March 7, 2013

Immigration forecast: ridge of Right pressure

If academic colleagues are wondering why the sector’s extensive lobbying to get overseas students reclassified as non-immigrants is being so strongly resisted by the government, look no further than public attitudes to immigration (“In the BIS corner? Cameron’s Indian signs welcome, but policy unchanged”, News, 21 February).

In our January survey for the National Policy Monitor based here at the University of Essex, we found that 2 per cent of respondents think that immigration into the UK should be increased and 80 per cent think it should be decreased. In addition, 4 per cent believe that the government has handled immigration well and 65 per cent think it has handled it badly.

This is one of the reasons why the UK Independence Party did so well in the Eastleigh by-election with its argument that immigration cannot be controlled as long as the UK remains a member of the European Union.

The sad truth is that there is a moral panic going on over immigration in this country and higher education is the victim of it. No matter what David Cameron says in India about British universities welcoming overseas students, the government is not going to make any concessions on this issue that open it to attacks from the Right any time soon.

Paul Whiteley
Professor of government
University of Essex

John Black (“Still pressing panic button”, Letters, 31 January) is surely right that The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express create myths about immigration. As I wrote in my book Racism and Education in the UK and the US: Towards a Socialist Alternative (2011): “The Sun both captures and creates working class racism”. The same may be said of the Mail and the Express with respect to middle-class readers. However, Black is wrong about the Daily Mirror: while not socialist in any meaning of the word, it actively backs the anti-racist Hope not hate organisation.

Mike Colennn
Emeritus research professor in education and equality
Bishop Grosseteste University

Mixed blessings

We would like to respond to your recent cover story “Primed, but not suspect” (28 February). Last year we published a critical paper in the journal Review of General Psychology about another popular research question in social psychology, namely whether “stereotype threat” can explain the gender achievement gap in mathematics. This research area is not without flaws, either.

For example, some researchers did not sufficiently report statistics, exaggerated claims, drew the wrong conclusions from other papers or used data selectively to confirm their hypotheses. We were surprised that these problems were apparently not noted by peer reviewers, which matches David Shanks’ observations (“Flawed psychology”, Letters, 14 February).

One reason for this might be that papers are often reviewed by researchers from within the domain who have invested in the theory themselves. And as we argued recently in The Skeptic magazine, another reason might be that socially acceptable theories receive less scrutiny than those that do not match people’s desire for and belief in fairness (as could be argued for some theories in evolutionary psychology).

The solution would be to have mixed panels of reviewers (for example, cognitive psychologists reviewing social psychological papers) and to invest more in the training of postgraduate psychology students, particularly in topics such as understanding the scientific method and statistics: after all, these students are tomorrow’s peer reviewers.

Gijsbert Stoet
Reader in psychology, School of Education
University of Glasgow

David C. Geary
Curators’ professor, department of psychological sciences
University of Missouri

Consider the alternative

Having read “Universities pull out of EU’s ‘unjustifiable’ U- Multirank” (News, 7 February), I scanned the Times Higher Education archive and was surprised to find almost universally negative reports about the project.

I concur with Johnny Rich (“Shine on, other diamonds”, Letters, 21 February): protectionism is likely to be a key reason for the lack of faith some universities and mission groups have in alternative rankings.

Of course, the League of European Research Universities (21 members) and the UK’s 1994 Group (11 members after recent losses) are not representative of the rich variety to be found among the more than 4,000 higher education institutions operating in Europe.

I was involved in the prequel to the U-Multirank project in the mid-2000s and have seen a fair number of presentations about the rankings system at conferences. I am also actively engaged in higher education benchmarking projects. My experience is in stark contrast with what is revealed in the pages of THE. For sure, audiences are sometimes critical of U-Multirank, but they are also eager to find out more about it and to learn from insightful comparisons of like with like.

Jeroen Huisman
Professor of higher education management
University of Bath

Over the past year there have been several articles in Times Higher Education about U-Multirank. Each of them has presented similar critiques about the system but have not included direct information from those who are party to creating it.

As the coverage thus far has been rather one-sided and based on secondary sources, might the magazine consider fostering true academic debate on the matter? Why not interview Frans van Vught, U-Multirank’s project leader, to give his thoughts on the subject and then find someone in the UK to present the opposing view?

This development and all those intended to improve higher education deserve a full and balanced discussion in the press.

Vaneeta D’Andrea
Professor emerita
University of the Arts London
(Writing in a personal capacity)

Necessity, not a luxury

Postgraduate education in the UK faces unprecedented challenges (“‘Postgraduate premium’ fuels vicious cycle of social inequality”, News, 7 February). There is a crisis in funding and access. Following several years of growth, recent Higher Education Statistics Agency data reveal that postgraduate enrolments are starting to decline. There is a major question mark over the future, especially with the first “£9k students” graduating in 2015. The Higher Education Commission notes that institutions and employers have repeatedly voiced concerns that demand for postgraduate study will be affected by higher undergraduate fees. We need a solution.

The financial support available to taught postgraduates is severely limited, especially in light of the research councils’ restrictions on master’s-level funding. Students who cannot rely on savings or parental contributions are supporting themselves through dangerous methods, such as paying for tuition fees on credit cards or through the use of commercial loans. Professional and career development loans are of particular concern given their high interest rates and short repayment time frames. In short, many students are being priced out of the system or are getting into trouble staying in it.

In a knowledge economy, postgraduate research is the foundation for many vital professions, from academia to engineering. With master’s degrees considered a condition for continuing on to research in many subjects and an important element of research training, we must redevelop the system. Students leaving university at 21 saddled with thousands of pounds of debt are less likely to be willing or able to incur the costs of postgraduate degrees with little or no external funding available to them.

Taught postgraduate study risks becoming a luxury inaccessible to most. This cannot stand: it must instead be seen as the “new frontier of widening participation” by policymakers. The alternative is to risk turning a number of professions into elitist domains populated solely by practitioners from rich backgrounds.

A sustainable funding structure is required now: we cannot wait until this time bomb has blown up in our faces. In this light, we are organising a campaign that will exert pressure on the government to address the problem by introducing an appropriate funding system that recognises the distinct needs of taught and research postgraduates.

Anna Chowcat
Postgraduate officer
Warwick Students’ Union
University of Warwick

Regarding “‘Postgraduate premium’ fuels vicious cycle of social inequality”, there is a clear correlation between post­graduate quali­fications and higher income, and those from wealthier backgrounds are much more likely to possess such qualifications. However, correlation does not equal causation, and it is not clear whether the higher income reported is a consequence of coming from wealthier backgrounds or from having postgraduate degrees. For instance, what is the relationship between background and salary for those with only bachelor’s degrees?

I would like to see postgraduate qualifi­cations open to all regardless of wealth, but I would not want to encourage students on
the basis of possibly misleading data on their likely income if that is related to class rather than qualification.

Tom Franklin
Franklin Consulting

Hostile witnesses

Might the “hostility, sometimes bordering on hatred” that troubles Peter Crisp, chief executive and dean of BPP Law School, be due, at least in part, to public pronouncements made by his predecessors? (“Sound and fury”, 24 January.) For example, in an article in the national press a few years ago, Charles Prior (one “P” in BPP) stated: “Our staff are not distracted by research. In fact, I am unlikely to employ someone from a university.”

Should we be concerned by the conferment of degree-awarding powers on BPP in light of such statements?

Richard M.S. Wilson
Emeritus professor
Loughborough University

External reassignment

Who would be an external examiner in higher education? At Keele University we are no longer allowed to ask our externals to adjudicate or advise upon final-year undergraduate students who are borderline between degree classifications. Apparently their advice is not required. Worse, we are not allowed to viva our students, something that we previously left to the individual preferences of external examiners. Externals at Keele have been downgraded to the role of simple auditors of quality assurance practices. Perhaps such reassignments are already widespread in the sector? If so, why would any serious academic agree to become an external? It is certainly not for the remuneration!

Christopher Exley
Professor in bioinorganic chemistry
Keele University

Sine of confusion

Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London, notes that an explicit commitment to “interdisciplinarity” will help undergraduates studying its new bachelor’s of arts and sciences “explore complexity” (“Big picture from all angles”, Opinion, 21 February). But given the considerable differences of content, jargon and skills found in, say, mathematics, French and history, how will the “new ways of thinking”, which were not previously available, be transmitted to students in the not-too-distant future?

Neil Richardson

Payment by results

Surely there is a way to regulate “grade grubbing” to the benefit of all? (“Please professor, I want some more”, News, 28 February.) An enhanced assessment process could be offered where, for additional tuition fees, submitted work could be tweaked on the “advice” of lecturers to provide better grades. Just think of it as a new form of payment by results.

Keith Flett

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