Tag Archives: Higher Education

Latest UK Higher Education Statistics

The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency has just published its latest data on student enrolments and qualifications obtained for the academic year 2010/11.  Key findings include:

  • just over 2.5 million people are enroled in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)
  • slightly more students are doing postgraduate courses (up 2% since 2009/10), with slightly fewer doing undergraduate ones
  • UK domiciled students account for 83% of all enrolments
  • there is some considerable volatility in subject areas: for undergraduates enrolments in agriculture and related subjects increased 11% between 2009/10, whereas for architecture, building and planning, they decreased 6%; for postgraduates the greatest increase was in mathematical sciences (8%), whereas computer science numbers declined 6%.
  • 64% of students gained an upper second or first class degree; more women than men achieved such degrees (65% of full-time students received such degrees; 51% of part-time students) (see Table 6 of HESA statistics).

One of the most striking of these findings is the continual grade inflation that is taking place in higher education.  In  2006/7 only 60% of all students gained upper second or first class degrees.  Going back in time, in 2000/01 only 54% of full-time students gained such degrees, and in 1994/95 it was 49% (HESA statistics).  Such inflation is hardly surprising, given that institutions are increasingly being judged externally by this measure.  I doubt that it is improvements in the quality of teaching that have led to such results.

Typical measures that universities use to inflate such results operate both at the institutional level through the mechanisms that are used to turn marks into overall grades, but also in the ways through which marks for courses are derived.  Institutionally, the following are typical mechanisms that have been used:

  • introducing systems that ignore the worst marks achieved
  • weighting the overall portfolio of marks in ways that lead to higher overall grades
  • introducing mechanistic processes for candidates just below a threshold that automatically elevate them to the higher grade
  • reducing the amount of unseen terminal examinations, and increasing the amount of easier types of assessment at which students perform better

At the more individual level, academics are also judged by the quality of results obtained by students doing their courses, and so it is quite common to find academics who:

  • give strong hints at the subject matter that will be coming up in unseen exams
  • give substantial amounts of help to students on assignments, such as dissertations, that are meant to be independent
  • decide to be that little bit more generous at the margins, choosing to emphasise the stronger points over the weaker ones
  • restructure their courses so that they contain elements that students find it easier to do well in

It could be argued that each of these is desirable, and that we should indeed be rewarding our good students for the efforts that they put in.  The fundamental point to be noted, though, is that getting a ‘good’ degree in 2011 means something very different from getting an upper second or first even a decade ago.


Filed under Higher Education, Universities

The future of the UK’s universities – a radical scenario

Earlier in the year at the ACU’s Executive Heads meeting in Hong Kong, I caused real offence to at least one participant when I argued that it made no sense at all  for 50% of the UK’s young people to study at university.  A damp bank holiday Monday gives me the opportunity to try to clarify my arguments for him – and for any others who might be interested.

First, let me make clear what I did not say.  I never said that young people should not receive training after they leave school.  I never said that people should be prevented from life-long learning.  Far from it.  All people should receive opportunities to gain the training that they  can benefit from, and  this training should be relevant and of high quality.  What I do not believe is that such training is best done at universities.  My argument is built on four main foundations:

  • the role of the university
  • the relationship between universities and economic growth
  • the abilities and interests of young people in the UK, and
  • the need to provide outstanding technical and professional education for all young people who want to gain such skills in the UK.

What should universities be for?

I believe passionately that universities have a central place in any civilised society.  Free and independent universities, funded by the state, play a crucial role in shaping the meaning and identity of our societies.  They are the places where creativity and innovation  happen, where the boundaries of knowledge are constantly moved forward, where questions that were once unthought are now uttered and answered.  They are the places where many of our brightest and most articulate scholars and scientists should want to work, and where young people who want to commit themselves to crafting new knowledges should indeed be able to learn from them.  Universities are places funded by those who believe that it is good to support a group of people – academics – whose role it is to reflect on the society of which they are a part, to understand the reasons why it is not functioning as it might, and ultimately to make that society a better one in which everyone can live richer lives.

Over the last 20 years, though, successive governments have overseen the destruction of such a vision.  Increased regulation and control of research has helped to extinguish much innovative thinking, and the flame of learning has been quenched by an increasingly regulated teaching environment. All too often claims that universities are elitist have led to a destruction of excellence, caused by a focus on  lowest common denominators. What saddens me hugely is that so many academics have been complicit in this agenda, fearful over their own jobs and the future of the institutions in which they work.  Let me make one thing absolutely clear.  Universities should not be where large numbers of students are taught to accept and regurgitate accepted truths – be they about the nature of our economy, or about the skills needed to become better managers.  Instead, they should be places where those who want to study hard, to grapple with complex and difficult ideas, to dream as yet undreamt dreams, and to change the ways in which we understand the world in which we live, can indeed do so.  They are not places where students should necessarily be taught; rather, they are places where ‘students’ have the opportunity to learn from the most brilliant minds in our society. Incidentally, I also think that this process needs time, and that a three year degree is probably about right for ideas to develop and mature to a sufficient level for someone to be worthy of a university degree.

The fundamental problem is that not many people are actually able to do this, and even fewer want to do so.  Many students seem simply to want to gain skills that will enable them to get a reasonable job, earn a satisfactory income, and live a comfortable life.  The provision of skills training for such a life is something entirely different from gaining the critical stance to knowledge that I believe a university should be all about.

Universities and economic growth

A dangerous myth has grown up in recent years that claims that having large numbers of young people trained in universities is somehow good for economic growth.  Building on this myth, Tony Blair’s Labour Party conference statement in 2000 said that he expected 50% of people in the UK to have benefited from higher education by the time they are 30. However, note the blurring of vocabulary, and the fundamentally important difference between ‘universities’ and ‘higher education’.  With the end of the distinction in the UK between universities and polytechnics in 1992, all institutions became merged into a general higher education sector and most chose to use the word university to describe themselves.  Universities and higher education in the UK became synonymous.

The trouble is that there is actually rather little evidence that having 50% of 30 year olds with a degree is necessarily good for a country’s economic growth.  Likewise, despite claims that those with degrees will be able to earn more during their lifetimes than those without, there is likewise very little evidence that having a degree will necessarily mean that all students will gain high paying jobs.  As many students graduating this summer are finding out, there simply is not  enough graduate employment  around for them all to find the sort of jobs that they had been led to believe they should get. As the BBC reported earlier this year, “One in five UK university leavers who entered the labour market failed to find a job last year, as graduate unemployment reached its highest level since 1995, government figures show”.

There is indeed a broad correlation between GDP per capita and the percentage of people in a country who have studied at a university.  However, the mere existence of such a correlation does not impute causality.  Much more research is needed on the precise trajectories of the relationships between economic growth and participation in universities in different countries.  While it is intuitive to think that having a certain number of people trained in universities will indeed contribute to the well being of a country, there is absolutely nothing intuitive about saying that having 50% participation rates will necessarily increase economic growth.  Indeed, the evidence would seem to suggest instead that the surplus created by having a higher GDP per capita actually enables more people to go to university.  Thus, above a certain level, it is probably GDP per capita that influences university participation rather than the other way round.

Moreover, some of the most thriving economies are actually those that have a clear distinction between technical higher education and traditional universities. In Germany, for example, substantial numbers of young people on leaving school go to a Berufsschule where they combine further academic study with  apprenticeships, whilst many others choose to attend Technische Hochschulen where they are trained for specific careers rather than entering more traditional universities.  Is it surprising that Germany has much higher levels of technical professional expertise than does the UK?

Abilities and interests of young people in the UK

It is my contention that many students in the UK choose to go to university as a lifestyle choice rather than with any real intent to move the boundaries of knowledge forward.  It is the expected thing to do.  They have been told that they will earn more if they have a university degree.  There are very few jobs available for young people in any case, and so why not spend three years having fun at university?  Whether apologists for the health of UK universities like to claim otherwise, this is the harsh reality of UK student choice today.  About the only positive thing about the introduction of yet higher fees is that it is is likely to make many students who would be much better off  not  studying at universities think again about so doing.

In a recent study, the Higher Education Policy Institute ( Figure 8 ) thus notes that some 80,000 university entrants in 2010 had between 1 and 240 UCAS tariff points (240 is equivalent to three Cs at A level).  I contend that most students with below 3 Cs at A level have not proven that they have the intellectual apparatus to push the boundaries of knowledge forward, nor do many of them really have the inclination to do so. Of course there are exceptions to this, and we need to ensure that those who are truly able to contribute to and benefit from university, but do poorly at A levels or wish to enter through other routes, can indeed do so.  However, my fundamental point is that universities (as defined above) are not the right places for such students to gain post-secondary learning opportunities.  We need an alternative solution to give them the skills that they need, and we must stop pretending that universities are the place to do this.  For too long there has been an intellectual elitism that suggests somehow that an ‘academic’ degree is better than a ‘technical’ one.

It is therefore scarcely surprising that many students studying at UK universities are not really inspired by their courses, and choose to spend their time doing other things.  However, the extent of this is scandalous. There are many estimates for the average number of hours students in UK universities actually spend studying, but most lie within the range of 25-30 hours a week in term time.  One of the most reliable and recent surveys, by the Centre of Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University in 2009, thus concludes that “students in the UK spent an average of about 30 hours a week on studying, the least amount of time compared to their counterparts in other European countries”.  Interestingly a couple of years ago some of my students did a survey of the amount of time that their peers spent in the bars on campus, and the average came out at about 25 hours a week!  Perhaps their friends were exceptional, but I’m not so sure.

I expect students to study a minimum of 40 hours a week, and am seen by many colleagues as expecting too much.  Typical comments are “You cannot expect this – they have to spend time earning money to pay for their degrees”, or “But university is about far more than just studying”, or “Your expectations are old fashioned; get with the times”.  Sorry, this is simply not acceptable.  I have recently returned from an amazing and intellectually stimulating time at Peking University (Beida), and you should see how hard students there work!  The university day starts at 08.00 and finishes at 18.00, albeit with two hours ‘off’ for lunch.  Most students then spend several hours studying every night.  There is a thirst to learn, to explore ideas, to think afresh.  This is such a contrast to life on many British campuses.  It is hardly surprising that China is the vibrant economy that it is.  If we want to compete on a global stage, we need completely to rethink what students should be expected to do at university in the UK.

Providing a valuable technical and professional education

It is not easy to estimate how many students are really interested in pursuing knowledge critically in the sense discussed above.  However, to be generous, let me suggest that perhaps 25% of the school leaving population have the aptitude and an interest in so doing.  To cater for them we therefore need perhaps half of the universities that we currently have in the UK.  If pushed to an extreme, I would say that universities should actually only provide places for about 10% of school leavers!

This means that we need a complete reorganisation of post-secondary education, to provide people with the skills necessary to gain useful employment and contribute to the economic growth beloved of our political and industrial leaders.  Because we persist in wanting to maintain our universities, this is a subject that is almost never raised.  Somehow, it is believed that universities as they are currently structured will provide the skills necessary to revitalise our economy.  What nonsense.  Over and over again we hear from industrial leaders how poorly equipped graduates are for the workplace.  A recent survey by AP Business Contacts in March 2011 thus reports that employers found graduates lacking in five main areas:

  • Lack of business acumen, commercial understanding and preparation for the ‘leap’ from the academic to commercial environment
  • Lack of personal and interpersonal skills, including communication, emotional intelligence and organisational skill
  • Poor English language skills, ranging from a difficulty in making the transition from academic writing to business writing, to basic inadequacies in grammar and spelling
  • Attitudinal issues, including the unrealistic expectations of their role and inflated views of their capability early on
  • Specialist skills needed for specific jobs e.g. engineering, computer science

This is indeed a damning indictment, and those in higher education need to wake up and do something about it.

So, instead of universities, I have long believed that we need to introduce a completely new style of institution, perhaps called academies (although this term has been captured by those wishing to create a new kind of secondary institution), that are specifically designed to provide training for, and qualifications in, the skills required to gain the sorts of jobs that those with below 2 BBs at A level can realistically consider applying for.  Perhaps such entities could be distributed regionally, with one of each type in eight different regions of the country. Where there are particular regional specialisms, there could be concentrations of relevant ‘academies’.  Ideally, these institutions would be set up in partnership with employers, and have embedded within them apprenticeships or placements.  Typical of the sorts of institution I have in mind would be academies for multimedia design, for plumbing, for dance, for football, for horticulture, for engineering technicians, for photographers, for metal working production fitters, for line repairers and cable jointers, for chefs… (many of these, of course, fall within the government’s Tier 2 Shortage Occupation List).  These courses could be of variable duration, and most would not need to be longer than two years of full time study.  They would present a far cheaper solution than universities, and would provide learners with valuable skills in the employment market. Qualifications from these academies should be seen as being far more valuable than literally ‘use-less’ university degrees.  However, we still need the universities to serve as our places of critical reflection and innovation.  Much of what universities would do would indeed have little practical value – but that is in part what being civilised is all about.

There are probably far too many vested interests in the present system for such a radical scenario to be accepted.  Not least, too many Vice Chancellors and academics are overly eager to hold on to their precious elite institutions.  Isn’t it ironic that breaking the binary divide between polytechnics and universities was meant to do just that, and to get rid of elitism.  How sad that ultimately it has meant that so many of our universities have become so third-rate in terms of global competitiveness, and that they continue to fail our young people in terms of giving them either the vision or the skills to craft a new future that is better than the one we have left them.  Let us not be blinded by the debate over how to fund a moribund higher education system that is over-bloated and suffering from gout.  Instead, let us grasp this moment, and use it for a radical and visionary transformation of higher education in the interests of the next generation of people whose task it will be to sort out the mess we have left them!


Filed under Higher Education, UK, Universities

北京大學 – Life on Peking University Campus

I have been here for 10 days – amazing how quickly the time has flown by.  Given how tired I am, though, I guess it has been time very well spent!  Life – both intellectual and quotidian – is intense.  The campus itself is a great place to work, and the buildings and lake on the northern part of the campus are lovely places to walk in the early evenings to relax. It is fascinating being on campus, and very much living surrounded by the students.  Reflecting on my time here so far, the following spring to mind:

  • spring is advancing – blossom buds were just opening on a tree as I walked to work this morning
  • good to see somewhere else that matches my own usual ‘office’ day from 8 in the morning until six in the evening (although they do have a two hour lunch break)!
  • walking across campus to work in the morning, students and bicycles are enthusiastically everywhere- long before their peers would even be awake on the Holloway campus back home!
  • the first thing to be done on getting into the office is to fill one’s hot water carrier (thermos equivalent) from the tank and then make a cup of green tea – which is subsequently refreshed throughout the day
  • the intellectual vitality and curiosity – amongst students and staff – is so refreshing! UK students – at least many with whom I come into contact – have much to learn from the commitment and dedication of their peers here.
  • yesterday’s session with ‘my’ group of Master’s students was on research design – and it was great to explore aspects of Habermas’s work with them, and briefly summarise my critique of grounded theory.  They are so knowledgeable about much existing European social and educational theory!  It’s a real pleasure to work with them – and my concerns that my participatory ‘teaching’ style might not be acceptable were certainly ill-founded.
  • much exciting research is being done at the Graduate School of Education – and I am having really useful (if a bit exhausting) discussions with colleagues about everything from designing online surveys, to the use of mobiles for schools and parents to communicate, to the government’s plans to have interactive whiteboards in every classroom!
  • the IT services are great – thanks to the IT Service@Peking University.  It is brilliant to have wireless access in my office and ethernet in our hotel room.  Mind you, I do wish that I did not have so many e-mails from my other lives that need to be answered!
  • The diversity of places to buy food is overwhelming – there are just so many, and such a diversity of different tastes and textures
  • I even bought a very palatable bottle of Great Wall Cabernet Sauvignon on campus last night for RMB 34 (about £3.50) – the first wine to have passed my lips since arriving!

The photos below give just a flavour of the diversity and intensity of life here.  Thanks to all those who have made Pam and me feel so welcome here at Beida!

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‘Student’ protests and political process in the UK

Being at the rally in Trafalgar Square today, supposedly against the proposed cuts in higher education, made me reflect on several aspects of the contemporary political process in the UK:

  • First, it is great to see so many UK students for once standing up for something that they see as being a cause worth fighting.  For far too long, many students here, unlike some of their peers elsewhere, seem to have been apathetic and lazy, unwilling to engage in any form of radical political protest, with the majority preferring instead to enjoy the good life associated with undertaking a minimal amount of academic work and a maximum amount of partying.  There is an irony here, though, as a young person on the train sitting next to me on the way home said “They are only looking after their own interests, in’t they. They can afford to!”
  • To gain groundswell political support, it is essential to have a simple message that people can sign up to – even if their own various interpretations of that message are different.  It is easy to unite people around a simple theme of complaining against ‘cuts’ that will affect them, but this hides the complexities surrounding the restructuring of UK universities and higher education.
  • At the heart of today’s protests were people intent on challenging the police – seeking to provoke them into violent retaliation.  At least whilst I was there, it was remarkable how calm the police remained against what many of them must have seen as being unprovoked and unfair abuse.  What struck me most about this was that many of those hurling the abuse chose to hide their identities through masks and hooded clothing, whilst individual police officers were fully identifiable by their ‘numbers’.  I do not want to be seen as an apologist for the police, and of course there have been cases where individual police officers have over-stepped the mark, but there is a real irony here in that protestors in the UK are indeed able to protest – peacefully – because, in general, the police have tried to be even handed in maintaining order and permitting people of all political persuasions to express an opinion.
  • I was amazed at how little anyone in the crowd seemed really to care about what, to me, matters most, the destruction of university based research excellence in the UK!  I have written at length elsewhere about this, but the protests convinced me even more of the importance of differentiating between ‘universities’ and higher education.  We need fundamentally to restructure UK higher education, and this should involve a very dramatic reduction in the number of students going to ‘universities’.  Instead, we should provide high quality and appropriate training and ‘education’, to fit all young people for the sorts of employment that they will subsequently enter.  Let’s create outstanding opportunities for young people to gain the skills and education that they need – but let’s not pretend that the institutions in which this takes place are universities.
  • And yes, of course, universities should be free for those able to benefit from the research-led opportunities that they provide, and for students who are committed to exploring the boundaries of knowledge diligently, rigorously and with enthusiasm!
  • Finally, I find it amazing that according to the Guardian, Vince Cable, “the cabinet minister in charge of tuition fees, said today he was prepared to abstain in a key vote on the government’s policy if that was what fellow Liberal Democrat MPs decided to do as a group. The business secretary said he was prepared to take the unprecedented step of not backing his own proposals for the sake of party unity”. How can the Secretary of State responsible for the introduction of increased tuition fees not vote in favour of them?  He should surely resign forthwith if that really is his view.

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Filed under Higher Education, Photographs, UK, Universities

University students cheating – who is to blame?

Some weeks ago, soon after exams were over, a friend brought me a couple of pairs of expensive sports shoes that she had found in a skip on campus, and asked what I thought about them.  As these picture show, written all across them were formulae that had clearly been put there to ‘assist’ their owner, or to put it more simply to help them cheat.

I have seen numerous forms of cheating before, but this was a first for me – and I would have thought that it was highly risky for the perpetrator!  Invigilation in exams has become ever more rigorous, and we are regularly sent lists of things to watch out for.  I recall on one occasion even being told  as an invigilator to be aware in case students wearing short skirts had written answers to questions on their thighs.  How we were meant to investigate this, I was never told.

Why, then, is cheating so rife?  I guess, in large part it is because of the increasing credentialism and pressure that is put on students to learn and regurgitate, rather than actually thinking for themselves.  If questions in exams were primarily designed to explore how students thought, rather than on what they could remember (although the two are obviously closely related), then there would be much less benefit in trying to cheat.  I am also sure that cheating in part derives from the fact that many students have to spend much of their time earning an income to cover the costs of fees, accommodation and maintenance, and therefore are unable to acquire the level of knowledge that we expect from them when it comes to exams.  Some might even be lazy, and simply cheat because they prefer to do that, with all the associated excitement of being caught, than actually doing the exciting intellectual work required in the first place.

In all instances, though, this is such a waste!  Students should surely go to universities because they want to learn, to think for themselves, and to develop understandings that will help them influence the future for the better.  No amount of cheating, regurgitating accepted truths will ever help achieve this.

The scale of cheating across universities is immense: in 2006, the Daily Mail reported that 90% of students cheat when writing essays; in 2008, the Guardian reported some 9000 cases of plagiarism across 100 universities in the UK under the heading ‘cheating rife among university students’; and the Canadian publication Macleans recently commented that ‘With more than 50 per cent of students cheating, university degrees are losing their value’.

Plagiarism software has gone some way to prevent plagiarism in the writing of course assessed essays, but this does not avoid cases where a student pays someone else to create an entirely new essay for them – which happens far more frequently than one might expect! There are also numerous websites which claim to provide a service that will not be picked up by the most sophisticated plagiarism checking software.  It is ironic that one of the most important reasons why course-assessed work was introduced was that it was thought to be less stressful for students, and that they would therefore do better in it than in unseen terminal exams.  Perhaps, because of so many abuses, it would be fairer to all if we just went back to such unseen tests – although I guess this would put many companies producing the plagiarism checking software out of business!

This is all just so sad, and reflects once again the commodification of knowledge that I have railed about so much in the past.  Students should want to go to university to learn to think for themselves, and not just to repeat what they are expected to remember.  Cheating is a sign both that we have accepted the wrong people into university, but also that we have failed to inspire them to think afresh.  But then again, if universities have become just higher education institutions, teaching people to learn and regurgitate accepted facts, and if that is what society wants, then I suppose we just have to accept cheating as being central to modern life.

Just think, we could do some DNA testing on the shoes, sample all graduates, and identify who used them.  I wonder what degree they actually finished up with?

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The brave new world of a free market university system in the UK

The Browne review places the final nail in the coffin for the belief that universities are about anything other than economic interest.  From henceforth, university education in the UK has become a commodity to be bought and sold in a free market for individual benefit. Overthrown are beliefs that university education is about intellectual curiosity, about moral judgement, and about communal interest.

The short-sighted stupidity and naïvety of the recommendation that universities should be able to charge market prices for their offerings must, be challenged.  Even for those who see the world purely through an economic lens, the arguments against Browne’s recommendations should be convincing. Imagine a world where:

  • British students increasingly live at home and turn to high quality distance-based courses provided more cheaply by excellent universities, often in other countries;
  • Many students go overseas to study in countries where education is free, thus making a huge cost-saving in gaining a degree and contributing to the local economies of the countries where they study (rather than the UK);
  • Many UK universities shut down, because students realise that the courses they offer are a complete waste of time and do not give them any additional lifetime earning expectations; and
  • Employers, realising even more than they do at present that UK universities do not provide the skills for which they are looking, increasingly employ people without degrees, and give them tailored training courses (often collaboratively with other employers) to ensure that they have the expertise required.

These are just some of the likely economic impacts of the recommendations that are now before government.  The net outcome will be a dramatic reduction in the UK higher education sector, a shift overseas in the amount spent on fees and maintenance by UK born students, an increase in unemployment of former university staff who are unable to gain any other form of employment, and a decline in the wider contribution of the higher education sector to the UK economy.

Even on economic grounds, a decision to let universities charge whatever fees they think the market will stand is fundamentally flawed.  So, even for those who do not care about the social divisiveness, the intellectual sterility, and the communally destructive effects of such policies, these arguments should at least carry some weight!

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The Browne Review of Higher Education

Can anyone tell me why Lord Mandelson (the former Business Secretary) chose John Browne (Baron Browne of Madingley) to chair the review of higher education in the UK that is due to report on 12th October?  Given his background, and the wider political agenda of which the review is a part, the report’s conclusions can never really have been in question:

  • Browne spent almost his entire career at BP, beginning as an apprentice in 1966 and rising to Group Chief Executive of the combined BP Amoco group in 2007
  • He was one of the most highly paid executives in the UK, with a reported £5.7 million salary in 2004
  • According to some, he was the person most responsible for cost cutting at BP that many attribute to having led to the Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 and most recently the Deepwater Horizon Explosion in 2010.

In short, he is a businessman, who was paid a salary that most people can only dream of, and built his ‘success’ on cuts.  Although he is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics (amongst others), he has shown that he has little real understanding of the purpose of universities, the issues and challenges facing academic and students, and the crucial role that high quality research and teaching must play in Britain’s future.

Surely even he is intelligent enough to understand that increasing fees twofold or threefold will mean that many students will no longer be able to afford to go to university, or will choose instead to go to universities elsewhere in countries  that still believe in the provision of free, high quality university education. A free market in higher education cannot serve the interests of students, of the country, or of university excellence.

Just because Browne was able to earn such a large salary having gained a Physics degree from Cambridge and a Business Master’s degree from Stanford, does not mean that every graduate will be able to do likewise.  Only a few are able to earn the grossly inflated salaries that now seem to be so prevalent amongst senior executives in major corporations and the bankers who brought our financial systems to the point of crisis that has been so damaging to our economy.

A more intelligent and sympathetic Chair might just have led to a more creative and viable future for our once great universities.

Links to my reflections on:

Together, we might just be able to salvage a small number of high quality universities from the impending bonfire of the vanities.


Filed under Higher Education, UK

Illiterate UK graduates find it hard to get a job!

I was interested to read a report by Jack Grimston in the Sunday Times on 1st August under the headline “Top firms forced to reject ‘barely literate’ graduates”.  What amused me is that anyone should find this surprising!  For years, schools have paid insufficient attention to the teaching of good English, and most university academics simply do not have the time to correct the spelling, punctuation and grammar of essays written by students.

The report commented that:

  • “Waitrose and other blue-chip employers are struggling to fill graduate trainee schemes, despite receiving thousands of applications, because candidates fail to fill in forms properly and sometimes seem barely literate”
  • “Will Corder, UK recruitment adviser at Kimberly-Clark, the manufacturer of brands such as Kleenex and Andrex, said his company had been able to recruit only eight graduate trainees, fewer than in previous years. One candidate, asked how he or she had developed leadership skills, replied: “At church Im [sic] in charge of some organisation.” Corder said: “Surprisingly, it is particularly bad among those doing master’s degrees — bad grammar, bad spelling and they do tend to be very, very verbose and say very little”
  • A shortage of qualified university and school leavers is holding back the economic recovery, according to early findings by the Institute of Directors in a poll of members.“A surprising number have vacancies they are unable to fill,” said Mike Harris, the institute’s head of skills, who will present his findings to Vince Cable’s business department. “They cite lack of skills and bad attitude. They are flagging up clearly that it is a real struggle to find workers and this is holding back recovery.”
  • “Recruiters complain of applicants unable to spell company names, answer simple questions or provide information instead of vacuous buzzwords”

This is a damning indictment of the British higher education system.  Whilst I would be one of the last to say that a university education should purely be about providing skilled employees for top firms, it is critically important that academics listen to what employers say.  The message is clear: universities are turning out graduates who often seem barely literate, and more worryingly still who have a poor attitude to the workplace.  Surprise, surprise!


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Changes to A-levels: improving the quality of learning?

A report in today’s Sunday Times, highlights concerns expressed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, about the structure of assessment in British secondary education.  As the paper reported, “Michael Gove wants to see A-levels become more academically rigorous and to scrap AS-levels, which are in the first year of the sixth form … He is responding to complaints by universities that the current A-level system, introduced in 2000, fails to prepare pupils for in-depth study”.

As the Sunday Times goes on to observe, Gove “will invite universities to design new A-levels, modelled on the new Cambridge Pre-U qualification, taken by a number of leading state and independent schools in preference to A-levels. Gove said: ‘We will see fewer modules and more exams at the end of two years of sixth form and, as a result, a revival of the art of deep thought'”.

There is absolutely no doubt that in terms of academic rigour most students who are educated in the British education system today lack many of the skills required to undertake a traditional university education successfully.  This is one of the factors underlying the dumbing down of standards in British universities that has occurred over the last decade.  The reform of A-levels may therefore be able to contribute to the training of young people’s minds so that they can better cope with the intellectual rigours required of a high quality university education.

However, this is only part of the story.  Many young people work incredibly hard for their A-levels, and perform outstandingly well at good universities – even under the present system.  Our secondary schools also provides them with a diversity of skills and other experiences that were simply not available a decade ago.  Such skills are important – but do not necessarily fit them for intellectually rigorous university degrees. Let us not decry the huge achievements of our young people who have gained excellent A-level grades over the last decade, and their teachers who have struggled to help them learn whilst also navigating the ever increasing amount of regulation imposed on them.

Yes, universities are indeed about training people’s minds, encouraging them to think beyond the confines of existing knowledges, and developing the incredibly important skill of critical analysis.  But we should not expect 50% of our young people to be interested in doing this, or indeed to be able to do it successfully!  We do need rigorous ways of accessing people’s aptitude to enter a high quality university system, and the present AS and A2 system has undoubtedly failed to do this.  However, so-called university courses that cater for the apparent demand for dumbed down mass higher education system do not need rigorous A-levels as a mechanism for judging the quality of applicants. If you can get into a university today with C, D and E grades under the present A-level system, it seems to be to be very clear that these universities are not actually interested in the skills that new, more rigorous and intellectually challenging A-levels might provide.

We must have an intellectually vibrant and challenging university system in this country.  But until it is accepted that this means we need fewer universities, and that other forms of further education are more appropriate for perhaps a quarter of our young people, tinkering with the examinations that young people  undertake at the end of secondary education will make little difference.

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New guide to good practices in UK-Africa Higher Education partnerships

The Association of Commonwealth Universities’ Africa Unit has just published an excellent short guide on good practices in developing educational partnerships between higher education institutions in Africa and the UK.

As the Africa Unit comments, “The main reason behind the preparation of this Guide … is the lack of knowledge about the scope, nature and depth of partnerships in this area. The Guide does not set out to present a set of universal, objective rules to be followed and which will guarantee success. Instead, it identifies 10 valuable ‘principles of management and good governance’ which have been the driver behind a number of successful and sustainable UK-Africa partnerships, which can inform future partnerships”.

This is a really useful document, full of helpful tips and advice, and anyone considering developing such partnerships should get hold of a copy and read it diligently. The ten key principles that it advocates are:

  1. Shared Ownership
  2. Trust and Transparency
  3. Mutual Understanding of different Cultural and Working Environments
  4. Clear Division of Roles and Responsibilities
  5. Effective and Regular Communication
  6. Joint Strategic Planning and Implementation
  7. Strong Commitment across the board from Staff and Management
  8. Supportive Institutional Infrastructure
  9. Monitoring and Evaluation
  10. Sustainability

As someone who has been actively involved in such partnerships over the last decade, these principles resonate very strongly with my own experiences.  Many thanks to the Africa Unit for expressing them so clearly and succinctly.

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