Archive for the 'UK' Category

Philantropy & Higher Education

Posted by Eric on November 8th, 2008

Universities are becoming popular with donors. A recent report from private banking firm Coutts in association with The Centre for Philanthropy, Humanitarianism and Social Justice University of Kent showed that in the UK, rich donors are more likely to give to universities than any other good cause. The Coutts Million Pound Donors Report (pdf) indicates that higher education received 45 donations of over a million pounds in 2006-2007. The total value of million-pound-plus donations to higher education was £296.5 million. Of direct donations over 1 million pounds in the UK, 42% went to higher education, folowed by Health (13.8%), International Aid (11.5%) and Arts & Culture (8.2%).


The Financial Times discusses the issue and asks whether rich people should be giving their money to institutions that also receive millions from government and are in some cases quite wealthy. The fundraising director of Oxfam Cathy Ferrier seems to concur and her words show that there is fierce competition in philanthropy land:

“The higher education sector have very effectively used their contacts, despite the fact there’s state funding for this stuff”. She suggested that rich donors liked schemes which were “highly tangible, relatively visible and close to them”, such as university buildings that “they feel are their legacy”.

The country of million dollar donations is of course the US. According to the Chronicle, the country’s colleges and universities raised $28-billion in private donations in the 2006 fiscal year, $2.4-billion, or 9.4 percent, more than in 2005. Stanford receiving 400 million from Wiliam Hewlett; David G. Booth donating 300 million to the University of Chicago business school; Ratan Tata giving 50 million to his alma mater Cornell, etc. But also outside the Anglo-American world multi-million dollars are being  donated to universities. The Singapore based Lee Foundation donated 50 million to the Singapore Management University – matched by the government with 3 S$ for every donated S$. Coffee magnate and Adecco chairman Klaus Jacobs for instance donated 200 million to the private International University Bremen. Compared to all this, the Netherlands has a long way to go. In 2005, all education and research received 277 million Euros, with 232 coming from business (see Geven in Nederland 2007, pdf).

As for Ferrier’s critique, I think that needs some nuance. Giving 300 million to a business school in order to see your name attached to it – yes it became the University of Chicago Booth School of Business – is not necessarily helping humankind progress all that much. But on the other side, donations for scientific research on HIV or cancer or research on other pressing issues are not necessarily in conflict with donations for health or international aid. Ratan Tata’s donation to Cornell for instance was given for agriculture and nutrition programs in India and for the education of Indian students at Cornell. I’m sure even Oxfam wouldn’t disagree with those objectives.

Interactive Higher Education Policy [or HigherEd 2.0]

Posted by Eric on August 21st, 2008

Both the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEST) of the Australian Commonwealth Government and the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) of the British Government are looking for news to organise and coordinate their higher education sector. For this, they have started a similar initiative. Both are relying heavily on input from the field and the broader society to get new ideas, and probably to receive more support for their future polices. Yet, there are some differences as well.

In its Review of Higher Education, the Australian government has asked a small expert panel to write a Higher Education Discussion Paper. This Discussion Paper (PDF, 4 MB) was released in June and addresses a wide range of questions structured around nine key challenges and issues for higher education in Australia over the coming decades.

· Meeting labour market and industry needs
· Opportunities to participate in higher education
· The student experience of higher education
· Connecting with other education and training sectors
· Higher education’s role in the national innovation system
· Australia’s higher education sector in the international arena
· HE’s contribution to Australia’s economic, social and cultural capital
· Resourcing the system
· Governance and regulation

After this release, the Expert Panel invited the community to react to this paper and send in their submissions before 31 July. This has led to 300 submissions responding to the discussion paper. Responses have been submitted by interested individuals, Vice Chancellors, Leaders of intermediary organisations, student unions, etc. There’s also a range of HE experts and researchers that submitted their reactions, and even some HE bloggers (who of course are also experts; for instance Andrew Nortonsubmission 91 and Steven SchwartzSubmission 66). The Review Panel will provide its report on priority action by the end of October 2008, and final report by the end of the year. I’ll keep an eye on it…

In the UK,  the Secretary of State for DIUS, John Denham, claimed that the UK needs to decide what a world-class HE system of the future should look like and what it should seek to achieve. And he also is asking the public to participate in this Higher Education Debate. Denham first asked eight experts to present their advise and opinions on eight different themes:

· Part-time studies in Higher Education
· Demographic challenge facing Higher Education
· Teaching and student experience
· International issues in Higher Education
· Intellectual property and research benefits
· Academia and public policy making
· Research careers
· Understanding institutional performance

These contributions will lead to a formal public consultation on a policy framework for HE in the autumn. They however also form the input for discussions on these eight topics with the wider public. And the discussions are conducted…yes on a blog. On the Future of Higher Education Blog readers have the opportunity to comment on the opinions of the experts.

The Australian example has shown that there are plenty of HE stakeholders and experts willing to spend some time in drafting future HE plans (I feel sorry for all the staff at DEST that has to go through them all). In some ways their process resembles the consultation process of the European Commission (for instance here, for the EIT).

What the input of the English public will be remains to be seen. Until now, comments on the blog are only few – and not always very constructive contributions. However, the  discussion opportunity has only been online since July. 

Even though the outcomes of these processes are not yet clear, I welcome these new ways of policy making. Even though these new initiatives would fit well in the (consensus oriented) Dutch political culture, – to my knowledge – the use of the Internet in the process of policy making and formulation is still rare. Maybe an idea for Dutch higher education…?

Is the UK going Down Under?

Posted by Eric on June 18th, 2008

During my years in Sydney, the issue of language skills and foreign students has come up repeatedly. The claim was that the financial reliance on foreign students had forced Australian higher education to accept students that lack even the basic English language and communication skills.

Most critical on this issue is probably Bob Birrell, Director of the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University in Melbourne. Last year he published a study finding that one in three overseas students which were granted permanent residency after graduating from an Australian university does not have good enough English to handle a professional job.

An analysis of government visa testing, the first of its kind, found 34 per cent of 12,116 graduating international students who received permanent residency in 2005-06 did not have the English standard needed to be admitted to university, let alone to be awarded a degree. For students from China, the fastest growing international student market for Australian universities, the proportion with poor English leapt to 43 per cent.

The question is of course: how did they get into an Australian university anyway? And even more: how did they ever get a degree? With respect to the second question, Birrell claims that universities dealt with the poor English language skills of their students by lowering teaching and assessment standards. On the question of how they get in, Birrell has another explanation.

Applicants for a higher-education student visa must score at band-six level, rated as “competent”, under the International English Language Testing System, if based overseas when they apply. But international applicants can avoid the testing by basing themselves in Australia earlier to complete either year 12 or an intensive language course. Dr Birrell found that about 40 per cent of overseas students followed this path.

Professor Peter Abelson – a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney at that time – summarised the issue correctly:

“These figures are a very stunning result, but not entirely surprising to people who are in tertiary education.”

Former Minister of Education, Julie Bishop, and former president of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee Gerard Sutton basically denied the problems. Sutton didn’t accept that there is a problem in universities in terms of soft marking of international students. Julie Bishop rejected claims that a large number of foreign students graduating from Australian universities have poor English skills:

“Australian universities only enroll foreign students once they have achieved international standards of language proficiency. This has been an extraordinary attack by Professor Birrell on our universities. International students must meet international benchmarks in English language in order to get a place at a university in Australia.”

The denial of the problem is astonishing. Yes of course, there is a lot of money involved and the stakes in international education are high. If the international student market would plummet, so would much of the Australian higher education sector. But denying the problem while more and more foreign graduates fail in their job search because of their language skills, does obviously not help in the long run.

And now the debate has moved up north…


Peer reviewing as a hidden subsidy

Posted by Eric on May 29th, 2008

Even though I left academia recently, I try to keep in touch with the academic community and keep up with academic publications in the field. Because of this, I still accept most requests from journal editors to review their contributions. What annoys me however, is the fact that I do not have access to such journals anymore. My current employer has subscriptions on some journals, but definitely not on all the ones I am interested in. Considering the subscription fees of most journals I can’t blame them.

Today I read an interesting article in the Times Higher Education on the costs of publishing and… the actual costs of peer reviewing. It does make you wonder about the current system of peer reviewing, especially if you don’t have access to the articles you review. I used to agree with the observation of the THE that the advancement of the academy’s collective body of knowledge was reward enough for the time and effort put into peer review and therefore academics needn’t get paid for doing this. But now I see what we are missing out on, I am not so sure anymore:

But a new report has attempted to quantify in cash terms exactly what peer reviewers are missing out on. It puts the worldwide unpaid cost of peer review at £1.9 billion a year, and estimates that the UK is among the most altruistic of nations, racking up the equivalent in unpaid time of £165 million a year.

The report says there would be a “significant transfer” of funds to academics if peer reviewers were paid. But such a move would drive up journal prices, with the estimated “breakeven price” of a major discipline journal jumping 43 per cent, leaving libraries with a bigger bill.

My first reaction to this was that there must be other possibilities with all the new technologies available. And there are. The report also shows that a move to electronic-only publishing would bring a fall of about £1 billion (12 per cent) in global costs. A system of author-pays open access publishing could add another saving of £556 million. I don’t have to get paid to review articles. But some changes to the system would be appreciated.

Counting what is measured or measuring what counts?

Posted by Eric on April 9th, 2008

The Higher Education Funding Council published a report on the impact of rankings in the United Kingdom. It is probably one of the most extensive studies on ranking today. The study was conducted by the Centre for Higher Education Research and Information (CHERI) and Hobsons Research and is based on a survey of 91 higher education institutions in the UK and six institutional case studies. hefce

The researchers looked at five rankings in particular, three national ones (Sunday Times Good University Guide, The Times Good University Guide, The Guardian University Guide) and two international rankings (Shanghai Rankings and the Times QS Ranking). The report itself and the background data are all available on HEFCE’s website.

Roughly, the study is divided into three parts. The first looks at rankings and their shortcomings in general. The second at the impact of rankings on universities in the UK. And the final part discusses alternative ranking methods such as the CHE ranking.

One of the most interesting questions posed in the first part is actually the same as the title of the report: counting what is measured or measuring what counts? In other words, are the criteria used in these league tables used because they are the most important determinants of quality or because those indicators are simply the ones that are (most easily) measurable? Not surprisingly, they find that:

The measures used by the compilers are largely determined by the data available rather than by clear and coherent concepts of, for example, ‘excellence’ or ‘a world class university’. Also the weightings applied do not always seem to have the desired effect on the overall scores for institutions. This brings into question the validity of the overall tables.

Several other points of critique – many of which have been discussed before, also in this blog – are confirmed in this part of the study. But the real value of the study is that it doesn’t stop here. It continues with an analyses of the survey and case studies to identify the ways in which these rankings actually shape policies. They find that institutions are indeed strongly influenced by league tables. One finding that I confirmed my expectations (see here and here) was about the link – and often contradiction – between league table criteria and other missions of the university:

League tables may conflict with other priorities. There is perceived tension between league table performance and institutional and governmental policies and concerns (e.g. on academic standards, widening participation, community engagement and the provision of socially-valued subjects). Institutions are having to manage such tensions with great care.

These are just a few quick observations. Read the full report! I will and probably post more about it at a later stage.

International Student Tribes and Territories

Posted by Eric on March 19th, 2008

As you might know, I changed countries and positions in the last month, hence my lack of posts (now and probably in the very near future). As some of you might know, I left academia to work at the Nuffic, the Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education. This week I started in the department of studies of their Knowledge and Innovation Directorate. One issue I’m currently looking at is the way foreign students choose their preferred study destinations. Market research organisation i-Graduate seems to have found all my answers already… or hasn’t it?

The Guardian reports on a study that looks at what motivates international students to study abroad and what influences their choice of study. I haven’t seen the study and I can’t link to it because it is not available on their website, but looking at the article of the Guardian, it seems to be a case of over-simplification and over-generalisation. According to i-Graduate, the international student population can be divided into five tribes:



Equity or Excellence in Education (or both?)?

Posted by Eric on October 14th, 2007

One of the major current issues in (higher) education policy – in my opinion – is the issue of excellence versus equity. Is it most important to focus on the masses and see to it that everyone gets the same high quality education? Or should the country’s prime talents be nurtured and given the opportunity to fully exploit their opportunities. Or, better yet, can you do both?

The BBC Radio Documentary series ‘The Changing World’ investigates the dilemma, and what better places to visit than Finland on the one hand and the UK and US on the other. Finland is generally seen as the success story in creating a high quality egalitarian knowledge society. Finland shows very good results on the global tests like PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) and IALS (International Adult Literacy Survey).

In addition, they manage to do so without having schools that really fail. The range between the outcomes in the best and the worst schools is very small. An interesting observation in the interviews is that the consistent high performance of Finish schools is not only a consequence of their egalitarian education system, but also of the stability and equality in Finnish society as a whole. Major differences between suburbs or districts don’t exist and therefore major quality differences between schools don’t exist either. This of course sets limits to the transferability of the Finnish system.


Debating Education: Oxford 2.0 style

Posted by Eric on September 27th, 2007

The Economist has taken the initiative to start a debate series. In the series, a range of topics will be debated in the Oxford 2.0 style. The first topic being debated is… Education. And you can decide on the topic that’s being discussed.

Five propositions that the Economist sees the most far-reaching and divisive aspects of the education debate, are short-listed . It covers a variety of topics ranging from the place of foreign students to the global digital divide to private contributions in higher ed.

Here are the 5 selected propositions:


Higher Education in the 21st Century

Posted by Eric on September 25th, 2007

From this weeks Times Higher Education Supplement:

Nottingham owns a 37.5 per cent share in the Ningbo campus, a joint venture with the state-owned Wanli Education Group. Wanli provided the infrastructure, worth £14 million. Nottingham has spent a further £5.3 million in its Malaysia campus, in which it owns 29.1 per cent of the shares.

A spokesman for Nottingham said that the university’s current deficit of Pounds 8 million on a £345.9 million income was not tied directly to the China and Malaysia developments, as it had spent more than £200 million over the past decade on infrastructure in Nottingham as well as abroad.

“We confidently expect handsome surpluses from China and Malaysia within five years at most. We estimate that the campuses in Malaysia and China already have a combined value of £150 million. That’s a pretty phenomenal return on a £40 million investment – of which we contributed less than 25 per cent,” he said.

No comment…

Blame it on the rankings

Posted by Eric on April 28th, 2007

Serious critique on rankings and league tables. This time not about the flawed methodologies and inaccuracies in the data collection, but on the detrimental effects of rankings. They ‘erode academic vigour’ and they ‘threaten the country’s prosperity’.

In the Guardian, Geoffrey Alderman argues that the league tables lead to grade inflation and a lowering of standards in order for universities to appear high in the rankings:

“How has British higher education got itself into this mess? Part of the answer lies in the league-table culture that now permeates the sector. The more firsts and upper seconds a university awards, the higher its ranking is likely to be. So each university looks closely at the grading criteria used by its league-table near rivals, and if they are found to be using more lenient grading schemes, the argument is put about that “peer” institutions must do the same. The upholding of academic standards is thus replaced by a grotesque “bidding” game, in which standards are inevitably sacrificed on the alter of public image – as reflected in newspaper rankings.”

Alderman however, does not blame it all on rankings and league tables. It’s also the changing student body that is to be blamed. Or more in particular, the funding system that has changed the student body:

“As UK students come to pay a greater proportion of the real cost of their tuition, they view themselves less as clients in the learning process and more as customers with needs to be satisfied. They are less interested in the acquisition of knowledge and of the critical skills needed to evaluate it, and more interested merely in acquiring and regurgitating those segments of knowledge necessary to obtain a degree.”

I think Alderman is a bit too swift in his conclusions and his causal relations. Instead of the race-to-the-bottom thesis you could also argue that league tables lead to a race-to-the-top. That of course does require the rankings to use valid criteria and methods. His argument about the student body doesn’t hold in my opinion. At least the relation isn’t as straightforward as Alderman portrays. The ‘students as customers’ perspective can have a very positive effect on higher education. Since they payed, they want value for their money. They want scheduled classes to proceed, books to be available, lecturers to be prepared and to be involved, facilities to be up to date, etc. Alderman however doesn’t seem to regard the student body very highly. They are reduced to degree seeking individuals.

The second critique comes from Richard Pike, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry. He blames the lack of maths skills on the rankings and league tables:

“In the race to achieve higher rankings in the tables staff are discouraging pupils from taking mathematics after the age of 16 because the subject is viewed as difficult, and therefore a risk to league positions through examination failures.”

To underline their argument they compared a (1st year students) maths test of “a respected English university” with a Chinese pre-entry test:

Ouch… I don’t think you can blame this all on the rankings, but that hurts…

(thanks to ScienceGuide and Rangkingwatch for pointing me to the articles)

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