September 5, 2013

Rising from ashes of market conflagration

In her brave condemnation of what has happened to higher education in recent years (“Free market principles have changed (and ruined) the academy”, Opinion, 22 August), Alessandra Lopez y Royo surely speaks for many academics about the intolerable ways in which the neoliberal audit culture has laid waste to the sector and is fundamentally compromising both the student learning experience and the working conditions of teachers and researchers.

Increasing numbers of academic books, papers and reports are saying much the same thing, yet the momentum of those alien forces seems to be beyond the control of anyone working within the system or making policy for it.

My hunch is that Lopez y Royo’s “exit strategy” is one that ever more frustrated academics will be following in the years to come. The sector will lose its best staff, to be replaced by those whose experience will be distorted beyond recognition by the stifling audit culture. Perhaps the time is ripe for new educational forms to arise from the ashes of the academy we used to know: forms that can perhaps become the harbinger of an education system autonomous from government and business that is managed from within the cultural sphere, as advocated a century ago by the educationalist Rudolf Steiner.

Richard House
Department of education studies and liberal arts
University of Winchester

Literary scientific theory

David Aberbach’s arguments for cross-disciplinary study are compelling, but apply beyond the humanities: scientists should read literature, too (“A taste of Hard Times”, Opinion, 22 August). Our graduates must justify their science to society and to themselves, and can draw upon literature, philosophy and theology to do so. Ecological science, for example, can tell us how to conserve species, but the bigger question is why should we? Answers to that come as compellingly, and more eloquently, from the words of John Clare, Peter Singer and the Book of Job than from the pages of Nature. Our responsibilities as teachers include encouraging our students to ignore bogus subject boundaries and to find inspiration across disciplines.

Mark Huxham
Edinburgh Napier University

More than 20 years ago, I completed my first degree in interdisciplinary human studies at the University of Bradford, where philosophy, literature, sociology and psychology were taught alongside each other and accorded equal weight in their ability to shed light on social problems. During that course, to give just two examples, I learned a great deal about the philosophy of science from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and about post-colonialism from the novels of Nadine Gordimer. David Aberbach doesn’t appear to see any role for female writers in influencing future political leaders: this hardly seems like progress.

Andrea Capstick
University of Bradford

Dangerous combination

Siana Bangura talks of “the sheer number of hours that go into making a stellar application to Cambridge or to Oxford” (“Right combination”, Letters, 29 August), while emphasising “the holistic nature” of the admissions process, looking well beyond “a candidate’s grades and personal statement”. But as a University of Oxford tutor, I very much hope that students do not generally think that our “interviews…require months of preparation”: the point of seeing the candidates in person is to enable us to assess their potential in a flexible way that can penetrate any veneer of special preparation.

But the workload of academic staff is highly relevant to the “combination rule” (“Competition questions over rule that restricts applications to Oxbridge”, News, 15 August). After the two admissions weeks, with all the preparation, paperwork, meetings and more than 50 interviews involved, I am always completely exhausted and could not physically cope with much more. If students could apply to Oxford and Cambridge both, we could expect roughly twice as many applications and thus would have to be twice as selective in our invitations to interview, making it much harder to widen access beyond those with “stellar applications”.

Abandoning the combination rule would also undermine college-based admissions, which both contribute to the character of the two universities and strongly motivate a huge proportion of academics – both senior and junior – to give so much time and effort to the process. If a significant proportion of the applicants to whom we offered places were liable to go instead to Cambridge, then to avoid lots of places going to waste, we would have to treat admissions as a central university process, playing the statistics of large numbers rather than selecting the students for our own colleges. I suspect that in these circumstances, interviews would soon cease to be central to the process and would become mainly a paper exercise as they are elsewhere. Candidates, and wider access, would likely be the losers.

Peter Millican
Professor of philosophy
Hertford College, Oxford

Daft, not stupid, question

Allan Johnson struck a chord with his piece on question-and-answer sessions at academic conferences (“Interrogative mood music”, 29 August). However, I would like to point out that one type of question is missing from his list: the (phoney) “Daft Question”. It has this incipit: “This might be a daft question, but…”.

As a young scholar new to British academia, I often “questioned” the Daft Question’s logic: why ask if the point is not worth making? Besides, no academic in her right mind in continental Europe would start from such a humble premise! Experience however has shown that often hidden behind such modesty, dictated by the British propensity towards self-deprecation, are the most challenging and provocative questions.

Having gone native by now, I happily join in the ritual of the Daft Question in the hope that what I have to say is not “literally” daft.

Anna Notaro (@notanna1)
Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design
University of Dundee

Does not compute

You recently reported Higher Education Statistics Agency figures on graduate unemployment by subject, with medicine and dentistry having the lowest rate and computer science the highest (“Try turning it off and on again: computer science students face the highest rates of graduate unemployment”, News, 22 August). However, this isn’t a fair comparison.

In 2012, the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing published a report looking at graduate unemployment among computer scientists in some detail. It showed that there are more computer science courses and students in the post-1992 universities, with the issue of high graduate unemployment in the discipline confined largely to such institutions.

A much higher proportion (64 per cent) of computer science students study at post-1992s compared with the student population in general (50 per cent), and 72 per cent of unemployed computer science graduates studied at the new universities. If we consider only graduates in the discipline from Russell Group and 1994 Group institutions (where we also find the largest number of students in medicine and dentistry), the unemployment rate is below 10 per cent, which is comparable to the national graduate unemployment rate.

The causes of higher unemployment among some computer science graduate groups necessitate further consideration. There are many possible factors, including the ethnicity of students and employer demands.

Computer science courses at post-1992s have been very successful at attracting a higher proportion of black and minority ethnic students than other subjects, but this group also tends to have higher levels of unemployment. Further, some employers are willing to hire only software developers with track records in the workplace, which means that some graduates must acquire experience before they become employable.

This is a more nuanced subject than the bald Hesa data indicate. Unsophisticated comparisons between subjects can be damaging, especially when software is such a crucial part of our society’s infrastructure and the need for talented and highly skilled software professionals has never been greater.

Muffy Calder, University of Glasgow and the UK Computing Research Committee
Morris Sloman, Imperial College London, UKCRC
Andy Hopper, president, Institution of Engineering and Technology
Martyn Thomas, chair, IET IT policy panel

Bang for your Bucks

Times Higher Education’s international and postgraduate student fees survey (8 August) lists the University of Buckingham as charging the most in the UK for domestic and European Union undergraduates. However, it does not show that Buckingham’s degree courses run for two years rather than the usual three, so in fact (especially if living costs are considered) the university is actually the most cost-effective in the UK.

Employers look favourably on graduates who have qualified in just two years, something borne out by Buckingham being ranked top in the country for graduate prospects according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data. Further, our cost-efficiency is socially inclusive.

Diana Blamires
Publicity officer
University of Buckingham

Unintended consequences

There are three unspoken consequences of Michael Gove’s A-level reforms (“Remaking the grades”, 15 August).

Parity of status between the qualifications and technical courses may exist in politicians’ minds and in brownie league points, but what about the reality? I am reminded of a headmaster personally commended by Tony Blair for turning around a failing school. All the students who could not get English or maths GCSEs were put on a GNVQ in leisure and tourism that was examined entirely on coursework completed in class with the help of teachers. The NVQ counted as two GCSEs, so the exams had the same “status” by decree.

Second, the reduction in resits will hinder those who suffer problems on exam day. Some inevitably suffer bereavement or fall ill.

Finally, if students cannot churn through in memorable cram-sized modules and are required to use their learning rather than repeating it, the pass rate may suffer dramatically. Will there be enough ABBs to go around?

Hugh Fletcher

Keynesian scale

It is erroneous of Kitty Stewart to declare that J. M. Keynes’ famous quote “In the long run we are all dead” had anything to do with the idea that economies left alone recover from recession on their own (Books, 22 August). What he meant was that history is made up of a series of “short runs”, and that accurate long-term predictions are impossible. As the 2008 economic crisis clearly demonstrated, long-run prosperity can turn to recession very easily through the machinations of some nasty short-run animal spirits. Keynes’ solution involved effectively taming these spirits as well as strategic government intervention.

Vincent Barnett

Satire is dead

A concern when reading Jamie Targett’s latest communication on performance management in The Poppletonian (29 August): I had previously thought there was a satirical element to this column. I now realise I was wrong.

Keith Flett

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