Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The cost and price of an education

Lots of people more articulate and intelligent than me are spending a lot of time talking through and about the tuition fee announcements that have been revving up over the last couple of weeks. I heartily salute all of them. But the thing that gets me isn't the price, it's the cost. Because what universities are choosing to charge is definitely a price, not the cost of running those degrees. For the lower HEFCE funding banded subjects - mainly arts and humanities - by charging about £9k you've added approximately £2.5k on top of the current tuition fee plus HEFCE grant. I haven't seen any discussion of the actual cost of delivering different types of undergraduate degrees during the course of the tuition fees debate. If I've missed a decent analysis please enlighten me by leaving a comment.

As a large part of my job is about trying to set up the delivery of degrees somewhere other than our main university campuses and without HEFCE funding, the underlying budgeting model doesn't apply. I have tried to push the academics I work with and the decision making structures to pursue accurate costing for these projects. The majority of these activities are meant to at least cover their costs and ideally make a contribution to the running of the School they are based in. But if you haven't costed it properly, and that includes working out an appropriate overhead contribution, then you won't know if you are meeting that goal. Frankly the attempts at costing I've seen - both involving and not involving accountants - are dismal, deeply limited and unrealistic. This is a big part of why the great white hope of internationalisation is not all it is cracked up to be - if we costed things properly most of the time we wouldn't actually be able to justify doing them.

Surely this is just as important for mainstream teaching on our home campuses.

  • How much does it actually cost to teach an undergraduate these days?
  • In addition to the direct costs (time of academic staff, classrooms etc.) what indirect costs do we need to apply?
  • What's fair to add to the student's bill and what should we be funding from other sources?
  • How fair is it for arts students to subsidise more expensive subjects, or is that ok? 

What would a breakdown of where the new £9k fees are being spent look like.... anyone.... anyone?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Plagiarism and the importance of learning how to write

Just over a year ago I took over as secretary to my university's academic misconduct committee. As a university level committee it only deals with the most serious cases of plagiarism, cheating in exams and other forms of misconduct so if it makes it to us, it's either pretty bad, or pretty complicated, or both. As an aside to my normal international work I find it a refreshing change and both an interesting and challenging addition to my job.

Some students are what I would call out and out 'chancers', they fully know and understand the rules but they have made a calculated decision to break them anyway. They have normally done something fairly daring, and they always continue to deny any wrongdoing no matter how damning the evidence against them...

'Just because my dissertation is 86% the same as this other one, with only the country in the study changed and my dedication page, I still don't see how you can say I've plagiarised'. 

'No, I composed the survey questions and conducted the analysis on my organisation entirely myself. It is purely co-incidental that the questions and data are exactly the same as in that published report'

These, I have no sympathy for and I am pleased when the committee throws the proverbial book at them. However, they actually make up the minority of our serious misconduct in coursework cases - perhaps as little as one in ten. The majority of students fall into one of two other categories: ran out of time and panicked or really just didn't get what we expected from them and what academic writing is all about. We can try and help the first bunch by staggering deadlines, compulsory submission of drafts etc. but its the second lot that really makes me worried - because isn't it one of the fundamental qualities employers need in graduates the ability to write well?

Of course when I say write, I mean all the critical thinking and analysis that goes behind it as well - it all goes hand in hand. The opportunity and encouragement to truly learn to write was one of the greatest gifts given to me in my undergraduate arts degree. I was by no means the perfect student - I didn't do all my reading, didn't turn up for all my seminars. But I was lucky enough to be studying something that would regularly touch on areas that really piqued my interest. So I'd pick my essay topics carefully and dive in to the primary and secondary sources with gusto - trying to pull them apart and put them back together to make the argument I wanted to make. Goodness knows if you ran one of my first year essays through Turnitin you might find some fairly 'poor academic practice' but through understand my marks through feedback and by the process of writing itself, my maturity as a student grew and by the end of my degree I really loved writing.

Not every student is going to start out and progress of their own accord with the minimum of specific help like I did. I had a fantastic foundation laid for me by certain teachers at school and most of all my mother, who proofread and commented on endless pieces of GCSE and A-level coursework. For many however, who lack those foundations, and perhaps a particular passion for their subject of study, it seems like going to university is just going through the motions or just too baffling a new universe to comprehend. Maybe if we were more creative at the start of degrees, in introducing materials and topics that are more likely to spark interest, and in doing so introduce them to the art of academic writing rather than just giving them lessons on referencing styles and baffling them with our official definition of plagiarism.

In US universities I think its almost universally compulsory for students in their first year or two to take 'freshman composition' classes - for tales of this see the blog College Ready Writing, in particular the recent post about using Fahrenheit 451 in an exercise about developing a central argument in essays.

This level of attention to developing students as scholars and writes takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. Often it just seems easier to say - 'well we print study guides and run sessions if they want them', 'well they should have learnt this at A-level' or 'if they don't understand UK higher education we shouldn't let them in'. I feel that this is just abdicating our responsibility for actively developing our students. Its always argued that students need to be active learners, but before that can happen at the start of the process we need to be active teachers.   

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Einstein and IELTS

So its not been a great day today, still recovering from my CFS hangover after attempting to be social on Saturday night. Day two on twitter and I gave the UEL VC some tourist tips on visiting Malaysia so I'm counting that as a success.... But its got to past five o'clock and I need some distraction so I'm drawn to the wonder of TED, and today I fell upon Patricia Ryan's - Don't insist on English.

Wherever I've travelled in the world I've found speakers of English - whether it be western China, the hinterland of Kazakhstan or a taxi driver in Madrid. And as an often solo traveller finding an English speaker, particularly when I'm jet lagged and desperately trying to find my hotel in a strange city, I find a wave of relief often washes over me. Somehow, some way I will be understood. Then when the jet lag wears off, and I start the process of acclimatisation, a subsequent wave washes over me - tinged with a bit of shame and sadness that I am still, pretty much monolingual.

A little bit of French lingers from school, and I am still persevering with my Mandarin studies, but basically I am still a monoglot - like most of us who have English as our first language. Patricia Ryan's TEDtalk wasn't so much about how terrible the lingua franca of English is, but the benefits and value of language diversity.

As hard as it is to find the time at the moment, I have really enjoyed getting to know an entirely different language system in Mandarin. It's a very rich language, by building its words out of individual characters and sounds it can be very flexible in its standard vocabulary, perhaps even more flexible that our immensely wordy English. We may have grandfather and grandfather, they have distinct words for mother's father, mother's mother, father's mother and father's mother. There are also specific words for older sister and younger sister. I also love the compound words for everyday things - 'baoguo' money bag for wallet.

So what do we lose when we make English almost the only language for science and higher education? Do we stifle creativity by forcing our research and thoughts into a single set of signifiers? Why do our 'internationalised' universities still placed such little value on learning different languages (come on we all know its mainly 'lip service'? Maybe we should make more effort to interact with our partners and colleagues around the world in their languages, rather than teaching and publishing almost exclusively in English and only recognising what has been published in English language media. It doesn't mean we all have to be fluent, we are increasingly moving towards a situation where the 'universal translator' of Star Trek fame may become a reality - so why should we continue to get trapped by our English?

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

All the way back

Ok, I'm not going to try and fob you off with an excuse that I was too busy to blog for 10 or 11 months. I have been busy - travelling, selling a house, buying a house, moving house, working getting sick etc. But I really should have found some time to write. But I'm back now, all will be well.
As well as the usual movie, books and me posts, I'm also going to try and blog a bit more about higher education and stuff that gets me ranting. I thought about starting a new 'HE confidential' type blog, all anonymous and super secret identity like. Even went so far as creating it on WordPress. Then I realised I couldn't be bothered keeping up an alternate identity and that I was semi-anonymous on this blog so I should just suck it up and start blogging here again.
I've also finally joined the twitterverse after figuring out it could fed my information addiction and maybe some fellow HE ranters will find some interest in what I say. Well even if they don't, it gives me a place to rant. See you soon.