The global higher education revolution

‘Tracking the higher education revolution’

A really good article by Philip Altbach, Liz Reisberg and Laura Rumbley in Change Magazine.

A global revolution has been taking place in higher education during the past half-century that is at least as dramatic as the one that happened when the German research model fundamentally changed the nature of the university worldwide in the 19th century. And the transformation of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is more extensive than the earlier one, due to the sheer numbers of institutions and people involved.

In our view, four fundamental and interrelated forces have impelled the current academic revolution: the “massification” of higher education, globalization, the advent of the knowledge society and the importance of research universities within it, and information technology (including distance education). These forces have presented nations with enormous funding challenges and fueled the rise of the private sector and the privatization of public colleges and universities, the accountability movement (including today’s imperative to measure the outcomes of higher education), and deep changes in the nature and role of the professoriate.

The article gives a comprehensive overview of global changes in universities across a wide range of activities before addressing some of the consequences of the financial crisis:

The crisis is likely to have the following consequences worldwide:

* In many cases, the priority will be to allocate funds to ensure that access to the higher education system is not dramatically cut. But at the same time, universities will face pressures to establish or increase tuition fees for students, and higher education is likely to become increasingly unaffordable to marginalized populations. In countries where student loan programs exist, either in the public or private sectors, they may be severely limited.
* Research universities are likely to see significant constraints on their budgets, since governments will be unable to provide the resources needed for their continued improvement.
* Cost-cutting practices at many universities will result in a deterioration of quality. More part-time faculty are likely to be hired, class sizes increased, and other savings implemented that potentially threaten the overall health and effectiveness of higher education.
* We are likely to see freezes on hiring, the construction of new facilities, improved information technology, and the purchase of books and journals.

It’s a grim prospectus but a realistic one. The piece overall is an excellent take on global changes in higher education and one of the best pieces of this kind I’ve seen recently. Well worth reading.

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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.

Lord Mandelson keynote speech at Lord Dearing Memorial Conference

Lord Mandelson delivered the keynote address at the Lord Dearing Memorial Conference held at the University of Nottingham in February 2010.

Lord Mandelson commented on Lord Dearing’s contribution to higher education:

Lord Dearing was very clear that our higher education system was central to what made our society intellectually curious and critical, what made it socially just and humane. It is the place where we define and redefine our sense of ourselves and the forces that shape us.

The main thrust of his speech though was about the consequences of the cuts in HE funding he had recently announced. In essence, he was uncompromising in presenting the reductions as a necessary contribution to wider public finance savings and as an opportunity to universities to reconsider their spending and help to “focus minds” on the need to seek out new sources of funding (and he also commented specifically on the University of Nottingham):

Universities have been able to leverage a steep rise in non-state funding. They have widened their sources of income by exporting their teaching brands, opening their doors to fee-paying international students. Higher education is now a major export industry for the UK and a key comparative advantage – some £5.3billion in exports in 2008. Nottingham has done this very well. The best university systems in the world are defined by a wide range of public and private funding and British universities need the same diversity. I recognise that sources of additional business income are not limitless and can be irregular, especially during a downturn. But even a small expansion in this work would go a long way in closing the gap created by a period of fiscal constraint.

But a large part of the speech was dedicated to discussing the extension of part-time study and two-year intensive degrees with the argument being that these are creative ways to reduce spend:

The push to save costs can and should actually push the system in the direction of the modes of study I have been advocating. Part-time degrees, shorter and more intensive courses all offer the potential to lower student support costs, use resources more intensively and improve productivity.

Not terribly convincing. Whilst strong arguments about the need for savings can be made, the proposals around alternative modes of study are much less persuasive.

Some good news on widening participation

“Substantial increases in entry to higher education for disadvantaged young people”

Widening Participation is working according to a new report from HEFCE:

The study, conducted by Dr Mark Corver of HEFCE’s Analytical Services Group, finds that there has been a substantial and sustained increase in the HE participation rate of young people living in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods since the mid-2000s. The participation rate of young people living in the most disadvantaged areas has increased every year since the mid-2000s. Young people from those areas are now 30 per cent more likely to enter HE than they were five years ago. Participation rates have also increased in advantaged neighbourhoods over this period, but less rapidly.

These recent trends mean that more of the additional entrants to HE since the mid-2000s have come from disadvantaged neighbourhoods than advantaged neighbourhoods. This has reduced the participation difference between advantaged and disadvantaged neighbourhoods. The study places these changes in the context of the large differences in entry to HE that are found by where young people live. In the mid-1990s, one in eight young people from the most disadvantaged areas entered HE. That figure has increased to around one in five today but remains far lower than for the most advantaged areas, where well over half of young people now enter higher education.

So, this really does look like good news and a welcome relief to government given other recent reports highlighting the growth in inequality in Britain since 1980. However, there is still a long way to go. And the concern will be that in seeking to make savings universities will reduce spend on both widening participation activities and bursary schemes for those students most in need of additional financial support.

University funding: devastating cuts or continued investment?

Russell Group and UCU lining up against government cuts

Rhetoric overload has kicked in pretty early. If we’re not careful we’ll have used the full armoury of adjectives to describe the cuts far too early in the campaign.

The UCU line, as reported in the Guardian, envisages huge class sizes and thousands of academics on the dole. The apocalyptic vision from the Russell Group is 30 university closures and ‘meltdown’ for all others.

Universities in the UK will be among the most overcrowded in the world within three years if savage government cuts to higher education go ahead, ­academics warned today.

The lecturers’ union, UCU, said more than £900m of cuts announced last month would fill lecture halls with “some of the biggest class sizes in the world” by 2013.

Sally Hunt, the union’s general secretary, said that “the dreams of many hardworking parents for their kids to go to university … will be over”. The cuts would send at least 14,000 academics to the dole queue.

The warning comes after top universities accused Gordon Brown of jeopardising 800 years of higher education, saying the cuts – which the Institute for Fiscal Studies says may reach £2.5bn – would “bring them to their knees”.

Leaders of the Russell Group of 20 leading universities, which includes Warwick, Liverpool and Glasgow as well as Oxford and Cambridge, said ministers failed to appreciate one of the “jewels in the country’s crown”. At least 30 universities could disappear and the rest faced possible ­meltdown.

Dramatic stuff (leaving aside the inexplicable omission of the University of Nottingham from the Russell Group list above). So dramatic in fact that it prompted a rather testy response from Lord Mandelson in The Guardian. In short his line is that the government has invested heavily in universities, this is not going to vanish overnight and the cuts are modest in the context of the global funding of HE:

The Russell Group of universities seemed to suggest our higher education system is teetering on the brink of collapse (Universities: cuts will bring us to our knees, 12 January).

“Cuts on university budgets will have a devastating effect,” they said, “not only on students and staff, but also on our international competitiveness, national economy and ability to recover from recession.” But the reality is different. While universities cannot escape the coming squeeze on public finances, nor are they under any kind of threat.

So the reduction of £950m in public funds over the period 2010-2013 is only one part of a complex funding picture. Given that the proposed reductions stretch between now and 2013, is it really reasonable to describe the equivalent of a reduction of under 5% over three years as “swingeing”?

The Russell Group says “cuts of this magnitude in overall funding will impact on the sustainability of our research”. But teaching and research funding – even after the £180m efficiency savings and the reductions in December’s grant letter – will still actually grow between 2009-2010 and 2010-2011. Research funding will grow in real terms this year by 7%.

So, apocalypse now?

On the need for discretion in discussing HE cuts

Very good piece by David Eastwood in The Guardian.

As he suggests – the cuts being discussed are achievable, perhaps, but hardly desirable. Moreover, they should be a matter for discreet discussion, not broadcast:

Many of us remember the glorious Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch. A quartet of the now-comfortably off, drinking Château de Chasselas, and seeking to outdo one another in recollections of an impoverished childhood. One claims to have lived in a cardboard box. Another immediately counters: “We used to dream of living in a cardboard box”. And so it goes on, ever more preposterous, through eating tar from the road, to getting up to work before you’d gone to bed. (Now that’s something many vice-chancellors can identify with.) And finally the flourish: “If you tell the young people of today that, they won’t believe you”.

Glorious, surreal, and a high point of British social satire. Yet I keep bumping into higher education’s modern reworking of this sketch. I overhear, in the margins of events, one savant saying “We’re modelling 5% cuts”. Another intervenes: “5%, oh, we used to dream of 5%, we’re modelling 10%”; and then another, “10% – luxury! We’re modelling 15%”. And so it goes on, until someone says, without apparent irony, that they are modelling 25%.

Of course, all this might be going on, but is it real and is it helpful to parade it? The cuts to the system in the 1980s were 15%, from a higher baseline of funding, and the consequences were devastating. It took a generation to recover, and the current government should still claim credit for its unprecedented investment in the research base and its courage in legislating for (but not quite introducing) variable fees. The pall of the 1980s cuts hung over the sector for two decades.

Avoiding the posturing would seem to be very sensible advice.

HE in Ireland: “Axe hangs over 750 posts”

Whilst UK institutions are facing significant financial challenges, the situation in Ireland seems distinctly difficult according to the Irish Independent.

The paper states that up to 750 jobs are to be cut by December and that academics, research staff and administrative, technical and other support posts will be equally affected by the instructions to reduce numbers by 3% by December:

There will be no compulsory redundancies and the cuts will be achieved through non-filling of posts and the non-renewal of fixed-term contracts. The move is part of the Government’s effort to slash the size and cost of the public sector. The cutbacks mean that colleges also have to get special approval to fill certain jobs. Where a college seeks an exemption to fill a vacancy, it must get permission from the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the Department of Education and the Department of Finance.

It must complete a form explaining the basis for filling the post and, in the case of lecturers, confirm all existing lecturing capacity is being used. In the case of lecturers, colleges have been advised that they won’t get approval in the absence of confirmation that all available lecturing capacity is already being used. The HEA has put in place an Employment Control Framework setting out how the colleges are to achieve the cuts.

In the case of academics, the HEA has notified each individual college of the actual number of academic/teaching posts that must go. Colleges have some discretion about what academic posts should be suppressed, but must deliver on the December 2009 bottom line figure dictated by the HEA. In the case of administrative, technical and other support jobs, vacancies may not be filled, contracts may not be renewed and no new posts may be created.

This really is pretty dramatic stuff. Whilst we might think things are pretty bad in the UK, we are a long way from this kind of intervention.