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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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“Well, if you knows of a better university…”

By Paul Temple

The centenary of the 1918 Armistice will have caused us all to reflect on the almost incomprehensible catastrophe of the First World War. One of its unanticipated effects – perhaps relatively minor at first, but of growing significance – was to change British higher education.

SRHE member John Taylor has published his meticulously-researched account of British universities in this period – The Impact of the First World War on British Universities: Emerging from the Shadows (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) – at exactly the right moment. Most students of British higher education are aware that the First War marked a turning point; for me, John’s most important contribution is to identify that turning point precisely: Saturday 23 November 1918, the date of almost certainly the most important single meeting in the history of British higher education. (Perhaps SRHE should hold an annual commemoration.)

It took place between Sir William McCormick, the Chairman of the Advisory Committee on University Grants (advisory to the Treasury, dating from 1906), and its influential Secretary, Alan Kidd, and a group of 32 institutional heads (representing most of the existing universities and university colleges), with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Bonar Law) and the President of the Board of Education (Herbert Fisher). Kidd’s briefing paper for the meeting covers issues that would not look out of place in a similar document today: the scale of university expansion; the balance between science and technology and the humanities in an expanded system; how to widen access to higher education; and how to increase the number of university staff. The two groups meeting Ministers that day would in the following year form, respectively, the University Grants Committee (UGC) and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), both bodies becoming central to British higher education for the remainder of the twentieth-century.

The study of history usually involves identifying continuities and discontinuities. Continuities are certainly present in John Taylor’s account, but as he observes, the men (and of course they were all men) sitting around the table in London on that November Saturday, just 12 days after the Armistice, had no doubt that the Britain of 1918 was not the country it had been four years earlier – and that higher education needed to reflect this. As well as a new awareness about the significance of science and technology brought about by the War, Kidd’s briefing paper argued that: “There is accordingly a demand that university education should be made accessible to a much larger proportion of the population…by providing scholarships and maintenance allowances…” (134). More broadly, Taylor notes that the War had created new expectations of the state, both within government itself and in the wider country. From 1916/17, as understanding of the horrors of the Western Front grew, a view developed that there should be, as Taylor puts it, “no return to the status quo ante” (329).

What emerged from the 23 November meeting was an acceptance that a significant and continuing degree of public funding of universities was both desirable and necessary: as the Principal of the University of Edinburgh put it, “the development of the Universities, no less than their maintenance, is a national duty … and it is a national benefit” (147). The War had highlighted the links between universities and economic activity: as the Principal of Edinburgh put it in closing his speech – showing that Cardinal Newman’s mid-nineteenth-century “idea of a university” had run its course – “The Universities should be sustained and developed because they are potential creators of national wealth” (149). This must be a very early statement of this argument: can anyone point to an earlier one?

In 1914, most universities had some German members of staff, who had often spent most of their careers in Britain. In at least some cases, the university authorities tried their best to treat these colleagues humanely, even, in one case, in the face of what could have become a lynch mob outside the house of a German professor at University College Aberystwyth. While not proposing lynching, the University of Edinburgh Court hardly distinguished itself in 1914 by informing staff with German nationality that it was “desirable that [they] should resign the posts held by them in the University” (42). At Leeds, the professor of German discovered that becoming a British citizen did not protect him from being in effect run out of town, with the University reluctantly acquiescing: it did not help that the events in question coincided with the Battle of the Somme. Today, the position of staff members with foreign nationalities – the Prime Minister’s “citizens of nowhere” – has sadly once again become a live issue in British universities. May we hope for better behaviour this time around?

Future researchers on British universities during the First War period will be deeply indebted to John Taylor for his tireless work in sifting through years of university council and senate minutes and presenting to us the nuggets of gold which he has found. While most of us appreciated that important changes were brought about by that War, this book, by giving us the texts of reports, detailed accounts of decisions, and the actual words of many of the participants, brings these changes to life. Modern British higher education began in November 1918.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. 


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It’s all about performance

by Marcia Devlin

The Australian federal government has indicated its intention to introduce partial funding based on yet to be defined performance measures.

The Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) by the Australian government updates the economic and fiscal outlook from the previous budget and the budgetary position and revises the budget aggregates taking account of all decisions made since the budget was released. The 2017-2018 MYEFO papers state that the Government intends to “proceed with reforms to the higher education [HE] sector to improve transparency, accountability, affordability and responsiveness to the aspirations of students and future workforce needs” (see links below). Among these reforms are performance targets for universities to determine the growth in their Commonwealth Grant Scheme funding for bachelor degrees from 2020, to be capped at the growth rate in the 18-64 year old population, and from 1 January 2019, “a new allocation mechanism based on institutional outcomes and industry needs for sub-bachelor and postgraduate Commonwealth Supported Places”. Continue reading

Ian Mc Nay


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English university education: inside one ex-minister’s mind set

By Ian McNay

In January, I attended an event at the Centre for Global Higher Education, where David Willetts was promoting his book, A University Education, (Oxford University Press). SRHE News in January 2018 had click links to several reviews. I got there early and had time to read the introduction before he started speaking, drawing on his time as Minister for Universities and Science in the coalition government. The oral presentation and the written word provided a fascinating insight into narrow perceptions and selective recall of one of those people with political/policy responsibility for HE provision as we experience it today.

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Ian Mc Nay


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Ian McNay writes …

By Ian McNay

The news from Ukraine is that, at least in Odesa (one ‘s’ in Ukrainian) market, my country is known as ‘Bye, Bye, Britain’. I was there as part of a project on developing leadership training. At the rectors’ round table, we were thanked by the British Council rep. for being honest. We were discussing HE governance, and lessons from the UK, without doing the usual thing of pretending our approach is wonderful and everybody should imitate it. We learn from mistakes more than from things that went well, perhaps because they imply that there is a need to learn.

One challenge in Ukraine is the nostalgia for the old days. When I first went there 20 years ago, I asked an undergraduate class for their models of good leaders. My first three answers were Hitler, Stalin and Thatcher, which led to a discussion of the difference between ‘strong’ and ‘good’. That preference for strength over everything else is still there. In a survey of the ex-Soviet republics, the question was asked: ‘would you rather have democracy or a dictator who solves problems?’ Ukraine topped the table of those opting for the second, with over 50% choosing efficient despotism. The Czech Republic scored only 13%.

This is relevant to us because Theresa May has been claiming to be strong and has resisted the operations of democracy. At organisational level, since power tends to corrupt, the signs are not good: a recent survey of UK managers for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed that only 8 per cent claimed to have a strong personal moral compass, and so are susceptible to corruption. Even UK university managers would score better than that, despite the disappearance of collegial democracy.

Wouldn’t they?

Did you notice…? The Universities UK blog reported a survey of the teams who prepared the institutional submissions to the Teaching Excellence Framework, and found that even they were dismissive of its validity and reliability – basic requirements for us as researchers. 72 per cent of those most closely involved in the exercise did not believe that it ‘accurately assesses teaching and learning excellence’. Only 2 per cent, 2 per cent, thought it did. Even they might change their view, since the views of students – those ‘at the heart of the system’ and the alleged beneficiaries of the exercise – are to be given a lower weighting, since their voice, through NSS, gave the ‘wrong’ message. More weight will now be given to post-graduation data on jobs and earnings, which are more heavily conditioned by accidents of birth, and employer prejudice, than the quality of teaching and learning. So much for promoting social mobility, another claimed objective. Russell Group universities will benefit, since they scored poorly on NSS, and recruit more of those privileged by birth. That couldn’t be a reason for the change, surely? That would suggest that corruptive pressure had been applied to the reward process, as in the awarding of Olympic Games to cities or the football world cup to countries. Or in awarding Olympic medals – gold, silver, bronze – in boxing. Or bonuses to bankers. Still, footballers and bankers are now our benchmarks, according to the head of the world’s leading university, so we still have some way to fall.

Don’t we?

‘That way madness lies’ (I have just played Lear in a local ‘Best of the Bard’ concoction).

Recent reports from some universities suggest grade inflation is just as much an issue as the cost of living index. UK wide figures are not yet available for the latest batch of graduates, but in 2016, 73 per cent of first degree graduates got a first (24%) or upper second (49%), with the gender split favouring women by 75/71. Four years previously, the figure had been ‘only’ 66 per cent. So, despite expansion lowering entry tariffs, more ‘value’ is added to compensate. If 50 per cent of an age cohort now study for a degree, that means that 12 percent of an age group got a first class degree. A few years ago, when I passed the 11+, only 11 percent of the age group in my home town did so.

Did you notice the figures for ‘alternative providers’ from HESA, interesting in the light of the recent report from the HE Commission? Of the 6,200 graduates they produced (2,000 more than the previous year), 58 per cent got ‘good’ degrees. No Inflation – it was 61 per cent in 2015. 14 per cent got firsts, and women again outperformed men, by nine percentage points – 63/54.

The Commission’s report goes well beyond simply comparing the provision of full-time first degrees, emphasising the potential role of apprenticeships in adding to diversity of routes; urging flexibility of funding to allow flexibility of study patterns across the sector and outlining the greater part employers should play in developing work-related and work-relevant provision. I was interested that, of over 120 names on the attendance list, only 6 were from mainstream universities, and three of those had given evidence to the enquiry. Does the sector not think there is a challenge from the alternatives? Will they just wait for the demographic upturn early in the next decade, and then supply the same-old to a similar sub-set of the market? Are they aware that some of that demographic upturn is of children of EU immigrants who may well choose to return to their parents’ home country to study where fees are much lower, if they exist at all? And that nearly all recent growth in demand has been from BAME applicants, who suffer from admissions decisions which imply unconscious (I hope) decisions, particularly in elitist universities, as work by Vicki Boliver and Tariq Modood and statistics from UCAS show?

Finally, and still on my campaign for equity…I have a plea. At a recent symposium, participants commented on the inequity, at a global level, of the monopoly role of the English language, which has an exclusionary impact on those outside the Anglo-Saxon countries. Some national governments are bothered about its impact on knowledge transfer within the country that sponsored the work that produces journal articles. My suggestion is that any journal with ‘international’ in its title or its statement of aims should publish abstracts in, preferably, three languages, but at least two: the second being the author’s first language or that of the host institution of the research reported; the third another global language, probably Spanish. So, if you are on the editorial board of journals, or review articles submitted, can I urge you to make representation about this. It would enhance awareness across a broader landscape of HE, and allow those beyond the current privileged language enclave initial access to relevant work and to follow up with some contact with authors, since email addresses are now commonly given. It would also support the Society’s role in encouraging newer researchers. Simples!

SRHE Fellow Ian McNay is emeritus professor at the University of Greenwich

 

 


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Comprehensive universities

By Paul Temple

Tim Blackman, the VC of Middlesex University, will, I guess, have been pleased by the interest created by his polemic, The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, (HEPI Occasional Paper 17, July 2017). One response on Wonkhe (20 July) by fellow VC Edward Peck supports Blackman’s wish to see “comprehensive universities” – in the sense of comprehensive schools, where admission is not determined by exam results – but worries that the result would be a government-directed “complicated and centralised” higher education system. This conclusion soon found (I think, unintended) support from Sonia Sodha writing in The Guardian on 18 August, in a piece I first mentally filed with the “Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?” literature. But Sodha goes further, with proposals that might have caused a Soviet bloc educational apparatchik to hesitate, including standardising degree classifications across the system and “introducing a [minimum] quota for working-class students at each university”. I began to wonder if the piece was actually a wind-up aimed at Daily Mail columnists.  Continue reading

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HE Finance after Hurricane Adonis

By Rob Cuthbert

So there is to be a review of higher education finance. Probably. But it is still unclear whether it will be a ‘major’ review, whatever that means. It might only mean ‘major enough to see off the threat from Jeremy Corbyn’, but we await most of the detail.

After the June general election the apparent appeal to young people of the Labour Party pledge to abolish fees, and perhaps even write off student debt, sent the Conservative Party into panic mode. Of course it might not have been a pledge, nor even a promise, more an aspiration or a direction of travel. Students have heard that kind of thing before.

Storms were brewing, but no-one expected Hurricane Adonis. Continue reading

Vicky Gunn


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Notes from North of the Tweed: Do we need a new way of designing Scottish higher education policy?

By Vicky Gunn

The Brexit vote seems to have somewhat taken the wind out of the sails of higher education policy in Scotland. The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF2) crossed the border in a small foray. Five institutions (St Andrews, Dundee, Abertay, Heriot Watt and RGU)[i] popped themselves into the Whitehall metrics melee and the SFC sent an encyclical reminding the sector that the Quality Enhancement Framework (QEF) was still the Scottish Government’s preferred (and legally required) approach to quality. Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO)[ii] emerged as the new dataset to appraise and the Vice Principals Learning & Teaching had to turn their minds to what it means for Scottish sector to have one, three, and five year details of income, tax, pensions, and type of work, at a disciplinary level. Thus, after a little lion rampant, Universities Scotland TEF working group settled back into business as usual, facing the Department of Education with the now normalised questions regarding devolved metrics’ divergences. We have yet to discuss the grade inflation metric[iii], but planners everywhere will be running analytics to see what increases in the top levels of degrees Scotland has seen since 2010.

The same sense of ‘new normal’ becalm cannot be said of Scotland’s approach to its cultural policy, however, and it is to this that I briefly reach. The current round of cultural policy creation Continue reading