Category Archives: Higher education policy

Fully-funded PhD studentship available on the taught postgraduate experience

We are offering a fully-funded ESRC PhD studentship in association with the Higher Education Academy analysing the taught postgraduate experience using the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey.

This full-time, three-year award provides tuition fees, a maintenance award of at least £13,726 p.a. (for UK students) and a research support grant of £750/year. The project is supervised by myself and Dr. Gillian Hampden-Thompson. It is an opportunity to work on research into postgraduate education at an exciting time.

Visit the Department of Education’s website for further details (click on ‘Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Scholarship for 2014 entry‘).


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Hell no! I won’t go to the Higher Ed Expo!

[title to be read in the style of a cheerleader’s chant]

On Thursday 17 October London’s Olympia will host The Higher Education Expo 2013. I know this because I have now received several pieces of direct marketing advising me of the event, including brochures and emails; and because of the prominent full-page adverts in recent editions of Times Higher Education. Although this publicity onslaught has partially done its job in alerting me to the event, it hasn’t convinced me in the slightest that there would be any point in me attending. Quite the opposite in fact.

‘Expo’ is not a word I’ve come across in relation to higher education before and I had to check to be certain what it meant. It’s a trade fair essentially, one of those things where a hangar-shaped space is filled up with flimsy-looking stands staffed by good-looking and slightly over-friendly sales staff, possibly wearing matching t-shirts and giving out binfuls of freebies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trade fairs, in the right context. They’re not really my sort of thing, but companies offering goods and services and individuals, companies and organisations needing goods and services clearly have an interest in being introduced to each other. New developments need to be showcased. However the format for that introduction should be appropriate to the context of the activity it represents. A trade fair might work for the Ideal Home Exibition or the motor trade, but the clothing industry plays it differently, through the fashion week (London/Milan/Paris). For researchers it is the academic conference: new ideas are showcased in the form of conference papers, publishers exhibit their books, professional associations and special interest groups promote themselves to potential members. Money and glitz are unwelcome guests.

For me, the Higher Education Expo is in no way sensitive to its context. It is a crass attempt to import the commercial trade fair approach to higher education and push further the monetisation and privatisation of public education. It presents the issues facing higher education in entirely consumerist terms, amenable to handy solutions through application of the right product or service. A series of seminars covers issues such as procurement, the achievement of ‘efficiency’, student choice and the student ‘experience’. Inevitably, the unsubstantiated, over-hyped fads of the moment, MOOCs and ‘alternative provision’ get a plug too. Teaching, learning and research are barely mentioned in the main conference programme. A couple of side events, in the ‘Teaching and Learning Theatre’ and ‘Research and Innovation Theatre’ give a semblance of connection to what I thought higher education was actually about, although reading the programmes for each I found it hard to recognise anything which said much to me about either teaching or research. The very strong impression is of a breathless futurism, a la Tomorrow’s World (for those of you old enough to remember it). This fetish for the new is coupled with a contrived millenarianism which shouts: “embrace the market; change or die; don’t be a dinosaur” and so on, ad nauseum. Nothing like a good bit of crisis and fear to make those universities reach for their chequebooks, eh?

This is epitomised by the session scheduled for 9.45am in the main conference programme: “Oligarchs, Innovators and Zombies – Which HEI Will You Become?”. Supported by a sensationalist full-page advert on the inside cover of THE, this talks purports to be a discussion of a potential future typology of higher education institutions. It looks to me much more like a 15-minute advert for PA Consulting, a management consultancy firm with a HE/FE division. (The company appears regularly in Times Higher Education using what seems to be a similar tactic, promoting its latest ‘research’ report which is usually based on a survey of unnamed vice chancellors’ views of the sector). The typology itself comprises three sorts of institutions:

The oligarchs, a small super league of large, research-intensive universities such as Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial, UCL and Manchester […] The innovators, those institutions that are developing enterprising ways of doing business [sic] […] The zombies, those institutions that are unable or unwilling to invest in change and hence risk finding themselves in a spiral of decline, characterised by continuous cost-cutting and retrenchment.

Forgive my cynicism, but to me these three categories could just as easily be read as: those institutions which are doing well and won’t spend money on strategy consultants; those institutions which do buy our services and so will be fine; those institutions which don’t buy our services, bad things await them.

At their worst, events like the Higher Education Expo risk eroding the public mission of the university, subverting sober, critical and impartial inquiry by presenting an adulterated imitation of academic research to hide commercial exploitation and the pursuit of private profit. Mary Madden has written persuasively about the dangers of the colonisation of medical conferences by medi-business (such as the big pharma companies and the medical device industry). Her point is that increasingly such events marry the ‘hospitality’ of corporate sales with a veneer of academic respectability through presentations of findings, many of which do not stand critical scrutiny. We should resist the same processes being applied to our universities.

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When is a university not a university? Some thoughts on university titles

Yesterday I was trying to come up with a definitive list of all the universities in the UK. It’s a lot trickier than I expected and certainly harder than finding out how many universities there are in other countries. One of several issues I faced was finding a list which had caught up with all the latest awards of university title. The official list of institutions recognised with degree awarding powers (thanks @amcgettigan) is out-of-date as it incorrectly lists Harper Adams University, BPP University and Bishop Grosseteste University as university colleges. (There is also the bizarre historical throwback of the Archbishop of Canterbury having the power to confer degrees! Mine’s a doctorate please Justin!).

The latest batch of awards of university title have caused a bit of a stir, not least because they confer the name on for-profit outfits, formerly the College of Law and BPP University College, now the University of Law and BPP University respectively. An excellent recent blog post by Andrew McGettigan for the Campaign for the Defence of British Universities draws attention to the ‘Companies House’ route to university title followed in these two cases and the apparent dilution of the requirements now permitted, at least in England and Wales. All of this is part of an ideologically-driven government attempt to ‘introduce new providers to the market’, siphoning off public value into private profit in the usual way (and doing it in a cack-handed headlong rush too). It appears to be as spectacularly unsuccessful as it is distasteful, the irony being that the ‘market’ tells us that young people massively prefer decent public universities.

Looking at the list of universities got me thinking about what the title should mean. It seems to me that the definition of ‘university’ is inevitably slippery, but that there must be some core features around which any university worth the name should cohere.

Firstly: subject range. It should be pretty broad. The root of the word ‘university’ is ‘whole, entire’. It’s not feasible for every university to teach everything, but as a minimum there ought to be coverage of arts and sciences, some social science, and a bit of vocational education of some sort (recalling that medicine, law and theology have been there since the beginning). What a university absolutely shouldn’t be is anything close to a ‘monotechnic’. This makes the University of Law an utter oxymoron, but the same must apply to universities which only teach arts subjects, whether that be the University of the Arts, London or some of the newest, smallest universities with a very limited subject range. If LSE and Imperial, with their limited set of departments, can eschew the university title, then there doesn’t seem any good reason why others of similar nature should adopt it. Don’t misunderstand me – this is not a comment on the academic standing of ‘universities’ with narrow subject ranges, it is simply about the scope of their provision.

Secondly, research and scholarship. A university should have the creation, transformation, dissemination and preservation of knowledge in its very fibre. It should be organised around a community of scholars, not to the exclusion of others or for the aggrandisement of academics, but rather as the best way of fulfilling its intellectual mission. Above all a university is its people, much more than it is a place (as the Open University shows us). I tried to find the name of the academic staff at BPP University, but all I could find was the board of directors. Are there any academic staff? There certainly doesn’t appear to be any research or scholarship going on. Type the word “research” into the BPP University search engine and you get back a list of courses only. A university should also enable the pursuit of truth above all else, which implies space for critique, dissent and new ideas. That seems pretty difficult to me if you only teach accountancy.

Thirdly, scale. Size is relative of course: a couple of thousand students was fine for medieval universities and all UK universities look pretty piddling compared to the mega-varsities of Buenos Aires, UNAM and Rome La Sapienza. Still, many of the institutions to become universities most recently are very small in student number terms. I think there is a useful analogy here with cities: there are some places which are undeniably cities given their size – London, Birmingham and Manchester, for instance. Other places are much smaller, but still cities: York, Bath, Exeter. A few ‘cities’ are baffling oddities though (yes St. David’s and St. Asaph, I mean you). There has to be a certain scope to a university, which I appreciate is difficult for anyone tasked with setting a size criterion to specify. One thousand students seems too small to me because it is difficult to achieve breadth and depth with that number. However absolute size cannot be the only guide because larger institutions with a narrow subject base and/or little research are less university-like than some smaller institutions with greater disciplinary reach.

Using these three criteria as a guide, many of the newest universities don’t seem to me to fit the definition. The pint-size University of Buckingham, of which I’m not very fond, with its two year degrees and Thatcherite heritage does pass muster. This is not about pulling the ladder up or ‘protecting the brand’ (yuk) – many of the newest universities are clearly university level institutions, doing a good job. Rather it is about being honest and consistent in the application of the university name to an institution – and faithful to the contested, yet enduring idea of the university.

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Why David Willetts is not a ‘latent snob’

It is difficult not to be cynical about the Universities Minister’s recent exhortation to institutions to address the underrepresentation of white working-class boys in higher education. It may have coincided with the release of a depressing downturn in applications in the 2013 UCAS cycle, but the timing was surely no coincidence as BIS looked to deflect attention from another indication of the unfolding tragedy befalling English HE post-Browne. Timing aside though, David Willetts has a point: white working-class boys are one of the most under-represented groups among undergraduate entrants and his intervention prompted some very interesting responses. Conor Ryan of the Sutton Trust gave a summary of the research evidence in his blog and pointed out that only half as many boys as girls apply to Sutton Trust summer schools. Patrick McGhee, VC of the University of East London, outlined seven practical steps which would help improve working-class boys’ higher education participation (for all ethnic groups). I should declare an interest here – I was a white working-class boy. In case you are now thinking “well-he-would-say-that-wouldn’t-he?” I also appreciated Janet Beer’s corrective which counselled of the danger in focussing on any one group (and particularly her point that women are disadvantaged in progressing to higher degrees – another topic for a future blog post).

However, for me the most interesting and thought-provoking response came from an MP I’d never heard of before: Brian Binley, vice-chair of the BIS Select Committee and the Conservative member for Northampton South. His blog on the subject is largely party-political invective against New Labour higher education policy and manages to contradict itself within the space of a paragraph. However there are two interesting things about it: it accuses Willetts of peddling an “elitist authoritarian fantasy”; and complains about a broader educational snobbery (of which Willetts is, by implication, guilty). For instance:

what these learned people need to remember is simple: there is nothing wrong with not having a degree, or opting for vocational training in place of university post-nominal distinctions

and elsewhere:

my contemporaries and I didn’t need a worthy professor shedding tears that we were able to make our way in the world without his impressive post-nominal accoutrements.

On the face of it, standard British anti-intellectual fare plus the University-of-Life trope which anyone with a degree and an aged uncle has heard at some point before. The accusation of snobbery is misplaced: if Willetts was not discussing widening participation in any way or suggesting that university is ‘not for the likes of’ some people, that would be snobbery.

But behind Binley’s complaint is a more profound point and one which my students return to again and again in discussing educational and social change and the huge rise in university enrolments over the last few decades. In the 21st century, educational qualifications have come to monopolise the path to success. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare and usually limited to particular fields – football, the odd businessperson, some of the entertainment industry. To ‘get on’ in most other areas basic educational qualifications are essential and higher education increasingly important. Young people are subject to what Alison Wolf calls “the tyranny of numbers” – not going to university is, despite the exorbitant cost, an unpalatable option. Some of those who don’t go ‘make it’, but most don’t. Many of those who do go don’t want to and/or don’t make it, but on the whole the odds are stacked in favour of the educated. In particular, making it to Westminster as an MP is increasingly a graduate’s game and so Brian Binley’s trajectory is likely to be far less common in the future.

We might have different views on whether this is a good thing or not and regret the shrivelling of non-university routes to success, with all that entails for the character of public life. That it is happening, and happening the world over though is surely a matter of fact rather than opinion. The sociologist David P. Baker has argued that modern society is a schooled society – that institutionalised education was not only a catalyst for societal transformation but that schooling (and higher education) has come to characterise the form of society we now inhabit. Generalised academic intelligence, for better or worse, has become a central measure of worth in a way analogous to the place of military prowess in medieval feudalism. It’s a polemical view, but one which I think has considerable merit. In the light of this pervasive ‘educationalisation’ of society then, the call to increase the participation of white working-class boys in higher education is not snobbery, but enlightened realpolitik.


Filed under Higher education policy, Schooled society, UK, Widening participation

How many postgraduates do we want?

After years of neglect, it seems that postgraduate education’s time in the policy spotlight has finally arrived. The murmur of reports and evidence addressing the Browne Review’s postgraduate blind-spot has recently developed into a roar, with the release of the Higher Education Commission’s review of postgraduate education and pressure from NUS, mission groups and others, such as the Council for the Defence of British Universities for the government to act on postgraduate education to avert a crisis. This weekend, The Observer featured further warnings about an impending disaster, supported by calls for action from eleven vice-chancellors. For someone like me, who has been banging on about access to postgraduate education for longer than I care to remember, this attention is very welcome and long overdue.

Happy as I am that this issue now seems to be getting the attention it deserves, I nevertheless have some concerns about the way the debate is proceeding. The overwhelming focus is on postgraduate funding (or rather the lack of it). This is undoubtedly a barrier to postgraduate participation (although as I shall argue in a later post, perhaps not the single over-riding barrier to widening participation at postgraduate level). Given the widely reported stagnation and decline in UK postgraduates – which looks even worse in the context of a recession because postgraduate enrolments are usually counter-cyclical – lack of postgraduate funding is a cause for concern. There is however a more fundamental question which requires answering before funding can be properly addressed: how many postgraduates do we want?

It is often the underlying assumption of UK commentators in this area that there is a ‘correct’ and optimal rate of postgraduate participation which will maximise the economic contribution of those obtaining postgraduate qualifications without inefficiently triggering over-education – in other words, “how many postgraduates do we need?” I’ve no idea how such a number would be calculated, if it is even possible. If undergraduate participation rates are any sort of guide, then targets are either based on catching up with/overtaking beacon competitors (Germany, South Korea, Finland, Kazakhstan, or insert your own); or on an arbitrary figure which will sell well with the electorate: hence Blair’s 50% undergraduate participation target. But that is really the point: setting a postgraduate participation target is a political decision first. Until we are able to answer the question of how many postgraduates we want, the question of how best to pay for them makes no sense.

There are a number of potential answers to the question of how many postgraduates we want. The de facto position has been “as many as the market will bear”, or some variant of that, largely because this – and previous – governments (across the UK) have simply left the postgraduate level well alone. Although markets seem strangely to be considered untrustworthy in some areas of postgraduate study where numbers are tightly controlled and funding has been relatively generous (such as postgraduate teacher training), on the whole taught postgraduate study is open to anyone with a reasonable first degree and the funds to pay for tuition and living costs. Where employer support is available or courses are aimed at working professionals, UK enrolment is stronger, but hardly booming. Elsewhere things seem to be much worse. Answering “as many as the market will bear” gives little control either over who gets to do postgraduate study if independent financial means, rather than discipline area and ability is the main factor influencing entry. This might be acceptable if we considered the UK postgraduate sector as nothing more than an export industry. Since such a view seems incompatible with the purpose of a higher education, then laissez faire is entirely the wrong approach.

The opposite answer – “we want as many graduates to take higher degrees as can benefit from it” – will be attractive to many in the academy and on the political Left, including some resolutely un-socialist vice-chancellors, eager to grow their enrolments. This was essentially the Robbins Committee’s view on first-degree participation in 1963. Here there are two objections – one fairly obvious, the other less so. Funding postgraduate study is expensive and so blanket support out of public funds in the current fiscal climate would seem, to all except the most utopian of socialists, quite perverse (get in the queue behind free nursery places, smaller school class sizes, free undergraduate tuition and so on). However we might still want this as an aspiration, even if in practical terms it is difficult to achieve. A less obvious, but potentially damaging problem raised by free – or even relatively cheap – postgraduate education is the postgraduate participation paradox identified by sociologist Ken Roberts. If more and more graduates are encouraged and enabled to pursue higher degrees, then the value of an undergraduate degree declines and it becomes more and more important to get a higher degree (the classic ‘credential inflation’ argument, elsewhere described as an ‘educational arms race’). This will only further strengthen the divide between the highly-educated and the rest in the distribution of resources in society. There is a danger that expanding postgraduate education in the name of social mobility will actually have the opposite effect.

So what is my answer to the question? It is to agree a minimum participation rate around which a postgraduate taught funding system can be constructed. That would be a public, planned system underpinning a vital and vibrant postgraduate sector but without restricting those areas which have prospered under the current hands-off system. David Willetts, speaking at the launch of the Higher Education Commission’s postgraduate report, cautioned that Treasury cash would come with student number controls attached. That is no problem in this scenario (and indeed it is already the accepted model for doctoral funding). To limit the call on public funds, there is scope to adopt means-testing for some aspects of postgraduate support, which could also address the participation paradox identified above.

So what minimum participation rate would we want to support? There is a complete lack of evidence on demand for postgraduate study (another topic for a future blog post) and so there is always a risk of setting an overly optimistic target. But hey, blogs are supposed to be about this sort of speculation aren’t they? So personally, I would like to see one in three graduates taking a postgraduate qualification. With an undergraduate participation rate at around 45%, that would mean a 15% postgraduate participation rate (somewhat higher than the current 9% rate in England).

Many, perhaps most will not agree with my response to the question ‘how many postgraduates do we want?’ But before we can get on to thinking about the mechanisms by which postgraduate funding can be improved, we need to understand more clearly the size and shape of what would be funding. Setting that aspiration is a question which must surely be subject to political debate.

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Filed under Funding, Higher education policy, Postgraduates, UK