‘Low value’ degrees

The government (and, apparently, Rishi Sunak in particular) thinks it can distinguish ‘low value’ degrees from others by what happens to students shortly afterwards.  The test of a higher value degree, it seems, is whether students obtain a professional job, go into postgraduate study or start a business.

Very few undergraduate degrees lead directly to a professional qualification; students will commonly have to go through an intermediate, professional stage in order to qualify for jobs.  What, then, are universities teaching when they offer courses in various sorts of ‘studies’ ? The answer is much the same as it would be for traditional degrees in English Literature, History or Philosophy.  Universities aren’t, for the most part, in the business of training; they’re engaged in higher education.   Students are being guided how to absorb information, select it, order it, evaluate it, and communicate it, and (increasingly) they are learning how to do that independently, without much further guidance.  Their future employers  are interested in the skills that graduates have, not in the specific knowledge they have gained during their studies.

If we ask why some courses have worse ‘outcomes’, the answer is unlikely to be found lurking in the specific knowledge area that the course has covered.  It’s much more likely to be a question of respect for the institution, status, and the background of the students.

My own first degree, for what it’s worth, was in Politics, Philosophy and Economics – the same low-value, airy-fairy course done by the likes of Rishi Sunak.  My parents disapproved.

Many students in UK universities are not being well served

Universities are in the news because of ‘grade inflation‘: the government is taking steps to penalise universities who award too many top grades.  Other recent coverage has focused on plagiarism and essay mills.  Over the course of my career, as a teacher in some institutions, and as an external examiner in several others, I’ve seen standards fall while marks improve.  Part of this has been a change in what marks mean.  A competent, sound piece of work without special merit used to be given a 2:2 mark; now it is routinely given a 2.1.  A piece of work that had some deficiencies but enough to be passed used to get a third class; now it would receive a 2.2, sometimes better. The third class mark in many institutions has almost disappeared, and is mainly arrived at only because results are being averaged.

Some standards have genuinely improved.  It has become much easier for a student to find a range of resources to support an essay, and word-processing and graphics programmes mean that standards of presentation are somewhat higher than they were thirty years ago.  However, in most other respects there has been a fall in the standards achieved.  When I was an undergraduate, I routinely did 36 essays or more in a year, plus unseen exams – that’s how I learned to write.  By the time I started teaching, the students were doing 12.  Now, many do six or less – so they write less in a whole degree than I had to in a year.  Some universities have reduced the number of assessments but increased the number of words required in an assessment, apparently in the belief that more words will give equivalent coverage.  That doesn’t work, because with more words there’s still only one exercise in structuring and ordering material, and students can’t develop through iterative feedback. The fewer exercises that people engage with, the less they learn; the less feedback they get, and the slower it comes, the less opportunity they have to improve and develop. Clearly, if students aren’t given the same opportunities to learn and develop, they can’t achieve develop the skills, or achieve the same standards, that students did in the past.  That’s true regardless of some of the other factors which may affect standards – such as students having to divide time between college and work to fund themselves.  This is not the fault of students; it reflects  a marked deterioration in the service that universities offer, and limits on what students are able to achieve as a result.

The reduction in the number of exercises that students do is part of a broader problem.  When I started teaching, four educational principles were widely accepted.

  • Universities were supposed to show students how to learn, not what to say.
  • Active learning – where students do something, like writing or talking – is better and more effective than passive, where they sit and listen.
  • Teaching has to be student-centred – the central issue is that the student has to learn how to learn, not that the teacher has to deliver a product.
  • The curriculum has to be designed as a structured learning experience.  The development of expertise in subjects and disciplines depends on specialisation and depth, not just on extra information.

Much of this has gone by the board.  Curriculum design has given way to ‘cafeteria’ courses, or pick and mix.  (That also allows researchers to pass off narrow topics of personal interest as courses for students, which is simply bad practice; that type of course is centred on the predilections of teachers, not the needs of students.)     Credit accumulation and transfer generally means that students who have acquired a knowledge base get nodded through – but what matters is the skills base, and that’s a different matter. Some universities now carry forward marks from courses taken in the year before finals  – that must mean that no progression is expected.

Inevitably, as the numbers of students increase, students don’t get the same treatment as they would in smaller cohorts.  Lectures are more common, seminars much less so, and personal tutorials rarer still – the larger the student cohort, the more difficult it is to make the time available.  Students have limited personal contact with teachers.  Beyond that, in most institutions, the sheer numbers of students mean that frequent assessment and rapid feedback is out of the question.   This hasn’t happened by design or deliberate action; it’s just that if numbers go up, and the methods and approaches don’t change with them, the experience of students and teachers is going to be different.

Expanding the numbers of students has happened without a serious rethink of traditional educational processes, and that’s had a pervasive effect on how universities operate. A colleague once suggested to me that I was talking about ‘boiling a frog’, and I promised him I’d steal the phrase.  People will put up with things done slowly that they wouldn’t tolerate if they were done all at once.  I’m not sure at this late stage that anything can be done about it, but many students are getting a terrible deal.

The Polish Constitution may not protect the universities

My work in Poland is coming to an end.  As I write, the University where I’ve been is engaged in a dispute with the Polish government about new legislation which will change the way that universities are organised.  The constitution guarantees the autonomy of universities, and so does the disputed bill; but the three references to autonomy in principle are somewhat outweighed by more than 200 substantive references powers being given to the Minister.  They range from relatively minor powers (for example, that the Minister can direct a university to appoint someone to teach sports) to rather more important ones.  “Law 2.0” is framed in the belief that it is up to government and the parliament to determine how universities are run.   The constitution and operation of universities is subject to the government, including how the university should be organised and run, whether the university can undertake research (the classification of universities as vocational is explicitly subject to the administrative power of the minister in article 15) and who they can appoint to be their professors.  As I read it – I have to rely on my computer for detailed  translations – the Minister determines what is a university and what is not (art 35), and art 40 suggests he can refuse if a university is ‘grossly in violation of the law’. The Minister apparently has the power to order a university to close (art 36), as well as the power to dispose of any remaining assets (art 37).  There are clauses governing what subjects can be taught and even what the curriculum should be.

The context in which this is taking place is one where the government has been determinedly taking power to itself.  The European Commission has expressed concern in strong terms:

the  constitutionality  of  Polish  laws  can  no  longer  be effectively guaranteed. This situation is particularly worrying for the respect of the rule of law since, as explained in the Commission’s Recommendations, a number of particularly sensitive new legislative acts have been adopted by the Polish Parliament, such as a new Civil Service Act, a law amending the law on  the Police  and  certain  other  laws, laws on the  Public Prosecution Office, a law on the Ombudsman and amending certain other laws, a law on the National Council of Media and an anti-terrorism law.

The central problem, as far as I can make it out, is not that the government is determined to undermine the rule of law; it’s that they don’t believe the Constitution really matters that much, that all it offers is a series of principles, that it’s open to the Sejm (parliament) to pass whatever laws they think fit, and that as a government they’re the people in charge.  In the case of the universities, they think that universities are public institutions and that public institutions have to be kept under public control.  There’s a very fundamental misunderstanding there.  A constitution is a ‘basic’ law, not a set of guidelines, and it underpins everything that follows.

The Research Excellence Framework: a rigged game

The results of the rating of universities, the Research Excellence Framework, came out a little before Christmas.   Output from newer universities, and smaller units of submission, tend to suffer by comparison with the old established institutions.  There are some obvious reasons why this happens.  One is the credit given for the ‘research environment’; another is  that a larger research team can offer several people a foothold  as co-authors of joint work.  However, the disparity of treatment between the best established institutions and others go beyond that.  What seems to have happened is that the bigger the institution, and the more people submitted, the more likely it is that a higher proportion of their output will be rated as ‘world leading’.  The REF has rediscovered the principle of homeopathy; the more dilute the effort,  the stronger its impact.

There was a perceptive comment by Tiffany Jenkins in the Scotsman about some other flaws in the process – the imbalance between books and articles, the fiddle of importing prestigious outsiders, the lack of time to ascertain whether a paper will have an influence.     I’ve commented before  that the way the ratings are designed discounts much of the kind of work I’ve engaged in over the years.  I’ve been looking at a review of my work in Serbian, which outlines the way that I’ve tried after Titmuss to establish an architecture for the study of social policy.  As usual, that counts for nothing in the exercise.

The private schools think they know what’s wrong with universities

A clip in today’s i caught my attention:

“Leading independent schools are to hold lessons for university lecturers aimed at telling them how teenagers should be taught. … Too often, lecturers are stuck in the past, headteachers argue, and think they can get away with just setting essays and offering the occasional one-to-one tutorial”.

Someone’s certainly stuck in the past, but I’m not sure it’s the universities.

Tuition fees

Joan McAlpine writes in today’s Daily Record that the Scottish Government’s actions to remove fees from Scottish students has been “well and truly vindicated” by improved recruitment. However, the story is not yet complete. Undergraduate fees have not been abolished; they are charged and reimbursed by the Students Awards Agency to Scotland, which makes a payment direct to the university. The fees which are being charged and reimbursed to Scottish students by this process are different from, and signficantly lower than, the fees charged to students from the rest of the UK. Expect the court cases to blossom. There is probably a very simple solution, which is to charge all students the same nominal fee and then reimburse it to Scottish-based students. It’s been done in Further Education for years.