February 20, 2014

Students need a tough consumer advocate

Martin McQuillan argues that the market for undergraduate higher education is broken and that Which? should step away from the role we have played as an information provider and advocate for students in terms of what they get for their tuition fees (“Higher education is not a fridge. Which? ‘Best Buy’ does not apply”, Opinion, 13 February). We share his view that there are significant issues in the market, but far from these being a reason for us to exit higher education, we believe they underline the importance of a strong consumer voice representing the student interest.

Students now pay fees of £8,500 a year on average. Yet there are few protections for them when it comes to what they get for their fees in terms of the quality of their academic experience. There is an assumption that quality will be maintained through competition – that an army of savvy prospective students won’t bother applying for degrees not worth the fees.

When the government introduced the £9,000 fee cap, it thought that fees at this level would be the exception, not the norm. But competition has failed to materialise. This was predictable. A degree is not a simple commodity: people go to university for all sorts of reasons, including to improve their career prospects. Students and employers rely heavily on institutional reputation – determined primarily by rankings based on research, not teaching – to make decisions. Thus universities have little incentive to compete on the quality of teaching. Once students have started a course, it is extremely difficult to switch institutions. And the lifting of the cap on student numbers risks exacerbating problems in the market.

There are important steps that the government and the sector can take. First, prospective students need better information about courses and institutions. There remain gaps in the data that universities are obliged to report. These should include factors such as total teaching time and size of teaching groups. We also want the government to provide long-term information on graduate salaries.

Second, there must be better consumer protections. That’s why Which? has called for the new Competition and Markets Authority to undertake a market study to look at this issue.

Going to university is the most significant financial decision most young people will make until their early thirties. That’s why Which? will continue to advocate for greater protection for them from a poor university experience.

Sonia Sodha
Head of public services policy, Which?

Academia’s underclass

The article on the plight of graduate teaching assistants (“Ignored and forgotten”, Opinion, 13 February) was painfully true. I was a GTA for three years. I basically had a year when I did almost no work on my PhD because I was teaching full-time for a paltry sum I couldn’t live on. I almost killed myself trying to do both fieldwork and teaching in the second and third years, and then had to fund myself through a fourth year to write the damn thing.

I often wondered what the students would think if they knew that their essays and exams were being given at most 15 minutes’ consideration so I could come in at something like minimum wage. The marking load was crippling (150 essays in 14 days, no days off).

I was very good at it, and I loved it. I wouldn’t have minded if I had been considered a member of staff, or valued, or given a route into employment afterwards, but I wasn’t.

I’m out of it now, but I wish something could be done. Value your GTAs, they are amazing.

M. Bodley
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

Promoting gender balance

In just over two weeks’ time, many organisations, charities and individuals will be taking part in International Women’s Day, which this year takes as its theme “inspiring change”, encouraging “advocacy for women’s advancement everywhere and in every way”. We think now is a good time for the higher education sector to celebrate the progress that has been made in advancing gender equality, but also to ask what more can be done, and how.

“We” are a group of staff at the University of Cambridge who believe that more should be done to broaden how we judge and value success in UK higher education. Conventional success in academia, for example a promotion from reader to professor, can often seem as if it is framed by quite rigid outcomes – a paper published in a leading journal, or the size and frequency of research grants – at the expense of other skill sets and attributes. Those engaged in teaching, administration and public engagement, to name just three vital activities, can be pushed to the margins when specific, quantifiable outcomes take all.

Of course, assessment and ranking play an important role in the responsible and regulated pursuit of academic excellence. But problems arise if certain criteria for success benefit men more than they do women.

Our experience at Cambridge, where we recently surveyed 126 female academics and administrators on this subject, suggests that this is indeed the case. Women value a broader spectrum of work-based competencies that do not flourish easily under the current system. And a system that inhibits the progression of talented academics and administrators is one that limits universities’ ability to contribute positively to society.

We acknowledge that Cambridge, like other institutions up and down the country, must do more in this regard, and we are committed to making progress in addressing our own gender imbalances. But how else can we improve? First, we would like to stimulate debate on these issues so that gender progression remains a priority at the highest levels within the sector. Second, we think there are opportunities to build into assessment processes – for example, academic promotions – additional factors that reward contribution from a much wider range of personality and achievement types.

A broader definition of success within the sector will bring benefits not only to women – and indeed men – working in universities, but also to society as a whole.

Jeremy Sanders, pro-vice-chancellor for institutional affairs, University of Cambridge
Dame Athene Donald, University of Cambridge gender equality champion
Nicola Padfield, master, Fitzwilliam College
Richard Prager, head, School of Technology
Hannah Critchlow, department of pathology
Kusam Leal, School of the Physical Sciences
And 50 others at the University of Cambridge

Tap here for the full list of signatories

The leading article “STEM the inertia on inequality” (6 February) highlighting concern about the progression of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects is clearly warranted. Addressing factors that diminish the number of women in leadership roles is vital.

We note that the general gender imbalance in science is mirrored by a disparity in the opposite direction in many of the social sciences and humanities. In psychology, a STEM subject, the proportion of female undergraduates is 80 per cent, and this looks set to rise (see The Future of Undergraduate Psychology in the United Kingdom by Trapp et al, a 2011 paper for the Higher Education Academy).

It is rare to hear of activities to encourage young men into fields in which they are under-represented. However, doing so provides a new perspective on the gender imbalance in STEM subjects. Although the total number of students is rising, the rate of increase is relatively slow. Hence the solution to the imbalance of women in STEM disciplines has to involve redistribution across disciplines. Encouraging men to take up subjects where they are under-represented may be just as important a tactic to address gender imbalance in STEM as encouraging women into STEM directly.

Neil Cooper, senior lecturer in psychology
Kenny R. Coventry, head, School of Psychology
University of East Anglia

Grant us clarity

The delayed annual grant letter was received by the Higher Education Funding Council for England on 10 February. Annex 3 (Conditions of Grant on Regulated Fees) seems to raise an important and emerging question of principle.

The stated “conditions of grant” relate solely to the setting of tuition fees. The secretary of state is empowered to impose conditions of grant by the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. But tuition fees no longer form part of the annual grant or the annual Hefce allocation of the grant; these now flow through the Student Loans Company. Money for tuition fees is not “provided by the council in respect of activities carried on by the institution”, the words used in the legislation to define the scope of Hefce’s activity. Although they are government-funded, student loans would appear to constitute personal loans to students. Nevertheless, the penalty for failure to comply is to be a deduction from a Hefce grant given for other purposes.

It may be true that the legislation can be construed to cover this financial sanction – just. But should it be? (It is as if I agree to pay you for mowing my lawn on condition that you do not eat ice cream on Sundays.)

And in Annex 3, the grant is still described as the “teaching and research grant”, as if the old block grant were still a reality. If we are to believe the press coverage, the letter’s delay has been caused by disagreements between departments of government and conflicting party wishes to protect classes of pre-allocated funding, such as that for research funding. “Teaching” funding as such now forms a small and still shrinking part of the grant. So is a penalty for non-compliance in respect of a payment that falls outside the grant to be met almost entirely from any research funding a university might receive from Hefce?

G. R. Evans

Online exertions

I enjoyed Dale Salwak’s thoughtful and thought-provoking article about his experience of teaching an online course (“From chalkface to interface”, Feature, 13 February). It’s worth noting, however, that he was not teaching a massive open online course. First, it wasn’t open; and second, with 35 students, it was more a micro online course.

There are two take-home messages from his experiment. First, if the effort of engaging and retaining 33 of his 35 students left Salwak “emotionally and intellectually drained”, how much more effort would be needed for a successful Mooc? And second, if you are lucky enough to teach a course comprising only 35 students, don’t fritter away the opportunity by substituting face-to-face teaching for technology.

Tim Birkhead
University of Sheffield

The ethics of big data

Sir John Savill exposes the moral bankruptcy of those UK research funders who object to proposed European legislation on personal data (“Data privacy change could be a bitter pill”, News, 13 February). The cost of automation to seek informed consent for each study is a drop in the ocean compared with what is spent on medical research equipment in genomics and other areas.

The primary issue is not privacy but rather others’ use of a human being for whatever purpose. Who are the funders to override ethical imperatives? Why is an agency of an elected government so set on stealing from the personal lives of its citizens? International standards of research have required participants in medical research to be recruited via their GPs. The admirable vision of the UK leading in long-term scientific research into healthcare is at dire risk from outdated information management and, perhaps, fears of being found out.

David Booth
University of Birmingham

Hall: scholar and gentleman

When I was a tutor at Open University psychology summer schools in the late 1980s and early 1990s, my weeks on the University of Sussex campus often coincided with those of Stuart Hall, who taught on the social sciences foundation course.

I once submitted an account of my week at Sussex for the Don’s Diary column of the Times Higher Education Supplement (10 August 1990), as your publication was then known. It included a report on the Monday-night disco in The Crypt: “The lights go up dead on midnight and all of a sudden we all turn back into mice, even Stuart Hall who I spot across the crowded floor; good to see he’s still researching popular culture.”

On seeing my musings in print, I worried that I’d overstepped the mark and been rather cheeky towards a senior and highly regarded OU colleague. My fears were unfounded: Stuart dropped me a note to say that he was honoured to have made an appearance in my diary.

Peter Barnes
Milton Keynes

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