Thursday, July 14, 2011

Higher education white paper

Wikipedia tells us that a white paper is “an authoritative report or guide that helps solve a problem”. Some of us might say that Students at the Heart of the System poses a challenge to that definition. I don’t have time to read it, but I did take a look since the various article in the press are not very informative. There’s an executive summary of sorts here, but it’s a bit one-sided.

At the beginning of the white paper, we read:
Higher Education is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland so this is a White Paper for England. [...] All facts, figures, policies and actions refer to England only, except where stated otherwise. “National” should be taken to mean England-wide except where the context indicates otherwise.
(I feel a twinge at this. Maybe we should not care about national identity, but when it comes to Higher Education, England always gets the thin end of the wedge.)

My interest was in the way student numbers are to be managed. The discussion of this topic was done with reference to the current system under which universities get quotas of students. The quota system is portrayed by its critics as providing universities with a captive customer base, relieving them of the need to compete, and disallowing any kind of market to guide student recruitment. That is not quite fair; back when I was at Warwick, for a while Computer Science was getting far more prospective students than we could take, and we (the university) applied to HEFCE and got the quota increased. But, admittedly it was slow, and I think it was a collective university quota that was raised; it was left to the university to expand the department and I have no idea how much attention HEFCE paid to that process. Naively, if you’re in a system where “the funds follow the students” it looks like popular institutions would be able to expand to meet demand, and unpopular ones would contract, all of their own accord.

If I’ve got the right general idea, that principle is to be applied to students who get AAB or better at A level (see paragraph 4.19 of the paper. There are about 65,000 such students (out of a total national annual cohort of about 480,000). Student quotas get scaled down to cover the remaining 415,000 places, and presumably if your fraction of AAB students is below average, you lose out, and if it’s above average you could expand. But there are plenty of unanswered questions, and paragraph 4.12 notes that “the sector” is being consulted on the details. (So, some of the vagueness in reports on this document stem from lack of conclusions it has, in some respects.)

Some forecasts: much wrangling about who should count as a high-achieving student: AAB at A level does not address the “widening access” agenda: students with non-traditional qualifications lose out. Since some A levels are considered better than others, there will be discussion about whether A level grades should be deemed to be the same, or not. A potential boost for General Studies if they’re all deemed the same. With regard to a further 20,000 places to be assigned to institutions that charge less than £7,500 on average, after various discounts: an unexpectedly high number of institutions could claim eligibility for those. That is because the rush to charge £9,000 was partly based on the understanding that the effective fee will always be less, together with the fact that £7,500 is needed to break even. So, places that announce £9,000 may often just be expecting to get £7,500.

This article in the Times Higher provides a robust criticism of the white paper. Here’s a quote:
The intention to place teaching on a par with research is laudable, but this cosmetic fix short-changes everyone. A document that has been touted as putting students in the "driving seat" sounds good in theory, but there is a reason why young drivers pay high insurance premiums: they have a high risk of coming unstuck because they lack experience of the road ahead.
A contrasting article at the Adam Smith institute blog points out that Adam Smith went to study at Oxford and was dismayed that the professors were not being incentivized to teach. He approved of the system at Glasgow, under which he taught, and was paid, in some sense, directly by the students. But this seems to be an argument against “putting students in the driving seat” — if Adam Smith got it wrong, why should today’s students do any better?


Anonymous said...

Here is the situation in Bologna in the middle ages (according to David Knowles). Maybe that's where we are headed?

... the professors [at Bologna] were kept in absolute and even humiliating subservience to their students. They had to swear obedience to the student rectors and to the student-made statutes, which bore very hardly upon them, e.g. the professor was fined if he began his teaching a minute late or continued a minute longer than the fixed time, and should this happen the students who failed to leave the lecture-room immediately were themselves fined. In addition, the professor was fined if he shirked explaining a difficult passage, or if he failed to get through the syllabus; he was fined if he left the city for a day without the rector's permission, and if he married, was allowed only one day off for the purpose. The city, for its part, took a hand in controlling the professors, and they were forced to take an oath not to leave Bologna in search of more lucrative or less onerous posts.

Paul Goldberg said...

Which book is that from? It sounds like we could all learn a thing or two from it.

(and in the meantime, I'll watch out for those loyalty oaths)