The VC who tried to ban elevenses

Which rules should govern students’ lives has often been a live issue. Student disciplinary codes are a balancing act between the rules necessary in a community living close by each other, especially to maintain academic integrity, and the rights of students as people, now mostly seen as adults.

When thinking about this, we often concentrate on the major changes that came in the late 1960s and early 1970s, following a change in the age of majority, part of a major change in social attitudes, and after a period of intensive student political action. However, there was an earlier period of change, just after World War One. This is exemplified by the actions of Dr Lewis Farrar, Rector of Exeter College (1913-1928) and Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford (1920-1923).

Farrar was in many ways a bridge between the ancient university and the modern. Elected to a fellowship at Exeter, the only requirement of which was that he did not marry, he headed off to Germany to undertake study. When it was his turn, Farrar set out to be an activist Vice Chancellor, he saw his role as going further than just chairing meetings. That made him unpopular in a number of areas, but particularly in the area of regulating student lives where he became known as a ‘banner’ for all the things he tried to ban.

Farrar describes one such incident. After the First World war, Oxford accepted a cohort of male students whose entry had been postponed by service. These men had returned with the ‘habit of taking coffee or chocolate or other café stuff … about eleven in the morning’ (Farrar, p295). He was dismayed that this habit was taken up by ‘our lazy and self-indulgent boys and girls’ with the result that:

… cafés began to do a roaring trade between 11 and 12 in the morning, undergraduates of both sexes sitting there together indulging themselves with pleasant conversation and unnecessary and unmanly food. … This … which was a new disease, was rampant, and was exciting much public talk and censure, as another nail in the coffin of our industry.

Farrar p 295-6

The University was well used to exercising their powers to control bars, which students were strictly forbidden from entering. Farrar drew up a plan with the two Proctors (one more willing than the other) to ban students from cafés in the morning. But he reckoned without the women’s colleges, whose heads petitioned against this as ‘their poor girls … could not stand the strain of going from nine to one without sustenance’. He relented, students were not banned from elevenses, but he later regretted this:

… I missed a chance of abolishing a demoralising habit which I hear now on good authority is injuring Oxford. I wish I had been more ruthless and not so susceptible to the feminine appeal.

Farrar p 296

Farrar happily recounts some of the other issues he dealt with: limiting political meetings; refusing permission for a new Oxford Playhouse; worrying about Bolshevik publications; remonstrating with Indian students etc.

Although Farrar had been against the admission of women to degrees in 1896, after the war he agreed it ‘was right for the University to open its doors; which we did cordially and hospitably’ (p281). It was Farrar who presided over the first admission of women to degrees at Oxford.

Farrar was clearly unpopular. He received extensive critical press, was parodied in public and, in the most extraordinary event, he received poisoned chocolates. It turned out what had had been first thought to be powdered glass covering the chocolates was harmless tooth powder, but this all got into the press.

The upshot was, in what Farrar believed was an unprecedented step, he was summoned by Lord Curzon, the Chancellor. Curzon had received a petition asking that Farrar not be appointed to the usual third year of his term of office. This threat was not carried out, but Farrar saw this as a ‘deadly attack on the office of the Vice-Chancellor’ (p317) who might be unable to ‘follow any constructive policy at all’ if the Chancellor could dismiss him. The University would ‘become a mere chaos of colleges’.

It’s possible to see Farrar as a bridge between the ancient and modern University of Oxford, but it’s hard to read his autobiography as anything but extraordinary. It’s been used extensively as source in histories of the university, but it might be worth a proper appraisal of his term of office, as the VC who tried to ban elevenses but also who saw the need for leadership of the university, bringing together the various threads of administration.

Reference: Farrar, L R, 1934, An Oxonian Looks Back, London, Martin Hopkinson Ltd

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Protecting the name of a University

‘University’ is a protected word. We should be looking to all regulators to protect it, especially the Office for Students. So here’s a curious thing.

At present there are two routes for corporations who wish to use it. The Privy Council can an make an Order of Council under section 76(1) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. Companies House can approve the use under section 55 or 1194 of the Companies Act 2006, following a letter of non-objection from DfE. In each case, the Privy Council and DfE have regard to whether the organisation meets the criteria:

An organisation wishing to apply for approval to use the title ‘university’ or ‘university college’:

• must have been granted powers to award taught degrees;

• must be able to demonstrate that it has regard to the principles of good governance as are relevant to its sector; and

• (for university title only) must normally have at least 1,000 full time equivalent higher education students, of whom at least 750 are registered on degree courses (including foundation degree programmes); and the number of full time equivalent higher education students must exceed 55 per cent of the total number of full time equivalent students.

Guidance for Higher Education Providers: Criteria and Process for applying for University Title and University College Title, BIS 2015

There is a loophole, which I have complained about, in that DfE have provided letters of non-objection to providers who are franchising courses using ‘university’ in their title as long as it is included with another word (which is not ‘college’). Hence UA92 and UCFB have ‘university’ in their long title. There are also the ‘university centres‘ in Further Education Colleges – although the approval of their title is not particularly transparent and sub-editors on local newspapers invariably drop the qualifying word (such as here with the proposed University Campus North Lincolnshire).

One of the areas that the Office for Students has been designed to tackle is the split of responsibility between them, as regulator, and the Privy Council, DfE and Companies House. The current arrangements end on 31 March, and the OfS will become responsible for the whole regulatory side, with QAA providing the advice against the criteria.

One curious area will be international universities. There are many universities based elsewhere who have branch campuses in the UK. These range in scale and complexity. There are currently 38 overseas providers who hold a Tier 4 Licence, but there are other universities who fit alongside UK universities (such as Stanford or Georgia who run outposts in Oxford) whose students are here for shorter periods. If they’ve not attempted to offer a British degree, or seek specific course designation, then they’ve been allowed to call themselves by their overseas name. New York University in London is ok.

Some want to be a hybrid though. Richmond, the American International University in London, has been given a place on the OfS Register with an ongoing E2 condition about its UK functions being subject to English Law. Richmond has taught degree awarding powers alongside its American accreditation and has been approved via the companies act route to use ‘university’.


So, it’s curious then that Amity Global Education Ltd, which trades as Amity University [IN] London, has been allowed on the register without qualification about its title. OfS note that it does not have the right to use ‘university’ in its title, but it is doing so consistently in its trading activities – its documentation uses ‘university’ throughout, including its Student Protection Plan. Amity is on the Tier 4 Register as a private provider, submits accounts to companies house, but its directors are officers of Amity University in India.

The QAA reported that the Amity University [IN] London title had been approved for use by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in 2013. It’s not immediately clear on which basis this was done. Amity University [IN] London has courses franchised to it, including PhD registrations, but remains very small. It’s neither a UK institution that has an obvious basis to use the title or an international institution that isn’t offering UK degrees.

No doubt this will all get sorted. On 1 April OfS will be the regulator for university title in both its forms. One hopes it will have a look at the letters of non-objection previously issued by government departments and wonder whether these fit with the regulatory framework. It’s probably a simple thing to ensure that providers that do not have the right to use ‘university’ in their title, but are using it, are not admitted to the register. OfS also have the explicit power to revoke the use of ‘university’ by providers not on the register.

When the Conservatives nearly introduced a Graduate Contribution Scheme.

At some point in 2019 the Conservative government will have to conclude their review of post-18 education funding, informed by the panel chaired by Philip Augar. Once the review has concluded, there will be the issue of getting any legislative changes through parliament. This is a very public piece of policy creation; announced by the Prime Minister at a party conference, and still able to command front pages of Sunday newspapers.

What if a Conservative government accepted the need for changes to the way that universities were funded, drew up a policy that would have graduates contribute to the cost, but then had to back down because the parliamentary arithmetic was all wrong, not least because of the problems it was having over Europe. Yes, its 1993.

John Patten was Secretary of State for Education in 1993 and conscious that the newly merged sector was under financial pressure from the growth in student numbers. The government faced a decision: move back from its 1 in 3 participation target or increase funding. A briefing note was prepared for John Major by Nick True, Deputy Head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit.

You can see – Major has said ‘No’ to renouncing the target (thanks Michael Portillo for that suggestion). The proposal in its place would be to extend the loan scheme to cover the part of the income raised through tuition fees. In the early 1990s a dual funding system existed whereby the new funding councils paid a grant, but the ‘fee’ was still paid on the students’ behalf by the LEA.

The scheme would be controversial – the fee would be £750, graduates would only start to pay back if they were earning 85% of the national average wage. The briefing concludes, presciently :

This is tricky territory, but not indefensible. No doubt Labour or the Liberals could make fine promises to students in 1996/97 election. … They might promise restoration of free tuition, or a reversal of the whole loan regime. Our weak position among the student vote could be further eroded, but its effects are unlikely to run wider – and we have to do something to raise resources to meet our long term objectives.

True, N., 1993 p2 (Original emphasis)

It’s agreed that this can go to the Ed(H) cabinet committee, where it is simultaneously supported in principle but noted that the Whips’ think it is unlikely to command a majority in the House of Commons. By the next month it’s noted that John Patten accepts that the idea is dead, but he has permission to continue with his Education Bill containing provisions for teacher training and students’ unions (both long term projects expected to be popular with the party in the country).

It is not particularly well known that government had formally considered a graduate contribution scheme three years before the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education was established. There were more years of the decline of the unit of resource to go before that. The General Policy on Education files in the PREM19 series of Prime Minister’s papers show the other education priorities competing for attention (alongside Major’s European problems). These included a charter for further and higher education as part of Major’s Citizen’s Charter initiative. However the chief education policy issue was the revised national curriculum with the issue of new vocational courses, which was being ably led by Sir Ron Dearing. Dearing, of course, would go on to propose a graduate contribution scheme.

Reference:
True, N., 1993 Higher Education Funding – Charging for Tuition
TNA PREM 19/4099

Conditions of Approval

The heart of the OfS regulatory framework is the Register and the initial and ongoing conditions of approval to be on it.  As OfS has gone through the process it has made a number of specific ongoing conditions on individual higher education providers, starting with the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

It is public information that the conditions have been imposed.  This is not the case with the ‘enhanced monitoring’ that OfS reported it was undertaking on at least 163 of 289 providers on the register (there are now 338 on the register).  However, the condition information is not easily to hand – the register is still currently a spreadsheet and the conditions are only accessible through links in that spreadsheet.  The monthly regulatory bulletin does list conditions, but does not link to them. So, for my information, I’ve pulled together a table and attached links to the full condition.  I will endeavour to keep this up-to-date*.

Provider   Summary of Condition Date
Oxford Brookes University A1 In accordance with the requirements … , the provider must conduct and complete, within the Relevant Timeframe, a robust and comprehensive assessment of its performance in relation to the “Underrepresented Groups” 31 December 2018
University of Bolton B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
(a) deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas: …
(i) continuation rates for full-time first degree students
(ii) continuation rates for part-time other postgraduate and postgraduate taught masters students
(iii) completion rates for full-time undergraduate students
(iv) professional employment and progression to postgraduate study rates of PGCE students; and 
(b) ensure that the more recent levels of performance in the following indicators of student outcomes are permanently sustained (the most recent indicators are labelled “year 5” and further details on the contributing data years will be set out in the forthcoming technical specification):  
(i) continuation rates for full-time PGCE, other postgraduate, postgraduate taught masters and postgraduate research students
31 January 2019
London Metropolitan University B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
(a) deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas: 
(i) Continuation rates for full-time first degree students and postgraduate research students;
(ii) Continuation rates for part-time other undergraduate, first degree and postgraduate taught masters students; 
(iii) Completion rates for full and part-time undergraduate students; and
(b) ensure that the more recent levels of performance in the following indicators of student outcomes are permanently sustained (the most recent indicators are labelled “year 5” and further details on the contributing data years will be set out in the forthcoming technical specification):
(i) Continuation rates for full-time other undergraduate and postgraduate taught masters students 
(ii) Professional employment and postgraduate progression rates for full-time first degree students.
31 January 2019
University of Cambridge A1 The provider must comply with all of the following requirements:
a. it must conduct and complete, within the Relevant Timeframe, an evaluation of the impact of its financial support for students in accordance with the commitments of its Approved 2019-20 Access and Participation Plan; and
b. it must produce a report containing the results and outcomes of that evaluation (including, where applicable, any actions it intends to take) and submit the final and complete version of that report to the Director for Fair Access and Participation
28 February 2019
University of Oxford A1 The provider must comply with all of the following requirements:
a. it must conduct and complete, within the Relevant Timeframe, an evaluation of the impact of its financial support for students in accordance with the commitments of its Approved 2019-20 Access and Participation Plan; and
b. it must produce a report containing the results and outcomes of that evaluation (including, where applicable, any actions it intends to take) and submit the final and complete version of that report to the Director for Fair Access and Participation
28 February 2019
United Colleges Group B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
(a) to deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas: 
(i) Continuation rates for full-time other undergraduate students 
(ii) Completion rates for full-time other undergraduate students
29 March 2019
Bradford College B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
a. deliver a material improvement in student outcomes within two years (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas  
(i) Continuation rates for full time other undergraduate, PGCE students and postgraduate taught masters students  
(ii) Continuation rates for part time first degree students, other postgraduate students and postgraduate taught masters students.  
(iii) Professional employment and post graduate progression rates for full time first degree and postgraduate taught masters students   
(iv) Professional employment and post graduate progression rates for part time first degree, other postgraduate and postgraduate taught masters students…
30 April 2019
Grimsby Institute B3 Following a review of the performance data for full time starters between 2011 and 2016 and for part time starters between 2010 and 2015, the provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:  
(a) deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas
(i) Continuation rates for full-time first degree and full-time PGCE students
(ii)  Professional employment/postgraduate progression rates for full-time first degree students and full-time PGCE students  
(b) ensure that the more recent levels of performance in the following indicators of student outcomes are permanently sustained (the most recent indicators are labelled “year 5” and further details on the contributing data years will be set out in the forthcoming technical specification):
(i) Continuation rates for full-time other undergraduate and part-time PGCE students
30 April 2019
Blackburn College B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
(a) deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas  
(i)  Continuation rates for full-time other-undergraduate students;   
(ii) Continuation rates for full and part-time first degree students;  
(iii)  Completion rates for undergraduate students
(iv) Professional employment or progression to postgraduate study rates for full-time first degree students;   
(v) Professional employment or progression to postgraduate study rates for full and part-time PGCE students; 
30 April 2019
Halesowen College B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:  
(a) deliver a material improvement in student outcomes in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained in relation to the following areas: 
(i) Continuation rates for other undergraduate students …
30 April 2019
Hopwood Hall College B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out in … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
(a) deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas: 
(i)  Continuation rates for full-time other undergraduate students
(b) ensure that the more recent levels of performance in the following indicators of student outcomes are permanently sustained (the most recent indicators are labelled “year 5” and further details on the contributing data years will be set out in the forthcoming technical specification):
(i) Continuation rates for part-time other undergraduate
30 April 2019
LTE Group The Manchester College UCEN Manchester Novus MOL Total People Limited Novus Cambria B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS… which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
(a) deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas: 
(i) Continuation rates for full-time students studying at other undergraduate level;
(ii) Continuation rates for part-time students studying at other undergraduate level;
(iii) Continuation rates for part-time first degree students;
(iv) Professional employment and postgraduate progression rates for full-time first degree students.
(b) ensure that the more recent levels of performance in the following indicators of student outcomes are permanently sustained (the most recent indicators are labelled “year 5” and further details on the contributing data years will be set out in the forthcoming technical specification):
(i) Continuation rates for full-time first degree students   
30 April 2019
Aylesbury College B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
(a) to deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas: 
(i)  Continuation rates for full-time other undergraduate students;
(ii) Professional employment or postgraduate study rates for full time first degree students. 
(iii) Completion rates for undergraduate students
31 May 2019
City of Sunderland College B3 The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:
(a) to deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas: 
(i) Continuation rates for full-time undergraduate students
(ii) Completion rates for full-time undergraduate students
30 June 2019
Peterborough Regional College B3   The provider must submit an improvement plan for approval by the OfS … which complies with the requirements set out … and specifies the actions that the provider intends to take in order to:  
(a) to deliver a material improvement in student outcomes (in a manner which is capable of being permanently sustained) in relation to the following areas: 
(i) Continuation rates for full-time other undergraduate students.
30 June 2019
Royal Northern College of Music E1 The provider must comply with all of the following requirements: 
(a) it must, within the Relevant Timeframe, make any revisions it considers are necessary to the Relevant Governing documents in order to ensure that they properly uphold the Public Interest Governance Principles; and
(b) it must submit the complete and final versions of all the Relevant Governing documents, along with a written explanation of any revisions made, to the OfS
01 September 2019
Richmond, the American International University in London E2 The provider must comply with the following requirement:
(a) it must submit to English law and the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales in proceedings relating to its English higher education provision (including where this is provided by a subcontractor).  
 

I assume that OfS will announce when each provider has satisfied the condition, although probably not whether the provider remains under ‘enhanced monitoring’.  Six providers should have already submitted their improvement plans.

So far conditions have only been imposed for three of the areas: A1 relating to an access and participation plan; B3 student outcomes (with issues for continuation and completion rates and employability); and E1 governance and E2 jurisdiction.  There are probably at least 100 applications for registration still to be finalised, so there may yet be more conditions in different areas.   While these are all relating to initial registration, it should be expected that issues relating to the general conditions will emerge over time.

Updated 4 April 2019

*Yes, I really do need a better hobby.

Specialisation: Switching, Selection and Sorting

The ‘most significant reform is required’, said David Willetts, in the lack of breadth and the over-specialisation of our curriculum (Willetts, 2008, p340).  Not only is it a problem in itself – we will never tackle C P Snow’s two cultures otherwise – it drives other problems, particularly the division of our curriculum into a false academic/vocational dichotomy and the hyper-selectivity of parts of our entire education system.  The following expands on my piece as part of Wonkhe’s kite flying exercise but also responds to continuing debates about selectivity, a recent example being Iain Mansfield’s HEPI paper on Grammar Schools and comments by Nick Hillman posing a key question about the age at which selection is justified.

We’ve not seen much joined-up policy making from DfE since it took back FE & HE in 2016, so this could be a big opportunity. The biggest prize would be to move against the over-specialisation of courses. Over-specialisation at 18 sets in train specialisation at 16, 14 and 11. It drives an over-reliance on knowledge-based exams, which means students and their families making choices earlier and earlier.  As courses become specialised selection becomes necessary, and that also starts to spiral.

After the wave of expansion in the 1950s, the Robbins report looked at the criticism of first degrees, with concerns the curriculum was too full and too specialised. It was concluded that a ‘higher proportion should be receiving a broader education for their first degrees’ (Robbins 1963 p93).  The Dearing report explicitly picked up the issue from Robbins, recommending that HEIs review their programmes in terms of breath and depth.  They recommended:

Institutions that wish to introduce breadth to the early years of higher education programmes could consider admitting students to a faculty or to the institution, rather than to a specific programme, in order to send strong signals to schools and their pupils about the importance that higher education attaches to a broad education. (Dearing, 1997, p133)

A broad curriculum many have many advantages in its own rights, particularly as to what we value in education. In the specialised curriculum model, we prioritise knowledge.  If we were to organise a proper University Challenge series, this should be two interdisciplinary teams working on a problem for 30 minutes, not barking out facts as quickly as possible.  But there are other issues too.

Switching

Specialisation confounds those who would see ‘switching’ as the perfect market solution.  Higher Education is an unusual product – you normally only do the various stages of it once.  Although students do transfer, this is complex and many universities don’t facilitate it because their courses are specialised – even with highly regulated courses it can be hard to start, say a law degree, at one place and finish at another.  In the US with their more general education structures it is far more easy, some state systems are built around transfers from 2 year colleges to complete at 4 year ones and the federal government may mandate this.

Selecting 

I think specialisation plays a key part in our focus on selecting students.  Nick Hillman asks the question, if selection at 18 is acceptable, then why is it problematic at 11?   If you accept that admission to courses is primarily about determining whether a student can benefit from them, then specialisation plays a role.  Students need both knowledge and skills to be able to benefit, so additional specialisation creates pathways where pre-requisites are built up.  In England, the national curriculum prescribes the learning that should be followed at key stage 3, but there are choices which can be made at key stage 4 for GCSEs etc, including moving to a UTC offering a specialised curriculum.   Although choice opens out even further after key stage 4 , it does so in a highly specialised context, framed by the prospect of university offers or pathways to employment.

Specialisation drives selection, but selection drives specialisation.  I’ve noted before that there were complaints in the 1950s that as gaining university places became more competitive, universities could limit scarce places to better prepared students.  A process of transferring the curriculum from the first stages of university to the last stage of school slowly took place.

There’s a fine example of this with the two Maths Schools (with more to follow), twining specialisation with selectivity. At King’s a GSCE grade 8 is required in maths – an outcome limited to 8.3% of those who took it alongside a 7 in Physics (less selective – 42.6% of those who took that GCSE got at least that grade).

I think the justification for selection comes from choice.  This is broadly the same case that Jonathan Simons makes on Wonkhe that it comes from lack of compulsion.  I think it’s less about the choice not to engage with a level of education, but the choice of different courses with different entrance requirements.

That’s not the end of the story though; it is clear that as well as deciding who can benefit, selection is rationing places.  Oxford will only admit 3250 undergraduates a year, so it needs to ration its places.  No doubt there is a pool of at least 32500 school leavers who could benefit from going to Oxford (if they want to study the courses and live a particular kind of residential life), sometimes it’s assumed that 325000 people ought to envy going there.  Using success at A level is a perfectly rational basis to do decide who to admit, even if we know that success can be affected by other factors.

The impact of rationing and choosing work together.  We have a hierarchy that comes from a long legacy where choice was restricted.  Choosing the ‘academic’ route has greater esteem; it happens at 11, 14, 16 and 18.  Choosing the selective route has greater esteem.  Surely at the broadest stage, with the least choice, there should be the least rationing?  A key concern about selection at 11 is that we are rationing a route towards the greatest esteem on the least evidence, when we expect all students to take the same curriculum. As we increase specialisation, we increase the choice but we also decrease the esteem that attaches to the least rationed outcomes.

Sorting

All of this would help DfE act on Simon Marginson’s conclusion that the hierarchy of value in higher education is the keystone issue:

In building greater social equity in higher education, within increasingly high-participation systems, the quality of mass higher education is the most important single issue. In short, the value of higher education should be made more equal between institutions, so that higher education can maximise its contribution to more democratic, more equal, more universally productive and more solidaristic societies. (Marginson, 2016, p273)

We are too dominated by hierarchy; that diminishes the importance of the diversity of approaches that we take. The preoccupation with knowledge enhances the fake dichotomy between ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ higher education, which fades off into a further, but lower, category of ‘technical’ education.

Less specialisation would helps DfE sell a diversity of educational approaches, especially technical education, by not creating it as a fixed path at 11, 14, 16 or even 18.  These junctions attract the extra issues of sorting: that the ‘choice’ between grammar and secondary modern, comprehensive or UTC, sixth form or FE college becomes laden with more than just the issue of the course chosen.  It ends with the most hyper-selective where schools measure themselves on the number of pupils entering Oxbridge or Russell Group universities.  The sorting becomes a signifier to others; accentuating the benefit it confers.

So with the impact specialisation has, and accepting all we hold dear about the autonomy of universities, why not have DfE try to tackle this? It could support broader first years? That might support more general study at 16, enable more switching of paths, enable students to range more along the continuum of ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ paths, allow students to build up a wider pattern of qualifications. Broader qualifications could see switching universities if you want, but also lifelong learning as students could have more learning skills.  Do what Dearing suggested and admit students to faculties, not courses.

References

Dearing, R, [The National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education], 1996, Higher Education in the learning society, HMSO, London
Robbins, L, [Report of the Committee appointed by the Prime Minister under the Chairmanship of Lord Robbins] 1963, Higher Education, London, HMSO
Marginson, S, 2016, Higher Education and the Common Good. Melbourne, Melbourne University Press
Willetts, D, 2017, A University Education, Oxford, Oxford University Press

Student Housing: an utopian vision

Student accommodation is returning to being a big issue.  Recent pieces have called attention to the cost, and that many accommodation packages now cost in excess of the annual maintenance loan.  Meanwhile, there is concern about the provision for ‘commuting’ students.  This brings us back to why we are in this situation – why has the UK, but particularly England, prioritised the residential student experience?

I did a quick summary of the history and emerging problems, but here I want to present an optimistic vision of student housing in the post-war period as described in a book by William Mullins and Phyllis Allen – Student Housing – Architectural and Social Aspects published in 1971.

This book sets out to look at student housing in the UK with an appraisal of its requirements, plans and photographs of some of the ‘better schemes’ built internationally, and a briefing guide for those ‘coming to the problems of student housing for the first time’ (Mullins & Allen 1971 p vii).

The chief glory is the plans and photographs, depicting an international style of housing.  Sometimes this is integrated with teaching, in collegiate settings, and sometimes in separate locations.  What’s clear is that provision is broadly equal; there are no luxury studio flats – these are not segregated gated communities built on the ability to pay (in the UK this is a deliberate consequence of UGC funding policies).  As a consequence these are temporary homes, intended to be a base away from the family home, encouraging integration in the common pursuit of study.

External Spaces

With the exception of the halls in London, the majority of the housing featured have generous external spaces, with clear connections between the different buildings. Mullins and Allen do not arrange their illustrated schemes in chronological order, but an early example featured is the Graduate Centre at Harvard, whose principal architect Walter Gropius taught at the Graduate School of Design.

IMG_0103

Graduate Centre, Harvard 1951 (The Architects Collaborative) p77

The international style is such that this type of covered walkway is a feature of many post-war UK campuses.   Harvard could easily be York or Lancaster.

IMG_0104

West Midlands College of Education, Walsall 1963 (Richard Sheppard, Robson & Partners) p193

Away from the universities, colleges of education were being built on similar lines.  Architects for Local Education Authorities built campuses that looked very similar to those being constructed for the ‘new universities’.   In turn, student housing could also go upwards in precast concrete.

Student Life 

There is a clear sense that the housing is designed to create community.  Although the single study bedrooms (the briefing guide notes the privacy problems of shared rooms) are increasingly independent, there are generous communal spaces.

The plans shows that, as well as the corridor or staircase models of residences, the grouping into flats with shared resources was starting to come in.  There are rooms with ensuite facilities too.  Student life in the rooms is similar with a bed and a desk, but also different: record players and radios are the only technology in sight.

Furniture and Fittings

The guide at the end of the book raises issues that architects need to consider when planning housing, including the cost of furnishing the rooms. Handy hints are offered about new modular furniture, and how these might be converted to use for summer lets. The photographs provide further insights into student rooms in use.

Finance

Mullins & Allen note that Treasury grants (via the UGC) will be inadequate to meet the need created by rising student numbers, and universities should now be looking for loan finance. They note that Lancaster had the first successful scheme; borrowing £500,000 at 8% over 30 years. The sums worked on students paying £3 per week (the only possible upgrade bring an extra 2 shillings & 6 pence a week for a room with a hand basin).

There was no return to major capital funding of residences – student accommodation moved off the main balance sheet, as loans financed institutional building – especially as non-UGC HEIs caught up with provision. The growth of student housing companies now means a far greater variety of provision, but what was once the standard vision of decent communal spaces is reserved for luxury providers. Mullins & Allen offer an insight back to a vision of egalitarian provision for all students, a utopia – increasingly non-existent.

Reference

Mullins W & Allen P, 1971,  Student Housing – Architectural and Social Aspects, London, Crosby Lockwood & Son.  

National exams are no answer to grade inflation

The English HE regulator has made an entry to the grade improvement/inflation debate, firmly accusing universities of inflation. And as a response Sonia Sodha has pitched some solutions, including:

university examination boards that are responsible for setting assessment right across the system

She also suggests opening exams at universities to other students (the system that ran when external students could take London exams) which neatly subjugates the teaching of one university to another.

We had something similar in the summer with Tom Richmond’s A Degree of Uncertainty report for Reform. He clearly saw some of the obvious pitfalls with national exams, so came up with the concept of the ‘Designated Assessment Body’ (DAB). The DAB would set an exam for each subject which would be used each year to assess what proportion of the subject cohort would get which degree class.   We know that simple norm referencing would be awful; predetermining a fixed % across different universities would be a nonsense, so the DAB is a great example of British policy making.  It contrived an extraordinary system to deal with the intractable flaw to a solution no one wants to a problem that may not be real (cf TEF).

I want to focus on just one aspect of this, and explain why it brought Immanuel Kant to mind.  Richmond advances the idea that within each principal subject area, the OfS would appoint a DAB.  The DAB would adopt the most stringent powers of any of the existing PSRBs, the GMC, and allow it to require all sorts of things from universities – such as maximum SSRs.  But the heart of it comes in its assessment:

Each DAB would create a single, national assessment for all final-year students in the subject(s) that they are responsible for. This would be based on a ‘core curriculum’ written by the DAB in partnership with HE providers that would cover the fundamental elements of the degree course in question. It is envisaged that this assessment would be no more than 3-4 hours in length. It may comprise of one or two separate elements (e.g. one ‘knowledge’ and one ‘skills’ test) and it would be up to the DAB to decide whether the test(s) would be best suited to a paper-based or online format. (p37)

Richmond wants to limit this to a ‘core’ and for it to only count for 10% of a degree classification in order to deflect from the obvious concern that this would impose a national curriculum.  But clearly it would still have the same effect.  The assessment would drive what proportion of the subject cohort would be able to get good degrees.  A cohort of students that performed well would get allocated a greater slice of the national number of firsts.  Clearly performance in this assessment will really matter – not least as Richmond envisages running a value-added KPI it will be plugged into every league table.

Richmond knew that this is controversial, so he cited the existing work of two PSRBs here; Medicine and Law.  The GMC and the BSB/SRB systems are different, but both have defined the accepted content for the academic stage of the training for a regulated career.  In each case the curriculum to be followed is very well established, but with variations on the level of detail. For example law students must study the key elements and general principles of seven areas of legal study, thereby ensuring that every LLB graduate knows torts.  Although the joint standard is rather board, there is a great deal of acceptance of what constitutes the study of torts; a feature of legal study based on key precedents and cases.

This makes them rather different from other subjects.  The subject benchmark for history opens with the following statement:

History differs from many subjects in that historians do not recognise a specific body of required knowledge or a core with surrounding options. It is taken as self-evident that the acquisition of knowledge and understanding of the human past is of incalculable value both to the individual and to society at large, and that a key object of education in history is to enable this to be acquired. It is accepted that there is variation in how the vast body of knowledge which constitutes the subject is tackled in different honours degree programmes.

Sodha’s notion that Oxford Brookes would prepare students for Oxford’s history exams doesn’t get around that – it’s just saying that their take on that variation should be prioritised over other universities.

Richmond’s solution of allowing history to have a core curriculum on ancient or modern history misses the point too.  The point is that history doesn’t have a fixed curriculum, and that is what makes it, and other subjects, a higher education.  This brings us to the Conflict of the Faculties.

Immanuel Kant wrote his Conflict of the Faculties in response to a rebuke issued under the king of Prussia’s name in 1794. Accused of misusing his philosophy to ‘distort and disparage many of the cardinal and foundational teachings of the Holy Scriptures’ the king demands he gives a ‘conscientious vindication’ of his actions and to not repeat his actions ‘Failing this, you must expect unpleasant measures for your continuing obstinacy’

Kant’s response builds on the traditional division of the university in a lower (philosophical or arts) faculty and three upper faculties (Theology, Law and Medicine).  This was the medieval structure where the arts had to be studied before a student could take a higher degree in one of the professions (broadly this distinction has been maintained in the US system).  For Kant, this distinction is important – the professions were directed by the state:

So the biblical theologian … draws his teachings not from reason but from the Bible; the professor of law gets his, not from natural law, but from the law of the land; and the professor of medicine does not draw his method of therapy as practiced upon the public from the physiology of the human body but from medical regulations.  As soon as one of these faculties presumes to mix with its teaching something it derives from reason, it offends against the authority of the government that issues orders…  (Kant, I, Conflict of the Faculties, 1992 Lincoln University of Nebraska Press p 35)

The lower faculty had to be free, it had to base its teaching on reason alone.  This version of academic freedom was, of course, highly disciplined (we must continue to draw the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech).  This is Lehrfreiheit – the freedom to teach.  In the contemporary British university this is qualified; there are approval processes, using those subject benchmarks, and the marketing department may have a view or two.  In curriculum terms, Richmond’s DAB proposal is highly problematic; although to defers to a subject community, it aims to fix an element of each subject around a common core defined years in advance by a central committee appointed by the OfS.

Having held the right of the lower faculty to use reason, he goes onto helpfully show that it could help the higher faculties.  His own physiology examples may not have been that helpful (Kant had interesting views about digestion), but in the two centuries science has amply shown that it can help medicine.

We need to understand grade improvement, and we need to separate the many causes that are grounded in better teaching, better assessment and better student effort from any gaming from universities with an eye on a league table. There’s a process already looking at this, which OfS decided to gatecrash this week; it’s vital that national or external exams do not become the suggested solution to this issue.