Challenges thrown down to local gathering of Academicians
Academicians working or living in and around Oxford gathered together at the invitation of Professors Jonathan Michie and Michael Harloe on 14th March. This new initiative aimed to bring Academicians together on a geographical, rather than discipline or institutional, basis to network and discuss matters of common interest.
Lively discussion amongst the eleven Academicians, whose interests spanned economics, sociology, geography, social policy, educational studies, innovation and planning, was stimulated further by talks from Bahram Bekhradnia, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, and Sir David Watson, Professor of Higher Education and Principal of Green Templeton College. Their talks are available below.
Further debate followed the presentations and included consideration of what the next ‘mood swing’ in HE would be, what will happen if the loaned fee money is not repaid at the expected level and the role the Office of Budget Responsibility could play here, the benefits to the universities of overall better funding – at a cost to the students, the fundamental role played by coalition politics in leading to ‘fudged’ policies, and why strong regulation in the UK could prevent the private provider scandals in the US as the private for-profit sector builds.
Following the formal proceedings, discussion continued over drinks and dinner.
If any Academician would like to host a similar event in their area, please contact the Academy office and we will be pleased to supply a list of local Academicians for you to invite.
Bahram Bekhradnia (right) discussed the current drift of higher education policy, drawing attention to its fundamentally ideological drivers for a market driven system based around student choice and noting the strong disconnect between rhetoric and reality and arguing that, as HE is so important to a country’s infrastructure, a government should not stand back and attempt to play no role.
The aim behind the government’s approach is to cut spending on HE by 60-80%, transferring the funding burden to students on the basis that the public benefit derived from educating someone to degree level is relatively small whilst the private benefit is relatively large. This appears to reduce the cost of public borrowing, although the reality of the outcome is less clear. It is politically difficult to reduce the number of students but, as many need subsidy, the cost is high. As a result the government needs to control numbers at the institutional level and this undermines its market-led ideology.
Studies of the very few HE voucher schemes tried out elsewhere in the world show significant flaws with this approach. Either the scheme simply didn’t work (Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan) or later evaluation showed that it didn’t deliver the promised benefits (Colorado, USA).
There are also unintended consequences of the current policies such as the ‘arms race’ between universities, involving strategies that could be regarded as tantamount to bribing of students with, for example, merit based scholarships. Vouchers also incentivise universities to increase student numbers in the cheaper disciplines: humanities, arts and social sciences. Another unintended consequence of transferring the funding burden to students is that they effectively pay for such things as outreach activities in schools and the community from which they derive no benefit.
The aim of cutting student numbers where fees are above £6k was primarily to rescue the government budget which had assumed most would charge £7.5k, and is proving successful. He produced a graph demonstrating that maintaining fee levels at £9k would lead to a 30% drop in income over 5 years, which will affect the Russell and 1994 Groups too: UEA has already recognised this and reduced its fees to £7.5k.
Another policy aim is to reduce places at public universities by using vouchers to transfer students into the private sector. However, this is not because of any preference for private providers and choice is only increased because of an increase in the number of providers – a supply side issue. Whilst a minority of students find their choice maintained, the majority will find it reduced. Places at institutions recruiting top performing students are likely to be won mostly by privately educated students as they are better able to achieve the high grades required: choice for poorer students will reduce on this basis alone.
Government redefinition of ‘top performing;’ students from AAB to ABB is an increase in quota control and the £7.5k rule means there is no reduction in government intervention. If it doesn’t work, the government will need to seek other ways of forcing HE to stay within budget. Effectively HEFCE committees will decide which universities grow or contract.
The reality is diametrically opposed to the government rhetoric. The fight against current policies is labelled simple ‘anti-market’ rhetoric but the policy is actually a far more statist approach.
Professor Sir David Watson (right) followed with his view on the “Facing the HE Future: the duty of the social sciences” and has provided a transcript of his talk, which is reproduced below.
Bahram has spoken about the policy and funding context faced by UK HE. There are clearly special vulnerabilities and concerns for the social sciences. These are what I want to talk about today, although I do so with a little trepidation. I am at best a guest worker in the social sciences. Although I work now mainly in higher education I’m a historian; and not a historian of hedgerows, social structure, or international trade, but of ideas.
I also need to start with another health warning: beware the superannuated university leader. There’s a huge body of literature which is not so much “do what I say, not what I do” but “do what I should have done – or wish I had done - when I was in charge.”
That said, members of the retired Vice-cancellarian/Presidential club can occasionally get it right. I think Donald Kennedy (ex-Stanford is a good example). Following him I have selected my theme of “Academic Duty.” And I am trying to contribute myself: here’s a work in progress – my version of the HE “Hippocratic Oath.”
I have no doubt that the Academy of the Social Sciences is gearing itself up appropriately and energetically to publicise, protest and as far as possible protect it and its constituencies against the forces of darkness. There are lots of very good arguments that can be made here, from the perspectives of teaching, research and the wider contributions of the academy to society at large.
I can remember well making these with Dorothy Wedderburn and John Westergaard to Secretaries of State like Keith Joseph and John Patten in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It wasn’t easy. The background was one of real term cuts and political manipulation that was at least as invasive as what is happening today. Think of the differential university cuts between 1981 and 1984 (44% for the University of Salford), the capping of the local authority pool, and the formulation by John Bevan, the Secretary to the aptly named NAB (the National Advisory Board for Public Sector of Higher Education), of the iron law of higher education cuts – “the next cut will be the last; until it comes.”
There was also a particular animus against the social sciences. Those of you who are old enough might like to close your eyes now and recall:
- how the SSRC became the ESRC (after the Rothschild Report in 1981 – which actually frustrated Joseph by not closing it);
- the suggestion in the 1985 Green Paper that geography graduates made a negative social contribution;
- the vilification of the Open University course D 101 (which led, incidentally directly to the clause in the 1988 Education Reform Act that the Secretary of State should not be able to make a grant to a particular institution);
- Lord Pearson of Rannock’s assault on Teacher Education at Brighton Polytechnic; and so on
I’d like to call the arguments we made then entitlements, and they included pleas for:
- adequate funding;
- guaranteed independence; and, of course,
- appropriate recognition or respect.
Perhaps to your disappointment, I don’t want to say very much more about these.
I do want to talk about their reciprocal: the duties that go along with these rights. I think that the social sciences have some special responsibilities, especially in difficult times. These include:
- keeping the sector honest, that is talking truth to ourselves as well as truth to power – higher education scholarship has a particular role here;
- guarding our treasure (especially longitudinal data sets);
- growing capacity at every level (especially quantitative skills for undergraduates);
- supporting partnerships (through especially interdisciplinary work); and
- teaching well (everywhere).
Let me say a few provocative words about each of these. My basic argument is that getting them right will strengthen the entitlement case, and make it seem less nostalgic, partial and self-serving. In several of these cases I am going to draw on my experience as a Trustee of the Nuffield Foundation: a small, but I hope still significant player in the fields of education and social science research.
1. Two-way truth-telling
The first requires serious self-study. I’ll take one example: how the student market actually works – as opposed to the way it is assumed to work.
What students want and need can confound the most sophisticated policy frameworks, where spokespersons react to what they regard as irrational choices by prescribing more and decreasingly plausible “information” (it was Keith Joseph who invented – overnight – the term “informed student choice.”). Look at the ways in which student demand led the systems of the “developed” world towards meeting the needs of the cultural, creative and service economies. Their ICT requirements (where they are normally ahead of their teachers) compound this. Indeed student choices – of subjects, of institutions, and of mode of study – could be said very substantially to have moulded the system as we have it today. That is why so many supply-side STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) initiatives have failed (the same is not true in the developing world). That is why there is a slow but inexorable move towards studying closer to the family home. And that is why institutions (like the Open University), which hold out the prospect of earning while learning, are increasingly popular.
What about the student markets for undergraduate and postgraduate markets in the social sciences. The truth is that they are perfectly healthy, but again not necessarily in ways which make either ourselves or our funding masters and mistresses comfortable. The trajectory of sexy subjects is interesting. The sociology of the sixties became the computer studies of the seventies, which in turn became the human geography of the eighties and early nineties, and then the media studies of the turn of the century. What’s next?
2. Guarding the treasure
One of the jewels in the crown of British social science is our cohort studies, and our development of longitudinal series. Public funding is vital to maintain these, but we must resist the temptation to play political games of “chicken” with them. One of the big rows we had at the beginning of the ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme (in the end at £35m over then years the largest publicly-funded social science programme we have had in the UK) was the reluctance of the researchers to consider and make provision for the after-life of their projects. At Nuffield we are frequently approached to rescue “orphan” longitudinal studies.
3. Growing capacity
Do we have the doctoral, post-doctoral and early career academics capable of supporting and developing these important elements of institutional social science, in particular with strong enough advanced statistical competence? If you sit on the other side of the funding table it seems not nearly enough. The Nuffield again has tried to kick start a new funding programme to improve the teaching, training and work experience in quantitative methods in social science. The programme will be aimed at undergraduates and administered by a small number of UK universities, selected through competition. We expect to fund 5-10 centres at levels of up to £200,000 for five years in the first instance (see: http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/quantitative-methods-undergraduate-social-scientists ).
I sense there is a systemic weakness here, going back to the facts that:
- too many undergraduate course that are number-light, or in some cases entirely number free;
- we now lag behind the rest of the world (I mean that) in requiring mathematical skills for university entrance (see slides);
- a comfortable majority of science and maths classes for 11-14 year-olds in state schools are taught by non-specialists; and
- we have terrified primary school teachers into taking all of the joy out learning about numbers and how they work.
- Despite this (more on the market) in UK HE we now have the odd phenomenon of an increase in demand for mathematics and a reduction in supply.
Coming back to higher education I think I can guarantee that most social science graduates will be able to tell you about Bourdieu. I’m not so confident that they would be able to perform a Pearson r test
How well do we join up our resources and our activities across the higher education social science community? I look across Oxford and see three separate groups focusing on migration, at least that number trying to deal with the political and governance implications of climate change, and even more for global health. Thematic groups in Oxford are like early modern Tuscan hill towns. They are built by wealthy patrons on the very top of hills, with access deliberately difficult for security reasons. Occasionally they come down into the valleys and fight. Meanwhile the University authorities – for which a good analogy (if you like your early modern Italian history) would be the doges of Venice – watch with mild interest.
This is not how our colleagues in the sciences are working. As university leaders, policy-makers and funders focus on league tables and so-called competitive advantage they are actually being undermined by the scientific community’s ever-increasing tendency to cross boundaries. This is how the Royal Society summarises the position in their report on Knowledge, Networks and Nations (2011):
The scientific world is becoming increasingly interconnected, with international collaboration on the rise. Today over 35% of articles published in international journals are internationally collaborative, up from 25% 15 years ago.
The primary driver of most collaboration is the scientists themselves. In developing their research and finding answers, scientists are seeking to work with the best people, institutions and equipment which complement their research, wherever they may be.
The connections of people, through formal and informal channels, diaspora communities, virtual global networks and professional communities of shared interests are important drivers of international collaboration. These networks span the globe. Motivated by the bottom-up exchange of scientific insight, knowledge and skills, they are changing the focus of science from the national to the global level. Yet little is understood about the dynamics of networking and the mobility of scientists, how these affect global science and how best to harness these networks to catalyse international collaboration (RS, 2001:6).
Finally, it’s one of my firmest beliefs that new entrants to the academic profession take it up largely because they have been inspired by high quality teachers and teaching at the beginning of their careers in higher education.
Here we hit another “category mistake:” the confusion of reputation and quality. Evidence is growing in developed systems that students are choosing “reputation” over “quality” in selecting universities, and that as long as employers screen for the same thing they are acting rationally in doing so.
Meanwhile, the ESRC’s Teaching and Learning Programme’s project SOMUL (the Social and Organisational Mediation of University Learning) concluded that “you won’t necessarily learn more if you go to a posh place” (SOMUL, 2005), while similar results have been reported more recently by Paul Ashwin,
The public discourse is heavily dominated at present by a perception (whether welcomed or deprecated) of student instrumentalism. What counts is “employability” (even more than “employment”) and whether or not students are prepared for it. Meanwhile students themselves confound expectation further: not just in choice of subject of study (as above), but by delaying their entry into the job market (when they can), by being much less spooked about debt than their parents by returning to volunteering (even while they simultaneously have to work much more frequently for money than their predecessors) and by reviving student-led political activism (all around the world).
Renewal of the social sciences is going to need good teaching – everywhere.
So this is my challenge to the Academy of Social Sciences. There is indeed an external battle to be fought – over funding, over the dialectic between evidence and policy, and over public confidence. But we shall fight that battle best if we are also careful to put our own house in order. I’m interested to know what you think.
End of Sir David's talk