WHO says British universities are complacent?
Almost every newspaper in the UK today had a story about the failings of universities. A parliamentary inquiry, they said, had branded British universities as complacent, unwilling to justify their standards to outside scrutiny, unable to justify the facts that (eg) the proportion of firsts had risen significantly in the last decade or so.
As usual, if you actually look at the original report from which all this comes (rather than just the press release), the story is rather different. In this case, it is both better and worse than the newspaper reports make out.
Better? Well, the "Students and Universities" report of the House of Commons' Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee has some pretty harsh words for the government. It criticises the idea that more university places can be made available without extra funding. It queries the effect of so much emphasis on research output (writ in stone by the RAE). And it recommends that the government takes a hard look at school education before simply bashing the universities (the standard response to any question of aspiration, social mobility etc etc ). So far so good.
But there is worse in the small print.
As I read this document, I asked myself where the Committee had been for the last twenty years. There are a series of recommendations which urge greater cooperation between universities and schools "to facilitate widening participation in higher education".
Absolutely. But do they not know that, where I come from, this is happening already? Indeed I am, at this minute, proudly carrying round in my bag a copy of a letter from a retiring teacher at both independent and maintained schools -- thanking my own Faculty for all the hard work and input we have given to his/her schools over the last thirty years.
Likewise, we have for years been taking "context" into account in the process of admitting students -- another thing they seem to think as radical and rare.
Then there is all the silly stuff about how badly we compare with the student experience at universities in Europe and the USA. According to this report, our students study (including library time) less than students in other European countries. And their 30 hours per week is just half the 60 hours that students in the USA claim to study. At this point, anyone who has experience of university teaching in the US and Europe must say that they cannot have been comparing like for like.
So who are "they" and how did they do the comparisons. And where was Cambridge in all this?
"They" were the "Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills" parliamentary committee, 13 of them (11 men and 2 women). And to produce this report they had met just nine times to hear "evidence", seven times in London, and once in Liverpool and Oxford. They also went once to Washington to discover about US universities.
This begins to explain why they hadn't caught up with the kind of university experience that is my bread and butter. They had not come to Cambridge once, nor did they hear oral evidence from any Cambridge student or academic in post (maybe we could have written in, but didn' t -- perhaps because we were too busy). Their special advisers were all those who worked in research into higher education (not an ordinary practitioner amongst them).
And the only access they had to any comparative material from overseas was written statistics or their single trip to Washington. Only one member of the committee (Gordon Marsden) had any experience of working or studying in an American University. None had experience of a European campus. I have both. And to me it seems absolutely preposterous to suggest that (whatever the current difficulties of the UK system) the undergraduate experience elsewhere is better.
If you are worried about assured standards in the UK, try looking at the USA -- where the grades for each course are normally given by the lecturer who taught the class, and by no one else. When these guys criticised our system, with double marking AND and external examiner, did they realise that?. And didn't they realise how much of the teaching in elite universities in the States was done by postgraduate students, when they criticised that aspect of UK universities?
Meanwhile, as Cambridge kept quiet, others in the academy made their views very well known to the committee. Michael Arthur, the Vice Chancellor of Leeds keeps cropping up in the report -- and being patted on the back for "innovations" that have been common in Cambridge (or at least in my subject in college) for years .... a specific programme of support for those students from non-traditional background etc etc. Presumably he wrote in vociferously, and no one really knew whether his innovations were innovations or not?
And they didn't always check out whether he was right. He claimed that 9 members of the committee were graduates of "Russell Group" universities. I could only make that 7 members. But I did notice that only 2 out of 13 had done Arts subjects (unless Rob Wilson did -- whose degree I cant discover).Is that significant in their pushing of Science?
I don't mind a group of MPs doing a quick raid into higher education. Indeed I am rather pleased that they do. I do mind the rest of the country imagining that this is well researched and well founded. In fact this is precisely the kind of stuff I would warn my students against.