Higher education

The abusive debt

by reestheskin on 09/01/2019

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A beginner’s guide to student loans in the public accounts | Wonkhe | Analysis 

Bluntly, the main motive for replacing the teaching grant by loans is an accounting trick. There is an apparent decline in public spending, but at the cost of distorting higher education policy … Thus the changes look like a dodgy [Private] Finance Initiative” – Barr, 2012

Well written piece on the loan scandal in Wonkhe by Nicholas Barr. In the language of the laymen, the government is fiddling the books, and dumping the costs on future taxpayers. It fiddles because it wants to mislead, for gain.

He goes on:

higher education finance has elements of a bubble. If I were a Vice-Chancellor, this aspect would give me sleepless nights.

Guarded language — fair enough — but it is not just a financial bubble. Let us just see how this year pans out.

Talk with the students:whatever next?

by reestheskin on 04/01/2019

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Mary Midgley a Newcastle based philosopher died a fews ago. An obituary in the FT is here. I remember once attending a debate between her and Sam Shuster on the use of animals in medical research. I thought her both strange, and awe inspiring. I am probably now more sympathetic to her views expressed then, than I was at the time,

I then found a “Lunch with the FT” with her, which referred to her husband academic philosopher, Geoffrey Midgley.

While at Oxford, she met her husband Geoffrey, who also lectured in philosophy, and she followed him to Newcastle in 1950. She has lived there since. (Geoffrey Midgley died in 1997.) “I know academics are supposed to be buzzing off to America and all that sort of thing but Geoffrey wasn’t at all interested in that. He just wanted to sit in the common room and talk to his students. It’s so important to do that, colossally educational.”

As one Oxford university scholar and administrator courted by the Gulf, who is against satellite campuses, puts it: “We have open doors, but they are our doors.”

[Link]

Gresham’s law redux

by reestheskin on 19/12/2018

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UK regulator warns on degree grade inflation | Financial Times

The OFS report on degree class awards at UK English unviersities has attracted lots of press attention today. Rightly so. But the report looks back only a decade. One commentator (bd d’Avranche)  in the FT urges us to delve a little deeper:

Please take the research back to 1980 and then prepare to be astounded.

Alison Wolff has written somewhere that the quality of what constituted a particular award was, not so long ago, fairly consistent across UK universities. No longer. Academics should hold their heads in shame, as they have shorted what many of us hold most dear about higher education.

Maxim 2 of 2

by reestheskin on 11/12/2018

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If you can reliably assess knowledge and capabilities within a standardised and regulated framework it is not education.

Maxim 1 of 2

by reestheskin on 08/12/2018

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Any real education is incapable of robust widely accepted psychometric assessment that will satisfy a professional regulator.

The academy and asymmetric information.

by reestheskin on 06/12/2018

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Paul Romer on the Unrivaled Joy of Scholarship (Ep. 55)

Great interview with Paul Romer over at Conversations with Tyler. Romer won the Nobel prize for economics this year, and has had a wonderfully varied career (academic; founder of a software company that produces computer assisted learning material (Aplia); and time at the World bank. There are some earlier statements by him about education  on my web page.

What caught my eye in this interview was:

“We should always remember that the education business is one of the ones that has the biggest problems with asymmetric information. A young person who pays somebody to educate them is very dependent on the decisions that the educator makes about “Study this, go in this direction.”

……

“I think that the problem in higher ed is that the institutional incentives don’t provide the kind of training that would maximize the opportunities for the students or, for that matter, maximize outcomes for the nation.”

Indeed:  in many ways, the situation is even worse than in medicine.

Not so much compatible scholarship as built to order

by reestheskin on 05/12/2018

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Well, no surprises here.

DfE study of English universities’ costs seen as path to fee cut | Times Higher Education (THE)

The UK Department for Education has commissioned accountants KPMG to conduct a study of how much it costs universities to teach their students, in a move seen by some as a potential mechanism to lower the tuition fee cap in England.

The world is full of ‘compatible scholarship’ (Noam Chomsky’s phrase I think). But if you want to be 100% certain that the results are built to order, then you need professional service firms — just look at their track record! Academics come cheap, so only use them when you are not too worried about the results.

What drives graduate student numbers?

by reestheskin on 05/12/2018

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Interesting to sees the levers of scale. This is a piece about expansion at Harvard (the Allston expansion), drives by the shift to science and engineering (the proportion of students choosing applied math, computer science or engineering has gone from 6 to 20% (of the total annual intake of 2000 students)

Harvard’s Allston expansion ‘the next great innovation centre’ | Times Higher Education (THE)

The shift in student preferences towards science and engineering is creating a far greater net need for space than would be created by growth in other fields. More science and engineering students means more academics and classes, which in turn means more graduate students to help teach those undergraduates, which in turn means more lab space to house the graduate students [emphasis mine].

On being a para-academic, and the tyranny of counting

by reestheskin on 04/12/2018

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From an article in the THE, talking about Katherine Randell.

Scholars who write children’s literature | Times Higher Education (THE)

Rundell, whose books have already won several prizes, is a fellow of All Souls College in Oxford and describes herself as a “para-academic”. She is not required to submit work to the research excellence framework but is researching a book about the poet John Donne as well as preparing an edition of his works.

I return to something Larry Lessig said:

I would push hard to resist the tyranny of counting. There is no necessary connection between ease of counting and the production of education. [as in ‘likes’ etc after leaving lecture hall etc]. And so it will be easy for the institution to say this is what we should be doing but we need to resist that to the extent that that kind of counting isn’t actually contributing to education. The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this cant be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

Well, much — but not all — of UK Higher Ed is little concerned with scholarship.

Sinking not swimming.

by reestheskin on 30/11/2018

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At my old university, we were encouraged to explore our subjects and to love what we were studying. Now, at medical school, the emphasis seems to be don’t burnout, focus on not making mistakes, and understand that life is going to be hard, so develop the resilience to cope.

The above is from a letter to this month’s Academic Medicine [83(12) 1745-1884, 2018] written by a graduate student at Warwick medical school (TC Shortland). The title is what caught my eye: “Enjoying, and Not Just Surviving, Medical School”

He goes on:

At Warwick Medical School, staff and students are trying to build a more positive environment. Staff and students have organized art classes, interstaff/ student sports events, and several baking competitions; the last winner featured cupcakes that could be injected with either a salted caramel or raspberry filling. As positive health care workplaces and positive cultures are associated with better patient outcomes,why shouldn’t medical schools try and create such environments for future medical professionals?

I am not against the various suggestions (…well, I am actually), but what I and others are in despair about is how much (?most) medical education has become so dull, tedious, and brutal, rather than humane. When I have spoken to others, some hold similar views: the students put up with it, because they want to be doctors, but they no not enjoy most of it. If they are obliged to attend, they do; but out of choice, many would skip much of what we offer.

Now this is not a new thought or phenomenon. I didn’t enjoy — in fact I actively hated — the preclinical years (aka: the prescientific years) — but I did get a big kick out of the clinical years, and loved my intercalated degree. What made the clinical years work, was that the opportunity for some kind of personal  bond with some teaching staff made up for all the despots and dull souls who should have been destined to be gravediggers. And unless somebody has recently discovered something I have missed, scale and intimacy rarely go together.

Of course, what makes matters worse, is that the ennui and anomie will get worse: for many junior doctors, after the initial high of being qualified, their working jobs are miserable. If they get to higher training, things may improve, but not for all.

George Steiner’s comments in a slightly different context are apposite:

“Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and, metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented. It drips into the child’s or the adult’s sensibility that most corrosive of acids, boredom, the marsh gas of ennui.”

The NHS (for this is the fault of the NHS rather thant the universities) is accumulating a massive moral debt, borrowing on the very market it has rigged (because it can!), forgetting that this is like PFI on steroids. It assumes it is too big to fail: I think otherwise.

Hemingway:

How did you go bankrupt: slowly and then suddenly.

 

The frenzy of metrics rolls on

by reestheskin on 27/11/2018

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What are metrics good for? Reflections on REF and TEF from Dorothy Bishop

For-profit means, for-profit

by reestheskin on 12/11/2018

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A tidy phrase from Stephen Downes in a comment on corporate cash and universities:

There’s nothing especially new here, though it is helpful to remember that when for-profit corporations donate money, it is with a for-profit objective.

[Link]

Universities ‘must read applicants’ work

by reestheskin on 08/11/2018

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Leading universities should pledge to actually read the work of applicants for research positions rather than use controversial metrics during the selection process, a Nobel prizewinner has argued.

No, not a spoof, but words from Harold Varmus. Sydney Brenner, a good while back, observed that people tended not to read papers anymore, they just xeroxed them.

On observing those not so ‘minute particulars’

by reestheskin on 01/11/2018

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This is from an article in Nature.

Under pressure to turn out productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs.

That means students are taught every detail of a microbe’s life cycle but little about the life scientific. They need to be taught to recognize how errors can occur. Trainees should evaluate case studies derived from flawed real research, or use interdisciplinary detective games to find logical fallacies in the literature. Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.

And from a letter in response

My father designed stellar-inertial guidance systems for reconnaissance aircraft and, after he retired, would often present his work to physics and engineering students. When they asked him what they should study to prepare for such a career, he would reply: “Read the classics,” by which he meant Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal.

The best scientific and technical progress does not come out of a box. It is more likely to emerge from trying to fit wild, woolly and tangential ideas into useful societal and economic contexts.

As the historian Norman Davies once said:

“Since no one is judged competent to offer an opinion beyond their own particular mineshaft, beasts of prey have been left to prowl across the prairie unchecked.”

Or as the Economist once put it”

“…professors fixated on crawling alone the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass.”

This is the tragedy of our age: 90% right and 100% wrong. And that is even before we get to  medicine.

Money matters

by reestheskin on 31/10/2018

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This article and data on funding streams in higher ed is well worth exploring. It adds a necessary counterpoint to any consideration of what has happened to HE in the UK over recent decades. And, I see the time span maps closely to my own career as a Professor. I still struggle with the ‘why’ question. Some of the graphs are scary.

Wonga: not dead yet

by reestheskin on 30/10/2018

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This is a THE quote referring to the late Sir David Watson. [Link]

In England, he said, undergraduates had been reduced to “state-sponsored Wonga-style customers”; you can see what I mean about that turn of phrase.

I can indeed. And I claim to have come up with  similar terminology independently.

Exodus

by reestheskin on 25/10/2018

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I do not have a coherent overview of many of the traditional professions, but I wonder if people will soon say similar things about doctors.[Link]

“The big issue that concerns me at the moment in the English education system is the supply of high-quality teachers. We’ve seen quality issues in recruitment to teaching and our schools are getting increasingly desperate to find decent teachers. The whole workload issue has come to a big head again in England with teachers having very big workloads and their conditions of service is deteriorating a lot recently. We’re seeing a big exodus in teaching and so of course, we need a bigger inflow to maintain the balance.”

Michael Day.

Dylan Wiliam talking sense again

by reestheskin on 24/10/2018

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Wiliam is talking about schooling, but it is also true of medical education.[Link]. 

“For me, I think the issue in the United States in particular is how we improve education at scale. I argue there are two things that have particularly powerful impact. One is a knowledge-based curriculum, recognizing that the purpose of curriculum is to build long-term memory into our students and what distinguishes novices from experts is knowledge not skills. And the second one is creating a culture where every teacher accepts the need to improve, not because they’re not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

I am pleased with the  comment about long-term memory: intellect’s ballast. Knowing things matters. 

Norman’s Law of eLearning Tool Convergence

by reestheskin on 22/10/2018

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Maybe more of a theory than a law, but still:

Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.

They start out small and open. Then, as more people adopt them and the tool is extended to meet the additional requirements of the growing community of users, eventually things like access management and digital rights start getting integrated. Boil the frog. Boom. LMS.

Norman’s Law of eLearning Tool Convergence – D’Arcy Norman dot net

The 9 Cognitive Distortions Taught in College…

by reestheskin on 17/10/2018

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The 9 Cognitive Distortions Taught in College… – The Polymath Project – Medium

In each case, university customers are increasingly paying for management of feelings, rather than access to knowledge. It is as if universities have discovered what Pepsi figured out in the 1950’s, Your Customers Want Your Therapy, Not Your Product.

It’s a forever escalator down to pain

by reestheskin on 15/10/2018

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Is College Worth the Expense?

Yes, it is the US of A.

What we’re seeing with the highest [student] debtors is unbelievable,” says Darryl Dahlheimer, program director for financial counseling at the nonprofit Lutheran Social Service. “It’s a lifelong maiming of their finances.” One in three holders of student debt today is 90 days late or more on their payments. “Once you default, it’s a matter of cascading penalties,” he says. “It’s a forever escalator down to pain.”

Let them eat chocolate cookies

by reestheskin on 14/10/2018

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OBJECTIVES

“Results from end‐of‐course student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are taken seriously by faculties and form part of a decision base for the recruitment of academic staff, the distribution of funds and changes to curricula. However, there is some doubt as to whether these evaluation instruments accurately measure the quality of course content, teaching and knowledge transfer. We investigated whether the provision of chocolate cookies as a content‐unrelated intervention influences SET results.

…….

CONCLUSION: The provision of chocolate cookies had a significant effect on course evaluation. These findings question the validity of SETs and their use in making widespread decisions within a faculty.

Link

The business of academic publishing: “a catastrophe”

by reestheskin on 11/10/2018

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The business of academic publishing: “a catastrophe” – The Lancet

How is it that publishers can continue to make profits of 30–40%? How can Elsevier get away with charging, as described in the film, $10,702 for an annual subscription to Biomaterials? It’s partly that if you are a major research university you need access to all journals not just some of them, says Richard Price of Academia.edu, a platform for academics to share research papers. It’s a question of moral hazard, explains Stuart Shieber, a Harvard professor of computer science: the consumers of the research, the academics, are not the people who have to pay. It’s the libraries who pay, and the academics remain insensitive to price…..

In addition, publishers sell bundles of journals. It’s like cable television, you get a few things you do want along with a lot you don’t, explains one librarian. But unlike cable television you don’t know what others are paying—because publishers do secret deals with libraries.

Yes. But it speaks volumes about universities, too.

Economics Nobel: Paul Romer and William Nordhaus

by reestheskin on 10/10/2018

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Paul Romer and William Nordhaus, were awarded this year’s ‘Nobel’ for economics. I first came across Romer in the David Marsh book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Since then I have read quite a bit of Romer’s more public work. Nordhaus pens great articles for the New Your Review of Books, too.

The FT writes of Romer:

One of his first big contributions was to show that “ideas” were the missing ingredient of economic growth, contributing as much as the traditional inputs of labour, skills and physical capital — and that this could help explain the big variation in growth and living standards between otherwise similar countries.

He went on to show that rules, or policy interventions — around patent law, competition law or subsidies for research and development — are vital to encourage actors in a market economy to produce the ideas needed to drive long-run growth.

The second paragraph is something I failed to fully appreciate before middle age.

But Romer has also said some very sensible things in this context about higher education (as readers of my web pages will know).

“In the old model, a teacher had to be so engaging that he inspired students to put in the effort that is necessary for learning,” Romer explains. “The problem is that that is not a scalable model [emphasis mine]. There simply aren’t enough inspiring teachers and inspirable students.”

“What we have right now is a reputational model for universities rather than an outcome model,” Romer says. “The presidents at the elite institutions know that if the competition were to be based on some credible measure of output or value added, they would lose.”

For me the key issue here is ‘scalability’ (first para). I wrote at that time:”Romer’s solution, a company he founded called Aplia is, I think, the direction we should be going in.”

I think there is a lot more that needs to be said about this. We are living though a world of massive expansion in higher education, driven by institutions that have failed to get to grips with the fundamentals that underpin their own value proposition.

Publishers and universities.

by reestheskin on 07/10/2018

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It is easy to make facile comparisons between universities,  publishing, and the internet. But it is useful to explore the differences and similarities, even down to the mundane production of ‘content’.

This is from Frederic Filloux form the ever wonderful Monday Note

Dear Publishers, if you want my subscription dollars (or euros), here is what I expect…

The biggest mistake of news publishers is their belief that the presumed uniqueness of their content is sufficient to warrant a lifetime of customer loyalty.

The cost of news production is a justification for the price of the service; in-depth, value-added journalism is hugely expensive. I’m currently reading Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s book about the Theranos scandal (also see Jean-Louis last week’s column about it). This investigation cost the Wall Street Journal well over a million dollars. Another example is The New York Times, which spends about $200 m a year for its newsroom. The cost structure of news operations is the may reason why tech giants will never invest in this business: the economics of producing quality journalism are incompatible with the quantitative approach used in tech which relies Key Performance Indicators or Objectives and Key Results. (

In France, marketers from the French paid-TV network Canal+ prided themselves of their subscription management: “Even death isn’t sufficient to cancel a subscription,” as one of them told me once.

Politics as a dominant negative mutation.

by reestheskin on 05/10/2018

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If Scotland offers a lesson in how to shift the behaviour of a higher education system at speed without resorting to bribes, it is that keeping institutions in a state of anxiety about their financial future and in competition for political favour can be very effective. There are also echoes of 2013, when student grants were cut while spending on tuition fees was protected. Now, the evidence points to disadvantaged young people outside SIMD1 areas being squeezed most, even while the SIMD1 figures are being successfully driven upwards. Yet again in Scottish HE, the rhetorical investment in free tuition is casting its long shadow, and being in or out of the political spotlight makes all the difference.

WONKE

The gig economy

by reestheskin on 02/10/2018

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Joe plays guitar in a metal band – averagely well for a 20-year-old – and is enrolled on a music degree course at a post-92 university whose most pressing issue is its own surviva. He didn’t have to audition and there was no real interview. He was told what to expect, but he didn’t fully internalise the message that he’d be better off if he could read music.

The problem is that the delivery and even the content of the courses these days are centrally informed by student feedback, which goes straight to middle management. If some students say that there’s too much classical music, modules get chopped. Coursework is dumbed down. New modules are frowned on (students walk away from the unfamiliar). Feedback is narrowly prescribed, and entered on to tick sheets. The spectre of student complaint lurks at every corner.

This wholesale embrace of populism in pursuit of higher recruitment and satisfaction numbers irons out musical minorities and marginalises any sense that music is a value in and for itself. Gone is the idea that study can (and should) be difficult at times, and certainly not always concerned with what is most immediate. Gone is the possibility of a musical democracy based on a critically informed public.

This article is about Music Degrees, but many in Higher Education will recognise the tune.

Problem teaching

by reestheskin on 25/09/2018

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“I have been seriously attempting to raise money to carry out this science education effort ever since the Nobel Prize (in 2001),” Wieman said. “While on sabbatical last year I prepared about 34 proposals for support directed to private individuals and foundations, mostly in Colorado, and to state and federal funding agencies,” he said. None of the proposals were awarded.

Carl Wieman.

Academies versus universities

by reestheskin on 19/09/2018

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This is essentially about the importance of the ‘Long Now’.

What’s the point of scholarly academies? | Times Higher Education (THE)

Academies can also argue for different research priorities from universities, he pointed out. As if by “magic”, when universities create their own research strategies, “they all focus on medical sciences and life sciences”, he said. But their motivation is often financial, as they want to host subjects with strong economic links, he said.

On the contrary, academies are better placed to make the case for the less lucrative humanities and social sciences, he argued, and do not need to generate corporate research funding, meaning that they can be more objective about what type of research is needed to help society. One of the key roles of academies is “thinking about the societal consequences of new knowledge”, Professor Loprieno added.