October 2, 2014

Local issues will need very close attention

The two opinion pieces on the implications for higher education of the Scottish referendum raise questions for universities in England as debate about the governance of England begins.

Sir David Bell, who backed the “no” vote (“No: it’s the right answer”, 25 September), says that “higher education could benefit from further devolution to the cities and regions. Universities are major players in local and regional economies, and enhancing powers at that level could be beneficial [and] almost certainly…more useful than an English parliament.”

Willy Maley, who supported a “yes” vote (“It should have been ‘aye’ ”, 25 September), goes beyond the narrowly economic role of universities. Referring to the long Scottish tradition of higher education contributing
to the public good, he suggests that: “As academics we must be more engaged with the communities our campus sits among. Widening participation in higher education is as vital as widening participation in politics.” Like many, he puts the local dimension into a Scottish debate around “what are universities for?”.

Let’s hope that the role of universities in English civil society beyond the Westminster bubble will not be neglected in debate about the governance of England. As the Higher Education Funding Council for England has recognised in the latest call for bids to its Catalyst fund, universities are key “anchor” institutions in their local communities over and beyond their direct and indirect employment effects.

But developing and enhancing this role in the context of the current structures and mechanisms for funding both higher education and local government in England will not be easy. As in other highly centralised countries, there is no geographical dimension to higher education policy, and local government has no responsibility in this area. The system has evolved with no top-down planning, and there is the added complication of the dominance of London and the South East.

In this context, a number of challenges come to mind. How can institutional rankings be reconciled with the need to develop a higher education system sensitive to different communities’ needs? In the higher education market, will we see vulnerable institutions emerge in places where a university plays a key anchoring role but which themselves are places that are highly vulnerable economically, socially and culturally? Where do universities fit into ideas of giving more powers to leading city regions?

There are many questions like these around the place of universities in any more devolved system of English governance. As many of these are highly contentious within higher education and politics more generally, theyneed to be taken forward by those outside the sector. Hopefully some respected independent body will take them up.

John Goddard
Emeritus professor of regional development studies
Newcastle University

Nightmare scenarios

Have we learned nothing in the past six years about the difference between mathematical models and the real world? If you put garbage into a mathematical model, you will get garbage out. If you model the long-term viability of the Universities Superannuation Scheme on the ludicrous assumption that all UK universities will go out of business tomorrow, why should anyone listen to you (“Reforms seen as ‘radical attack’ on pensions”, News, 18 September)? Unfortunately, this is exactly what the USS is doing. This is pure mathematics, not economics, and the USS should leave pure mathematics to us pure mathematicians.

Of course you have to keep the nightmare scenario in the back of your mind, but you do not build your entire business model on it. Your business model must be built on prudent but reasonable assumptions, or your business will not survive in the long term.

Ironically, the proposed changes to the USS might actually bring about the nightmare scenario that the USS seems to fear. If, as appears likely, the scheme becomes so unattrac­tive to new members that it becomes viable to set up a rival scheme, then this will eventually happen, and the USS will have dug its own grave.

Robert Wilson
Professor of pure mathematics
Queen Mary University of London

The USS pension “reform” should come as a surprise to no one. It is a continuation of the systematic pillage of workers’ pensions under the mantle of post-crash economic realism that has already taken place across the private sector, and increasingly now the public sector.

And it is part of the more specific project to proletarianise academics to soften up universities for inevitable privatisation down the line. When universities are “let go”, it is likely that many will be bought up by the large for-profit education corporations that control significant parts of the US university sector. Such enterprises demand a proletarianised academic workforce. It is certainly the case that the current “winner takes all” pension scheme rewards some disproportionately, but it is important that people realise quite what is at stake in the battle to defend pensions in which we are about to engage.

Nicholas Till
Leverhulme research fellow
School of Media, Film and Music
University of Sussex

Sandwiches on the menu

In arguing for more attention to be given to graduate employability, Ruth Helyer notes that “sandwich programmes…fell out of favour” (“Welcome to the real world – of work”, News, 25 September). If progress is to be made, it is important to consider why this happened.

Although now retired, I was heavily involved in arranging and supervising placements for students on public administration and business studies degrees. I would suggest that there are at least three reasons for the demise of sandwich education. First, with the end of the binary divide and the conversion of polytechnics into universities, this form of higher education lost its principal champions. Second, four-year sandwich degrees were far more costly to provide than standard three-year degrees. Moreover, the issue of establishing a robust and equitable system for funding placements was never resolved. Last, curriculum designers underestimated the challenges involved in finding effective ways to integrate the work experience and academic components of degree courses.

These represent considerable hurdles that need to be overcome before there can be a renaissance of sandwich education.

Roger Ottewill
Former polytechnic lecturer

I agree with Ruth Helyer that undergraduates should be able to “experience real work during their degree” and that work placements integral to a degree are a good way to achieve this.

Luckily, at least some institutions introduced built-in work placements some time ago. When I worked at Newman University (then a college of higher education) from the 1990s, all undergraduates had a term’s work placement in their second year. Work placements are still integral to study at Newman, which is in the top 20 for UK graduate employment, according to its website. Similarly, Leeds Trinity University, where I also worked, has a tradition of work placements across the undergraduate curriculum and today boasts a 94 per cent graduate employment rate.

In both institutions, the practice and approach of teacher education - where study and placements are equally valued parts of education – was the paradigm that informed this model. I would echo Sir Tim Wilson in the conclusion of his Review of Business University Collaboration (2012) that work placements had an “extremely valuable” positive impact on graduate employability skills and academic performance. In my experience, work placement was the making of many a student.

Stephen Bulman
Director, Capplestone Gate Consulting

Multi-sector supporters

We wholeheartedly agree with Brian Cox that organisations need to work together to widen participation (“Universities are gold mines and we must better extract their value”, News, 18 September). We also recognise the need to increase the number of students in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects to meet employers’ demands.

At Villiers Park Educational Trust, we are launching the 2020 STEM Scholars Programme, targeted at highly able students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is designed to give individual support to students in their schools, enabling them to fulfil their academic potential and gain STEM places at university. The programme is a collaboration between three educational charities - Villiers Park Educational Trust, the Smallpeice Trust and the Arkwright Scholarships Trust - sponsored by ARM plc, a Cambridge-based multinational semiconductor and software-design company. It is free of charge to participating students and their schools.

For Villiers Park, this is the third regional Scholars Programme we have launched, but the first with a subject-specific cohort. We are seeking more partners and more areas to work in, and would welcome contact from any interested parties.

Simon Williams
Director of development and external relations
Villiers Park Educational Trust

Engagement and love

To think that learning requires teaching that is more than mere stimulation and titillation (“Make a class a haven”, Features, 18 September). With 10 years of online teaching, I have matured out of the bells-and-whistles approach in my online sociology classes by trimming back to only two short videos all semester, with our time spent reading, thinking and writing in what can be a virtual sanctuary, too.

I use the “discussion” forums that are usually “left to the students for free exchange”, not unlike the “conforming” small groups in the classroom, but with one big difference: I participate “fully” and join the conversations, bust up the conforming “me toos” and critique and challenge every student. This requires a lot of time. But the students learn and love it.

Richard Cronk
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

BPP’s state subsidy

I have no problem with competition from for‑profit providers such as BPP University (“John Denham: £9K fee system ‘wastes money’ ”, News, www.timeshighereducation.co.uk). However, I’ve yet to see full and frank disclosure of its business model. Unless BPP law students rely entirely on primary legal sources (case, statutes and the like) and/or material produced by BPP alone without the use of pre-existing texts, the model is parasitic to an extent on the established state higher education sector.

Hardly any high-quality law textbooks exist that are not written by academics in the state sector. There is usually insufficient profit available in writing such works for it to be done without the benefit of a salary as an academic. Any use of textbooks by BPP students (or staff) will have been subsidised by the traditional academic sector and its fee-paying students.

I would be happy to see BPP head Carl Lygo explain the business model for his £7,000 per annum (the fee now according to the BPP website) two-year degree but, as with many other areas of the free market, starting with raw materials (core legal information and ideas – no books or articles even, for his staff to refer to) and turning these into the finished output, rather than relying on state-sector subsidised background resources.

Chris Davies
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

Overcoming inhibitions

I read Bruce Macfarlane’s feature “Speaking up for the introverts” (25 September) with interest. It is not just students for whom shyness can be an issue. In my research into how students describe excellence in teaching, the performative elements such as lecturing were overwhelmingly the most often mentioned. Students seem to rate more highly those staff who can entertain them with a lecture that is memorable and stimulating. Far less likely are they to comment on the studious and dedicated seminar tutor who might facilitate more and deeper learning than that performance.

That said, shyness and introversion are not necessarily the same thing - few people who know me would say that I am shy, and I am confident in lectures and other settings. Put me at a conference where I know no one, however, and you will find me sitting in the corner, desperate to melt into the wall. I know that there are those who teach who feel the same: the big “performance” lecture is a doddle, but the idea of being in a room
with one or two dozen students up close and personal sends them into a tailspin.

We need to find ways to support staff as well as students for whom shyness or introversion might be perceived as a “performance” issue.

Matthew J. Williamson
Head of educational development and director of the academic development programme
Centre for Academic and Professional Development
Queen Mary University of London

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