Part-time students in decline

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop

My mother came to England after the war, having met my father when working as a translator for the British Forces in allied-occupied Germany. She’d come from an academic family in Gottingen, and it’s hard to imagine her state of mind in finding herself in Ilford with a husband, a small child and no recognised qualifications. My father was a shopkeeper and money was tight. A few years later there were three children. By the time I, the youngest, was at secondary school, she was determined to do more with her life, and she embarked on a process of gaining first O- and A-levels, through a correspondence course, and then a degree through part-time evening study at Birkbeck College, while working as a secretary in London. Subsequently she gained a job as a lecturer in a local College of Further Education, where she flourished. At the time, like most children, I just took her student activities for granted, though I was aware this was not the kind of thing other mothers did. With hindsight, I’m incredibly proud of her, and immensely grateful for the much easier route through higher education that I was able to navigate.

This personal history made me particularly interested in a talk by Claire Callender at a seminar organised by the Knowledge Economy Campaign on 25 November. Callender is Professor of Higher Education Policy at Birkbeck and the Institution of Education, and she focused particularly on the topic of how changes in higher education funding affected part-time students. The news was pretty depressing.

Continue reading

Why evaluating scientists by grant income is stupid

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop*

As Fergus Millar noted in a letter to the Times last year, ‘in the modern British university, it is not that funding is sought in order to carry out research, but that research projects are formulated in order to get funding.’

This topsy-turvy logic has become evident in some universities, with blatant demands for staff in science subjects to match a specified quota of grant income or face redundancy. David Colquhoun’s blog is a gold-mine of information about those universities who have adopted such policies. He notes that if you are a senior figure based in the Institute of Psychiatry in London, or the medical school at Imperial College London you are expected to bring in an average of at least £200K of grant income per annum. Warwick Medical School has a rather less ambitious threshold of £90K per annum for principal investigators and £150K per annum for co-investigators.

So what’s wrong with that? It might be argued that in times of financial stringency, Universities may need to cut staff to meet their costs, and this criterion is at least objective. The problem is that it is stupid. It damages the wellbeing of staff, the reputation of the University, and the advancement of science.

Effect on staff 

The argument about wellbeing of staff is a no-brainer, and one might have expected that those in medical schools would be particularly sensitive to the impact of job insecurity on the mental and physical health of those they employ. Sadly, those who run these institutions seem blithely unconcerned about this and instead impress upon researchers that their skills are valued only if they translate into money. This kind of stress does not only impact on those who are destined to be handed their P45 but also on those around them. Even if you’re not worried about your own job, it is hard to be cheerfully productive when surrounded by colleagues in states of high distress. I’ve argued previously that universities should be evaluated on staff satisfaction as well as student satisfaction: this is not just about the ethics of proper treatment of one’s fellow human beings, it is also common-sense that if you want highly skilled people to do a good job, you need to make them feel valued and provide them with a secure working environment.

Effect on the University

The focus on research income seems driven by two considerations: a desire to bring in money, and to achieve status by being seen to bring in money. But how logical is this? Many people seem to perceive a large grant as some kind of ‘prize’, a perception reinforced by the tendency of the Times Higher Education and others to refer to ‘grant-winners’. Yet funders do not give large grants as gestures of approval: the money is not some kind of windfall. With rare exceptions of infrastructure grants, the money is given to cover the cost of doing research. Even now we have Full Economic Costing (FEC) attached to research council grants, this covers no more than 80% of the costs to universities of hosting the research. Undoubtedly, the money accrued through FEC gives institutions leeway to develop infrastructure and other beneficial resources, but it is not a freebie, and big grants cost money to implement.

So we come to the effect of research funding on a University’s reputation. I assume this is a major driver behind the policies of places like Warwick, given that it is one component of the league tables that are so popular in today’s competitive culture. But, as some institutions learn to their costs, a high ranking in such tables may count for naught if a reputation for cavalier treatment of staff makes it difficult to recruit and retain the best people.

Effect on science

The last point concerns the corrosive effect on science if the incentive structure encourages people to apply for numerous large grants. It sidelines people who want to do careful, thoughtful research in favour of those who take on more than they can cope with. There is already a glut of waste in science, with many researchers having a backlog of unpublished work which they don’t have time to write up because they are busy writing the next grant.  Four years ago I argued that we should focus on what people do with research funding rather than how much they have. On this basis, someone who achieved a great deal with modest funding would be valued more highly than someone who was failed to publish many of the results from a large grant. I cannot express it better than John Ioannidis, who in a recent paper put forward a number of suggestions for improving the reproducibility of research. This was his suggested modification to our system of research incentives:

‘….obtaining grants, awards, or other powers are considered negatively unless one delivers more good-quality science in proportion. Resources and power are seen as opportunities, and researchers need to match their output to the opportunities that they have been offered—the more opportunities, the more the expected (replicated and, hopefully, even translated) output. Academic ranks have no value in this model and may even be eliminated: researchers simply have to maintain a non-negative balance of output versus opportunities.’

Ref: Ioannidis, J. (2014). How to Make More Published Research True. PLoS Medicine, 11 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001747

*Blogpost originally posted on 8 December at

Banning extremists and ‘radical reform’

Opinion piece by Howard Hotson

The new counter-terrorism bill emerging from the Home Office late in 2014 includes a significant piece of ad hoc university legislation: the requirement that universities ban ‘extremists’ from speaking on campus. This proposed legislation seems at first sight completely unconnected to the ‘radical reform’ of higher education funding which issued from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills four years ago. Closer analysis shows, however, that it is cut from the same cloth.

That extremists should be banned from schools probably strikes most people as intuitively obvious, or would if we could define extremism and identify extremists satisfactorily. The reason is that schools are full of children, and children are generally regarded as lacking the capacity to assess controversial claims and to form defensible personal judgments of them.

But are extremists to be banned from universities on the same grounds? Are university students now to be regarded as children as well – older but little wiser, and lacking that crucial faculty: trained, discriminating intelligence? If so, it is because the core purpose of university has recently been consciously redefined.

The sovereign goal of a well-rounded university education was once regarded as the development of precisely that intellectual quality which distinguishes children from well-educated adults: the capacity independently to form defensible opinions on controversial questions. This capacity was to be developed by nurturing a core set of fundamental skills: the ability to distinguish sound from unsound claims and valid from invalid reasoning in a rigorous way, to identify the hidden assumptions underlying an argument and to trace them to their logical conclusions, to test them against a base of knowledge and considerations of value, and to develop one’s own views in frank and open discussion with others, especially with those of differing views. Debating contentious ideas was a process in which the academic community not only tested ideas but also honed the skills needed to test them. That’s why universities were once regarded as the places, par excellence, in which unorthodox ideas were rigorously examined in open debate, rather than suppressed by government fiat.

Continue reading

Australian universities at risk

Although CDBU’s focus is on British Universities, we take a keen interest in developments in other countries. Australia is of particular interest, because the loans system used in Australian higher education was used to help justify the marketisation of English universities. But now, the English example is provoking calls for even more radical change in Australia. As in England, most vice-chancellors are either silent, or actively supporting the deregulation of fees. An exception is Professor Stephen Parker, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, who writes:

I send my greetings to the Council for the Defence of British Universities. We have been going through an extraordinary period in Australian higher education, where a new government, in direct violation of immediate pre-election promises, has proposed to cut funding by 20% whilst allowing universities to charge it back from the students and go further. Except for an artificial ceiling of the equivalent international student fee, there is to be no upper limit on what domestic students can be charged. On 2nd December, the Senate voted down the proposals and the government announced it would re-introduce the Bill. I am the only vice-chancellor to speak out against the proposals and seek to defend the public nature of education and the interests of tomorrow’s students.


Read Prof Parker’s trenchant criticism of fee deregulation here in which he describes Australia as ‘sleepwalking towards the privatisation of its universities’.