Letters – 20/27 December 2018

December 20, 2018

Student loan change risks backward step

The 180-degree flip by the Office for National Statistics in its accounting for student loans may seem embarrassing for policymakers, but it is more embarrassing for the official accountants, who are changing how they regard investment in higher-level skills.

The ONS will move on, and the politicians will fall in line. Meanwhile, students are likely to get hit because they suddenly look much costlier to current taxpayers, while the extra income tax that they will pay as graduates in the future continues to be ignored. Unless we are careful, we are at risk of sleepwalking into a triple whammy of fewer university places, less funding per student and tougher student loan repayment terms.

Higher skills are the best way to raise productivity and the best way to insulate the country from any negative economic effects of Brexit, such as fewer skilled migrants. Moreover, our schools are full to bursting, and the increase in young people will start to hit universities just after we start counting students as a much bigger current cost, potentially putting today’s school pupils at a particular disadvantage.

More than 20 years ago, the Dearing report looked at “treating loans in the same way as grants”. Its conclusion was: “It misleads rather than informs.” While some aspects of the recent accounting of loans are unusual, there is now a big risk that, without due care and attention, we will shuffle backwards and fall into the same old trap.

Nick Hillman
Higher Education Policy Institute

Unite in service

The news article “Bradford blames ‘market-driven’ woes for £12 million deficit” (13 December) reported that the University of Bradford’s deficit rose to £11.7 million last year, after deficits of £3.4 million and £1.9 million in the previous two years.

The deteriorating situation at the University of Bradford sits alongside a similar catalogue of underperformance at Bradford College. Meanwhile, the desperate position of Bradford as a city and community remains largely unaddressed by these two institutions, which should be anchor institutions as far as socio-economic development is concerned. Both should redefine themselves and focus their work on Bradford’s needs.

There are positive examples of such civic-minded efforts: the University of Central Lancashire and Preston’s College have contributed to marked improvement in Preston, and the University of Bolton (ironically, Bradford College’s validator) has demonstrated a local commitment to structural collaboration.

In 2017, the thinktank WAW Consulting provided a blueprint, a Bradford Plan, for merger for the college, which presumably was shared with the university. The Further Education Commissioner and the Higher Education Funding Council for England were aware of the intellectual arguments and modelling.

Bradford’s politicians should step in, along with the Further Education Commissioner and the Office for Students. There is a clear agenda beyond institutional recovery that could see the college and university thrive as a combined institution.

Bill Wardle
Via timeshighereducation.com

Talking and flipping

Caroline Fell Kurban and Muhammed Şahin discussed the lack of flipped learning in Europe and the confusion as to what it is (“Take a tumble on it”, Opinion, 13 December), but it would have been interesting to hear their thoughts on the lecture. The flipped classroom is too often wrongly characterised as mutually exclusive to the lecture, which is presented as a relic of times when knowledge was in books and books were few. In some educational models, students are simply pointed to study materials, with no guidance whatsoever, then attend seminars, which as a result have to focus on clarification rather than application.

The lecture can be an opportunity for someone who has thought about a topic to introduce it to students. This can be better pitched than sending students off to read a textbook. The lecturer can signpost further reading and research that takes place before the seminar.

Legitimate questions remain about access, but learning to concentrate and to listen without a pause button must be a key part of active learning.

Sandhya Drew
City Law School (January 2019) 

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