Prime Minister unveils election pledges at University of Nottingham

Prime Minister unveils election pledges at University of Nottingham

The Prime Minister used a speech at The University of Nottingham to set out his party’s five key pledges ahead of the imminent General Election. Visiting the University’s Jubilee Campus on Saturday, March 27th, Gordon Brown pledged to secure the nation’s economic recovery, raise family living standards, build a high-tech knowledge economy, protect frontline services and strengthen fairness in communities. In a speech to party activists and prospective parliamentary candidates, Mr Brown also acknowledged Labour’s position in the opinion polls as all the main parties gear up for a General Election widely predicted to take place on May 6th.

It was all quite exciting. And the new Nottingham Geospatial Building, just opened by David Lammy, was a great venue for this kind of thing. The rest of the campus looked pretty good too.

Full news article available here.

Broken Universities?

Our universities are broken, it seems

According to a new report from the Adam Smith Institute, higher education should not receive public money in the way that it does:

In The Broken University, education expert James Stanfield examines what is seen and what is not seen in the UK higher education sector. In contrast to the conventional wisdom, he finds no compelling evidence to suggest that public subsidies to higher education have any economic benefit. Moreover, Stanfield convincingly argues that once its hidden costs and unintended consequences are taken into account, government intervention in higher education is doing far more harm than good, and is holding back the development of one of the UK’s most important service sectors.

The THE coverage elaborates:

Mr Stanfield’s report also criticises research council funding, highlighting costly projects that it considers to have been a waste of money. It adds that the lack of a profit motive in higher education has had a negative effect on the qualifications universities provide. “Without government intervention, there would now be a variety of different, competing private qualifications providing a variety of educational experiences – many of which would have more purpose and relevance to an individual’s future career than a degree,” it says. It recommends abolishing the cap on fees, allowing “full freedom of entry” into university, and extending tax benefits to for-profit institutions.

THE also includes some robust responses to the claim that UK higher education cannot be considered a success while it receives a £14.3 billion annual public subsidy:

Steve Smith, president of UUK, responded that higher education provided an “outstanding return” on public investment. “For every 61p of public investment received, universities also lever out 39p of private and international investment,” he said. “Compared with other sectors, this represents an excellent return. Universities now generate £59 billion a year for the UK economy, £15 billion more than in 2004.” He added that the sector achieved this despite receiving lower levels of public and private funding than competitor countries.

The proposals don’t seem to have garnered a huge amount of support to date. It might have something to do with the fact that the argument that public funding does more harm than good is rather a difficult one to sustain.

Creating a private university in Winchester?

Auriol Stevens: ‘We should think about creating a private university in Winchester’

In a recent article in the Independent Auriol Stevens offered a novel proposal for the establishment of a different kind of university:

Should top independent schools set up a new private university on the lines of American liberal arts colleges, providing high-quality teaching, a broad curriculum and charging full fees? The proposal, floated by Terence Kealey, Vice-Chancellor of the private University of Buckingham, may delight a possible incoming Tory government. It may attract parents who are used to paying high school fees as well as those who are afraid that their offspring are being squeezed out of university by poorer applicants.

These are of course the same parents and students who benefit disproportionately from the current student finance set up. And I think we are still rather a long way from the level of social equity which would disadvantage this group. However, Stevens’ suggestion is not about creating a new bastion of privilege:

So, let’s suppose two or three of the most famous fee-charging schools – perhaps those with the biggest endowments and the highest prestige – became universities. They could do so by merging with existing universities to provide new opportunities not for the rich but for poorer students. Take Winchester. The university in Winchester is pioneering a broader undergraduate curriculum. Winchester College is an ancient and distinguished school. Its beautiful buildings would make a fine university campus. The school has a high academic reputation and expertise in post-16 teaching.

This would, undoubtedly, be a new kind of institution. And it’s an interesting proposition. But would it really work? And is any university, in Winchester or elsewhere, going to be willing to make the kind of changes required to deliver such an outcome?

French universities argue over Sorbonne title

“French universities squabble over who has rights to Sorbonne”

The Times has a fascinating report on a dispute among French universities over who has the rights to use the title Sorbonne:

Fights over the Sorbonne, the seat of learning on the Paris Left Bank, usually involve students, riot police and ideology. The latest, however, is among rival chancellors and the city council. This time the stakes are for big money. The dispute is over the right to the name Sorbonne. At least six different universities are locked in a squabble for the brand, which in the eyes of foreigners — but not the French — has a prestige on a par with Oxford or Harvard. While US and British universities have marketed their brands, the underfunded and strike-prone universities of Paris woke up late to the value of the name they share. The trouble began when one of them, Paris IV Sorbonne, opened a branch in Abu Dhabi in 2007 and sold exclusive rights in the Middle East to the name “Paris Sorbonne”.

So far, so bad. But it gets worse:

Now everyone is following suit. About 70 versions of the Sorbonne brand have been registered by six universities, the Mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, and commercial enterprises. The feud took off last year when the universities began banding together with President Sarkozy’s encouragement to create centres of excellence. The state will spend hundreds of millions of euros on the chosen few. Mr Delanoë pointed out that the Sorbonne building belonged to the council. The university bosses and the mayor held a peace meeting last week, agreeing that all Paris universities were heirs to the name and could use variants. But the battle is not over.

Perhaps naively I had assumed that there was just one Sorbonne and that there was some form of regulation in France similar to that in the UK which would prevent this kind of confusion over university titles and names. Evidently not. This sort of dilution of what should be a really prestigious brand can’t do anyone any favours. But it’s pretty difficult to see how they are going to resolve this easily.

Research money could be better spent on teaching students

Research consumes much time and money that could be better spent on teaching students

Good article in the Scotsman by Professor John Haldane of St Andrews offering a view on the balance of funding between teaching and research. The article is a version of Professor Haldane’s excellent presentation at the Lord Dearing memorial conference held at the University of Nottingham in February 2010:

ONCE again there is talk of a funding crisis facing higher education and some are talking of cuts as swingeing as those enacted during the first Thatcher administration…During the last two decades, university managers, academics and others have become accustomed to increases in the level of income in support of teaching and research, and although the sources of income have been diversified, there remains a great demand upon the public purse to deliver increasing resources to universities. There are questions of justice regarding this – particularly in Scotland, given that students make no direct financial contribution – for many who pay for the provision of university education do not participate in it, and much of what is paid for may not be valued by the wider society, nor deserve to be.

Haldane refers to two mid-19th Century works: Newman’s Idea of a University and John Stuart Mill’s Rectorial Address to the students at St Andrews University, delivered and published in 1867 (it lasted for three hours apparently).

From the perspective of the present, the most striking features of these two accounts of the nature and value of university education is what they exclude. Newman thought that it was not the business of universities to engage in research. He writes that “a university is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement of it. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a university should have students.” Newman was not against research, but thought it should be conducted in special institutes. Mill likewise thought that the fact that certain activities are important for individuals and society does not mean they should be part of the university curriculum.

In short, the argument is this:

the growing mass of researchers may have become a drag on and even an obstacle to the pursuit of the primary purpose of universities – namely, education. It impedes the effort to put students first and it consumes vast sums of private and public funding.

So, given the new constraints on funding higher education faces and will continue to experience, the proposition is that we consider rebalancing limited funds to invest more heavily in teaching and learning and less in research. Controversial stuff but, as he shows, entirely in keeping with the ideas of Newman and Mill.

Parents’ Weekend at Stanford

High interest in Parents’ Weekend at Stanford

According to Stanford News the high interest in their Parents’ Weekend is a pleasant surprise and more than 3,000 family members are expected to visit Stanford for the popular annual event, which will feature lectures, open houses, campus tours and a new resource fair. The details of the Parents’ Weekend make it look like a really impressive event.

Parents’ Weekend begins Friday at 9:30 a.m. with a welcome from Provost John Etchemendy. The provost’s welcome is followed by a series of Conversations with Parents that focus on student issues by class. In the afternoon, President John Hennessy will give his annual address and question-and-answer session at 1:30 p.m. Faculty lectures, called Back to School Classes, remain among the most popular offerings of Parents’ Weekend. The classes, taught Friday and Saturday, are designed to offer parents a glimpse into the intellectual lives of their children.

All good stuff. Not clear that any UK university does anything quite like this although many do have open days and friends and family events.

Freedom of Information Requests to UK Universities

A new website offers help with FOI requests

Reports are compiled by sending the same FOI request to all 125 UK universities and tabulating the responses. These are a useful way of highlighting aspects of a university which differ from the majority or examining key features of the higher education system. If you have a suggestion for a topic that you would like us to research please e-mail details…

With thanks to everyone who has told me about the AcademicFOI.Com site .

“Drop the ‘mickey mouse’ degrees”

“Drop the ‘mickey mouse’ degrees” says head of Royal Society of Chemistry

It’s silly season again. According to a blog post from Richard Pike of the RSC:

‘Mickey Mouse’ degree courses should be swept away, and priorities in university education and research should reflect the challenges facing the country over the forthcoming decades. No longer should the government be paying 18-year-olds to start courses on celebrity journalism, drama with waste management, or international football business management.

This seems to be prompted by new constraints in HE funding and suggests that not only is utilitarianism a primary consideration but that university autonomy is also secondary to the perceived national need. Anyway, whatever the philosophical basis of the approach it’s always fun to pick on bonkers degree courses. Which probably explains why the story was swiftly picked up by the Telegraph which quotes Dr Pike:

“We need a population with an enduring set of skills, such as an understanding of the physical world around us, literacy and communication, numeracy, how to function and continue to learn in a complex society, and above all creativity, rather than an ability to satisfy some ephemeral demand that in 10 years’ time will be viewed as a curiosity.”

Further analysis of the courses he lambasts is also offered by the paper:

Celebrity Journalism is a new three-year course to be offered at Staffordshire University from this autumn. It includes topics such as interviewing celebrities and understanding celebrity culture. International Football Business Management is offered by Bucks New University and covers coaching, government policy, and issues in sport and leisure, among others.

All highly entertaining stuff therefore and really nothing new as previous posts on the launch of an MA in Beatles Studies and the offer of a degree in Northern Studies show. For the really masochistic there is also a podcast on “bonkers or niche” degrees.

University news: David Cameron backs a website

“Tory leaders last night vowed to help more teens get to university”

Important news on more public information for students appearing first in the increasingly education-focused and university-oriented organ that is The Sun. (See earlier post for Sun coverage of academic offences.)

David Cameron kicked off the campaign by backing the newly launched website, Britain’s first one-stop shop that tells kids what the best courses are for their ideal jobs. He said: “There are a lot of misconceptions about what’s a good university and a good course. This is a really great tool for finding out what courses actually work and what are the best routes to a rewarding career. “It gives people vital information in an accessible way and I’m sure it will make a big difference.”

It gives you date on average pay in different careers. It tells you the employment, unemployment and drop-out rates for each subject across universities. Not entirely clear where the breakthrough is here or what difference will be made but they do seem pretty confident that this is special.

Tory shadow universities secretary David Willetts added: “If we are in government after the next election, we will do everything possible to get all the information young people need out to them. “There is no defence for universities and quangos keeping statistics secret that students need when they decide the best course and university for them. “We back this fantastic new website and it’s great that The Sun is backing it too.”

This information is not kept secret. All of it is in the public domain and it really can’t be said that universities try to prevent students getting hold of such data to stop them making informed decisions. It really isn’t clear that young people suffer from an information deficit. And given that there is a constraint on places, all the information provision in the world isn’t going to get more students into university.