Two-year degrees: another week in the media trenches*

The latest kerfuffle over two-year degrees tells us a lot about the current condition of debate about higher education in the United Kingdom. As Mike Ratcliffe has demonstrated, the long-foreshadowed consultation announced last week proposes a small-scale fix to a niche in the higher education market. At the most ambitious end of the government’s projections, only about 5% of students will be studying on these degrees by 2028.

But that’s not how it has felt. Proponents have seized another opportunity to represent British universities as dozy and dated, while academics have reacted with panic. I’m not sure this helps.

The provocateurs

Free degrees with every copy

It all starts with money, because that has become the baseline in much higher education discourse. The headline in The Sun seized the point: ‘Universities to offer fast-track degrees which will leave students £25,000 better off’. The Telegraph followed suit, stating that ‘Students will save up to £25,000 under radical plans’.

 

Jo Johnson tweeted links to both these pieces, but he knows this is a speculative figure. As the Department for Education announcement states: ‘The proposals … include a £5,500 (20 per cent) saving for students in total tuition costs compared to a standard three-year course. When added to the average salary of £19,000 in the first year after graduating, it means a potential £25,000 benefit overall.’ So let’s be clear: this is arguably a potential ‘benefit’, but it simply is not by any means a £25,000 ‘saving’ on the cost of a degree.

 

These reports have also fudged the question of demand. The consultation document states only that: ‘About three quarters of the providers who responded to our 2016 Call for Evidence reported seeing a demand for accelerated courses from students or employers.’ As market research, that wouldn’t convince me to invest. There’s very little evidence in practice that students are drawn towards cut-price options, while the three-year model retains unquestionable status and recognition.

 

I’d also be wary about trusting that data on employers’ attitudes. In some areas, granted, there may be immediate skills shortages; but in truth there are not many of these. Moreover, most employers tend to want evidence of work experience, internships, ‘international experience’, and so forth. What’s the point of cramming a degree into two years if the three-year students, who have collected these badges along the way, take the pick of the jobs?

 

Predictably enough, this wilfully fuzzy approach to facts has opened the door to the HE saboteurs. Jo Johnson himself didn’t help, with his quote about  ‘highly motivated students hungry for a faster pace of learning’, implicitly questioning the work ethic of all the others. Subsequently, on cue, we received a piece in the Telegraph from Anthony Seldon, with multiple reference to the summer ‘holidays’ enjoyed by three-year students. Seriously, anyone who thinks that students treat those summer months as one long holiday haven’t spoken to many of today’s students, who are busy in the summers ticking off those achievements that employers expect to see on CVs. (Many are also preparing for summer assessment resits; I haven’t seen any explanation of how these would work in the two-year model.)

And by the end of the week: enter Simon Jenkins. Yes, universities are a ‘cultural confidence trick’, and of course fees are ‘astronomical’ and vice-chancellors’ salaries are ‘indefensible’. It’s easy to fill a column with this stuff after the achievements of Adonis and his acolytes over the summer. I expect you could get a Russian bot to produce it. I imagine it also pulls in the readers, partly because academics can’t bring themselves to ignore it.

Yes, really

But it’s desperately damaging, and also massively misleading. Ben Rosamond exposed one of Jenkins’s statistics as worthless. Further, Johnson categorically did not say, as Jenkins claims, that the ‘three-year university course … is absurd and should end’. Once in awhile one might hope for a minister capable of calling out such lies and idiocy rather than just retweeting his fan-club and – yes, really – advertisements for private providers.

The backlash

But maybe academics don’t help themselves with their reactions to such provocation. The UCU’s response to two-year degrees (from last February) is a model of over-reaction, stating that accelerated degrees risk sacrificing the UK’s ‘global reputation for excellence’. And one doesn’t have to look far on social media to find assertions that two-year degrees will be inferior, or even impossible to deliver.

 

This is difficult to sustain. There is no logical reason why an additional 120 credits worth of modules could not be delivered over two summers. Granted, this would manifestly alter the nature of the academic year, and would most likely (although not necessarily) reduce research time for academics. It might therefore accelerate not only degrees, but also the differentiation between research-heavy and research-light universities.

 

But this ship has sailed. We have had the Higher Education and Research Act, which trashed the traditional idea of the university, while across the country many universities are not only struggling to attract students but are also earning precious little research income. The leaders of such universities are understandably desperate for new ideas. In this context, two-year degrees start to look less like a cause of trouble than a symptom of more profound changes.

 

I also wonder whether there is just a whiff of snobbery in this backlash. The three-year degree, with its built-in time for reflection and suite of development opportunities, is a gold-standard model for 18-year-olds. But what about the mature students who have been draining from the student-pool? A 30-year-old, with plenty of work experience but in need of a career boost, might have little interest in the trappings of the university experience. Such a person might quite reasonably want a degree from a local university, and want it fast.

 

Ratcliffe notes the way the two-year announcement was scheduled for release on a Sunday. In recent months this has become HE-bashing day, and academics across the country wait by their twitter feeds, steeled for the latest assault. That’s me as well, of course; however, I wonder whether occasionally our headlong rush into polarisation might only exacerbate the damage.

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This is not normal: universities in the news

It is not normal for universities to occupy the front pages of national newspapers. Granted, at any time there is a vital, occasionally tense, dialogue between universities and the nations in which they are situated. The line between ideals of academic freedom on the one hand, and the realities of finances and state oversight on the other hand, is notoriously fuzzy. The extent to which universities reflect or represent their nations is always a potential point of controversy.

But these are not normal times. Over the past few months, debate has swirled frenetically around questions including university funding, whether we have too many universities, what our top managers are paid, free speech on campus, how we select our students, and what we teach. We appear now to be at the point where even what academics think might be a point for national outrage.

It seems to me that much of this isn’t even about higher education; it’s rather using universities as a site for thinking through bigger anxieties about the nation. It’s tough thinking about cultural diversity post-Brexit (hell, that’s the sort of thing academics are paid to do); it’s easier to focus on admissions at Oxford. The risk is that we lose track of the bigger issues, while dragging universities through the mud. I don’t see this as sinister, but nor do I see how it helps.

This dysfunction and muddled thinking starts at the head. We have a Prime Minister who announces a major change to university funding at her party conference, without so much as an email of notification to the relevant ministers. We have a cabinet in which the respective members are happy to make it known that they hold wildly differing ideas about universities and the funding of higher education. As a result, despite the agitation of restructuring and monitoring – the REF, the TEF, even the KEF (which many academics assumed at first was a joke) – the government has lost control of the narrative.

This environment has created a playground for the likes of Andrew Adonis. Whatever his higher motives might be, Adonis stumbled and brawled his way through a summer, a perfect role-model for a world in which every fool can have a view on universities. Conflicting evidence? Criticism? Hell, that’s what the ‘block’ button on twitter is for, isn’t it? Perhaps he never intended others to follow him with their own variant crusades; perhaps he thought that, being a lord of the realm and all, he might be licensed to speak on behalf of the nation. If so, he misread the times.

Next come the members of parliament. They want to know what we teach. Evidently they want to write books, but can’t be arsed to take our courses and learn stuff the hard way. Bless. And they want to use Oxford and Cambridge to fix the social inequality that their parliament is failing to address at its roots. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of academics want to be involved in widening access to higher education, and that Oxford and Cambridge work assiduously with the Office for Fair Access. But why would MPs bother engaging with academics or talking with OFFA – even trying to reform it, if they think it’s useless – when they can fire off columns for The Guardian? Let’s face it, the latter will generate more ‘likes’.

And then come the columnists, trailled by any old under-the-line dunce with a thought or two to rub together. Not many of these people could be bothered to understand, say, how the student finance system actually works. It’s kind of complicated, after all. Few will tackle the complex, often counter-intuitive data on university admissions and social inclusion. Only rarely does one acknowledge the role of higher education in generating national income. Most prefer to understand universities through hazy memories and anecdotes picked up from the younger generation. This week’s headlines, in which the Cambridge English syllabus has become a battleground in the war between The Guardian and The Daily Mail, with staff and students shamelessly drawn into the crossfire, has helped nobody and changed nothing. Just a hunch here, but I think my Eng-lit colleagues at Cambridge might have had that one covered all along.

It’s a curious thing that throughout this maelstrom of attention to higher education, nobody pauses to consider just how good they want UK universities to be. I don’t mean ‘excellent’, in the degraded language of TEF, REF and KEF, which confuses bureaucracy with vision; I mean just how, holistically and in a world context, good. That seems to be either taken for granted – in a complacent, nationalistic, Brexiteer, ‘we’ll always have Oxbridge’ kind of of way – or just not seen as particularly important.

There’s a character in a Narayan novel (The Painter of Signs, I think) who sits under a tree all day everyday, holding a sign that reads: THIS WILL PASS. For those of us desperate for a week in which universities are off the front pages, this is probably true; we’re just not that important. Yet the current malaise makes universities edgy and reactive, often from the top down, and that can’t be helpful in a fiercely competitive, international context. The UK university system remains world-class, but it’s worth remembering that this condition is neither natural nor unchangeable. The next time one of a nation of commentators sets out to attack us, it would be nice to think that this might be considered.

Competition in higher education: notes on a misconception*

In its more sensible manifestations (such as Sonia Sodha’s careful Guardian piece this week), the debate about vice-chancellors’ pay boils down to a question of responsibility. Universities are taking money from students – who are to some extent a captive market – and also from the state. Members of the public are therefore not unreasonable in demanding a right to know how it is spent. Since public universities are demonstrably not taking profits to give to shareholders, the evidently high salaries of senior managers can look like a signal instance of waste. But these arguments seem to me to be based on a misconception of the nature of competition in higher education.

Universities are generally not competing on price: a point which riles so many commentators, but is a product of the peculiar market which was not of their choosing. Once the government set a maximum fee of £9000, fees rapidly gravitated to that figure. That wasn’t because of a ‘cartel’ – that line is absurd and damaging – it was because degrees proved to operate as positional goods. Price, in other words, was perceived as a proxy for quality, and nobody wants a second-rate degree. The repayment system, meanwhile, also serves to mask  differences of cost. In this context it becomes irrational for a university not to set fees at the maximum level. As a point of historical fact, not many people saw this coming when the maximum fee was announced: not the government; not the VCs themselves.

As a result universities, taking the sector as a whole, unquestionably experienced an increase in their finances after 2011, of around 25 per cent. A mandated percentage of that increase is spent on widening participation activities – a point critics rarely acknowledge – but still there has been a bump. Some people, including the architects of the scheme, might in fact argue that this was a good thing, correcting a trend of under-investment and underpinning the ongoing international success of British universities. The international league tables published this week demonstrate at once our high reputation and the intense nature of global competition.

But a lack of competition on price is all too often mistaken for a lack of competition of any kind. We’re told that the advent of £9000 fees gave universities a licence to print money – which, in due course, they might just as well blow on VCs’ salaries. But this is not a world that any academic in the UK will recognize. For the other reform of the coalition government was a lifting of student number controls, that had previously allocated set numbers of students to individual universities. As a result, some universities have expanded; others (although this gets little attention) have contracted. The bump in finances has thus been unevenly – competitively – distributed. The competition to attract students is fierce, and the consequences of failure can be painful.

This system has underpinned recruitment of academics at many of the more successful universities, including my own. We have reduced staff-student ratios and increased contact-hours. It has also driven the capital investment programs at universities across the land. Some of these can easily be portrayed as excessive – ‘iconic’ buildings, sports centres, and so forth – but they are also improving the conditions in which students live and work. And, critically, in a competitive market they may also be necessary in order to attract the students. Is this situation out of control? Not in my view, although I appreciate why some may argue that many students are effectively paying for things they don’t need. Maybe the system is worthy of review – no system is perfect – but the spending decisions we have seen are surely no more than rational responses to the conditions of competition.

There’s also an international dimension to the competition. It’s easy enough for commentators to say that universities can ‘just take more international students’, but the competition for these students is intense. We’re competing not just against other UK universities, but also against universities in other countries. And other governments, it has to be said, are doing rather more than our own to support their universities in this competition. This also brings us back to the international league tables. These are a relatively recent innovation, and are still treated with a degree of scepticism among the academic community. Among prospective international students, however, they can be hugely influential. In this context, no university can afford to ignore them, nor to undervalue the factors that feed most powerfully into them.

And this, in turn, is one reason why there is such a competitive market for the world’s best-performing researchers. Research performance – grant-income, publications, citations, peer-recognition, and so forth – feeds directly into both international and domestic league tables (with, domestically, the exception of The Guardian tables). Some critics of universities assume that the education-function can easily be separated from the research-function, which they portray as a site of wasteful expenditure. But institutional reputations, so heavily based on research, not only help to attract students, but also help graduates when they leave universities. I think we should be discussing very carefully the relation between research and education – and doing so with our students – but we can’t simply ignore these complex interconnections.

And maybe this brings us back to VCs’ salaries. These are people leading complex organizations in a highly competitive international context. Plenty of factors, of course, contribute to the success or failure of a university. But the nature of competition has changed radically, both within the UK and internationally, and this has affected management practices and structures. Maybe some of this can be wound back with some tweaking of the national funding and governance system, but much of it cannot. In this context I can understand why governing bodies and remuneration committees – although, doubtless, they make some mistakes – want to get the best people in place, and keep them there.

* Published under a different title by Times Higher Education

Andrew Adonis’s dead cat*

Andrew Adonis’s fixation on the salaries of vice-chancellors looks like one of Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. In practical terms, cutting the pay of VCs by 20 per cent would make a negligible impact on the sector. But it’s a nice, outrage-inducing, stinking carcass that distracts attention from more profound debates about higher education in the UK.    Amidst all the alarmist rhetoric about excessive spending and student debt, it’s worth remembering where we are. The increase in the maximum fee for home undergraduates in 2012 to £9000 was accompanied by a slashing of the level of state teaching grant: for most courses, to zero. Despite the expectations of the time, almost all universities set fees at the maximum level because degrees operate as positional goods. Price is perceived in this market as a proxy of quality, so it becomes irrational to go low.

These changes led to an increase in the average funding per student of about 25

IFS, ‘Higher Education in England’ (2017)

per cent. Since there was no inbuilt mechanism to adjust fees in line with inflation, however, the system begged questions of long-term sustainability from the outset. Hence the 2.8 % rise – the first since 2012 – this year. Overall levels of student debt have been affected further by government tinkering with interest rates, repayment rules and the abolition of maintenance grants.

Many people can’t now see a problem. There is no credible evidence that the system is deterring students from lower socioeconomic groups. And while the headline levels of individual debt look bad, this is a ‘fee’ that operates more like a tax, balancing eventual cost with a individual’s financial benefit. Though some commentators may now resent it, the 2011 reforms lifted a world-class higher education sector out of the reach of austerity.

Moreover, vice-chancellors would point to the high levels of competition, for student numbers and research funds. They would also stress evidence of enviably high quality, in terms of research and education. British universities rank well in all international tables – although they are under intense pressures from other countries now investing aggressively.

The simplest solution – if we accept there is a problem – is to cut fees to zero but maintain current levels of funding. This appears to be what Labour had in mind at the last election. But you could write that on a bus and it would still look like wishful thinking. No government could afford it, least of all at the present time. Nor, if we listen carefully, is this what many of today’s most vocal critics want.

Adonis suggests cutting the maximum fee, so that the state pays no more and the sector is returned roughly to 2011 levels of funding. This sounds simple, but the impact on quality would be devastating. With few other flexible lines of spending, and often high levels of debt, universities would be forced to cut staff numbers, increase class sizes, decrease contact-hours, and downgrade their research mission.

Fine, says Adonis: universities are spending too much time on pointless research anyhow, and can balance their books by taking more international students. But this strategy is so laden with risk that it borders on delusion. International students make rational decisions in a fiercely competitive market. Any policy that undermines overall funding levels, or risks our position in international league-tables – heavily dependent, as they are, on research performance – puts our position in this market at risk.

Arguably the only alternative would be sweeping structural changes, with much more state intervention. That might mean strict tiers of institutions, priced accordingly. It might also mean a concentration of research resources in a handful of universities. There are models for such an approach internationally. It’s an elitist structure, but there’s an awful lot of elitism under Adonis’s faux populism.

Structural change like this may look deceptively easy from a distance. Funding can be cut, student numbers slashed, preference given to STEM subjects (since, we’re assured, that’s what the country needs). But damage would be done. The strength of the UK system is founded on its diversity: a fact documented in both the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework. Universities that are low in league tables provide important specialist degrees and contribute enormously to regional economies. Which ones do we want to close?

Populist campaigns like this one can take unpredictable turns, especially when a government is weak and distracted. It might just disappear after the stench of dead cat has lifted. If not, it can only be hoped that everyone involved recognises the world-class quality and diversity of UK higher education. If we’ve learned anything from Brexit, it’s that before we smash something that works, it’s a good idea to have thought about alternatives.

*slightly longer version published earlier on wonkhe. Written and published entirely on my phone, so apologies for clumsy formatting.

Widening participation and the demise of the great British university*

Let’s think, for a minute, about why British universities might be slipping down the international league tables. The figures are fairly clear: 51 of the UK’s top 76 universities, including sixteen from the Russell Group, have dropped in the latest QS rankings.

The Telegraph had a go at this exercise this morning, and concluded that ‘experts [blame] the decline on pressure to admit more disadvantaged students’. In response, I’d start with the word ‘experts’. It seems to me they had just one, from the University of Buckingham (and I’m not even sure that he would be comfortable with the way his words have been used). Their other interviewees seemed to be pulling in different directions; but, hey, why miss an opportunity for a spot of reactionary elitism on the day of a general election?

What this extraordinary explanation for the fall of Britain is doing, after all, is blaming a programme of social mobility – the longstanding commitment to widening participation in higher education – for a decline in quality. Or, in a not wholly subliminal way, it’s suggesting that our top universities could be great again if only they didn’t have to admit so many of the wrong kind of persons. Those poor people from underfunded schools: they really pull us all down.

Another way of analysing these results might have been to start with the QS methodology. It encompasses six metrics:

  1. Academic Reputation
  2. Employer Reputation
  3. Faculty/Student Ratio
  4. Citations per faculty
  5. International Faculty Ratio
  6. International Student Ratio

As hard as I look, I don’t see anything here about the average net worth of the parents of a university’s students. Funny that; if we could only take ourselves back a few generations, it was all so much more straightforward.

So where else might we look for explanations? First of all, we might consider the level of international competition. There are countries around the world, not least in Asia, that have methodically and ruthlessly targeted success in the international league tables. They have increased investment across the board, and also concentrated resources on identified elite groups of universities. They’re not relying on reputations rooted in the past; they’re aggressively building those reputations right now.

Secondly, let’s pause on the final two measures, which are all about international outlook. For all our ‘we are international’ hash-tags, British universities are hamstrung by a government that is and insular in its outlook and hostile – at least in its rhetoric – towards international students. Other countries are increasing their numbers of international students while we are going backwards on this measure. Our participation in EU research funding schemes, which have been the single greatest engine of international collaboration, is in serious doubt.

Which leads us to Brexit. After an election campaign in which both major parties have made promises about this and that while determinedly ignoring the fact that Brexit will rip a bloody great hole in the nation, it seems appropriate that we should be looking every which way other than Brexit for an explanation for these league table trends. Because it couldn’t have anything to do with Brexit, could it? It surely couldn’t – or not, anyway, for The Telegraph – be influenced in any way by this historical act of insularity and xenophobia?

No: there must be someone else to blame. It must be caused by our dreadfully misguided efforts to drag forward all these frightfully uneducated oiks. Britain was an altogether greater nation when those folk knew their place, and when the higher education system was designed to damn well keep them there.

* Published under a different title by wonkhe.com

Caution: dinosaurs in the classroom*

The slow parliamentary progress of the Higher Education Act is stirring some fundamental debate about the very definition of a university. And for an example of why this might be important, we need look no further than Sonia sodhaSodha’s attack on ‘arrogant’ and ‘dinosaur-like’ universities. It demonstrates how a narrow focus, coupled with an irresponsible misuse of evidence, can make universities look rather staid and wasteful. This must be challenged.

 

Definitions, anyone?

Sodha looks at universities entirely as providers of undergraduate education. As a result, she asks, why can’t we all provide degrees at the same price as, say, the private provider BPP does with its Law degrees. Indeed, why should we cost more than schools?

Well, that’s one way we could look at the university system. But that would be to trash an awful lot of other activity, including research, public engagement, partnerships with business and industry, government consultancy, and so forth. Do we want universities to be internationally competitive? Do we want them to attract international students, worth billions of pounds to regional and national economies? Do we want them to forge regional and international partnerships for research and innovation? Do we want to attract the world’s best academics to the UK?

Maybe some people don’t want any of that at all. After all, if international students look too much like migrants, maybe some people rejoice in the recent downturn in enrolment numbers. Maybe some people hanker after a time before global league tables – before, even, globalization itself – when universities taught British students to go forth and work in Britain. But maybe – just maybe – that’s all a little bit out of touch with reality.

 

Myth upon myth

Simplistic definitions lead naturally enough to a lazy treatment of evidence. Sodha points out that the cost of British public university education is the highest in the OECD. True enough, if approached from the perspective of the student; however, this is a product of the state’s withdrawal of funding. While the state underwrites student-loans on advantageous terms, most likely incurring considerable cost in the process, the up-front fees for many degrees are borne entirely by the students. In the humanities and social sciences, a student’s £9000 per year is all we get to cover the cost of his or her education.

As for her claims that British universities lack transparency: well, some people lack the energy to look at what’s staring them in the face. How about unistats? It provides information, by programme, on student satisfaction, graduate employment, as well as all sorts of information about how programmes are delivered. If someone wants to find out about contact hours, class sizes, assessment models, and so forth, universities aren’t hiding anything. Wait just a couple of months and the Teaching Excellence Framework will disgorge further reams of information. Meanwhile, information about staffing – who we employ, even how much we pay them – is also easy enough to find on any university website.

 

Doing what we’ve always done

And so to innovation: we’re all just doing what we’ve always done.

Well that’s perhaps the sloppiest of cliché-driven assertions in her entire piece. It overlooks the year-to-year reforms that happen in every programme in the country as we respond to student feedback and other evidence from a fiercely competitive marketplace. So in my department, to take some examples from recent years, we have: increased contact hours, decreased seminar sizes, introduced video-recording of all lectures, committed ourselves to returning feedback on written work within three weeks, diversified our assessment models, introduced employability-driven modules – and I could go on.

If that’s not enough, how about some reforms at programme level? We introduced a Liberal Arts programme, aiming to stretch students beyond Single Honours models. We have increased our provision of study abroad. We’re increasingly looking afresh at online learning, whether in the form of MOOCs or on a more formal and commercialized basis. And at a postgraduate level, we have forged innovative partnerships, such as (in my own department) the London Film School.

Looking further afield: how about the New College of the Humanities? Maybe this is not quite what Sodha has in mind in terms of costs, but what I like about it is the honesty on the principle that excellence – innovative or not – can’t be done on the cheap. We’ve got a diverse, vibrant, competitive sector – but maybe Sodha prefers a stereotype forged a generation ago.

 

I’m not going to argue that UK higher education is perfect, but let’s have a reality-check. If we’re going to attack universities, let’s first define what we mean and what we want from them. And if we’re going to make outspoken assertions, let’s do a little research. That’s the kind of basic academic responsibility we teach our students. And while academic responsibility is perhaps an old-fashioned value, I’d suggest that it’s proved its worth over the years.

  • This piece was published, in slightly different form, by the i news.