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

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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

World class UK universities that are better than Leicester and offer adult education

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From the continuing education pages of Oxford’s website

The Times Higher has released its latest world university rankings, placing the University of Leicester in 172nd place. I’m making the informed guess that the University management is anxious about its position in international league tables, and that this might have something to do with its ill-judged decision to close down its centre for adult education.

So in the interests of open comparison, I thought I’d identify the eight UK universities that come above Leicester in the rankings, and have adult education centres:

Oxford (1st)

Cambridge (4th)

Edinburgh (27th)

Warwick (82)

Glasgow (88)

Sheffield (109)

York (129)

Leeds (133)

In addition, of course, adult education of various kinds is common in north American universities (especially the older, land grant institutions) and several European systems. I was particularly pleased to see that my colleagues at the University of Cologne – which has a terrific programme for older adults, as well as a plethora of seminars and lectures for the local community, and is recognised by the German government’s Excellence initiative – came in two places above Leicester.

So many quite distinguished universities manage to combine scholarly excellence with serious community engagement. Of course, we should take these league tables with a pinch of salt. All of them are flawed to a greater or lesser extent, based as they are on highly selective data, and only a fool would take them seriously. I bet that the Vice Chancellor at Leicester is using them as one of his own key performanc indicators.

 

Has Brexit damaged UK university rankings?

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A number of British universities fared rather poorly in the most recent QS rankings, at least in comparison with previous years. And this matters: while most academics have our criticisms of the ways in which QS and other bodies draw up their league tables, we equally know that it pays to do well in them.

So the declining ranking of several UK universities is serious. And the finger of blame has moved quickly to point at Brexit as the main contributory cause. After all, at a time of largely buoyant funding for the sector and a general round of self-congratulation over our performance in the Research Excellence exercise and the National Student Survey, what else could be responsible?

Koen Lambert, Vice Chancellor of the University of York, laid the blame squarely on Brexit. According to the local newpaper, Professor Lambert (or a press officer writing in his name) said that:

York, along with many other British universities, appears to have fallen in the QS league table because of concerns about the impact of Brexit; specifically, this has been attributed to worries about future access to research funding and whether we will be able to recruit excellent academic staff and students from all over the world.

Journalists were rather more circumspect than Professor Lambert seems to have been. Writing in the Independent, Aftab Ali blamed “Post-Brexit uncertainty and long-term funding issues” for the decline. Later in the same article, he pointed out that the QS rankings were based on data collected well before the 23 June referendum.

Sally Weale, education correspondent for the Guardian, didn’t actually suggest any connection between Brexit and the league table fall, but emphasised that the QS results came out at a time of concern over the fall-out from Brexit.Similarly the Standard, though its headline was unambiguous.

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So blaming Brexit is a lame excuse. It isn’t just a matter of QS collecting its data before the referendum. Key data, such as citations per staff member, are based on activities that stretch back for years. So Brexit didn’t cause the decline in QS rankings, any more than it made England’s footballers so inept (though at least the England-Iceland game came after 23 June), or turned Team GB’s athletes into world-beaters. So on the whole, I think Prof Lambert is having a laugh.

Brexit is certain to have an influence on UK higher education but what it is has yet to be seen. For explanations of our universities’ poor performance in the QS rankings, we should look changes within the higher education sector (including a large-scale and long-term shift of resources into administration), as well as the UK’s failure to match more successful countries’ levels of investment.

Meanwhile, I expect to see a rash of claims that Brexit cause this failure or that success, depending on the claimant’s point of view. Over time, hopefully we will stop supporting these claims based on our own opinions of Brexit, and start judging each one on the basis of evidence and logic.

 

The ongoing decline in part-time higher education in the UK

Figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency confirm that the number of people studying part-time has continued to fall. While the number of part-time higher education students in further education colleges is buoyant, the numbers at HEIs have fallen substantially.

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Over five years, the higher education sector has lost over 14% of its undergraduate degree students, and over 50% of its ‘other undergraduate’ students ( a category which includes people on Higher National Certificates and Diplomas, as well as since modules and accredited short courses).

This continuing decline reflects badly on governments, whose tuition fee policies have slashed demand for a mode of study that allows people to combine work with learning. It also reflects badly on the higher education sector, which has preferred to recruit young school-leavers onto full-time courses (largely because, in my experience, this enables more accurate mid-term planning) and to close down adult education programmes.

Effectively, the four national governments of the UK are presiding over the dismantling of one key plank of the lifelong learning system. The fact that they seem to be stumbling blindly into this policy by default is neither an excuse nor a help.

 

Should we mourn a UK exit from Erasmus?

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Image created by the Erasmus+ project Home Sweet Home

One consequence of the Brexit decision is that our educational institutions will at some stage have to withdraw from ERASMUS+, the European Commissions’s scheme for staff and student mobility. Or so says the Guardian, in a report that has been widely circulated – and lamented – on social media. The Guardian quotes Ceri Jones, formerly the Commission’s Director General for Education, describing the UK exit from ERASMUS+ as “a tragedy of staggering proportions for universities throughout the country”.

As usual, the reality is more complicated. First, although Guardian story describes ERASMUS+ as a scheme for university student mobility, it is of course much broader in its reach, encompassing schools, adult education and vocational training. Second, the UK remains part of the programme until the actually UK leaves the EU. Third, if and when the UK does leave the EU, its membership of ERASMUS+ (and other educational and research programmes) can continue, if the UK and rest of the EU so decide. Fourth, the UK can replace ERASMUS+ with new partnerships, but with different countries.

So hardly a “tragedy of staggering proportions”. Of course, continuing membership of EU programmes or the development of new exchange programmes will cost money. The simplest solution would be to use the resources currently allocated to ERASMUS+ to fund the new schemes. In practice, I imagine that a few Vice Chancellors (including those publicly lamenting the UK’s departure from ERASMUS+) will then start lobbying to have direct control over the funds, and then promptly switch it to other activities. But that’s no reason for not having exchange schemes.

My own preference would be the development of an entirely new exchange scheme. I’m not a great fan of ERASMUS+, mainly because it is yet another case of public funding being directed towards the most privileged. A HEFCE report in 2010 found that UK participants were “disproportionately young, female, white and middle-class, and are academic high-achievers”. A subsequent House of Lords enquiry reported that “students from ethnic minorities; with a disability; who were older; or who had parents from a non-professional background, were less likely to participate in the Erasmus programme”.

These are not new findings, of course. And neither is it surprising that an attractive but costly education opportunity appeals most to the socially and culturally best endowed. Nor is it surprising that part-time students, those with caring responsibilities, and those with best reason to be concerned about racism are largely excluded.Then there is the whole question of language competence, which in the UK is tightly tied to the school which you attend, which in turn is of course socially biassed towards the middle class.

The House of Lords report also confirmed that the European Commission had limited data about the effects of the scheme, and didn’t even know much about who took part in it and what they did. Again, this had been known for some years.

As I say, then, ERASMUS+ is deeply flawed. I found it something of a tragedy (though not of staggering proportions) that the European Commission did not take the opportunity to reform and modernise it. But then an organisation that is happy with the Common Agricultural Policy is unlikely to be dissatisfied with ERASMUS+.

Leaving ERASMUS+ offers some attractive possibilities. First, it allows for a bit of attention to equity and justice when designing new programmes. Second, it allows for an expansion of bilateral partnerships, which might differ by country rather than all taking a standardised shape. Third, it allows for an extension of partnerships beyond the limits of EU membership (though it could certainly include EU members). Fourth, we could rebalance the distribution of funding, so that it no longer strongly favours higher education.

All of which would be no bad thing. If we recall the intentions of the scheme’s founders, European student mobility was designed to foster a European identity. It seems to have done that rather successfully among one part of our population, but it did little or nothing for those who are the losers from globalisation. The consequences are with us now.