I always find there is something appealing about old university towns. I am in Uppsala, a city I have visited for work on many occasions. Seems so small, and yet in reality it is Sweden’s fourth largest city. I was speaking at a mini-symposium on academic publishing, and how tech fits into the world of teaching clinical medicine. But there is always some time to enjoy the sights— even as the days draw in.
I came across these images from the late Antony Sampson’s series of books on “Who runs this place”. They were part of a fascinating presentation by Tom Loosemore on tech in government and inter alia the design of Universal Credit. A lot I didn’t know, and well worth a listen — even to somebody who used to make me rage with anger. But I write this, having just read the story over the weekend about how if you are on or below the poverty line, you have to pay 50p a minute for telephone advice**, whereas if you want to report ‘cheaters’ (other than bankers) the phone line is free. Even inspirational thinking and coding cannot escape this sort of evil. In the context of politics, Nye Bevan knew what to call such people.
Check out the universities, academia and scientists in Sampson’s perceptual maps of power and influence over 40 years in the UK . The designs reflect the dates (top to bottom: 1962, 1980, 2004).
** telephone advice: an interesting example of how a technology allows you to charge for what once was free and a right of any citizen.
This was a comment on on the political question of our time by Janesh Ganash in the FT, but to me it has a wider relevance, including how we think about higher education. Of course, people will keep perseverating, believing the contrary.
There is no human resources solution to an ideological problem.
This was a quote from an article by an ex-lawyer who got into tech and writing about tech. Now some of by best friends are lawyers, but this chimed with something I came across by Benedict Evans on ‘why you must pay sales people commissions’. The article is here (the video no longer plays for me).
The opening quote poses a question:
I felt a little odd writing that title [ why you must pay sales people commissions]. It’s a little like asking “Why should you give engineers big monitors?” If you have to ask the question, then you probably won’t understand the answer. The short answer is: don’t, if you don’t want good engineers to work for you; and if they still do, they’ll be less productive. The same is true for sales people and commissions.
The argument is as follows:
Imagine that you are a great sales person who knows you can sell $10M worth of product in a year. Company A pays commissions and, if you do what you know you can do, you will earn $1M/year. Company B refuses to pay commissions for “cultural reasons” and offers $200K/year. Which job would you take? Now imagine that you are a horrible sales person who would be lucky to sell anything and will get fired in a performance-based commission culture, but may survive in a low-pressure, non-commission culture. Which job would you take?
But the key message for me is:
Speaking of culture, why should the sales culture be different from the engineering culture? To understand that, ask yourself the following: Do your engineers like programming? Might they even do a little programming on the side sometimes for fun? Great. I guarantee your sales people never sell enterprise software for fun. [emphasis mine].
Now why does all this matter? Well personally, it still matters a bit, but it matters less and less. I am towards the end of my career, and for the most part I have loved what I have done. Sure, the NHS is increasingly a nightmare place to work, but it has been in decline most of my life: I would not recommend it unreservedly to anybody. But I have loved my work in a university. Research was so much fun for so long, and the ability to think about how we teach and how we should teach still gives me enormous pleasure: it is, to use the cliche, still what I think about in the shower. The very idea of work-life balance was — when I was young and middle-aged at least — anathema. I viewed my job as a creative one, and building things and making things brought great pleasure. This did not mean that you had to work all the hours God made, although I often did. But it did mean that work brought so much pleasure that the boundary between my inner life and what I got paid to do was more apparent to others than to me. And in large part that is still true.
Now in one sense, this whole question matters less and less to me personally. In the clinical area, many if not most clinicians I know now feel that they resemble those on commission more than the engineers. Only they don’t get commission. Most of my med school year who became GPs will have bailed out. And I do not envy the working lives of those who follow me in many other medical specialties in hospital. Similarly, universities were once full of academics who you almost didn’t need to pay, such was their love for the job. But modern universities have become more closed and centrally managed, and less tolerant of independence of mind.
In one sense, this might go with the turf — I was 60 last week. Some introspection, perhaps. But I think there really is more going on. I think we will see more and more people bailing out as early as possible (no personal plans, here), and we will need to think and plan for the fact that many of our students will bail out of the front line of medical practice earlier than we are used to. I think you see the early stirrings of this all over: people want to work less than full-time; people limit their NHS work vis a vis private work; some seek administrative roles in order to minimise their face-to-face practice; and even young medics soon after graduation are looking for portfolio careers. And we need to think about how to educate our graduates for this: our obligations are to our students first and foremost.
I do not think any of these responses are necessarily bad. But working primarily in higher education, has one advantage: there are lost of different institutions, and whilst in the UK there is a large degree of groupthink, there is still some diversity of approach. And if you are smart and you fall outwith the clinical guilds / extortion rackets, there is no reason to stay in the UK. For medics, recent graduates, need to think more strategically. The central dilemma is that depending on your specialty, your only choice might appear to be to work for a monopolist, one which seeks to control not so much the patients cradle-to-grave, but those staff who fall under its spell, cradle-to-grave. But there are those making other choices — just not enough, so far.
An aside. Of course, even those who have achieved the most in research do not alway want to work for nothing, post retirement. I heard the following account first hand from one of Fred Sanger’s previous post-docs. The onetime post-doc was now a senior Professor, charged with opening and celebrating a new research institution. Sanger — a double Laureate — would be a great catch as a speaker. All seemed will until the man who personally created much of modern biology realised the date chosen was a couple of days after he was due to retire from the LMB. He could not oblige: the [garden] roses need me more!
There are now more demands and requirements placed on higher education institutions than ever before. It’s an unlikely truism, but Conservative governments generally tend to seek to centralise and control universities – in Michael Barber’s language of how policy is made: It’s the difference between “Trust and Altruism” and “Choice and Competition” drifting into “Command and Control.”
Wonke newsletter 16 October 2017
Phil McNaull, director of finance at the University of Edinburgh and chair of the British Universities Finance Directors Group, says that “it has been clear for some time” that direct income for research “does not cover the full economic cost of conducting it, and the net deficit is subsidised by other sources”, such as surpluses from teaching.
Quoted in THE, (emphasis mine). Factually, this is true. It is a mistake to believe that the price of things, equates to how much they cost to produce. Look at the differential pricing of home and non-EU students, for instance. Or the gap between the component parts of an iPhone and the retail price. Or why most successful drugs only cost a fraction of what pharma claims is the cost of development. But the possibilities for some sort of arbitrage are there. And in an area in which agents make up their own standards (i.e. higher education), I think a lot more scrutiny is required.
Patents or graduates? I guess the latter are worth more.
Students pay $300 or more for textbooks explaining that in competitive markets the price of a good should fall to the cost of producing an additional unit, and unsurprisingly regurgitate the expected answers. A study of 170 economics modules taught at seven universities found that marks in exams favoured the ability to “operate a model” over proofs of independent judgment.
Just last week, when faced with a report that its advertising numbers promised an American audience that, in certain demographics, well exceeded the number of such humans in existence, judging by U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Facebook told the Wall Street Journal that its numbers “are not designed to match population or census estimates. We are always working to improve our estimates.” Facebook’s intercourse with the public need not adhere to the so-called norms of so-called reality.
Public Domain, Link
I dislike LMS (learning management systems). There are lots of reasons for this, but chief is that the ones I have seen are ugly and don’t entice. Universities are increasingly employee facing, rather than student facing (they claim the opposite). LMS are ‘management’ tools, not tools to help you learn. Fit for widgets, not humans. When you go back and look at Gutenberg’s bible or the great illuminated manuscripts you feel the power and pleasure of what the authors intended transmitted via the scribe. The monks understood this — they shared the passion. The web and nascent industry of informal learning for autodidacts is also full of great design (here is an example from Highbrow), even if it usually designed as part of a ‘pop culture’. But not the dismal corporate LMS.
I now add the phrase “learning outcomes” to the list of words and phrases that should never be used, along with “stakeholders,” “imbricate,” “aporia” and “performative.”)
The developers can get away with such things, because student housing doesn’t officially classify as housing. It falls into the murky category of “sui generis” (Latin for “of its own kind”). As it falls outside a specific use class, it doesn’t have to adhere to the usual standards associated with dwellings (class C3). Local authorities differ in the their approaches, but student accommodation is usually either treated as a hotel (C1) or residential institution (C2), the same category as care homes, hospitals and boarding schools. Due to their limited occupation, these building types are immune from many of the codes that govern residential dwellings – from space standards to daylight and acoustics. At the same time, crucially, the developer is exempt from providing any contribution towards affordable housing.
“It’s not that the undergraduate education is better at Ivies than at other private universities. (In fact, Ivies almost certainly provide a worse education than many obscure liberal arts colleges that may have loose admissions standards but provide very intensive and personal instruction.) It does mean that, in the current budget situation, pretty much any private college will provide a much, much better education in the liberal arts and social sciences than any public university — except the rare ones that operate like liberal arts colleges, like William & Mary or SUNY-New Paltz.
This wasn’t always true. (In 1970, Berkeley spent 70 percent as much per student, from all funding sources, as Stanford. As of a few years ago the figure was 30 percent and now I bet it’s more like 20 percent. With those numbers, there’s no way that the private-public distinction is a matter of fancy gyms and climbing walls.) I wish it weren’t true now. And none of this necessarily means you’re wrong about how to fund higher education: subsidizing students to attend the Ivies in some ways may widen the gap I’ve just mentioned.”
So, you are interested in medical education? Discuss.
I actually found this quite witty. But it is more than that. It playfully raises some of those issues about education, assessment, and certification. I would love to say medical education has got this right, but I do not believe that. It is easy to list the problems, but hard to solve them. Numbers and formal systems will always be used by those who understand them least, to exile judgement.
For British academics, and probably students too, the heyday of university life came straight after the Second World War. British universities, tiny and cosy by today’s standards, enjoyed enormous autonomy over degree content, expenditure and admissions. Wealthy Oxford and Cambridge enjoyed the highest prestige, but there was no fixed hierarchy, and the standards for a first-class degree seem genuinely to have been quite uniform across the sector.
None of this could survive rapid expansion.
Alison Wolf as ever talking sense. Terrific article.
Veblen’s conspicuous consumption rides on:
Rather than filling garages with flashy cars, the data show, today’s rich devote their budgets to less visible but more valuable ends. Chief among them is education for their children: the top 10% now allocate almost four times as much of their spending to school and university as they did in 1996, whereas for other groups the figure has hardly budged.
Book review in the Economist: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. By Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
“Children say they prefer IT in their lessons and courses? Do schools listen when kids say they prefer chips for lunch every day?”
An understatement follows:
Education policy is particularly vulnerable to political whims, fads and untested assumptions. From swapping evolution for creationism to the idea that multiple types of intelligence demand multiple approaches, generations of children are schooled according to dogma, not evidence.
Amen to all that. And not just school children, but university students. The Nature article is referring to: original paper here (The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Paul A. Kirschnera, Pedro De Bruyckerec. DOI)
The survey found that UK medical schools employed 3041 full time equivalent clinical academic staff employed by UK medical schools, with a headcount of 3361. This is a 2.1% decline since 2015 and a 4.2% decline since 2010. By comparison, since 2010 the number of NHS consultants has risen by 20.6%.
Reform of, and improving how we educate medical students requires a rethink of medical school staffing, and how clinical academics work. There are plenty of heads in the sand. I think you can improve education and drastically cut costs at the same time. Just stop accelerating into the rose tinted image in the rear view mirror.
“One-third of UK universities and colleges are awarding firsts to at least 25% of their students, four times as many as five years ago, figures show.”
Surprised this figure is not an input into the TEF……..
This year the University of Edinburgh plans to become one of the first big European universities to launch a blockchain course. Aggelos Kiayias, chair in cyber security and privacy and director of the blockchain technology laboratory at the university, says: “Blockchain technology is a recent development and there is always a bit of a lag as academia catches up.”
What interests me is how we think about all the things that universities do first. And why and how we lose that advantage for our students.
This (via the Intercept) is from the US, but….
”IN MAY, A MELBOURNE-BASED real estate mogul’s claim that millennials would be able to afford homes if only they cut back on discretionary expenses such as avocado toast went viral — with many heaping mockery on the suggestion. Now the Federal Reserve has its own hot take to throw on the pile. Except this one is based on empirical research. In a paper published last week by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, five researchers offered an explanation for declining home ownership rates among millennials that does not require avocado toast. Looking at nine student cohorts, they concluded that the increase in public tuition and resulting student debt can account for anywhere between 11 and 35 percent of the decline in home ownership for 28- to 30-year-olds in the years between 2007 and 2015.”
Smita Jamdar writing on Wonke about what the OfS changes will mean for universities.
Ever more intrusive and interventionist regulation – all regulators start with a desire to be risk-based and light touch, but it only takes one or two regulatory failures (either a rogue provider, or indeed a sector-wide failure to deliver a desired outcome) and the gloves come off.
These are not features that have typified the approach to the quasi-regulation we have had in the sector to date and, if implemented, they have the potential to change the culture of universities quite substantially, not least because they will focus so strongly on teaching, rather than research. They may (perhaps almost inevitably, will) push universities towards a more centralised, command and control model of management than many have adopted to date.
Those who run many UK Universities have almost willingly embraced the darker side of corporatisation. Many students will — reasonably in my opinion — think it is payback time.
There have been a similar set of category errors in play this month over TEF. I can’t find a lot wrong with putting metrics in the mix when making judgements and assessments. But to suggest that the precise collection of metrics with their precise weighting is somehow innately in all students’ interests is preposterous. As is the aggregating of all the metrics relating to different student experiences on different programmes into a single institutional score. That this is then further boiled into one of three medals, well, it’s almost as ridiculous as the UK degree classification system!
Jim Dickinson. The full article is well worth reading — especially about hidden costs and changes to course delivery.
This can be read as typical Silicon Valley hype, but I think it is more right than wrong. Just as government thought computer education in schools was about using MS Office, too many in higher education think it is about copies of dismal Powerpoints online, lecture capture, or online surveillance of students and staff. The computer revolution hasn’t happened yet. Medical education is a good place to start.
What can we do to accelerate the revolution? From our observation, the computer revolution is intertwined with the education revolution(and vice versa). The next steps in both are also highly overlapped: the computer revolution needs a revolution in education, and the education revolution needs a revolution in computing.
We think that, for any topic, a good teacher and good books can provide an above threshold education. For computing, one problem is that there aren’t enough teachers who understand the subject deeply enough to teach effectively and to guide children. Perhaps we can utilize the power of the computer itself to make education better? We don’t hope to be able to replace good teachers, but can the computer be a better teacher than a bad teacher?
One key finding is that because interest rates on student debt are very high — up to 3 per cent above RPI — the average student accrues £5,800 of interest while studying, meaning they borrow £45,000 but have a debt of £50,800 on the day of graduation. By contrast, the average debt burden on students in the US is far lower at $36,000 (£27,900), even though the cost of tuition varies far more at US institutions.
Arguments about university funding are everywhere (and here and here and from the IFS, too). The UK government is indulging in fantasy / PFI like economics again, and much of this story looks like another mis-selling scandal. The universities again, come out of this badly (FT). Whereas many have behaved badly, they are going to end up being treated worse.
My eldest daughter warned me that reading comments will make me sad or angry. But sometime anger is more valuable than sadness. The comment below, in the FT, from Matt_us is germane (The case for reform of UK university finances)
Hang on a minute. Students now graduate with about £50k of student debt (tuition and maintenance loans and interest). Student loans cannot be repaid by the majority of students. That is because the interest rate is higher than the repayment schedule. Despite repaying loans, the student debt continues rising. It is a pyramid scheme.
In detail: Graduates have to earn over £56k to even repay £1 of their loans, otherwise the loans get bigger, rather than smaller. Graduate starting salaries are between £20k and £30k. And only the best graduates will earn over £45k after five years in the job. During that time all loans will increase by 6% per year.
Interesting graphic from Audrey Watters on the bête noire, that is Pearson (especially if you are an investor). But although I think I am in a minority, I think universities are wrong to not understand how the world of content will impact on their business models. What is your content like, and what do you add to it? Content is key. But it doesn’t cost 9K, at least not if you scale it right.
Of all the titles submitted to the 2014 research excellence framework, only “around a half in most subjects achieved at least one retail sale in the UK in the years 2008-14”.
A large part of Kahn’s legend rests on his fame as a pedagogue, and although his parallel teaching career was driven by financial necessity, he became renowned for his ability to inspire students with a more elevated vision of professional practice than the technically advanced but psychically stunted approach characteristic of postwar American architectural education. (emphasis mine)
From a (book) review in the NYRB about the late architect Louis Kahn (Salk institute etc). “Psychically stunted.” Sounds like some other sort of professional education I am more familiar with.
If I had one criticism of Drezner’s otherwise excellent book, it is that his cure is thin gruel. He urges universities and think-tanks to regain their independence from big philanthropy. That is all very well. But how could they afford it?
Review in the FT of ‘The Ideas Industry’, by Daniel Dresser.