“Students spot when they are being patronised, they will smell a rat”.
Maybe a rat by any other name……………
The tensions in Higher Education and the rise in remedial research.
The pushes on the HE system are sometimes unbalanced by the pulls. The push for efficient teaching, globalisation and more and fair access is pulled over by the risks involved and the need for fees, sustainability and funding pressures. The combination of these is tearing the system apart.
There is an overwhelming impression that a whole new industry has emerged and expanded fast in gathering data, analysing and studying Higher education. Many people are making a good living out of it as they seek explanations for the anomalies that exist in the access of students and how they cope with poor funding. A colleague of mine many years ago described this as “remedial research”. This turned out to be a complex concept that we debated in detail with many examples from different fields of science, including social sciences. The basic premise was that some research can be classified as that which addresses human made problems that could have been avoided easily in the first place with the knowledge available then. The research described was simply seeking to fix something we broke through carelessness.
Andrew McGettigan reiterated his analysis of the student loan system that goes back to his predictions of 2013 . It seems that, until recently, this harsh analysis has been avoided by government. However, the recent reports that the student loans debt would reach at least £1trillion in 25 years  was totally predicable, avoidable and should come as no surprise. It is of course a massive debt that government, the tax payer and then students themselves will all have to honour. The government can indulge in increasing the government debt and taxes in the future through further “fiscal illusion” to pay this off. Any student earning over £25,000 per annum will have no choice but to pay the debt for the next 30 years alongside the additional general taxation needed to pay off the increasing government debt that will result. This is sometimes referred to as a ‘double whammy’. But the government wheeze has been more formally rumbled in the recent House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee Report . Lord Forsythe commented upon: "The thing that shocked me - and I thought I was pretty unshockable - was that I had not understood that by moving to a system of funding through loans, because of the accounting methods of the Treasury, it was possible for George Osborne [then chancellor] to appear to increase funding for higher education by £3bn but at the same time cut his deficit by £3.8bn." According to McGettigan, the situation is basically a simple one to understand. This is a “loss and not surplus generation”. Of course it is.
In another very important discussion session on ‘The cost of being a student’, some tensions emerged. Julie Tam (the Deputy Director of Policy at Universities UK) stuck firmly to the line that student loans did not amount to a debt. This was only pushing the conclusions of the ‘Financial Expert’ Martin Lewis who claimed recently that, if student loans were referred to as a "graduate contribution" then students would not be put off university for the wrong reasons . This is classic double speak’. When is taking out a loan not a debt? When it’s a ‘graduate contribution’. It seems that the idea of a ‘fiscal illusion’ was now being superseded by the idea of a ‘logic illusion’. The patronising attitude that assumes that many students and their families haven’t enough understanding of the financial issues of higher education is not going to provide a solution. Julie Tan deployed a quote from Shakespeare on loans: “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet”. Yes, but what’s in a name? Equally, a rose can prick you and give you tetanus and there might still be a tragic ending based upon a terrible misunderstanding! David Malcolm of the NUS provided a very solid repost “Students spot when they are being patronised, they will smell a rat”. Maybe a rat by any other name……………
Teaching and Global communities.
The recently merged organisation called Advance HE also had its three day conference, ‘Teaching in the Spotlight: Learning from global communities’, at Aston University this week. This conference arose mostly out of the great work of the Higher Education Academy before the merger to Advance HE came about.
Tackling participation in the curriculum.
The rest of the conference was comprehensive and covered many great ideas related to pedagogy. Amongst the many sessions were those related to access, student attainment and social mobility. In presentations in a workshop: ‘What is Social Mobility and how are we making it happen’ academics from Wales provided illuminating accounts. The work of the Swansea Academy of Learning and Teaching might be more widely disseminated. A series of workshops that were designed to make more staff aware of student concerns was presented by Phil Jones and colleagues of the Neath Port Talbot Colleges group. Under the grand title ‘The pedagogy of social enhancement project’ there were excellent workshops described. They addressed the statement that: “staff needed to know what social mobility is”. There is, in my experience, a huge understanding deficit amongst many staff about the lives of their students and these workshops could easily apply all over HE in the UK.
The debate on free education for all.
The Advance HE after dinner debate provided some fun on a very serious topic. The motion wording was apparently crowdsourced and was “This house believes that for the future of education to be truly global, education must be free for all”. Alison Jones, as Director of Advance HE, chaired the debate and just about stayed within the boundaries of neutrality. Speakers for the motion were Christine Jones of University of Huddersfield and Shai Reshef of the University of the People, a free online service. There was an impassioned plea for free education for all as a right since “surely we can afford it”. This was followed by the idea that online teaching was becoming so efficient that it could be free; although it turned out that the University of the People charges for assessments. The opposition to the motion came from Smita Jamdar who is a member of the Higher Education Commission. Simply put, "someone has to pay". This is correct and the flaw in the motion’s wording was easy to exploit. The final words against the motion went to Nick Hillman, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. It was clear that he had started from an unassailable position in opposing the motion. There were too many inconsistencies for it to be tenable as a motion surely. However, his assertion that “fees mean more social mobility” were an 'own goal' and his arguments to back this up seemed more like defending ‘double speak’. The motion duly passed by 24 to 20 votes.
 Heather Rolfe. National Institute of Economic and Social Research (2017). To create a 'great meritocracy' we need experts and joined up thinking. https://www.niesr.ac.uk/blog/create-great-meritocracy-we-need-experts-and-joined-thinking
 WonkHe conference (2018) Proceed with caution: Fees funding and the future of higher education. https://wonkhe.com/events/proceed-with-caution-fees-funding-and-the-future-of-higher-education/
 Andrew McGettigan. The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education 2013. https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745332932/the-great-university-gamble/
House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. 2nd Report of Session 2017–19. HL Paper 139. Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education. https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/economic-affairs-committee/news-parliament-2017/education-post-school-report-publication/
All Evidence and oral sessions are listed at: https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/lords-select/economic-affairs-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/economics-of-higher-education-further-education-and-vocational-training/economics-of-higher-education-further-education-and-vocational-training-publications/
 Martin Lewis reveals why student loan debt should NOT stop students going to university. The Express 5 July 2017. https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/life/825133/student-loan-debt-Martin-Lewis