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Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Thoughts on University Funding

The discussion on university funding seems to be less of a debate and more of a shouting match pitting left against right, with arguments focussing on elitism and access for poorer students.

Of course I'm worried that throwing the education system to the mercy of the capitalist market will favour rich students and inhibit social mobility.

But I'm also worried that the current system promotes mediocrity and does little to drive standards in education.  The quality and worthiness of the higher education system needs to be discussed alongside the issue of funding.

Firstly, the current fees cap creates a distorted market for funding.  Students have half of the "value judgement" decided for them, in that the price of the degree course is fixed, no matter where they "choose" to study.  And the other half of the equation - choosing the best quality establishment for their money - is also, to a large extent for many students, fixed due to extreme competition for places.

The net result is a disconnect between funding and choice, giving establishments who can fill their courses little incentive to improve and keeping some institutions on life support when they should simply fail.

From personal experience - I was lucky enough to go to one of the top 20 universities - the quality of undergraduate teaching was pitiful.  Lecturers with a very detailed understanding of their subject area do not  necessarily make good teachers.  At least not without support and training.

One example I remember is a physics professor, who'd spent a lifetime building mathematical models for ground-breaking research into understanding the universe, launching straight into the maths on the first lecture on the subject.  I wasn't alone in the students on my course who struggled over the next 4 semesters to learn by rote mathematical equations we didn't understand in order to pass exams.

It wasn't until 10 years after graduation when watching a BBC documentary on Einstein that I finally understood what the mountain of maths meant.  Similarly it wasn't until I stumbled on a website of a Canadian university that I finally understood basic concepts of quantum physics for which I'd spent 3 of the earlier years of my life learning the maths.

Oh, how my life could have been different had my university lecturers captured my imagination in the way a BBC documentary or Canadian website did!! (Yes, this is an irony alert.)

The disconnect between student choice and funding coupled with a lack of competition not only impacts the quality of education at the best universities, who have no direct financial incentive to improve and attract higher fees, but also the institutions at the bottom of the pile, who should by all rights go out of business,  but are kept alive receiving comparable fees per student to other institutions, able to fill their courses by demand driven by a notion that any university degree is better than none.

And it's not just the universities who need a kick.  Yes - students shouldn't be bound into a rigorous life of academic toil. It's great to have time to get involved in clubs, societies and student politics and still have plenty of time for socialising.  But looking back I'm shocked at my own lackadaisical attitude to attending classes - although I partly blame the quality of teaching  (see above!) - and I'm even more shocked by others I met with far less interest in learning than me.

I see the contradictions.  Money must not be a barrier to academic achievement, and saddling graduates with debts for life will be more burdensome on graduates from poorer backgrounds than those from rich.

Clearly there are no easy answers.  I've read a few reviews of the US funding system and heard how new problems are created when fees are left to market forces.  It's not hard to see how such a system is heavily reliant on grant funding and bursaries to give poorer students access to the best learning.

The Browne report and Tory proposals seem riddled with pitfalls.  21,000 per annum is not a high salary, and what if a graduate has a family to feed?  A parent returning to work part time could be better off working fewer hours and keeping under the repayment threshold.

But equally I don't think it's wise to carry on with artificial equality between institutions.  Clearly some universities are better than others and they should receive a premium.

How about a system whereby the government awards a trust fund to every student based on academic performance at school.  Four or five top A-level grades would put £80,000 in this fund, whilst three 'C's only £20,000.  The student could then spend this money throughout their life on any educational "product" they wish...

1 comment:

  1. Totally spot on. I usually hate "big question" posts with no answers but this nicely frames the problem.


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