More means worse? (Data that is)

 Lots of information is not necessarily a good thing for prospective students

I’ve written before about concerns about too much data and the importance of quality rather than just quantity in the information provided to applicants to higher education.

Now a new HEFCE report on Improving information for prospective students has come to a similar conclusion.

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The report summarises existing research into decision-making behaviour and comes to some interesting conclusion:

 

Relevant research was identified across a wide range of disciplines, including information science, cognitive and behavioural psychology, behavioural economics and social theory. This research is likely to be relevant to how prospective students make their higher education choices.

The research draws attention to the need to examine fundamental assumptions about how people use information in decision-making.

Key findings in the report include:

  • The decision-making process is complex, personal and nuanced, involving different types of information, messengers and influences over a long time. This challenges the common assumption that people primarily make objective choices following a systematic analysis of all the information available to them at one time.
  • Greater amounts of information do not necessarily mean that people will be better informed or be able to make better decisions.

 

It’s a really detailed, serious and comprehensive report and sets out eight principles which it is proposed should govern future information provision for prospective HE students. Let’s hope it is taken seriously and that we now take a fresh look at this important issue. Mike Hamlyn has also commented on this report and is entertainingly sceptical on its findings.

The 2014 Grant letter: another epistolary triumph

And the wait was finally over

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions. As excitement in the sector reached near fever pitch, the contents were being live-tweeted by @TimesHigherEd while everyone else waited to get hold of a copy.

The much-delayed letter does not contain much of what you might describe as good news although there is some modest improvement on the capital front. Additional student places and the removal of student number controls altogether from 2015-16 are confirmed:

The settlement will mean reductions in funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

HEFCE is asked to continue its work with the Research Councils and others to support internationally excellent research and the delivery of the impact agenda through the dual-support framework. The ring-fenced settlement for science and research means that recurrent funding is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14.

Overall, the amount of capital funding for teaching and research will increase in 2014-15 to £440 million.

The grant letter confirms the Government’s provision of a maximum of 30,000 additional student places in academic year 2014-15 for HEFCE-funded institutions. The student number control will be removed entirely from 2015-16, and the Government has asked HEFCE to ensure that higher education institutions maintain the quality of the student experience in these circumstances.

Bur enough of the content, what about the important stuff like length? At 22 paragraphs, excluding the covering letter, or 26 if you include the substantive comments in the letter, it is shorter than any of its three predecessors from the BIS duo which have come in at 36, 35 and 28 paragraphs long. It is pleasing though that the Secretary of State’s signature remains as cheerful as ever (see below).

It is far from the shortest on record though which is the initial 10 paragraph punt from back at the start of the Coalition journey. As this utterly pointless graph (now in need of an update) shows, the long term trend is reduced grant letter length.

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

The length of Grant Letters to HEFCE down the years

So much for this year then, what of the past?

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 15 years of funding letters.

Yet More Information

The US seems to be following the UK’s lead

I’ve previously written about the excess of information available for prospective students in UK HE and the fact that it really isn’t a substitute for proper advice and guidance. Now The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on plans for extra information to be provided in the US and why it may not make much difference to students’ choice of institution:

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Going to college generally pays off. But not all colleges are the same, and not all students end up at places where they’re likely to fare well.

Dropping out or overborrowing—or both—are widely recognized problems. To try to prevent them, the federal government has unveiled a bunch of new tools to give prospective students more information. College Navigator offers a trove of searchable data. The College Scorecard features comparative performance measures. The Shopping Sheet is a standardized financial-aid award format.

In August, President Obama announced plans to develop a college-ratings system. Yes, more consumer information. But it could go further, if Congress, as the administration hopes, ties the ratings to financial aid.

The plan has proved unpopular with college leaders, who seem more comfortable with information itself, sans value judgment. As one president wrote in The New York Times, “The administration should make many types of data easily available and let people rate schools for themselves.”

Several existing tools, the ratings plan, and the do-it-yourself counterproposal all boil down to disclosure. But is more consumer information enough to steer students toward better choices?

The context is a little different here though. It’s seen by some as a something of a cheap policy option and perhaps less burdensome than other forms of regulation. And as the piece says it is perhaps easier to tell people about the shortcomings of institutions than it is to fix the problems. However, the overall conclusion is, rightly, that what is really needed is not another website or additional data but more and better guidance for prospective students.

The Imperfect University: Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

All change please! Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

Rewriting Robbins? The very thought

I recently agreed to give a presentation on this theme at an event entitled “Rewriting Robbins” by those lovely people at SGP Martineau.

You can find the full details of the event here  and my rather fetching but nevertheless superficial parade of pictures here:

Apologies in advance

Having agreed to deliver such a presentation I quickly realized the mistake I’d made but by then it was too late. It was of course ridiculously presumptuous to undertake such an exercise and even to contemplate commenting on Robbins with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight seemed like an outrageous impertinence. So, apologies in advance for any offence caused.

There was recently a very good piece in the Times Higher on Robbins. Among the many interesting points was a recollection from one of his committee members, Claus Moser, that Robbins wrote nothing down during the many sessions of the Committee, preferring to commit data to his phenomenal memory. He then went off and wrote the whole report pretty much by himself. Another key factor was that is was intended to be thoroughly evidence-based. And you can see in the rigour of the investigations and the detail of the appendices that this was carried through. Robbins didn’t want to make recommendations which weren’t properly grounded.

Going for growth

A fundamental principle was the need to expand in order to meet the future needs of the country and the demand from a post-war population boom. He anticipated an increase in the APR from 8% in 1963 to 17% by 1980 meaning 216k students in 1962-3 rising to 560k by 1980-81.

And in facilitating this expansion the most famous Robbins Principle was invoked:

courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so.

Part of the growth could be met by the new universities already under development or planned but there would still be a need for more places so Robbins proposed a range of additional institutions:

It may be that most of the university places that are required in the next ten years can be provided by such developments. But if no further steps are taken, the situation will thereafter be irretrievable, for universities take long to establish. We therefore recommend the immediate foundation of six new universities, of which at least one should be in Scotland. Another would be the new Special Institution for Scientific and Technological Education and Research. Such new foundations might provide 30,000 places by 1980. The remaining places should be provided by the advancement to university status of some ten Regional Colleges and Colleges of Education. If the scale of these recommendations should seem over-ambitious, we would remind the sceptics that demographic projections beyond 1980 suggest no lessening of the rate at which the demand for places will grow.

Robbins cover

In short the growth would include:

  • Six new universities should be established at once so that they can provide about 30,000 places by 1980/1.
  • Teacher training institutions should become proper Colleges of Education and aligned with universities
  • Three special Institutions for Scientific and Technological Education and Research should be created.
  • Two postgraduate business schools, providing courses in management, should be developed, each in association with a university or a Special Institution and close to a large business centre.
  • Scottish Central institutions – the most advanced should become universities
  • A further 20,000 university places should be provided by giving university status to some ten Regional Colleges, Central Institutions and Colleges of Education.
  • And in addition he proposed that the CATS, the Colleges of Advanced Technology should all become universities, each with 3-5000 students

(All of this is set out in Chapter X of the report although I must be honest that I found some of the institutional types difficult to disentangle on occasion.)

CATS and non-CATS

And sure enough in1966, the CATS became universities. Some of these are obvious, others less so:

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Cats

  • Birmingham CAT became Aston University (the first designated College of Advanced Technology (or CAT))
  • Loughborough CAT became Loughborough University
  • Northampton CAT (London) became City University
  • Chelsea CAT became Chelsea College of Science and Technology as part of the University of London then later was subsumed into King’s College London
  • Battersea CAT became the University of Surrey
  • Brunel CAT became Brunel University
  • Bristol CAT became the University of Bath
  • Cardiff CAT became part of the University of Wales, then Cardiff University
  • Salford CAT (the Royal College of Advanced Technology) became the University of Salford
  • Bradford Institute of Technology became University of Bradford

And just to complete the picture, the other universities founded in the 1960s:

Not Cats

Not Cats

1961   Sussex
1962   Keele
1962   Swansea
1963   East Anglia
1963   Newcastle
1963   York
1964   Lancaster
1964   Strathclyde
1965   Essex
1965   Kent
1965   Warwick
1966   Heriot-Watt
1967   Dundee
1967   Stirling
1969   Open
1969   Cranfield

Beyond Robbins: things really have moved on

Although the changes set in train by the report were substantial and far-reaching, since Robbins there has been a transformation in both the scale and reach of institutions (as well as total student numbers and the composition of the student body, which I didn’t cover here as they were addressed by others at the conference).

In looking for growth in existing institutions Robbins was anticipating universities of up to 10,000 students not the level of 30,000 which he associated with the big federal systems in the US. 10,000 students was big though:

In modern conditions it is desirable that universities should be large enough to have an adequate division of labour within departments and to make economical use of buildings and equipment.

But if we look at the sector in the UK now we have over 100 institutions with more than 10,000 students. More than half of these have over 20,000 students enrolled and leaving aside the Open University around a dozen have more than 30,000 students. A completely different scale.

What is also fascinating is to look at the growth in institutional numbers too. We have a huge growth during Robbins’ time but then a period of some stability before renewed and continuing expansion as this crude chart of UK university numbers demonstrates:

Number of universities

Number of universities

Beyond scale there are of course many other differences these days – from the pace of change to the volume of regulation and from the interconnectedness of institutions and activity to the sheer complexity of operations. In addition there is the international dimension: whilst the Committee accumulated plenty of learning from other countries it really didn’t anticipate our internationalized institutions or scale of global activity. The fact that there are now more than 435,000 students from overseas studying at UK universities and not a greatly smaller number studying for UK HE qualifications in other countries is a most remarkable transformation.

Moreover, whilst we might in the UK fret about mergers and takeovers and whether or not to establish campuses overseas in the meantime dozens of institutions from other parts of the world are establishing outposts and branches in the UK (mainly in London). Higher education is very much a global activity now.

What does the future hold?

So that was then and now, but what of the future? Predicting the future in higher education is of course a mug’s game. You can never win. However, it is difficult to resist the opportunity to take part.

So in a completely flawed and unscientific attempt to set out what might happen I offer four possible versions of the future:

The Wild West

Version 1 is the Wild West. It starts with the OFT smashing its way through our cozy higher education set up and leads to takeovers, merger mania and chaos with lots of institutions being allowed to go to the wall and many more private for-profit institutions springing up all over the place (every supermarket has one).

Government removes all attempts to manage the system and there is no meaningful  regulation. The QAA is abolished, no need for any funding councils and there are no more committees of the great and good to pontificate on higher education. Anyone can set up and call themselves a university but in this environment only the richest, strongest and nastiest survive.

It’s the ultimate free market. In other words, higher education anarchy.

Private Frazer

Private Frazer scenario

Private Frazer scenario

Version 2 means that, unfortunately, we’re all doomed (which was Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer’s famous but rarely deployed catch phrase). The MOOC providers will win and kill most traditional universities. As Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicted a few years ago there will be only 10 universities left in the world in 50 years’ time. Of course universities only have themselves to blame having nurtured, supported and then allowed the MOOC providers to disrupt the system. So if there are only going to be 10 around the world how many will be left in the UK? Oxford? Cambridge? The Open University?

(Fortunately this scenario is looking quite unlikely, Thrun is rapidly recanting and it could be that the MOOC bubble is already bursting.)

Regulated mediocrity

Version 3 represents something of a straightjacket with a levelling down to leave us with lots of rather similar universities, all beset and overwhelmed with ludicrously excessive bureaucracy designed to keep every stakeholder happy. We have ever more regulation overseen by a host of super-regulators, meta-regulators and regional regulators. It feels a bit like every aspect of university life is directly governed by the QAA.

Moreover, immigration regulations mean there are next to no international students and there are rigid targets for everything from widening participation to detailed specification of class contact hours, SSRs, assessment turnaround times, exam duration, graduation ticket fees and academic dress.

Students have more information available to them than has previously been written in all of human history and spend substantially more time filling in surveys on their experiences than undertaking any learning.

All too credible I fear.

Wildflower meadow

The final version is something a bit closer to a higher education ideal (relative to all of the others that is). It offers a lightly regulated and managed environment, well-tended, all collegial and harmonious. Many different flowers bloom and institutions co-exist in a state of delightful equilibrium. There is a perfect balance between teaching and research, the widening participation job is done and there is an optimal balance of different kinds of institution with different missions.

This is the future (we hope)

This is the future (we hope)

Some universities come and go, some last, some spread their wings but overall there is a perfect balance between market and regulation. It really is higher education nirvana.

Into uncharted territory

It is though very unclear what the future holds. Monsters, in the form of as yet unknown Ministers for Universities, and wild uncharted lands await. But we could do worse than note some more words of wisdom from half a century ago from Robbins:

The fundamental question that we have to answer is whether a system of higher education in the sense in which we have used the word ‘system’ is desirable. As we have said, it is misleading to speak as if there were already a system in this sense. Higher education has not been planned as a whole or developed within a framework consciously devised to promote harmonious evolution. What system there is has come about as the result of a series of particular initiatives, concerned with particular needs and particular situations, and there is no way of dealing conveniently with all the problems common to higher education as a whole.

Our point is that the central decisions that have to be made should be coherent and take account of the interests of all sectors of higher education, and that decentralised initiative – and we hope there will always be much of this – should be inspired by common principles.

Wise words?

Unfortunately, we couldn’t just leave it there. The whole series of Robbins quotes offered during this event (and bandied around more widely) led me to speculate on the possibility of a new parlour game which tested whether one was reading a real Robbins quote or a made up one.  If you can bear it then do see the earlier post on this great new game the whole faculty can play: Robbins or Bobbins?

With the most profound apologies to Lord Robbins and all of his great works.

Working with Young Carers

New activities to support young and young adult carers.

The University of Nottingham’s Impact Campaign is supporting a range of activities involving work with young and young adult carers.

Britain’s ‘invisible army’ of young carers and young adult carers provide unpaid care to family members.

As well as caring for loved ones who are ill, disabled or have mental health issues or other needs, these young carers face their own challenges, such as education, employment and developing adult relationships. We want them to get the support they need.

As part of a recent university event we heard a bit more detail about this terrific project which covers a huge number children and young adults acting as carers:

The numbers:

There are 11m children under 18 in the UK. A quarter of these live in families where there is chronic physical or mental health problems, illness and disability.

Of these, as many as 700,000 children (eight per cent of all children) and 250,000 young adults (aged 18-24) have unpaid caring roles within their own families.

Many provide more than 20 hours of care per week; some, including very young children, care for more than 50 hours a week.

Our solution

The University is working with young carers and young adult carers to improve their quality of life. Thanks to our research, ­their role in UK society and internationally is increasingly being recognised. We will investigate the barriers that restrict their health, well-being, development and education, and identify policies and services that empower them and work best for them and their families.

It’s great work and this brief video (it is brief) shows just what can be done – it has highlights from a recent Young Carers Open Day at the University of Nottingham which was all about showing young carers the possibilities offered by higher education. This should be part of every institution’s widening participation programme.

All of this work is winning greater recognition for young carers, increasing their support networks and helping reduce the amount of caring they do, thereby giving them greater life opportunities. It really is hugely impressive.

Higher education funding letters: another bundle of joy

On government HE funding letters

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has written to HEFCE with the Department’s annual message on funding and helpful bag of instructions.

The letter

sets out Government funding and priorities for HEFCE and for higher education for the second year of the new financial arrangements for higher education in England. The Government’s vision for higher education, outlined in the higher education white paper ‘Students at the heart of the system’, remains, and HEFCE is asked to continue to support learning and teaching activity, quality assurance, widening participation and an enhanced student experience. HEFCE will also continue our support for postgraduate provision.

Super. More instructions.

Not only does it offer even more directions to HEFCE, at 36 paragraphs and eight pages it is the second longest of the four to date issued by the Secretary of State and the Minister and confirms a return to the sterling epistolary efforts made by the previous government.

Last January’s effort really set the standard though – although it contained 35 paragraphs was in fact nine pages long. The December 2010 was somewhat shorter at only 28 paragraphs and can be seen as the BIS duo just getting into their stride.

The earlier post on this topic back in August 2010 noted:

The most recent funding letter of June 24 2010 from Vince Cable and David Willetts to the Chairman of HEFCE is distinctive for three main reasons. First, and unsurprisingly if dispiritingly, it outlines the first major tranche of savings to be made in the 2010-11 financial year. Secondly, it is extremely short – indeed at 10 paragraphs and just over two pages it is the shortest funding letter to the Council in at least 14 years and undercuts all letters under the previous government by some way. Thirdly, it is the first such letter to be signed by both the Secretary of State and the relevant Minister. And thank goodness too or some of us might never have seen this fascinating signature:

Of course those with longer memories will have fond recollections of the briefest of grant letters from the University Grants Committee (UGC) which simply set out the amount of money available for disbursement. Many will long for the golden age of five year funding settlements under the UGC. Whilst it could reasonably be argued that the UGC served as an effective buffer between the state and the universities, the options for the Higher Education Funding Councils, and in particular HEFCE, are much more limited as the directives from government on spending have become ever more detailed and prescriptive. Fortunately though we are able to examine all of the details of these as HEFCE has a nice collection of funding letters going back to 1996.

This decidedly dubious summary of these letters draws on this collection but refers only to English funding allocations. I’m sure the other funding councils receive similar missives from their respective governments but it is beyond my capacity to deal with them I’m afraid.

The length of funding letters has seen two peaks in the last 14 years: January 2003’s letter was 73 paragraphs long and the December 1998 note ran to 66 paragraphs. The November 1999, November 2000 and December 2001 letters ranged from 40 to 46 paragraphs but the January 2004 letter and subsequent missives tend towards the more traditional brevity of only 15-25 paragraphs of instruction to HEFCE.

Just for completeness then here are some of the details about English Higher Education’s most exciting epistles:

  1. The first letter in this series is the last prepared under the previous Conservative government, way back in November 1996. This 41 paragraph note (signed by a Civil Servant) covers: linking funding to assessment of teaching quality, expanding part-time provision, the importance of closer links with employers, not wanting to see longer courses, a planned reduction in student numbers by 2,000 for the following year and keeping the participation rate at around 30%. Some interesting parallels here with the most recent letter from the current government perhaps?
  2. The December 1998 letter is the first New Labour funding letter. At 66 paragraphs it is one of the longest in recent times and the last one to carry the name of a senior Civil Servant rather than the Secretary of State. Topics covered include sector spending, lifelong learning, increasing participation, maintaining quality and standards (a recurring theme down the years), widening access, promoting employability, research investment, capital spend, tuition fee arrangements and Year 2000 issues (we were all worried then).
  3. The November 1999 letter, 43 paragraphs long, provides David Blunkett with the opportunity to wax lyrical on the importance of maintaining quality and standards, increasing participation and employability, widening access, equal opportunities for HE staff, dealing with student complaints, new capital funding, pfi/ppp opportunities, research funding and HE pay.
  4. David Blunkett, in his November 2000 letter, which runs to a sprightly 46 paragraphs, makes some big points on widening participation as a key priority, business links and the e-university.
  5. In November 2001 Estelle Morris provides a neat 40 paragraph letter which gives lots of direction on widening participation, maintaining quality and standards, strengthening research, the importance of links with industry and communities, as well as something on the value of the e-Universities project (remember that?) and, last but not least, social inclusion.
  6. January 2003 represents the high water mark of recent funding letters: in 73 action packed paragraphs Charles Clarke, in his first outing as Secretary of State, is clearly keen to lead the way. The letter covers, among other things, improvement in research, expanded student numbers, foundation degrees, widening participation, improving teaching and learning and increased knowledge transfer. As if that were not enough we also have the establishment of the AHRC, the introduction of a new quality assurance regime but with reduced burdens for institutions (yeah, right), credit systems, FE partnerships, expanded student numbers and new investments in HE workforce development. A real blockbuster of a letter.
  7. The January 2004 message from Charles Clarke comes in at 20 paragraphs in just over 4 pages with reducing bureaucracy, building research and quality and standards and the establishment of Aimhigher as its central features.
  8. December 2004 brings a Christmas treat from everyone’s favourite Santa, Charles Clarke. With just 16 paragraphs and 4 pages of direction Clarke stresses the importance of maintaining the unit of funding for teaching, controlling student numbers and making efficiency gains.
  9. The January 2006 letter, a first and last offering from Ruth Kelly, comes in at a modest 15 paragraphs and 4 pages. No huge surprises in the text with employer-led provision, more widening participation, additional research and capital funding and a strong steer on reducing bureaucracy being the primary features. Additional points to note include equal opportunities for HE staff, efficiency gains, the new conditions which accompany the new tuition fees regime and reference to access agreements. What’s not to like here?
  10. January 2007’s is a punchy 19 paragraphs and merely five pages from Alan Johnson (his one and only letter). Despite the wordiness there isn’t a huge amount in here beyond employer engagement, growing foundation degrees and a lot on widening participation.
  11. January 2008: as with its successor letter this one is 24 paragraphs and 7 pages long (and note the online version on the HEFCE website is erroneously dated 18 Jan 2009). In this funding letter Denham indicates that his priorities are increasing student numbers, developing employer part-funded provision, and widening participation. The letter also refers to encouraging HE to develop stronger links with schools and colleges, greater investment in research, the importance of STEM, a green development fund, closer measuring of performance, and the establishment of the fund-raising match-funding scheme.
  12. January 2009’s letter is 7 pages and 24 paragraphs long and in it John Denham seeks to encourage HE to support the economy through recession, wider engagement with business, promote employer-led provision, innovative ways to support business, promotion of STEM subjects and widening participation and extending fair access. Additionally, there is the confirmation of the ‘university challenge’ with 20 new HE centres to be established, emphasis on the maintenance of quality and standards, plans for continuing to reduce regulation, commitment to dual support as well as the development of REF, steps to tackle climate change and bearing down on over-recruitment by institutions.
  13. The December 2009 letter from Lord Mandelson comes in at 15 paragraphs. This short note follows up on Higher Ambitions (which, in case you had forgotten, “sets out a course for how universities can remain world class, providing the nation with the high level skills needed to remain competitive, while continuing to attract the brightest students and researchers”) and also covers the Economic Challenge Investment Fund, wider and fairer access to HE, increasing the variety of undergraduate provision, new funding incentives to deliver higher level skills, developing REF, new developments in quality assurance including the publication of a standard set of information for students, engaging with communities and penalizing institutions which over-recruit students.
  14. June 2010 sees the first funding letter from the new coalition government: Cable and Willetts give us 10 brief paragraphs covering initial savings, efficiencies and cuts but also 10,000 extra places (but with strings).

So, that’s your lot folks. All you never wanted to know about 14 years of funding letters.

Troops to Teachers

New directions for service leavers: but should UK be doing more?

The University of Nottingham is offering extra places for for former service personnel wishing to retrain as teachers. It’s an interesting development and one which has arisen as part of a government initiative:

British servicemen and women who are leaving or have left the forces within the last two years are being offered the chance to bring their unique skills into the classroom and train as teachers at The University of Nottingham.

The University’s School of Education will provide extra places from September 2012 as part of its established and highly successful Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP). The School has developed a course which is tailor-made for graduates who have served in the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force.

The new Troops to Teachers course is part of a government scheme which pledged a package of support for ex-military personnel wanting to retrain as teachers when they leave the forces. It was prompted by a similar scheme in America which showed that ex-servicemen and women are proving to be excellent teachers, particularly in high-poverty areas and in high-demand subjects such as modern languages, mathematics and science.

When the policy was launched The Guardian questioned whether more ex-soldiers should become teachers and offered two contrasting viewpoints, the latter from someone who had followed this route:

Against:

The truth is that this is a deeply nostalgic policy, harking back to the two previous wars of the last century when demobbed soldiers entered our classrooms in their droves. But they were very different times; only a tiny fraction of the school population went to university and corporal punishment was rife. Times have moved on, but sadly Gove and his miserable policies have not.

For:

My military background was something that gave me instant respect and the training in instruction I could draw on from the army was very useful. The students enjoyed my lessons and other teachers would ask me to be the disciplinarian. So, yes, if you ask me, I think former soldiers make excellent teachers. If these plans go ahead, it’ll be good for them, and it’ll be good for their students.

I do think that it is possible that there is an element of nostalgia underlying the policy as is suggested here. However, helping ex-military personnel to find meaningful careers is surely something we should be concerned with. The USA demonstrates a significantly greater commitment on this front having a Government Department dedicated to Veterans and specific advice and substantial financial support for those wishing to return to higher education. Should we be doing more in the UK?

The Imperfect University: Massive Open Online Confusion?

The Future of HE? Or Massive Open Online Confusion?

For the latest Imperfect University piece a few thoughts on a topic which is attracting considerable comment at the moment: the growth of the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC. There has been a huge amount of hype around the new models of online provision or MOOCs, much of it significantly overstating the likely impact of such offerings. The numbers involved are impressive though with hundreds of thousands enrolled on some courses (hence the “massive” descriptor). Will MOOCs transform higher education as we know it? Or are they in fact closer to more traditional models of education than their proponents admit?

Disruptive innovation, a theory originally developed by Clayton Christensen to explain how new entrants to markets could take the lead through innovation and supplant traditional businesses, has been frequently applied of late to higher education. There has been much talk and many exciting conference presentations and magazine articles about how these new online providers will disrupt traditional models of learning and bring about the end of the physical university.

A paradigm shift?

Among the most extreme views on the likely impact of MOOCs we have Sebastian Thrun who has set up Udacity, a major new online provider, which has emerged from Stanford University with much fanfare. Quoted in a recent edition of Wired he predicted some change in the higher education market:

Fifty years from now, according to Thrun, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

Others have compared existing universities to companies which failed to adapt to new technology, such as Kodak. as for example, this story in the Washington Times notes:

The recent bankruptcy declaration by Kodak, one of the nation’s most trusted brands for consumers, which once held a market share in excess of 90 percent, is stunning. Kodak mistook America’s century-long love affair with its products as a sign of market permanency, missing the fact that camera phones, flip cameras and online sharing would erode its brand and render it irrelevant.

So it’s clear that even though the reservoir of public trust for higher education is deep, it certainly isn’t bottomless. That means colleges and universities must do all they can to keep and sustain the public’s confidence in higher education.

Colleges and universities also must focus on increasing higher education productivity – but not the kind that is about budget cutting to serve fewer students or about making individual institutions more selective. Instead, the true definition of productivity is one that offers a substantial increase in high-quality degree and certificate production at lower costs per degree awarded, while improving access and equity for underserved populations.

Ultimately, though, higher education must take control of its own future. The world is indeed changing, rapidly, and colleges and universities must seize the moment to meet the rising demand for high-quality skills that are vital to our collective well-being as a nation. If they don’t, they, like Kodak, risk the chance of being gone in a flash.

So, is this a once in a generation paradigm shift which will sweep away the some of the longest established organisations in the Western world? Or is it an over-hyped bubble?

Udacity

Looking first at Udacity, established by the aforementioned Professor Thrun, it claims an impressive 160,000 students from around the world enrolled on on its first course in artificial intelligence. It summarises its mission thus:

We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.

A glance at the curriculum for one of the Udacity classes gives a sense of what is on offer:

CS262: Programming Languages

Description: This class will give you an introduction to fundamentals of programming languages. In seven weeks, you will build your own simple web browser complete with the ability to parse and understand HTML and JavaScript. You will learn key concepts such as how to specify and process valid strings, sentences and program structures. Then, you will design and build an interpreter – a program that simulates other programs.

WEEK 1:
String Patterns
Finding and specifying classes of strings using regular expressions

WEEK 2:
Lexical Analysis
Breaking strings down into important words

WEEK 3:
Grammars
Specifying and deconstructing valid sentences

WEEK 4:
Parsing
Turning sentences into trees

WEEK 5:
Interpreting
Simulating programs

WEEK 6:
Building a Web Browser
Interpreting HTML and JavaScript

WEEK 7:
Wrap-up
Exam testing your knowledge

It all looks rather good. However, it’s difficult to escape the impression that there is a significant element of ego in here on the part of those leading this. Who wouldn’t want to be loved by hundreds of thousands of students instead of just one or two classes a year?

Coursera

Similar to Udacity is Coursera, which includes courses from Princeton, Stanford, Michigan and Pennsylvania Universities. The Coursera mission is nothing if not ambitious:

Education for Everyone.

We offer courses from the top universities, for free.

Learn from world-class professors, watch high quality lectures, achieve mastery via interactive exercises, and collaborate with a global community of students.

You can see the introductory video here:

Again, all jolly exciting.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy, which for a few years has been offering huge amounts of content leading to a range of “badges”, is another major player in this area. A recent piece about how “Bill Gates’ Favorite Teacher Wants to Disrupt Education” gives a flavour of the approach taken by its leader:

How would he change education? By turning it upside down. First, he says, we should “decouple credentialing from learning.” Instead of handing out degrees, standardized assessments would be the measure of employee competence. Anyone could learn at their own pace in their own way: in an internship, as an entrepreneur, or at home on the Internet. Then, everyone, no matter how they were educated, would be equal before the evaluation. Additionally, he thinks the assessment could be more meaningful than whatever abilities a college degree actually signals to employers.

The Khan Academy site explains more about how they recognise learning through badges:

As soon as you login, you’ll start earning badges and points for learning. The more you challenge yourself, the more bragging rights you’ll get.

We’ve heard of students spending hour after hour watching physics videos and 5th graders relentlessly tackling college-level math to earn Khan Academy badges. Some of the smaller badges are very easy, but the most legendary badges might require years of work.

Will these badges become more meaningful than degrees? Will higher education be turned upside down?

edX

MITx, the online offshoot of MIT, started its ball rolling in late 2011, then more recently joined up with Harvardx to form edX, described thus:

An organization established by MIT and Harvard that will develop an open-source technology platform to deliver online courses. EdX will support Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning on campus through tools that enrich classroom and laboratory experiences. At the same time, edX also will reach learners around the world through online course materials. The edX website will begin by hosting MITx and Harvardx content, with the goal of adding content from other universities interested in joining the platform. edX will also support the Harvard and MIT faculty in conducting research on teaching and learning.

Interestingly, the very laudable aim of edX to support research about learning rather sets it apart from the other developments mentioned here. The edX – FAQs offer some more insights into the approach:

How is this different from what other universities are doing online?

EdX will be entirely our universities’ shared educational missions. Also, a primary goal of edX is to improve teaching and learning on campus by supporting faculty from both universities in conducting significant research on how students learn.

Who will lead edX?

EdX is a priority for the leadership of both Harvard and MIT, and it will be governed by a board made up of key leaders from both institutions, appointed by each university’s president. MIT Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Anant Agarwal will be the initial President of edX and will report to the board.

Does the effort have a staff?

EdX is a significant undertaking that will require significant resources. The full scope of the staff has not been determined, but there will be a dedicated staff to the initiative.

Who can take edX courses? Will there be an admissions process?

EdX will be available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and in general, there will not be an admissions process. For a modest fee, and as determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard, credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material of a subject.

Will the certificates be awarded by Harvard and/or MIT?

As determined by the edX board, MIT and Harvard, online learners who demonstrate mastery of subjects could earn a certificate of completion, but such certificates would not be issued under the name Harvard or MIT.

Some of the problems with these MOOCs

There are a number of problems associated with these developments:

  • There is no proper academic quality assurance: by and large anyone can offer any course they want without any need for approval or monitoring by an academic body. It might be good, it might not but you’ll have to try it to find out. However,  edX argues that the standards are the same as for regular MIT and Harvard courses:

Will MIT and Harvard standards apply here?

The reach changes exponentially, but the rigor remains the same.

This may be true in terms of the content but they are not assessed in the same way and, as noted in the edX FAQs above, certificates will not be issued in the names of the universities.

  • Self-selection: courses are offered by self-selecting academics and followed by self-selecting students. Again there is no quality assurance in relation to either.
  • Drop out rates are very high: most people simply won’t stay the course. It’s easy to enrol but even easier to drop out.
  • It’s something of a popularity contest: what’s new and exciting is what’s popular. Robotics and artificial intelligence are the hot topics to study along with lots of related IT stuff. However, Sociology and Greek Mythology can also be found.
  • Non-assessment: there isn’t any meaningful assessment. This is one of the biggest problems with this kind of large scale offering – the assessment methods seem to be basic at best. There is a need for something beyond multiple choice – undoubtedly we will get more sophisticated assessment tools in future but scaling up will be difficult.
  • Non-accreditation: completion of all of the work will mean you get the equivalent of an attendance certificate or a virtual badge. These may have currency in certain businesses in some sectors (mainly IT) but it is not clear that they will achieve wider recognition. (See an earlier, rather critical, post on this topic.)

Terms and conditions

To be clear about what is not offered, let’s look at some of the terms and conditions from Udacity:

you acknowledge that any letter of completion awarded will not be affiliated with any college or university and will not stand in the place of a course taken at an accredited institution;

you acknowledge that instructors of any Online Course will not be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution; and

you will abide by the Student Conduct Policy listed below.

DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTIES.

You expressly acknowledge and agree that your use of the Class Sites, the Online Courses and all content and services available on the Class Sites is at your sole risk and responsibility. THE ONLINE COURSES (INCLUDING ANY CONTENT) IS PROVIDED “AS IS” AND “AS AVAILABLE” WITH NO REPRESENTATIONS OR WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND, EITHER EXPRESSED OR IMPLIED, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY, FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE, AND NONINFRINGEMENT. YOU ASSUME TOTAL RESPONSIBILITY AND THE ENTIRE RISK FOR YOUR USE OF THE ONLINE COURSES AND CONTENT.

WITHOUT LIMITING THE FOREGOING, WE DO NOT WARRANT THAT (A) THE CLASS SITES, CONTENT, OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL MEET YOUR REQUIREMENTS OR EXPECTATIONS OR ACHIEVE THE INTENDED PURPOSES, (B) THE CLASS SITES OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL NOT EXPERIENCE OUTAGES OR OTHERWISE BE UNINTERRUPTED, TIMELY, SECURE OR ERROR-FREE, (C) THE INFORMATION OR CONTENT OBTAINED THROUGH THE CLASS SITES OR THE ONLINE COURSES WILL BE ACCURATE, COMPLETE, CURRENT, ERROR-FREE, COMPLETELY SECURE OR RELIABLE, OR (D) THAT DEFECTS IN OR ON THE CLASS SITES OR CONTENT WILL BE CORRECTED. YOU ASSUME ALL RISK OF PERSONAL INJURY, INCLUDING DEATH AND DAMAGE TO PERSONAL PROPERTY, SUSTAINED FROM USE OF THE ONLINE COURSES AND CONTENT.

OK it’s a free offer, and students are able to learn for nothing and do get an attendance certificate or a badge but there are no guarantees that anyone will recognize either (in fact there are seemingly very few guarantees at all). Will employers start favouring these? I doubt it even if some companies eventually employ the brightest of the hundreds of thousands taking some courses who manage to stand out and then receive a recommendation from a tutor.

Perhaps not that revolutionary after all

It’s all very exciting and has prompted breathless commentary about the imminent demise of traditional universities. Yes, these developments will have an impact but MOOCs will not replace universities – rather they will offer a different avenue to self-improvement. MOOCs are an interesting new delivery method and offer education at scale in a way that traditional universities find hard but really this is more of a contemporary variation on the Adult Learning/Continuing Education model. The expansion and democratization of learning which MOOCs represent is thoroughly laudable but they are in reality an extension of education offerings rather than a replacement for established universities.

The new Mechanics’?

Despite all the hype, this new provision may offer real value for many. MOOCs can be seen as the internet equivalent of the Mechanics’ Institute, which started in the 19th Century as vehicles for self-improvement for working men unable to gain access to conventional education.

Leeds Mechanics’ Institute (now a museum)

Some of these institutes formed the foundation of universities (including UMIST, Heriot Watt and Birkbeck for example) and provided routes into higher education for those usually excluded. But for many people such institutes, which often included libraries, provided a means of improving technical knowledge to enable advancement at work or more general self-education. This philosophy still underpins the largely part-time provision at Birkbeck.

Such institutes often depended on philanthropy for their resources as do some of the online startups we’re seeing now. Will these new providers last as long as some of the Mechanics’? Perhaps. They do offer something new and interesting for which there is clearly demand.

So, we should embrace MOOCs as a welcome additional contribution to education in the great adult education tradition. But will they sweep aside traditional universities? (Or all but 10 of them?) I don’t think so. Things are likely to be a bit confusing for a while therefore.

Nottingham Potential – a launch and an opening

Helping young people to reach their true potential

I was delighted to be at an excellent event to mark the launch of Nottingham Potential and the formal opening of the IntoUniversity Nottingham West centre. It’s a major programme and a central component of the University’s widening participation strategy which has the aim of helping young people to reach their true potential. A full statement on the launch is here but in summary:

An ambitious new programme will help some of the most deprived young people in the East Midlands to reach university.

Nottingham Potential represents a major investment in the future of the primary and secondary-age school pupils — a multimillion pound commitment to help break down the barriers to higher education.

Delivered by The University of Nottingham in partnership with education charity IntoUniversity, Nottingham Potential will provide new learning centres in the community to support pupils from the ages of 7-18, including one-to-one support with homework, literacy and numeracy, coursework, exams, GCSE options and A-levels, careers advice and applications to university.

Nottingham Potential, as reported by the Nottingham Post, is supported by a major donation from Nottingham alumnus, David Ross, seen here at the launch:

The Post notes that Nottingham Potential aims to break down the barriers to higher education in some of the most deprived parts of the City.

Mr Ross, who is the co-founder of phone firm Carphone Warehouse, has his own charity, the David Ross Foundation, which works with children in schools in deprived areas.

He said: “The David Ross Foundation’s partnerships with schools in deprived areas has shown us that in order to raise young people’s aspirations then the earlier we start, the better.

“Our focus is on working with children at an early age to show them that a university education is a door very much open to them.

“Talent and ability is abundant in these schools, and in many different fields – academic, artistic, sporting and many more.

“However, without the right kind of encouragement and support young people may not appreciate the opportunities that they can seize.”

In addition to Mr Ross’ donation, the university is spending £16 million a year on the project by 2015-16.

It’s a really exciting programme and the collaboration with IntoUniversity, the charity’s first outside London, will make a real difference to educational opportunities in Nottingham.

The initial base opened in the Hope Centre, Broxtowe Estate, yesterday.

Too much data?

Will more data help prospective students?

Richard Partington, writing in THE, expresses concern about the ‘data overload’ which the Key Information Set (KIS) will deliver. He notes that the provision of information to applicants via the KIS is intended to work in a similar way to price comparison websites such as those offering car insurance. And that this, despite what Ministers might think, is not necessarily a good thing:

But what really worries me, is how the data will be “innovatively presented” by the third-party providers whom the government envisages will advise applicants. Comparing universities and courses is already really difficult. Unless students are lucky enough to be supported by excellent careers advisers, they struggle to make sense of substantially incomparable information regarding course content, teaching, learning, costs and support. The problem has arguably been exacerbated by newspaper league tables that seek to distinguish themselves by weighting data differently, or including additional delineators – sometimes of comical spuriousness. The impossibility of comparing like with like will only get worse under the new arrangements. Try, for example, comparing the fee-waiver, bursary and scholarship packages of Oxford and Cambridge. Both are, I believe, strong and broadly similar. But they look very different.

An earlier post noted similar issues around the provision of advice to students in the new system. It seems to me to be quite likely therefore that the excessive provision of detailed but not necessarily meaningfully comparable data will, as Partington suggests, baffle rather than enlighten students.

A currently pretty much empty site shows an example of what the KIS data will look like and it’s easy to see how seductive this might be for those looking for a cheap solution to the provision of advice to prospective students

Enlightening or baffling? We’ll have to wait and see.

Advice for prospective students – quantity and quality

High quality advice and guidance is key for delivering access

An interesting piece by Tessa Stone in the Times Higher Education on the importance of clear, impartial and high quality advice for potential university students. I’d agree with a lot of what Tessa says:

So, the schools that already do this well will continue to give their students the advantage that sound advice and guidance makes. For those without access to such advice, the gulf will widen further. Universities provide masses of advice already, yet coverage is not universal and the market imperative risks seeing focused recruitment trump broader outreach work. This is a risk we must guard against.

You would expect someone like me, running a charity that seeks to connect, inform and inspire more people to achieve their potential through education, to argue strongly in favour of maintaining the broadest possible approach. But in my experience, most of the staff who have tirelessly delivered outreach over the past decade, much of it altruistic, also share my concern.

Silver bullets there are none, but one smart approach that some of Brightside’s university partners are taking is to provide initiatives that are relevant to a number of priorities. We provide an e-mentoring service that universities (and others) can embed into their outreach activities – making ongoing mentoring support available beyond the summer school or shadowing scheme, and generally being the thread that binds intermittent, face-to-face activities. Our university partners also see this as a way to aid retention and success and promote employability (recent graduates and local employers mentor second and third years).

This is just one example, but whatever form such collaboration takes – and however much universities may rail against yet again having to make up for problems for which they are not responsible – it is crucial that it happens. We must respond to the serious and growing need for clear, impartial information and advice about the system. If we do not, it is not clear who will.

Unfortunately, the Government’s approach seems to be largely pinned on simply providing additional information for potential students, primarily via the Key Information Set or KIS:

The problem with KIS is that is just provides more information in what is already a very crowded bazaar- it will not necessarily help applicants make sensible informed decisions (and it inevitably adds to the regulatory burden on universities, but that’s another story). The latest addition to this very busy picture was recently reported in the Observer, which noted that Which? Magazine intended to enter the market for provision of information to students. In order for applicants to make properly informed decisions there really is a need for human intervention.

Nottingham Potential, part of the University of Nottingham’s Impact Campaign, will, working in partnership with Into University, address just the issue identified by Tessa:

The University has a long tradition of working with young people, teachers, schools and colleges across Nottingham and the East Midlands to raise aspirations and support achievements.

Despite changes in funding and fee structures for the higher education sector, the University is clear about the direction and commitment needed to improve access for those who aspire, and have the ability, to pursue higher education.

Excellence in education and equality of access and opportunity are guiding principles in our strategic plan. These principles are also central to Nottingham Potential. Through it, we will create a distinct and high-profile pathway to higher education for the most deprived young people of our region.

Nottingham Potential will expand the University’s work with children of primary age, from as young as Year 2 (age 7), through the transition to secondary school and beyond, by providing a pathway that will support achievement and raise aspirations.

Nottingham Potential is unique in providing long-term support tailored to young people with educational ambitions. This can only be achieved in partnership with families, schools, teachers, community groups, and by drawing upon the extraordinary commitment and expertise shown by the University’s students and staff.

The University will deliver Nottingham Potential on our campuses and in satellite centres within three of the region’s most deprived communities. With 24 new staff strengthening teams, the number of opportunities for contact will almost double in five years, from 28,000 in 2011 to almost 50,000. This will make the University a positive and accessible presence in the lives of the region’s most deprived young people.

Nottingham Potential will make a real and lasting difference in our region. But the fundamental problem in advancing this agenda further is one of scale – there are around 3.25m secondary students in 4,500 secondary schools (non-private) in England – our universities, no matter how hard we try, are not going to reach all of them – it requires something more joined up and government-led to do that. There are no silver bullets and just providing more information is not the answer. It’s about quality AND quantity.

British students flocking to the US Ivy League. Or not?

An untrained brain drain?

In a recent post I commented on the press reports on the modest flow of English students to universities in continental Europe and the reverse flow of other EU students to the UK. The media seems extremely keen to report any international movement by students from the UK as evidence of a flight from the 2012 fee regime (at least for students from England). So, the Telegraph has a feature on British students turning to US Ivy League universities:

According to figures, Harvard had around 500 British applications to start courses this autumn, up from around 370 for last year – a 35 per cent increase.

Yale enrolled 36 British students onto undergraduate courses last year, up from 25 in 2009 – a 44 per cent rise. Five years ago, in 2006, just 15 students enrolled.

Some 197 students from England and Wales alone have applied to start courses at Cornell this autumn, up from 176 last year.

Information from Columbia University shows that 178 British students enrolled in 2009, up from 164 in 2008 and 151 in 2003.

Berkeley University, which is not an Ivy League college, has had 166 British applications for this autumn, compared with 130 last year.

To put this into perspective, there were over 630,000 applications through UCAS for 2011 entry to UK universities. And there were over 14,300 US students studying in the UK in 2008/09. This is, therefore, a drop in the ocean.

University of the People v College for the Few

For the many or the few?

A previous post commented on the Fantasy institution that is the New College of the Humanities. This story rumbles on in the UK and is continuing source of interest for many. But whatever one might think of the merits or otherwise of the project, no-one would seek to suggest it is primarily concerned with widening participation. The BBC summary of the story captures the essence of the NCH proposition:

The New College of the Humanities says it will teach “gifted” undergraduates and prepare them for degrees from the University of London.

The privately-owned London-based college will open in September 2012 and is planning to charge fees of £18,000.

The 14 professors involved include biologist Richard Dawkins and historian Sir David Cannadine.

Professor Dawkins is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, as well as being the author of The God Delusion, and Sir David is a professor at Princeton University in the United States.

Based in Bloomsbury, central London, the new college says it will offer eight undergraduate courses in the humanities taught by some of the world’s most prominent academics.

Degrees cover five subject areas – law, economics, history, English literature and philosophy.

So it really is a marginal, if interesting and entertaining, development. As William Cullerne Brown puts it:

Yet the more I think about these aspects, the less worried I am. The NEH is reminiscent of the many liberal arts colleges that flourish in the US. Some are prestigious, most aren’t. But none has a hope of rivalling Harvard and Yale. In an established market like England, I don’t see the NEH gaining the reputational traction it aspires to. It is demanding high grades from applicants, but what if it doesn’t get them? The investors can’t just say forget it then – if things go badly it could easily become known instead as a place for rich thickos. And anyway, the NEH is not a new sector. It can’t be more than just one, apparently quite small, place. And it can never be more than a tiny fraction of what the Russell Group needs to win the political long game, even if you oppose its objective.

Contrast this with a fascinating new model for tuition-free higher education in the US as recently reported by The Washington Post:

The Pasadena, Calif., nonprofit university offers college coursework to about 1,000 students worldwide essentially for free. The only charge is a one-time application fee of $10 to $50, which varies according to the comparative wealth of the student’s home nation.

Professors and deans donate their labors. Founder Shai Reshef has just two paid academic employees. Students access and download assignments online. Class discussions take place in old-fashioned text-based chat rooms, which enable students to participate on the most marginal of computers.

“The idea is to open the gate for anyone who wants to study,” Reshef said during a visit to The Washington Post.

Founded in 2009, University of the People claims to be the world’s first tuition-free online university “dedicated to the global advancement and democratization of higher education”. The institution exploits the growing reach and falling cost of online study.

Some volunteer administrators and faculty come from Columbia, NYU and other prestigious universities, drawn, Reshef said, by the potentially transformational power of a free, online, global university. Formal partners include Yale Law School; NYU plans to offer some of Reshef’s students transfer to its campus in Abu Dhabi.

A quite different approach.

Tuition fees: Minister warns universities

More than just sabre-rattling?

The BBC reports on a warning from the Universities Minister concerning fee setting plans. Speaking at the Dearing Conference at the University of Nottingham on 17 February he warned that, because the government had assumed that the average fee would be £7,500, if most universities charged higher than this the additional cost of student finance would have to be met from elsewhere in the HE budget. Thus, higher fees will result in more cuts:

David Willetts has warned that there will be more cuts to higher education if too many universities opt to charge maximum tuition fees. The government wants most universities to pitch their fees lower – because it faces costs from supporting students’ loans. The universities minister said savings would “reluctantly” have to be found.

The government has said it wants the top fee to be charged only in “exceptional circumstances” but as independent bodies, universities are free to charge fees they want. Imperial College, London has become the first to opt to charge the top rate and Oxford and Cambridge appear to be moving that way.

The government says if too many universities charge higher fees, the costs to it will be too high.

The key point here is the independence of universities. Without further legislation on fees the government is not able to dictate what universities will charge. So, the exhortations to pitch low and the assertion that £9,000 will be exceptional represent helpful advice from the Minister but it will be up to universities to decide. And, if we have the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, as reported in The Times (£), saying that his institution probably needs to charge around £8,000 in order to survive, then we will soon see whether this means that even more cuts will be on the way for higher education or if this was just sabre-rattling.

Charity Commission rules and universities’ charitable status

Possible threat to universities’ charitable status

Interesting opinion piece from Pinsent Masons on how Charity Commission rules could threaten universities’ charitable status.

Universities are not like schools, for any number of reasons. One reason, though, will be vital in universities’ coming battle to retain their charitable status: you don’t need to go to university to benefit from university education.

Every time a doctor heals a sick person, an architect designs a building that does not fall down or an artist makes something beautiful, society benefits. Universities make society a better place. And if we all benefit, they should be allowed to keep their charitable status.

Someone should tell the Charity Commission this. It claims that a change in the law aimed at fee paying schools should apply to universities that increase their fees.

UK universities are charities and a recent change in charity law in England and Wales means that in order to qualify as a charity an organisation must demonstrate the public benefit it delivers, rather than operate under a presumption of that benefit.

The Charity Commission has produced guidance which says that organisations will pass the public benefit test if the opportunity for people to benefit is not restricted by an ability to pay and if the organisation does not exclude people in poverty.

Following the changes to fee arrangements and the increase in the cap of up to £9,000 where additional widening participation activities and spend are offered there is a concern that if the Charity Commission Guidance is followed there could be a problem. By charging a fee above £6,000 it is suggested in the article that universities risk preventing poorer students attending and might therefore could lose vital charitable status.

It’s not clear how an increase in the cap would make such a difference to the current position. Especially given that universities wishing to charge more will have to make significant new widening participation commitments and have a new access agreement with the Office for Fair Access. Nevertheless, concern remains.