Russian influence in UK higher education

I’ve been puzzling over a sentence in the recently-released report on Russia from the UK Parliament Committee on Intelligence and Security. The report has been attracting a lot of attention. And rightly so: while it is full of redactions and gaps, its main finding – that the UK government has shown insufficient interest in the security threat that the Russian regime poses – is disturbing.

One area that the Committee investigated was the role of Russian oligarchs, whose wealth is often tied closely to government-related contracts and licenses in Russia. Successive UK governments have courted Russian oligarchs since the mid-1990s, initially through the 1994 investor visa scheme and then through light-touch regulation and taxation. And in its own terms this was a successful strategy, in that it attracted considerable Russian money into the UK, and above all London.

The Committee, though, describes the outcome as ‘counterproductive’, with illicit funds being recycled through the ‘London laundromat’. In paragraph 50, the report adds that “money was also invested in extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process”.

Wait a minute – academia? If ‘academia’ really has been an active part of the process of surreptitious Russian influence, why haven’t we heard more about it? In spite of substantial media coverage of the report, the role of universities and individual academics seems to have attracted relatively little attention. Should we conclude that there isn’t much to this suggestion, even perhaps that it springs from Russophobia? Or are there questions for our universities to answer about their openness to Russian influence, and their role in ‘reputation laundering’?

It’s certainly the case that some UK universities have accepted funding from sources close to the Russian government. One obvious example is the role of the Russkiy Mir (“Russian World”) foundation, created in 2005 and formally adopted by decree by Vladimir Putin in 2007 as a government-sponsored agency to promote Russian culture globally. The foundation provides funding for Russian Centres, as well as for grants to undertake research and other projects; in 2014 it supported 100 centres around the world, many of which were in the former Soviet nations.

One red-top tabloid published a characteristically lurid attack on the foundation, claiming that it was led by a former head of the KGB anmd linking it to the Sputnik news agencyas an arm of Russian soft power. That story appeared in 2016. In 2019, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee published a report on Chinese and Russian interference which included allegations that a Russkiy Mir staff member tried to bug a seminar at Edinburgh.

At this stage, a prudent university manager or a principle academic might well have decided that it was time to cut ties with the foundation. Edinburgh University’s Princess Dashkova Centre, launched with support from Russkiy Mir, no longer accepts its grants. According to the youth newspaper The Tab, between 2010 and 2017, Russkiy Mir donated £253,939 to the Princess Dashkova Russian Centre between; in 2018, though, the University told The Tab that it had “no active agreements with the foundation”.

Judging by its website, Russkiy Mir is still associated with the Sergei Averintsev Centre at Durham, which describes its role as “a facilitator of interdisciplinary research and at the same time, as a bridge between cultures, which will communicate the riches of Russian civilisation to the general public”.

Russkiy Mir also reported that its was supporting a programme at St Anthony’s College, Oxford; I do not know whether this association continues, but I suspect not.

I am not suggesting that this handful of examples suggests anything particularly untoward. There is no evidence to my knowledge that these universities have done anything wrong, and these examples hardly suggest that Russian money has flooded into university coffers. And there was no mention of universities in Private Eye’s informative report on Russian money, Looting with Putin.

So I am left wondering what the Parliamentary Committee was referring to when it identified ‘academia’ as being among the ‘willing beneficiaries of Russian money’. Including higher education in this way implies to me that the Committee takes the issue seriously, but hasn’t provided any detail. I entirely accept that the Russian government is autocratic, homophobic, and hostile to liberal democracy, and has several times shown contempt for academic freedom at home. I’d rather like to be reassured about its influence in UK higher education.

Education and the Brexit saga

One thing seems to be consistently clear in the debate over the UK’s relationship with the EU: our participation in the EU’s education and training programmes is set to continue. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, as all the main UK parties have said repeatedly that they would like our participation to continue. And now the political declaration attached to the latest withdrawal agreement confirms it.

What exactly this will mean in practice is another matter. Given its track record, the question of whether the U.K. Border Agency is capable of distinguishing between students and illegal immigrants at point of entry is a good one. And I have no idea whether we are reaching the end of the beginning in the never-ending story of Brexit.

Still, it seems clear to me that those who value international exchanges now have work to do if they are going to shape the scope and scale of future U.K. participation – especially if they are involved in areas other than the well-represented and lobby-rich sectors like schools and higher education.

Financing adult learning in Germany: the changing balance between public and private

The Bertelsmann Foundation has published a report on the financing of continuing education in Germany between 1995 and 2015. The broad headline finding is that although the system has enjoyed rising overall levels of income, the balance between private and public funding has shifted steadily over that time.

“The state withdraws from adult learning”: changes in public funding by sector, 1995-2015

The report begins with a brief history of adult learning since 1945, in order to illustrate the new significance of adult learning in the contemporary knowledge society. They then propose that participation in adult learning is a prerogative of those who are profiting from modernisation and the knowledge society. At the same time, the costs of learning increasingly fall on the individual or their employer; and participation is seen as a virtue which then legitimates the rewards enjoyed by the successful.

The authors’ evidence for this broad social trend is not all new, but the report does provide a new analysis of funding data. This is no easy task; estimating public spending alone involves adding together figures from different sources (federal government, Länder, Gemeinde/communes) concerning learning support of different types, from local funding for adult education centres to loans and grants for training master craftsmen (apologies for the gendered language, but it’s in the original).

The report confirms that the lion’s share of public education funding is allocated to schools, followed at some distance by higher education. Interestingly for a Brit, the initial vocational training system receives slightly less funding than adult learning (€21.8bn in 2015 as against €26.9bn). Note, though, that the adult learning figures include continuing vocational training.

When it comes to the balance between public and private funding, the sectors are very clearly differentiated. Adult learning in 2015 was 77% funded from private sources, compared with 43% for vocational training and 18% for higher education. Moreover, only in adult learning has public funding fallen since 1995, by 43%, though it has been more than replaced by funding from individuals and their employers.

The share of public and private funding, 2012: outer circle = public funding, inner circle = private sources

The authors remark on the contrast between public policy announcements on the increasing necessity of learning through life with the reduced public funding for adult learning. A broader and more inclusive approach to lifelong learning, which does not simply meet the immediate short term needs of the enterprise or individual career, requires both an increase and a rebalancing of public funding.

Germany has a relatively generous approach to adult learning, which remains stronger and better funding than in most European countries. Yet it too seems to be experiencing trends that are socially damaging and economically at odds with its policies around the fourth industrial revolution. The Bertelsmann report is a helpful intervention which will inform policy debate and has already attracted press attention but the significance of its analysis goes well beyond the case of Germany.

Finally, a brief note on language. The authors say in a footnote that they use the words Erwachsenenbildung (adult education) and Weiterbildung (continuing or further education) interchangeably. Some German colleagues would probably challenge the idea that these are synonyms, but that’s another issue.

The report is available at: https://www.bertelsmann-stiftung.de/fileadmin/files/BSt/Publikationen/GrauePublikationen/LL_Hintergrundstudie_Weiterbildungsfinanzierung1995-2015.pdf

Germany’s Volkshochschulen are celebrating their centenary – but who are they?

1919 was the first year of the Weimar Republic, and of course the year in which Germany concluded a peace deal with the Allies. It also witnessed the foundation of many Volkshochschulen, a term which literally translates as People’s High Schools (or universities) but is usually understood to mean adult education centres.

The VHS in Cologne

The VHS are widespread across Germany; the total number in 2017 stood at 895, but most of these will have several centres in their local area. The vast majority are part of the local government system, with the Gemeinde and Kreisen (urban councils and rural districts) playing the dominant role. Overall political responsibility for education, including adult education, lies constitutionally with the Land, with the federal government playing an important supporting part.

Adult basic education, including literacy courses and refugee integration programmes, are an important component of the typical VHS offer. Languages remain the largest programme area (Hamburg’s VHS even offers courses in Plattdeutsch, which I usually think of as a dialect, but some argue is a language). Beyond that the range would be very familiar in most Northern European countries, from local history or adult work skills through ICT to creative writing.

As elsewhere the majority of learners are women (around three-quarters nation-wide). Most fall within the 35-64 age group. My personal impression is that both patterns may have changed slightly since 2015, as the vast majority of the refugees taking integration courses are young men.

Annually the VHS are said to cost around 1.35 billion euros a year. Around 198,000 people are employed in the sector, 95% of whom are on part-time or casual contracts.

Figures from https://www.hr-inforadio.de/programm/das-thema/100-jahre-vhs-fuenf-dinge-die-sie-noch-nicht-wussten,volkshochschulen_fakten-100.html

More honours for U.K. adult educators

On April 3rd, I posted some reflections on the relationship between adult educators and the U.K. honours system. It triggered some very interesting comments, and also provoked a small torrent of names that I’d managed to miss. Shamefully, I have to admit that they include at least two good friends.

Here they are, anyway.

Joyce Connon (pictured), Scottish Secretary of the Workers Educational Association, received an OBE for services to community education in 2004

Margaret Davey, who was head of adult education in Croydon at the time she was awarded an OBE in 1996, and also a high profile advocate for adult learning

Jim Durcan, then Principal of Ruskin College, was honoured in 1999 with an OBE

Henry Arthur Jones, Principal of City Lit then Vaughan Professor at Leicester, was awarded a CBE in 1974 after making a signal contribution to the Russell Report

Peter Lavender, responsible for adult literacy in Norfolk and a high profile advocate of adult learning, received an OBE in 2006

Mark Malcolmson, Chief Executive of City Lit, received a CBE in 2017

Sue Pember, who as a civil servant helped design the Skills for Life programme, received an OBE in 2000

Ela Piotrowska, Principal of Morley College, received her OBE in 2013

David Sherlock, formerly head of the Adult Learning Inspectorate, got a CBE in 2006

Arthur Stock, Alan Tuckett’s predecessor at NIACE, received an OBE

Carole Stott, a leading figure in the Open College movement who recently announced that she is retiring as chair of the Association of Colleges, was awarded an MBE in 2012

Alan Wells, founder and long-serving director if the Basic Skills Agency, received an OBE

I’m sure this is nothing like an exhaustive list, and look forward to hearing of others that I’ve missed. Two possible further candidates suggested to me were Sir Michael Sadler, the pioneer of university extension in Britain, mainly because I think his knighthood was awarded for other public service (principally a major report on Indian education); and Sheila Carlton, champion of older learners and a stalwart of NIACE, for whose possible honour I could find no evidence.

Asa Briggs, who joined the House of Lords in 1976, chose to teach extra mural classes when appointed to a chair in Leeds, was chancellor of the Open University, and President of the WEA. But I think his baronetcy came as a result of his historical achievements.

It’s a long list, and it will likely get longer. What we don’t know is how many prominent adult educators refused honours, or indeed were considered ‘unsuitable ‘ on semi political grounds.

Is a university education really a public good? 

Following our inconclusive general election last month, the issue of higher education funding has again come to the fore. Both the main parties came in for criticism, with the Tory minister Jo Johnson defending the current tuition fees in the Guardian, and Labour’s shadow education minister Angela Rayner admitting that wiping out student debt, as trailed by her Party leader, might not be realistic. And along came Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister, pointing out that vice chancellors had taken the £9,000 yearly tuition fee as a baseline rather than a cap, and had used the income not to create grants and bursaries for poorer students but to award themselves generous salary hikes (a view generally thought by vice chancellors to be massively unfair) and hire research “stars”.
My Twitter feed quickly filled up with people proclaiming that Johnson was wrong to depict higher education as purely a private investment. Rather, they suggested, it was a public good – a point usually illustrated by short lists of the nice people who graduate, such as doctors and teachers and . . . Well, that was usually it.

Doctors and teachers are of course Good Things (though some of them skip off, after their publicly funded training, to work for private hospitals and schools). But universities also educate accountants, estate agents, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, management consultants, and those people in university admin who draft regulations requiring external examiners to produce a passport. In short, we can draw up our own list of nice and less nice graduate professions to suit our beliefs. 

The case for higher education as a public good has to run a lot deeper, and it probably can’t easily be made on Twitter. It cannot be selective but has to cover the entire teaching function. It has to take in the research side of our work (quite a bit of which – let’s be honest about it – is funded from tuition income). It has to examine our role in our communities. And it has to be based on evidence.

Where I stand on this debate is straightforward: I think higher education has a mix of private and public good outcomes. And I think these are skewed, with the majority of benefits accruing to those who are already relatively advantaged by parentage and by circumstances. For me it follows that free tuition is socially regressive as it mainly benefits the middle and upper social strata, and also implies a cap on student numbers; while high fees damage society and economy alike by building up massive debt. 

My preference is for some kind of graduate endowment, as proposed by the Cubie Committee in Scotland in 1999, payable after graduation once the graduate’s earnings reach a defined point above the national average earnings. And I’d accompany it with means-tested living grants for disadvantaged students. In today’s polarised debate this might seem a long way off, but it is clear that neither free tuition nor the current fee level are sustainable, so change is going to come. And while we are at it, we might also look for a student funding system that promotes part-time higher education for people in work.

Is Ireland heading for an integrated tertiary education policy?

The Republic of Ireland is busy reforming the administration of third level education. Having brought training into the Department of Education and Skills, and bringing training and further education under a single strategic agency (SOLAS), it is now planning to merge the units dealing with third level education – further and higher education to use UK terminology – into one.

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National University of Ireland Galway

Inevitably, this provokes reflection on the potential for an integrated strategy for third level education, encompassing training, further education and higher education. This is certainly compatible with the aims of Ireland’s National Action Plan for Education, though it also goes beyond it.

Objective 3.4 of the Plan is to “Promote high quality learning experiences in Further Education and Training and Higher Education”. It also proposes to “work with further education and training and higher education providers to provide a broader range of flexible opportunities for learners and to support an increase in lifelong learning”.

Ireland’s further and higher education system is widely seen as rather successful by international standards, though it shares with the UK a general cultural preference for higher education over further education, and the high participation rate in the former (54% of 18-20 year olds in 2014) is marked by pronounced socio-economic inequalities. It  is a relatively small country (the Republic’s current population is around 4,640,000) and lines of communication are comparatively short.

A unified tertiary system therefore seems very achievable and, from the outside, it looks potentially desirable. It could help to remedy inequalities, particularly if it could overcome the reluctance of universities to accept credit transfer that has marred Scotland’s somewhat half-hearted attempts at a unified tertiary system. It could help reduce popular prejudices against further education, supporting upskilling while alleviating pressure on higher education places. And it could benefit strategically from the strengths of adult learning in Ireland while broadening the lifelong learning system.

Of course it is one thing to rearrange the civil servants and quite another to develop an effective, integrated policy for all post-school education and training. So I’ll be watching this particular space with interest.

Declaration of Interest: I am an adjunct professor at the Higher Education Research Centre, Dublin City University

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The challenges facing Irish higher education: taking a long view

Mary Daly is a distinguished historian and the first female President of the Royal Irish Academy. It was a great pleasure to hear her Presidential Discourse, held in Academy House last night, on the topic of Higher Education and Irish Society: From Independence to today.

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The audience waits (I’m the grey-haired one in the bottom right)

Daly’s aim was to give a historical perspective on where we – the Irish higher education system – are today. I found it a fascinating account which helped me make sense of much that I have observed over the years; the RIA will certainly publish the talk, so I won’t reproduce it here, but it is worth singling out a few of the highlights.

Looked at over the past century, Daly identified two challenges that had long term roots. The first is a tendency for the sector to continue expanding without securing additional funding, a pattern that she traced back to the founding of the new state. There was little public provision for research funding until the 1990s, and the system’s role was primarily concerned with teaching. The modern research university in Ireland is, she said, a mere twenty years old. Socially, participation rates are deeply unequal; but she believed that any serious attempt to remedy deep-rooted inequalities would be at odds with the meritocratic principles of selection that have dominated hitherto.

Second, the sector lacks a strong and unified voice. Since the 1970s, Daly noted that much of the expansion had taken place in new HEIs rather than the established universities, and this institutional diversity has accentuated the levels of competition and further weakened the sector’s ability to articulate its place in Irish society, and make a case for investment. From a policy perspective, moreover, the funding model has been very effective in delivering growth for limited costs, so why change now?

As well as these two long term challenges, Daly identified an emerging and significant threat in contemporary attitudes towards science and expertise. Those working in higher education need to engage with the wider public and make the case for the relevance of their disciplines to people’s lives, while keeping sight of the importance of pure research.

Daly’s research hasn’t been centrally concerned with the history of education, but for me it was valuable and stimulating to hear someone speaking on this topic who has a strong grasp of the wider social and political history, and who has a well-developed capacity for analysing evidence of long term change. The RIA took its time in electing its first female President, and in this sense it was a privilege to hear history being made.

I only got to attend in my capacity as adjunct professor at Dublin City University, representing my colleague Maria Slowey who was on her way home from California. All in all, then, I had an enjoyable and very worthwhile evening while Maria sat in some god-forsaken airport.

Asking for passports: dafter – and more worrying – than I’d thought

uhcollegelanecampus

Last November, the University of Hertfordshire hit the headlines when it asked guest seminar speakers to produce a passport before giving their seminar. I suggested that this was rather over the top, but I didn’t know the half of it.

After thinking about Hertfordshire’s policy for a bit, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the University asking for further details. You can see their response below, but a number of things stand out.

The first is that their reply referred me to the University’s policy for Freedom of Speech. My initial reaction was that this wasn’t really relevant, but I was wrong. Among other things the policy requires all University staff, before organising any event on University premises,  to submit

a written request, giving full details of the proposed event, is provided to the Vice-Chancellor (or nominee) not less than ten (10) working days before the date of the proposed event
I just love that clarification of the word “ten”! More to the point, though, the policy then states that the Vice-Chancellor (or nominee) will assess the likely risk of the event. It then offers rather broad grounds for banning events, which “include but are not necessarily limited to” events that may give rise to incitements to crime, express views that are contrary to the law, promote the interests of illegal organisations, or “could reasonably be expected to draw individuals into terrorism”. The VC (or nominee) will also consider other factors such as “the good name of the University”.
The second worrying feature is the extension of the requirement to show a passport to new categories of individual. It includes not only employees but those undertaking unpaid work and volunteering. As you can see below, this specifically refers to guest speakers – who must also be told clearly that they are not employees of the University!
And the end result of this policy, in the months since its introduction? Not one individual has yet been discovered who is an illegal immigrant. In short, it seems to have been a waste of time. Unless, that is, the University’s main aim was to increase its control over academic events such as seminars…..

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The University of Hertforshire’s response, dated 19 January 2017

Adult Learning hits Private Eye

The University of Leicester hasn’t had a great time trying to justify its plan to shut its Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning. Bluntly, it has created a PR shitstorm, which you may think is well deserved given that the University seems to have been rather economical with the truth.

So says Private Eye anyway – and you’d think that keeping out of Britain’s leading satirical news magazine should be high on the KPIs of every Vice Chancellor. Especially if you’ve just pushed through a new strategic plan that claims to prioritise ‘Making a real difference to our city and our region’.

Vaughan College started life in 1862, and was one of the institutions that came together to found the University in 1925. You can read more about its history here and if you are so minded you can join me and thousands of others in signing the Save Vaughan petition here.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Eye article, which I have copied from a Tweet by Chris Williams, who Tweets as @Chris_A_W. vaughaneye