Financial Memorandum or Research Grants). A university is free to decide not to enter into them (eg.Buckingham).

Now in the case of private HEIs this is less of an issue as they do not typically take UK students or research grants.

But both types of HEI take international students and QAA inspections are a condition of their UKVI licences.

So an HEI is policed to ensure that it is performing its educational duties and public monies are spent for their intend purposes. For a public university, protracted loss of the ability to take overseas students can be a major blow (London Met, anyone). For a private HEI it would likely shut it down in short order as few have no other viable business model.

In any case, there would be accountablity through the courts to ensure that ministers are acting within the powers given to them by Parliament

The question is: why would the state legitmately need more than the above?

Also were degree awarding powers to be removed from HEIs, who should do it? There has been an increasing democratic deficit over the last 20 years of the increasing use of secondary legistation where decisions are taken away for Parliament and give it to ministers or delegated bodies. This is such an example.

It could be too easy to bully and gag HEIs. If an HEI was obviously not upholding academic standards, then it would be no issue in the hardest case getting Parliament to vote an Act enabling removal of powers as would be the case now for Chartered Universities. So why make it easier?

In short, the proposals seem to be overly powerful. It is unclear why these powers are needed outside of making it tidier for ministers or civil servants. But at what cost in the future?

I will be reading the Act and the surrounding literature in the coming weeks. At first glance it reads as a change of structures and if (more) student finance changes are not in the frame it may pass the public by. But such structural changes can soften up change for a less obvious agenda.

That is what worries me.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Bloggage Elsewhere: AUA Netherlands/Belgium Study Tour

Again, life has been more interesting than blogging. However for those interested in international higher education will find the blog of the AUA Netherlands/Belgium Study Tour (which I am helping with) of interest.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Bloggage Elsewhere: AUA Poland Study Tour

I have been dormant - will write more another time. However I am coordinating the AUA's Study Tour of Poland, which has its own blog: