Girl, Interrupting

October 27, 2010

Increased student fees are not the erosion of a welfare state

But rather an opportunity..
fee increases can be beneficial to both students AND universities if done the right way

Student fees are set to increase from around £3,290 to, maybe, as the Browne report recommended, up to £14,000….

So many people find this appalling, especially those who were educated in Britain for no personal expense (or even paid something by the state) back in the day. But that was then and this is now.

There are several arguments as to why the state SHOULD pay for higher education. One of them is that state funded education leads to a more equal social model, where access across all social classes, regardless of familial income, is dependent only on ability, without any bias towards the rich. There is a fear that introducing higher student fees will basically screw the poor, e.g. less well-off students will be able to afford a higher education regardless of their ability.

However, even in the current supposedly more equal higher education model, poorer students are still at a relative disadvantage. Even though there has been a recent increase in the number of poor students who attend university in the UK, there is still disproportionate number of wealthier students at UK Universities. Such as Oxford and Cambridge, who, according to the Guardian only accepts about 1% of the poorest students. This is due in a large part to the fact that those from poorer backgrounds don’t have the same secondary school opportunities as richer public school students. Able students don’t always have the opportunity to be educated in an appropriate manner to allow them to even get into university.

In the 1970’s a much smaller percentage of students even attended university than do today, a much smaller percentage. The increase in student numbers reflects an increase in opportunity across socio-economic classes but also reflects the lack of opportunity in other available employment. But the bottom line is that with increasing student numbers in higher education, someone has to pay for it and there is a limit to what any government can pay, however socially minded.

But I think that rather than being an entirely negative thing, student fees could mean hope for the future, if done correctly, increase the educational opportunities for poorer students

1 – higher student fees University could increase the money available to make secondary schools better leading to a better chance for students from poor backgrounds (who tend to live in poor compulsory school districts) to be competitive to attend university.

2 – a fee increase means that Universities have MORE money, and MORE money means (if managed correctly) more places for students. I recently attended a talk in Parliament by Ben Wildavsky of the Kauffman Foundation and author of the book The Great Brain Race who noted that the increase in student fees at University of California, LA (UCLA) has actually led to an increase in the number of students from poor background not a decrease.

As a side note increased ‘private’ money for Universities leads to a decrease of state control, so that on a whim the state can’t decide, as this current government has, to only fund STEM subjects and not the arts. Giving Universities more control of this decision, might redress the problem.

3 – If universities implement a smart financial model NOW, such as using microfinance model similar to Kiva, like the Vittana foundation or using scholarship programs that help those who can’t afford Universities easily, there could be more money available for those who need it the most.

I think rather than focusing on the negative effect for the money that the government is definitely NOT going to give to the Universities, we may – if we are careful about our financial models, create hope for the future with a better balance for the most able students attending the best Universities, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

August 10, 2010

The mythology of funding – moving UK universities into the real world

Filed under: economics,higher education — sylviamclain @ 6:02 pm
Tags: ,

I have a bunch of American friends who describe themselves at Italian-Americans, mostly because they have a somewhat recent relative from Italy and they have, through this relation, some sort of connection with this ‘old world’ Italy, which usually contains olive oil, great wine and prosciutto – but other than that seems to have not much real connection with the Italy of today. Italy is a modern industrial country (with the world’s 7th largest GDP in 2008), most Italians I know anyway don’t pick grapes or live in a village or press their own olive oil. Italy has moved on from the culture that the Italian-Americans I know identify with, yet this almost mythical idea of the old world still exists. When times were better and so the story goes, life was simple and concentrated entirely around good food and family.

But I think this is partially a myth and every culture has its myths. America with the good old pioneer spirit and livin’ off the land, when in reality most modern Americans really grow up in the suburbs. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a myth, a nice novel, a great memory, all good stuff. However it does become a problem when you live the myth believing it’s reality; in the fantasy world instead of the real one.

UK Higher education business models are quickly looking like they are based on some kind of myth, reminiscent of the myths we have in the new world about the old country of our ancestors. The education myth is that greatest education on the planet is in the UK, that many foreign students are dying to pay for it and that, in turn, supports the indigenous students and brings higher education to the forefront by increased funding, what’s not to love?

There is lots not to love, as pointed out in last week’s Economist, the ‘rich-world students’ now have more choices and, in short, UK universities need to stop being so complacent. This is a good point and this idea that foreign students will always come is also steeped in psychological mythology. The idea seems to rest on the old world appeal of Oxford, Cambridge, etc. and assumes it will always be there (the appeal not the Universities). And indeed it probably always will be, but that doesn’t mean that lots of (or indeed more) foreign students are going to continue to pay for it.

The Economist explicitly says they (Westminster and the individual Universities) need to “…concentrate on making British Universities as good as possible”.

And what does this take? Ideally, more higher education (HEFCE) funding, but that isn’t going to happen. At this point we know that isn’t going to happen, we can lament about it, but, at least now with the current government, it isn’t going to happen. I think the Con/Lib government (I am still wondering with the Lib went but this is another matter) are happy to just live under the current myth, so much so they actually CUT HEFCE funding – though Gerald Warner of the Telegraph disagrees and calls the cuts disguised increases, but that is another story.

So without the ideal, what does it take to keep universities at their best? One thing I think almost everyone agrees on is that they have to have money, its the only way to employ the best lecturers and professors; and importantly for science, pay for the equipment and laboratory space essential to its success.

So if universities have to have money and the government isn’t coughing it up, where can it come from?

Some of it has to come from student fees but not foreign students alone. The Economist suggests that domestic UK students should start paying for their education. I agree, ideally this wouldn’t need to happen, but thinking that the money is going to come from where it traditionally has at this point is living in myth. The old UK higher education model is that university is free for qualifying domestic students, but this old model only allowed a very small proportion of students to go to University, because it wasn’t so expensive for the state. But now an ever increasing proportion of (domestic) students are attending, hence the addition of top-up fees, and the idea that the government and foreigners can just pay for it, is again a big fat myth and not sustainable.

The caveat here is that there must to be funding available for less well-off students, but this is something that can be sorted out. A student loan service, like that which exists in the US, may be an answer for the UK. Student loans can be deferred until the graduate has a job which allows them to pay more easily and they put money, albeit indirectly, back into the institutions for others that benefited them. Done correctly, this could be a very potent social economic model for graduates and universities.

It is high time to start thinking about new economic models for UK universities and I agree with the Economist – a psychological change is needed. This new model cannot be based on the old idea that university education in the UK must be free for all (or almost free viz top up fees). Is it ideal for students to pay? No, but it is simply not realistic to think we can continue to live in the 1950’s under some elite mythological model where the government pays for everything. They don’t have any money and, at least in the current government, even if they do, they aren’t going to give it to Higher education anytime soon.

June 21, 2010

China is becoming more progressive than the UK

So China just announced it is opening up its trade and (slowly) letting the Yuan float free – previously they have kept the Yuan fixed against the dollar, in part, to make exports to other countries cheap.

This, I think, is going to change China and indeed the world fundamentally.

And while China has made this progressive move, the UK coalition government is being economically Draconian? They are evidently not listening to the economic arguments from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman and Road From Ruin authors Bishop and Green – that now is the time to put money INTO the economy, not effectively shut it down. And as Krugman says ‘How hard is that to understand?”

The UK Con/Lib coalition government is going to announce its budget tomorrow, and I don’t think things are looking good for science, higher education in addition to the economy. Given that higher education places and the business innovation budget have already been slashed, more than likely there will be more budget cuts to these two sectors by the government.

But science research, higher education and business innovation are essential to a solvent future for the UK, so to echo Krugman..

How hard is this to understand?

The Chinese get it.

China is currently putting big money into these sectors, with a 25% rise in their science funding budget in 2009 and a 45% increase in the 2008 budget for universities.

China seems to understand that their future is in scientific research and education, presumably to create new high technolgical industries which will make them a world competitor in the future.

Maybe George Osbourne could use a trip to China, but I somehow doubt he would listen.

May 27, 2010

Ivory towers, science and society

why it takes all kinds

Ok it appears there is no more money – I mean science, research, business innovation, technology and higher education money, where both the US and the UK governments are making cuts. (see my previous post) I think everyone knows this and there are probably going to be more cuts, more cuts, and more cuts.

So those lucky enough not to be made redundant in science research and academia are going to be under more pressure than even before to find grant money, while doing MORE teaching and oh, yes, publishing more high-impact papers. (The point the research scientists are going to become ‘administrators’ has been made excellently by Austin Elliot from his blog about the real problem with elitist funding.)

And at the same time, there needs to be a big push to increase scientific literacy and science in society. The sector does need to promote itself better undoubtedly – but the sector may not necessarily mean every working scientist. Just like the US government is not necessarily representative of everyone in America.

Or does it?

Both the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and European research council funding bodies have a broader-impact portion to their grants, where they want to make this much more prevalent in years to come. What is entails is that to get funding you as a research scientist need to address the broader impacts your specific research has to society. But as was pointed out by Corie Lok at Nature, this may not be the most efficient way to actually increase scientific literacy.

But the original idea was, according to the NSF, ….established to get scientists out of their ivory towers and connect them to society.

I think its a good idea to get ‘SCIENCE’ out of the Ivory tower but not necessarily all scientists…

For 2 reasons

1 – Science really takes all kinds. Scientists are humans and humans aren’t necessarily good at all things equally. We all know how this works. Its like sports teams. Most good prop forwards in Rugby are pretty bad fly-halves, just as a good offensive lineman in American football is probably pretty crap as a wide receiver.

Why does anyone think that scientists are different? Some scientists need an ivory tower environment to be good at what they do, some need more input from others, some are inspired by and for teaching, some are good at connecting with the world at large and increasing scientific literacy. And sometimes a person trained in communication who works WITH scientists can be more effective than scientists themselves, because this after all is what they are trained to do.

Just because you are a good scientist, doesn’t mean you are a good administrator – to pick the most often used example I have heard in research science. And this idea that every scientist can excel in all of these functions is ludicrous.

and 2 –

Many working scientists already have too much to do. And they will have even more to do with all of the budgetary cuts in the UK universities – because not only are faculty members being made redundant but so are technicians, secretarial staff and graduate student places who often do a lot of demonstrating and teach.

Using the example of say a senior lecturer in the UK (or associate prof in the US) – they teach, they write grants to do research, if they are lucky and can get grants they supervise graduate students, they do admin, they do secretarial work, they do IT, then they run out of research money and have to write grants again…

But then we want scientists to produce stuff and discover great new things and which have obvious benefits to society. But in reality there are sometimes no obvious benefits to society, at least in the short term. Some science is technology driven, and produces in the short term but big chunks of science is pretty slow and but can potential have HUGE impact in the longer term.

AND to reiterate the first point, some scientists work on short-term technological research, some on fundamental (long term) research; so not only have we forgotten that there needs to be different roles for different people, but we are trying to get scientists to all of these roles at the same time.

What is needed in the scientific and higher education sectors is a massive re-think of how things are done. Perhaps a massive restructuring, and I don’t mean in the way that restructuring is currently done, when universities chop around research and divisions, but an actual revolution in how we work and how we accomplish all of the tasks at hand both societally and scientifically. We need to seriously assess not only who would be most useful where but how we need to as a community increase scientific literacy

I don’t really have any answers, but I do think its time to open this discussion in a different more productive way, where we assess different roles, rather than just assuming if you are good at getting research money, you are good at administration and a good teacher.

The goal, I think, might be to get people in the correct roles where they could achieve more, and it might also increase scientific literacy, allowing science as a sector to descend from the Ivory tower and leave the scientists who work better there right where they are.

May 24, 2010

Do we really need another sputnik before we do something?

Filed under: higher education,science — sylviamclain @ 4:13 pm
Tags: , , ,

Do you like your mobile phone? Do you like the fact that you can use the world wide web to connect with your friends?
do you like using your iphone when you sit on a delayed train?


Than why don’t you support government funding of the sciences?

I think the answer many folks would give is this:
I already have a mobile and a computer and television, what is your point?
Governments are in deficit, we don’t have any money – we need budget cuts, I don’t want to fund some scientist that does something esoteric and useless…

I am a scientist, and I can’t count the times that people have said to me ‘but how is this useful?’ or ‘what is the point of that?’ or even worse ‘Wow, you must be really smart, I could never understand that’

These questions are not so easy to answer because there is not always a clear connection between scientific discovery or the science we are doing right now and this is, in part, because we don’t know precisely where science is going to lead us in the long-term.

but I also think one of the problems is that there is not always a clear public understanding of science and its history and its link to modern technology

So, who’s fault is that?
There are several places we could lay blame but I think now might be a good time to ask…

Do we as scientists do a good job at communicating with the public?
I would say yes and no and we are going to have to do better…

Yes: There is a huge amount of science blogging these days, on science, on science policy, on the use of evidence-based methods, on bad science in the media and many more. There are science programmes with Brian Cox, Simon Singh, on Planet Earth and the BBC recently announced it wanted to help increase science literacy by launching programmes on the celebration of science.

But is this enough?
No: Apparently not Because people and politicians still ask this question – ‘ how is this useful?’ and then, perhaps by default, decide it isn’t useful enough. Among the first things that are being cut in this economic crisis by both the US and UK governments are science and higher education.

The US House just blocked the scientifically based America COMPETES bill and wants to freeze funding for research budgets at US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation over the next 3 years.

and today the first cuts announced by the UK coalition government were:
…. £836m of cuts to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), £670m to the Department for Education, and no cuts to the Departments for Health,
Defence, and International Development
(my italics).

Would this happen if there were public outrage? Perhaps it would anyway, but perhaps not.

as is noted by Road from Ruin authors Bishop and Green, today’s £6bn cuts are political rather than useful economically . Aside from the obvious caveat that public outcry doesn’t mean much to the government, as it often doesn’t, this is at the very least is where the government thought the best cuts could be made and must on some level be linked to a public perception of the importance of government funding for science and education.

but as was simply put: from twitter today:
@THE (Times Higher Education) @NHJ_HE Does the sector communicate effectively how important it is to the public?
I think not. If they did, everyone would #loveHE

Despite all of the gargantuan efforts of scientific writers such as Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh and Brian Cox there is more to do and maybe as a community we need to try to do better.

Or maybe we need another Sputnik:

At exactly 19:28:34, October 4, 1957 the soviet satellite Sputnik was launched and spent 3 months in orbit, I wasn’t alive then, but apparently you could see it from the USA on a warm summer evening, travelling in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
the US freaked out – how were the Soviets ahead? They thinking about satellites too, the US decided that they were a good idea in 1955, but Spunik caught Westerners off guard – and thus became NASA…

I probably don’t have to go into the details of what NASA brought us, do I? We all know this – everyone likes the Velcro example but what about SATELLITES, which allow things like mobiles, the internet, wireless internet..
But what Sputnik also did was increase the education budget and specifically the science education budget in the US, as politicians at the time saw the link between science research and higher eduction.

but we don’t need another cold war to inspire us – maybe we can up the ante in the scientific community – extend the efforts of those already blogging about science (see above, and apologies for anyone I missed) and creating such laudable organizations as ‘Sense about Science’ and I’m a scientist.

I think we need to add a little history – about how technology has been developed from scientific research, which was considered, perhaps ‘useless’ at the time, and this is what I, for one, intend to do.

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