Saturday, February 27, 2010

Bhikhu Parekh on higher education funding

. . . from a speech in the House of Lords. Full text is found here. The speech:

"[. . .] My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking, for securing this debate and for introducing it with the eloquence and insight that we have come to expect from him.

The Government have announced cuts amounting to about £900 million out of a total budget of £12 billion over three years, which comes to something like 8 or 9 per cent of the universities' state-funded budget. I realise that we are all passing through difficult times and that universities cannot be exempted from their share of painful cuts. At the same time, the Government need to realise that universities can go only so far and that once their international standing and their commitment to teaching and research are weakened, it will take years to rebuild them. What is therefore needed is a spirit of partnership between the Government on one hand and the universities on the other. I first want to emphasise that the universities need to do a little more than they have done and then I will concentrate on what the Government need to do in response.

Universities have already done much to diversify their sources of income. Their reliance on state funding is far less than it was about 15 years ago. They can go further, however. There could be greater involvement of the alumni, greater collaboration with our EU partners and the universities in EU member countries, and greater collaboration with universities in the United States and developing countries. The universities can also do much to rationalise their academic offerings and the way in which courses are delivered. Again, they have done much over the past 15 to 20 years, but there is still room for improvement. They can play to their strengths and specialise in certain areas rather than duplicate what neighbouring universities do. They can also put on flexible courses and offer work-based learning so that students do not have to travel to the campus. They can work closely with industry and business and share the costs of education with these institutions. In some cases, technology can be more widely used and we can save on academic labour power. Therefore, I think that there is room for improvement on the part of universities and it would be wrong for us academics to deny that universities, too, must accept their share of the burden.

The Government need to bear in mind three important principles. They must realise that, while it is right to encourage universities to find research money elsewhere, that is not possible in many areas, such as the arts, the humanities and some social sciences. There is therefore a danger that the universities might neglect these areas because money is not available and concentrate entirely on sciences and technology. I think that the Government are, wittingly or unwittingly, in danger of giving a technocratic bias to our university education, which would be disastrous. A university is not simply a place for science and technology; it is the custodian of our civilisation and the values that the country stands for and it cannot ignore its role in those areas. If we are not careful, we might end up in a funny kind of way reversing what Margaret Thatcher did. She turned polytechnics into universities and, if we are not careful, we might end up turning all or most of our universities into polytechnics, which would be just as great a mistake.

As the noble Lord, Lord Baker, pointed out, in a knowledge-based and highly competitive world the Government need to make sure that our institutions of higher education are among the best in the world. Our universities have a lot to be proud of. They are the second most popular destination for overseas students. They get the second highest number of Nobel prizes and other forms of international recognition. They contribute £33.4 billion to the economy, which is 2.3 per cent of GDP. However, other countries are beginning to catch up with us and are even overtaking us. France has decided to contribute €11 billion to higher education. Germany has decided to contribute €18 billion to world-class research institutions, alongside university education. President Obama has committed an additional sum of $20 billion for federal education spending. It is important to bear in mind the fact that the French and German money is not just going to science and technology; it is also going to centres of migration studies, cultural studies, studies of long-term economic and political trends and so on.

It is important that the Government should constantly monitor how we are competing with other countries and what they are doing that we are not doing. They should also bear in mind the fact that, beyond a certain point, university education should be a protected sphere in exactly the same way as the health service, schools and the police are. Unless we recognise that, we are in danger of destroying great institutions that we have taken hundreds of years to build. [. . .]."

Onora O'Neill on higher education funding

. . . from her speech in the House of Lords. Full text found here. Her speech:

"[. . .] My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Baker, for securing an, alas, too timely debate. I have some interests to declare as a life-long university teacher and a former president of the British Academy. We have no doubt that these are real and large cuts. My question is: how could we make them most intelligently with the least damage to what really matters? If we look back, I believe that there is a lesson to be learnt from the 1980s when the number of students was growing but the unit of resource was shrinking. Universities cut departments and units. With a nice rhetorical flourish, these were called efficiency gains. They were cuts. Unfortunately, they tended to impact certain areas in unco-ordinated decisions with disproportionate effect.

One might say that that was the inevitable cost of university autonomy. We will face unwanted cuts and unwanted patterns again, and we have begun to see that in another topic we have recently debated. The provision of language degrees has been cut here, there and yonder. But we need to think more strategically. For whose sake should the cuts be made? Do we want to protect universities, academics, students or regional employment and development? They are all important and one would like to protect them. But I believe that that is the wrong focus. We should aim to protect good research, good teaching and flourishing disciplines. We should not provoke crises in disciplines where suddenly we find that we need yet another initiative to rescue the teaching of strategic languages, such as Arabic, because we have just let it go.

There are difficult cases and we need to consider the incentive structures with which we are living. I believe that the present research assessment exercise-soon to be the REF-comes at a very high cost and that it creates incentives that go largely to universities, not to researchers. Of course, the universities press the researchers to conform to the requirements.

When we look at incentives for teaching, we discover that there are mainly sticks and rather few carrots around. As regards the incentives for protecting the strategic disciplines, we discover that dispersed decision-making makes it very hard to protect them. Do the Government have a comprehensive list of endangered disciplines? What action do they intend to take to ensure that that danger is not realised?

There is a suggestion that we would best alter the incentive by rewarding that research which has impact. For those with perfect foresight, it makes perfect sense. For the rest of us, it sounds a bit unlikely. One cannot identify which research will have impact antecedently. Research is done by individuals and by teams. They do not always need to be co-located. It does not have to be given to universities. We need to preserve the rewards for those who are doing good research, but we need not put them in one place. There are good examples of collaborative research across institutions, and I know of a number in Scotland.

We also need to recognise that good teaching can be done by small units, and we need to reward them for doing it well rather than telling them that because they are not large enough to do the very best research, they cannot be maintained at a level to sustain the teaching. On the disciplines, we must not again disperse hard-won skills, particularly in the rarer languages and area studies.

Lastly, the impact is not good for any sort of institution. No one knows how to measure it. We do not know the causal pathways or the timeframe-I sit between colleagues who know far more than I do-in the STEM subjects. The research that feeds the creative industries is dispersed across a multiplicity of disciplines, including many in the humanities and social sciences, and so is the research that feeds effective public policy formation. When we think about impact, I remember the first time I heard the term because it was a curious one. I was talking to conservation architects and through them met two church canons who were responsible for the fabric of Canterbury cathedral. They reported to two "canons" of the cathedral called Canon Impact and Canon Treasurer. I asked what Canon Impact did. "Canon Impact does pilgrimages" was the reply. When we think about impact, we must realise that it is a rather elastic term. In the mean time, we must be absolutely certain that we do not incentivise poor research in order to have a high impact. [. . .]."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Take me to floor 2 1/2 . . .

A curious site I quickly captured at the Finland Museum of Art!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

New funding allocations for British universities

The Times Higher Education reports that:

"[. . .] Half of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, most of the 1994 Group of small research-intensive universities, and almost all the teaching-focused institutions in England are set to lose research funding in real terms as a result of a change to the funding formula.

But under the change announced last week, a handful of elite universities and specialist colleges are in line for big increases in quality-related research funding, modelling suggests.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has altered the funding formula to give a bigger weighting to "world-leading" (4*) research in the 2010-11 allocations. It said the move was an "initial step" to addressing the Government's desire for greater concentration of research. [. . .]

[. . .] Teaching-led universities, which collectively wrested millions of pounds in funding from their research-led rivals following the 2008 research assessment exercise, will almost all lose out, although Hefce will continue to fund excellence wherever it is found. [. . .]." (The story can be found here.)

The ratio between 4*:3*:2* was 7:3:1 (more or less predicted by this blog). The new ratio is 9:3:1. 1* and below ranked research will continue to go without funding.

This will have some effect on subjects, or so we might speculate. Several philosophy programmes had healthy percentages of 4* quality so this may be better news for this subject.

However, this is perhaps much worse news for colleagues in politics and international studies. This field was given one of the lower "grade point averages" and, thus, had a smaller amount of 4* work identified. Many colleagues noted that the rankings between subjects ought not be seen as fully comparable. In other words, if English Literature was found to have x amount of 4* and Economics to have x + y of 4*, this data should not be interpreted as Economics being more world leading (necessarily) than English Literature. Of course, this is not how the numbers have been used and politics fared poorly from the start. This may get a bit worse now.

Perhaps the best way to play the game is to have departments producing 4* work as this will receive more funding pound-for-pound than other work. One of the subjects that produced the highest percentage of 4* was media studies. Perhaps we should turn subjects from "politics " and "philosophy" to "politics and media studies" and "philosophy and media studies" in order to enter the media studies assessment panel . . . ?

Let me end on the following note. I think university leaders have a very difficult task. Many universities concentrated funding in areas of strength. The idea was a strong showing would yield research cash gains. For some universities, this meant more funding in science and others focussed in different areas.

As readers may know, one result of the RAE2008 was that government decided to change the rules of the game. It ring-fence protected cash set for "STEM" subjects, but not elsewhere. Thus, philosophy and politics departments scoring high would not then receive the cash they otherwise would have received.

Now the game is changed yet again. Universities will be trying to plan their futures already given the cuts in funding recently announced. Now they must also factor into these plans changed funding levels based upon the 2008 assessment specifically designed to 'concentrate' funding in fewer hands (and, by extension, it is also designed to effectively hurt as many universities as reasonably possible: with concentration, there are fewer winners and more losers).

One can only sense there is much change sweeping through the higher education sector. It is far from clear how the specific changes made will maintain or improve the current system, but I am open to suggestions. Please release me from my gloom!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Do jurors understand judges?

A recent study has claimed that there is a problem with jurors understanding judges. The BBC reports the story here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] -thirds of jurors in criminal trials do not fully understand a judge's legal directions, a study of juries suggests.

Some jurors were tempted to search online to find out more about the case they were hearing, the two-year study for the Ministry of Justice said.

However, it concluded that the system in England and Wales was fair and free of racial prejudice. [. . .]

[. . .] The research team asked some jurors at Winchester Crown Court, in Hampshire, to recall two specific and key questions that the judge had given in a case where a defendant had been charged with violence but claimed self-defence.

Almost 70% said the judge's direction had been easy to understand but only 31% of them then correctly recalled the two legal questions on his right to defend himself. A fifth did not recall either of the key issues.

The report said: "The proportion of jurors who fully understood the legal questions rose when they were handed a written summary of the judge's direction - but was still only 48% of all those surveyed."

Study author Professor Cheryl Thomas said the findings did not necessarily mean juries were returning unjust verdicts because they often translated legal language into words they more readily understood. [. . .]."

Of course, judges instruct the jury on matters of law, but the jury determines matters of fact in addition to rendering verdicts. It will be interesting to see how this develops. My best guess is that there may be a greater push -- as noted in this piece -- for wider use of written directions from judges in future.

For those interested in my past work in defence of the jury trial, please see this.