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.

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.

MOOCS: 12 Reasons for universities not to panic

Don’t believe the hype?

There has been an extraordinary level of hype in higher education (and beyond) about Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Vice-Chancellors and their senior management teams up and down the country have been fretting about the developments and whether they need to get on board with one of the big players to avoid missing out. Two UK universities have recently announced their membership of a MOOC consortium with both Edinburgh University and the University of London signing up with Coursera. Meanwhile in the US the governance chaos at the University of Virginia where the President was forced to resign by governors and then reinstated two weeks later was prompted, at least in part, by differences of opinion on institutional strategy in relation to MOOCs.

At least not yet

As noted in an earlier post, MOOCs are big and new and challenging for universities but in many ways they are a contemporary echo of aspirations for wider access to higher level study from an earlier age. So, if your university is asking whether it’s going to miss out by not joining one of the MOOC consortia or if your senior management team is in a spin about missing the MOOC bandwagon or even struggling to understand what the heck this is all about, here are a dozen good reasons not to panic.

  1. There isn’t a business model for MOOCs that stacks up. OK, there are hundreds of thousands of students enrolled but they aren’t paying a penny for the privilege. And it really isn’t free to design, develop and deliver online provision. The unit cost per student may be negligible but the real up front costs and maintenance are non trivial investments as noted in this earlier blog.
  2. Badges. Universities deliver higher education. We award degrees. MOOCs however adopt the cub scout approach to knowledge acquisition by giving you a badge or a nice attendance certificate if you make it to the end. Accreditation matters. Academic credentials have meaning and currency because of how they are attained and the means by which academic standards and quality are assured. Badges don’t offer this. They are just, well, badges.
  3. While we’re on the subject: Quality assurance – there really isn’t any to write home about. This is not to say that any old garbage will be delivered by anyone with a camera, a cool shirt and a wifi connection but rather that the quality assurance frameworks which govern MOOCs are, inevitably, fundamentally different from those which operate in universities.
  4. Standards. Similarly, it is pretty much impossible at the moment to assure the academic standards of MOOCs. Whilst part of the idea is to encourage collaboration between students and despite the introduction in certain specific cases of supervised examinations, plagiarism is inevitable and there is simply no way to test whether any assessment is genuinely a student’s own work.

    iTunesU

  5. Online isn’t that new and shiny. Lots of universities are already delivering online provision. Just look at iTunesU – there are hundreds of institutions represented and thousands of educational courses and other offerings.
  6. It’s not a revolution. Despite what Moody’s may say, we’ve been here before. From correspondence courses to the launch of the Open University and from Mechanics’ Institutes to the University of London External Programme there really isn’t anything in this which has not been done before, albeit in slightly different ways.
  7. Wastage rates are enormous. 90% plus in many cases. That really isn’t a ringing endorsement. It’s low stakes for the participants. Many people are taking such courses just out of interest or to brush up their technical skills. While this remains the case then wastage will continue to be high and the hold of MOOCs will be tenuous.
  8. Content not education. MOOCs aren’t offering education but rather just content delivery. The classroom and campus experience and the face-to–face interaction with other learners and teachers is a key element of learning. People still matter. Especially in education.
  9. Tech. Computers still aren’t very good at marking essays. Most assessments are therefore more limited and plagiarism is easier.
  10. Inputs matter. Universities select their students for a good reason. They want them to be able to benefit from the course and have a reasonable chance of completing it. Complete open access means that high wastage rates are the norm and you can’t be confident that the ones who finish the course are any better for it or indeed if they did any of the work themselves.
  11. The Open University isn’t panicking. If any institution should be concerned it would be the OU as MOOCs would seem to strike at the heart of their business model. They aren’t. Indeed they seem to be doing better than ever.
  12. MOOCs are nothing without universities (where are all those trendy professors going to be educated otherwise?). And, despite what Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicts there will be more than 10 universities in the world half a century from now.

So, don’t panic. Yet. Because before we get too dismissive of the hype surrounding the game-changing, paradigm-shifting, revolutionary nature of MOOCs there are several reasons to pause for thought:

  • Numbers. There really are very large numbers of people following MOOCs who traditional higher education is not reaching. Internationally and locally there are opportunities for universities to reach new audiences which they really should be considering.
  • Ethos. The aims of the MOOC consortia in terms of promoting accessibility, participation and democratization of learning are laudable and should not be dismissed lightly.
  • Avoiding complacency. The services we offer to students who do enrol, study and stay on our campuses can always be improved. Students do have a choice and we need to ensure they get maximum value from their university experience.
  • IT. Many universities struggle to harness technological developments to support student learning. We can still do a lot better.

There is no need to panic therefore. At least not just yet. But setting aside the hype there are lessons to be learned and universities will want to consider how to raise their game. Just to be on the safe side.

Fake Plastic Degrees

Easy come, easy go for fake degrees

Previous posts have noted the problems with fake degrees and there have been some high profile politicians unaccountably caught up with fake degree scandals in recent times. My eye was caught recently by this piece on degrees issued by an institution which doesn’t exist, Westfield University:

Ann E. Lewis, leader of Pencader Charter School, in Newcastle, Delaware, says that she holds a Ph. D. degree from Westfield University.

The only problem is that Westfield University doesn’t seem to exist. There is a major crisis in the world of higher education: the large and growing number of fake universities and fake degrees.

There is a website called college-degree-fast.com, and after completing a brief online application and paying a small fee, the site offers applicants a degree of their choice from any of several “universities.” One of those institutions is Westfield University, where Pencader High School leader Ann Lewis says she received her PhD.

The article also includes a few highlights from an interview with Ann Lewis about her qualifications. She doesn’t seem to have worked too hard for them:

“I got my MBA without my master’s thesis from Westfield University,” states Lewis.

A reporter states that a 25-year-old colleague applied to Westfield through college-fast-degree.com, and was offered a Ph.D. in organizational leadership.

When Lewis is questioned about her own Ph.D., she states that she didn’t have time to finish it, but got the Ph.D. anyway: “I finished this as far as I needed to do.” Apparently that should be enough to qualify anyone to get a Ph.D.

It’s great that some institutions seem to encourage such flexibility. However, this all seems to have been a bit too much publicity for Westfield University and its website has now disappeared as noted in this follow up piece. Don’t worry though, there will be many more along soon.

From National to Global Universities

A nice piece from David Wheeler in the Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the challenges for universities in going global:

Universities, like companies, may need to make the transformation from being a national brand to being a global one. Siemens, once thought of as a German company, now says that it is “a global powerhouse in electronics and electrical engineering, operating in the industry, energy, and health-care sectors.”

Global brands can be adapted to various local markets, while still staying globally integrated. I just gave away a collection of international Coke cans, consisting of many different shapes and bearing Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish words, among others. But they were all instantly identifiable as Coke cans.

As some universities seek to be global, they often emphasize that a degree in one country will be exactly identical to a degree in another. I’m left wondering if a little more flexibility might be in order.

Human-resources departments may need to rise in importance as universities seek to become more global. The complexities of managing different people in different places are high, and human-resources departments, which are often simply the servants of academic departments at many universities, need to acquire and share their expertise on how to manage a mix of expatriates and local workers in a variety of countries.

I think this flexibility point is well made. Institutions do have to adapt to the environment in which they are operating. Education cannot be entirely context independent. Academic standards do, of course, have to be consistent. So, whilst term dates may be different and the timetable may look a little unusual, the curriculum, learning outcomes, assessment and examinations, admission requirements and academic staff qualifications, to name but a few components, do have to be directly comparable to ensure that the standards of awards and the quality of the student learning experience are maintained. These are fundamental to sustaining the institutional brand.

An earlier post noted the continued growth in branch campus developments by universities. All of the issues faced by global corporations, from maintaining the brand to developing HR operations, are shared by universities looking to grow a presence overseas. But it is very difficult to do this alone:

Lastly, I think that universities can learn from corporations about how to better manage partnerships. It’s a bit of a cliché, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say it: Universities approaching partners need to think of programs that would benefit both parties. Approaching a computer company and asking for money or machines to take back to the university doesn’t work for the company, without some benefit being offered. Companies have their own problems to solve.

The issue of partnerships is crucial. Any institution looking to establish a genuine global presence is not going to be able to do it alone and will in all likelihood require government backing as well as other partners to help with infrastructure development and navigating through a different policy and legal environment. None of this is straightforward but can be done and does bring rewards. In the long run.

There is an interesting link here to the recent story about the UK Universities Minister’s discussions with Goldman Sachs about ways to support offshoring opportunities for British HEIs. Branch campuses are not the solution to domestic economic travails but they are a serious option for universities looking to establish a global brand. Although there are many challenges associated with such developments, the benefits are significant.

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.

Firsts and fees, plagiarism and pay hikes (and the rest)

No dumbing down here – is this the most comprehensive HE piece ever?

Daily Mail online has a terrific piece which manages to conflate a host of different higher education issues within a single kick ass column. On the back of recent HESA data which shows an increase in the number of students achieving first and upper second class degrees the article moves on to plagiarism, league table corruption, commercialisation (not clear if good or bad), the optionality of HEAR (bad?), an ‘expert’ view of classifications, coercion of external examiners, VC pay increases and fee rises in the context of declining HE funding. Unbelievable? Perhaps it would be fairer to let the piece speak for itself:

The number of students awarded first-class degrees has more than doubled over the last decade.

A record one in six graduates obtained the top qualification last year, prompting fresh concerns about grade inflation and the value of degrees.

One expert says that degree classifications are now ‘almost meaningless’.

The trend has fuelled demands for a major overhaul of the system, with the introduction of a ‘starred first’ degree for the brightest graduates.

According to figures released yesterday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), 53,215 graduates gained firsts in 2010/11 compared with 23,700 in 2000/01.

A decade ago, nine per cent of graduates gained the top classification. By 2010/11 the proportion getting firsts had risen to 15.5 per cent.

HESA also provided detailed data covering the period between 2006/7 and 2010/11, when there was a 45 per cent increase in the number of students gaining firsts.

A feast of higher education comments

Sixty-six per cent of degrees obtained by women were firsts or 2.1s in 2010/11 compared with 61 per cent of those achieved  by males.

High scores: More students are graduating and with better grades than in the past, despite accusations of commercialism and anti-intellectualism

Demands for reform of degree classification have increased over recent years amid claims that some lecturers turn a blind eye to plagiarism to help their institutions climb official league tables.

University whistle-blowers have also alleged that external examiners have been ‘leaned on’ to boost grades.

Universities have been asked to adopt a new graduate ‘report card’, providing a detailed breakdown of students’ academic achievements plus information about extra-curricular activities. However, they cannot be forced to.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University, said: ‘The inflation in degree classes is rendering them almost meaningless.

‘Employers have to look at A-level results and the university at which the degree is being obtained.’

The heads of elite universities are raking in average pay packages of almost £318,000 ahead of the tripling of tuition fees.

Many vice chancellors are enjoying salary rises when higher education has seen its funding slashed and students are being forced to pay up to £9,000 a year in fees.

A veritable smorgasbord of entertaining higher education observations. All in one short piece. Truly the Mail is spoiling us. We may never see the like again.

Online Badges v Degrees

Is the gig up for universities? You decide

The Chronicle carries some entertaining hokum about degrees being overtaken by online badges:

Employers might prefer a world of badges to the current system. After all, traditional college diplomas look elegant when hung on the wall, but they contain very little detail about what the recipient learned. Students using Mozilla’s proposed badge system might display dozens or even hundreds of merit badges on their online résumés detailing what they studied. And students could start showing off the badges as they earn them, rather than waiting four years to earn a diploma.

“We have to question the tyranny of the degree,” says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University. Mr. Wiley is an outspoken advocate of so-called open education, and he imagines a future where screenfuls of badges from free or low-cost institutions, perhaps mixed with a course or two from a traditional college, replace the need for setting foot on a campus. “As soon as big employers everywhere start accepting these new credentials, either singly or in bundles, the gig is up completely.”

 

Death of the university etc etc, we’ve been here before but the phrase “tyranny of the degree” is what got to me in this report. What this really means is that someone genuinely believes that a bit of online twiddling is in some way to be regarded as intellectually comparable to a three year intensive, rigorous, properly assessed undergraduate degree. Cobblers. Whilst not everyone who achieves a medical degree can be a top surgeon, who would you trust to operate on you? A qualified doctor or some teen who did his bypass badge online? And will the world’s most successful companies suddenly start choosing staff by the duration of their online experience or their Klout score rather than their real qualifications? I wonder.

Whilst we must never be complacent about competition I think the gig is very far from up.

Europe as “one higher education space”

The President of Maastricht University argues in a piece for the Guardian Higher Education Network for greater European integration in higher education:

Not before time, the House of Lords in the UK has announced an inquiry into European Union support for universities and student mobility. By now, the vision of a single higher-education space across Europe was supposed to be a reality. But achieving that goal is taking longer than expected.

The idea was that by 2010 students and academic staff would be moving freely between European countries and institutions, secure in the knowledge that the qualifications they achieved would translate between EU member states.

Some significant progress has been made in the 12 years since all this was first envisaged in the Bologna protocol, drawn up by 29 countries across Europe, and in the five years since recognition of common European degree standards was agreed in Lisbon. More than 210,000 students now spend part of their degree abroad through the Erasmus exchange scheme alone, and the number of academics crossing national borders to teach is increasing year on year.

But no-one would argue that we are anywhere near reaching all the goals these two agreements set out. A report last month on the Erasmus scheme showed that one in five students was forced to retake courses and exams after failing to receive full credit for studies abroad, while the European Commission has just put forward new measures to support the aims of the higher education area, including profiling institutions and giving financial support to master’s students studying abroad.

Professor Paul is right to be critical of the slow pace of change. He suggests closer collaboration between a small group of universities with international outlooks from different member states as a pilot project to acheive a more meaningful model for a European education. This would then be the ‘blueprint’ for the new European University.

I’m not sure that we need a new blueprint – there are many excellent internationally-focused universities across Europe and I think it is unlikely that many of them will wish to change their approach because of such work. Greater convergence will happen where it is in the interests of universities to do so. Some change has happened, albeit slowly, towards the Bologna and Lisbon agreements but what all of this does highlight is the difficulty of imposing external standards or structures on autonomous universities where the benefits are not immediately obvious. It is far from clear that a standardised European view of international education is what is needed to deliver a “knowledge-based workforce” for Europe in a singke higher education space.

Not such a good example?

“Don’t Look to the Ivy League” is an interesting article in the London Review of Books by Howard Hotson. Essentially, his argument is that a wider reading of the league tables suggest that the UK generally punches above its weight. The USA, despite dominating the very top of the table, lacks strength in depth. In short, he argues that the US model really isn’t that great an example to follow:

The top ten or 20 places typically grab all the attention. What happens when we consider all 200? No summary of the mean rankings of the top 200 universities over the past seven years is available, but we can examine the data in the THE rankings for 2010-11. In the top 50 places, US outnumber UK universities by five to one. In the second tier (places 51-100), American universities begin to lose their edge, and the proportion drops to three to one. In the bottom half of the table (places 101-200), the number of places held by both countries is much reduced, as universities from other countries crowd onto the table, but the significant point is that here the US and UK universities are virtually at level pegging. UK universities are distributed fairly uniformly throughout the table, which suggests that there is a smooth and gradual transition from the top tier of universities to the next level down, and so on. The US university system, by contrast, appears to concentrate a hugely disproportionate share of resources in a small group of very wealthy and exclusive private institutions.

The consequence of this concentration of resources in this exclusive group of elite insitutions is, according to Hotson, an endless escalation of tuition fee levels which further reinforce the position of the elite. Moreover, the increase in tuition fees is partly justified by a need to fuel a student experience arms race:

Jonathan Cole, former provost and dean of faculties at Columbia, wrote in the Huffington Post last year that in addition to fee inflation, a major contributor to the increased cost of higher education in America stems from the

perverse assumption that students are ‘customers’, that the customer is always right, and what he or she demands must be purchased. Money is well-spent on psychological counselling, but the number of offices that focus on student activities, athletics and athletic facilities, summer job placement and outsourced dining services, to say nothing of the dormitory rooms and suites that only the Four Seasons can match, leads to an expansion of administrators and increased cost of administration.

If Cole is correct, then the marketisation of the higher education sector stimulates not one but two separate developments which run directly counter to government expectations. On the one hand, genuine market competition between elite universities drives up average tuition fees across the sector. On the other, the marketing of the ‘student experience’ places an ever increasing portion of university budgets in the hands of student ‘customers’. The first of these mechanisms drives up price, while the second drives down academic value for money, since the inflated fees are squandered on luxuries. To judge from the American experience, comfortable accommodation, a rich programme of social events and state of the art athletic facilities are what most 18-year-olds want when they choose their ‘student experience’; and when student choice becomes the engine for driving up standards, these are the standards that are going to be driven up.

Will it happen here? And what might be the consequences for academic standards?

MP challenges ‘free’ MA degrees

Proposal to eliminate the ‘free’ Oxbridge MA

Entertaining attempt this by Chris Leslie (my local MP). He recently introduced a short ‘ten minute rule Bill’ in the Commons (the Master’s Degree (Minimum Standards) Bill). The Bill seeks to prohibit Oxford and Cambridge Universities from automatically awarding a ‘free’ postgraduate Master’s degree to anyone who left with a BA(Hons), whereas anyone else who wants an MA must actually study for a full year, sit exams and pay rather more in fees than is required for the Oxbridge award.

The Hansard exchanges give a flavour of a good natured but, you fear, sadly doomed proposition:

Eleven years ago, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education said:

    “The Masters title causes much misunderstanding… most employers think it always represents an award for postgraduate study.”

There is no logical or justifiable defence of that historical anachronism, which grew out of ancient circumstances that have long been irrelevant to modern academic practice. To preserve the MA’s academic integrity, it is time to discontinue Oxbridge colleges’ ability to award unearned qualifications that can so easily cause confusion. That is why my short Bill would prohibit granting master’s degrees unless certain minimum academic standards are attained.

So, a worthy effort by Chris Leslie. Whilst it would be unfortunate if Parliament were to think it was appropriate to legislate for or against particular autonomous institutions’ awards, this should serve as a reminder that this really should be sorted out.

Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything?

Are Undergraduates Actually Learning Anything? Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses By Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa

The Chronicle carries an extract from what sounds like an extremely interesting new book. The paper reports that, drawing on survey responses, transcript data, and results from the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test taken by students in their first semester and at the end of their second year), the authors concluded that a significant percentage of undergraduates were failing to develop the expected skills and knowledge.

While higher education is expected to accomplish many tasks—and contemporary colleges and universities have indeed contributed to society in ways as diverse as producing pharmaceutical patents as well as prime-time athletic games—existing organizational cultures and practices too often do not put a high priority on undergraduate learning. Faculty and administrators, working to meet multiple and at times competing demands, too rarely focus on either improving instruction or demonstrating gains in student learning.

More troubling still, the limited learning we have observed in terms of the absence of growth in CLA performance is largely consistent with the accounts of many students, who report that they spend increasing numbers of hours on nonacademic activities, including working, rather than on studying. They enroll in courses that do not require substantial reading or writing assignments; they interact with their professors outside of classrooms rarely, if ever; and they define and understand their college experiences as being focused more on social than on academic development.

Might be sensationalist and playing to the tabloid view of university education but, on the face of it, sounds like a serious and interesting study.

Now students can study football

I’ve posted before on various degree courses which sound a bit, well, bonkers. The Daily Mail loves this stuff and gets very excited when something like a degree in footy comes along:

The finer points of the offside rule are not on the curriculum.

But a Championship club is offering its expertise in other aspects of the beautiful game by launching a university degree in football.

new student in Burnley

Burnley student


Burnley FC will enrol undergraduates on a three-year Bachelor of Arts (Honours) course with lectures to be held in classrooms overlooking the pitch in its stadium.

The club is the first to offer a full honours degree in football and is aiming to add income from the £3,200-a-year course to money from ticket sales and merchandise.

Sounds pretty rigorous to me. As I’m sure the Mail would agree.

A particular problem for Italian universities

Family fiefdoms blamed for tainting Italian universities

According to a recent piece in the Independent, nepotism is a major problem in Italian higher education:

The decline of Italy’s universities, none of which currently appear in the world’s top 200, is a constant source of lament among the country’s chattering classes. But the reason for this sorry state is laid bare by new research that shows the extent of nepotism in higher education. The grip of family fiefdoms is being blamed for a nationwide brain drain.

The investigative magazine L’Espresso and the newspaper La Repubblica have revealed the astonishing degree to which lecturing jobs are kept in the family in Italy’s sclerotic higher education system. In Rome’s La Sapienza University, for example, a third of the teaching staff have close family members as fellow lecturers. Overall, the country’s higher institutions are 10 times more likely than other places of work to employ two or more members of the same family.

Whilst there are undoubtedly examples of family members working in the same institution in the UK, it is rarely suggested that appointments are based on anything other than merit. Once you have one in three academics working with family members though it is difficult to imagine normal business operating.

Ben Wildavsky follows up this theme in the Chronicle and there are a number of interesting comments in response to his take on this issue.

Browne report: the end of the QAA (and OFFA and OIA)

Beyond changes to higher education funding

Naturally, all of the attention today will be on the funding elements of the Browne report. However, one significant change which is unlikely to attract much comment will nevertheless carry major implications for universities. It is proposed to merge four agencies into one:

The higher education system is currently overseen by four bodies: HEFCE, QAA, OFFA and OIA. These will be replaced by a single Higher Education (HE) Council. It will take a more targeted approach to regulation, with greater autonomy for institutions.

The Council will be independent from Government and institutions. It will have five areas of responsibility:
• Investment – identifying and investing in high priority courses; evaluating value for money; dealing with the unexpected, with the primary aim of protecting students’ interests
• Quality – setting and enforcing minimum quality levels across the whole sector
• Equity of access – making sure that individual institutions and the sector as a whole make measurable progress on admitting qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds
• Competition – ensuring that students get the benefits of more competition, by publishing an annual survey of charges, and looking after the interests of students when an institution is at risk
• Dispute resolution – students can ask the Council to adjudicate on a dispute that cannot be resolved within their institution and provide a decision which binds both sides
The HE Council will explain how it is investing taxpayers’ money, and safeguarding students’ investment in higher education, through an annual report to Parliament.

So, it looks like the end of the road for the QAA, OFFA and OIA.