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Teaching, learning and globalisation - who pays? Proceed with caution!

“Students spot when they are being patronised, they will smell a rat”.

Maybe a rat by any other name……………

This week was a busy time for conferences on Higher Education in the UK. They covered funding to widening access and teaching practice. Taken all together, they highlighted the chaotic tensions that exist in Higher Education in the UK. There seems to be a lot of things happening at once but still not much evidence of ‘joined up thinking’ from government. In response to a statement by Theresa May in June 2017 “a country that works for everyone” and “delivering a programme of serious social reform”, Heather Rolf of the National Institute of Economic and Social research launched a series of papers in the National Institute Economic Review [1]. She made a plea for experts and ‘joined up thinking’ to create a genuine meritocracy.

“….mechanisms which restrict social mobility and reinforce inequality operate throughout the life-cycle from birth into our working lives. They act to ensure that we are endowed with the permanency of privilege, or poverty, of our parentage almost as we inherit the colour of our eyes”

The question now is: Have the debates this week contributed to bringing these issues together? The answer is, yes – but only partially. Taken together, it seems that almost every facet of the requirement for ‘joined up thinking’ in Higher Education has been explored this week. The problem is that each side of the multi-faceted object is observed from one or other viewing point. For example, access and financing students in university has not considered or viewed other barriers such as housing and job security in families unsure of their own futures, never mind that of their children. It seems that the government and its politicians are the only ones left to view the issues as a whole whilst simultaneously handicapped by wearing very rigid social blinkers. 

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.

Fees and funding are major problems that overarch everything.

One could argue that funding for students is the most obvious barrier to preventing good students from poorer backgrounds from seeking a place in Higher Education. This would conform to the principle of ‘Occam’s Razor’ that proposes the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.

The WONKHE Conference at the start of the week ‘Proceed with Caution: Fees funding and the future of Higher Education’ [2] took an in depth look at the funding dilemma. How can the UK keep up access to Higher Education for a large proportion of students and keep the system funded at levels that deliver world leading institutions? Philip Auger (see TEFS Blog The review of post-18 education and funding: Who is Philip Augar? [3]) was brave enough to outline his approach to the Post-18 Education Review. This, he said, would report in November of this year. The review had received over 400 evidence submissions with a very wide diversity of views. In noting that there was a “poor deal for some non-traditional students”, the promise of change permeated his whole presentation and it seemed hopeful. Although he might have been better informed, it was just as well that he did not wait for the rest of the day. During a panel discussion later on the topic of ‘What’s Next’, Charles Heyman (former journalist and an independent communications and reputation advisor) made the quote of the day with, the Post-18 review is “a political invention” and would be “dead on arrival”. Issues such as post Brexit reforms and the comprehensive spending review slipped past unnoticed. 

Fiscal illusion.

Andrew McGettigan reiterated his analysis of the student loan system that goes back to his predictions of 2013 [4]. 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 [5] 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 [6].  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.

Double speak.

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 [7]. 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……………

The concluding discussion panel responded to the question: If there is one thing you would change, what would it be? The unanimous response was “bring back maintenance grants”. So much discussion was needed to reach a simple conclusion. Is anyone listening?

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.

On Wednesday John Gill of Times Higher kicked off proceedings on the challenges of global higher education trends and why they matter at home. In a polished lecture, he convinced us that the UK was ‘top notch’ globally with the global movement of students increasing. However, the warning was that Brexit will have a “significant impact upon university rankings”. Assessing teaching in university rankings would come to the fore soon and he sought more ideas. This will surely change the approach of most universities and I contributed the idea of assessing and ranking access and support for disadvantaged students for what it’s worth. The news that, in the USA, state funding for public universities was declining did not offer much hope. It appears that the various states are “spending more on prisons than on their public universities”. On gender and equality he also said that we had a long way to go and this was well summed up with: “There have been more Harvard presidents call Larry than there have been women”. 

The question of who should pay seemed to be solved by the idea in the audience that wealthy Saudi families can pay more in fees to help those from other poorer countries. An  idea that is taking hold as a general concept to even up the access gap.  This is 'wrong on so many levels' as someone one told me. Could it mean that wealthy students should pay for the privilege of meeting poorer students?

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.

Elsewhere, staff from the University of Central Lancashire presented the ‘Participation puzzle teaching and learning project’. This was indeed a puzzle arising from a survey of students in the Law School; but probably not one entirely of the students making. Attendance problems are affecting universities all over the UK and elsewhere. So the staff simply sought to ask them why in a survey, interviews and focus groups. This project is therefore an excellent idea. However, the staff seemed surprised to report that “the classes were not worth attending” was the majority response. Work commitments were also considered as a possible reason for non-attendance, but the extent of this was not reported. Issues such as hatred of Power Point came up and it was hardly surprising that attendance at classes seemed to correlate closely with attainment. The irony of using Power Point to project bullet point statements with no data to illustrate the study or back up the main conclusions, seemed to elude the presenters themselves. Some observers agreed that Power Point is not the problem but instead it’s the misuse of Power Point. Providing notes online and recording lectures to be made available later does reduce attendance but this surely has to be offset by simply doing better lectures. Why time spent in term-time employment did not enter into the reasons for not attending was answered simply; “jobs are not an issue. All of our students work 18 to 20 hours per week anyway”. It was not clear if there was data on this point to make any conclusion. The contact time required of students was noted as 12 hours per week. By inference, it seems that students have 30 to 32 hours per week pencilled in before they do any independent study. Employment in the week is probably not seen as a problem by students if they have efficiently scheduled in their work shifts with the time table in any case. This made it look more like a part-time study model to some observers. But then why not report data at the conference? It turns out that the presenters were brave in their decision to at least report some of the work. I was told that the data was new and that the university management had prevented it from being shown until they had a chance to look over it themselves. I hope it can be published in full, and soon, as it illuminates something that many of us are very concerned about.

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.

What can be concluded?

It seems that there is much great discussion flying around in many quarters. The hope is that it is all feeding the post-18 review and influencing its outcomes. Universities and their staff need to do much more for their students; assuming that more of them travel from lower income backgrounds to attend. Many academic staff do come from better off backgrounds, this is simple logic based upon the historical participation trends. Thus, they should try to  become better informed about the lives of those students they may not understand and the workshops and tools are now there to do this. Social mobility is also not helped by fees per se. But instead, loans and grant support, especially proper maintenance grants, can help. 

Please don’t patronise students and their families. If they are clever enough to go to university, they are clever enough to do the math on funding. If families don’t provide support for their offspring, it is because they are not able to do so. The students have little choice but to get part-time jobs to make up the projected deficit of around £5,000 per year. This needs to be properly understood. But, there seems to be one absent party at all of these conferences and it's the students themselves. The NUS representatives do their best when they are invited, but can we see some students please? 

Mike Larkin, is an Emeritus Professor of Microbial Biochemistry. He retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


[1] Heather Rolfe. National Institute of Economic and Social Research (2017). To create a 'great meritocracy' we need experts and joined up thinking.
[2] WonkHe conference (2018) Proceed with caution: Fees funding and the future of higher education.

[3] The review of post-18 education and funding: Who is Philip Augar? TEFS Blog 19 February 2018

[4] Andrew McGettigan. The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education 2013.
[5] BBC News 11 June 2018. Student loans 'heading for trillion pounds'.
[6] The Lords Report: Treating Students Fairly: Is there a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel?
House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee. 2nd Report of Session 2017–19. HL Paper 139. Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-School Education.
All Evidence and oral sessions are listed at:
[7] Martin Lewis reveals why student loan debt should NOT stop students going to university. The Express 5 July 2017.


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