Thursday, 10 April 2008

Survey shows: Poorest continue to endure poverty of aspiration

78% of teenagers from affluent backgrounds aspire to go to university in comparison to their deprived counterparts where only 55% of them, live with this dream.
These are the results of the British Market Research Bureau which characterizes the failure of the multi million pound projects which were introduced to abridge the gap between the many proportions of society, mainly the class divide.

Not only that, but there are visible regional and gender differences as well. 71% of Londoners want to go university in comparison to a meagre 57% from East Anglia along with a 6% variance between girls and boys.

However, it is notable that in general the percentage of teenagers who would like to go to university has increased from 53% in 2000 to 62% in 2008.

These research results raise many issues such as:
Does the higher aspiration level necessarily signify that affluent children are more ambitious than deprived children? ....or have London teenagers really realized the importance of higher education? ....or, are the ideas such as “Glass ceiling” still in place for girls of which these statistics are a representation of?

But, what I find extremely intriguing here is the magnitude of this stubborn class -based educational divide in a developed nation such as ours. This phenomena exists worldwide, particularly in under developed nations where opportunities are scarce but when the government provides a loan to manage all expenses especially to low income earning families AND you don’t have to pay the loan back after you start earning over £15,000 per annum then why should there be a reason for so much poverty of aspiration among the working class youth?

There are many projects such as the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for students studying after 16, at colleges, and bursaries and scholarships at universities which are unavailable to the major population of the world. But despite such schemes, many individuals still choose to opt out and leave their potential untapped.

These circumstances leave us all with the responsibility, that we must highlight the importance of education to those unaware and oblivious to the demands of the world.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

We are falling further and further behind

The essay below is taken from "Can The Prizes Still Glitter? The Future of British Universities in a Changing World", the first book by the new higher education think tank Agora which aspires to promote serious discussions about higher education and its role in our society.

It's a thought provoking extract though a bit long, but highly relevant to the goal that we are trying to achieve through this blog which explores the effects of increasing government interference and lack of funding options in strangling the development of British Universities.

Universities in the UK face two problems:

First, in almost all walks of life there has been excessive centralisation over the last few years, and universities have not escaped. In particular, any increase in spending or any new grant is laden like a Christmas tree with controls and reporting requirements. Universities are not simply given the authority to get on with what they are here to do. They are constantly under pressure to meet government requirements.

The two most obvious and damaging constraints are institutions being expected to make up for the deficiencies of secondary education, and the push for social inclusion.

Let me be clear about this. I am very strongly in favour of social inclusion as an objective of higher education policy. But I am not in favour of social inclusion at the expense of academic standards. At its crudest the widening participation agenda has been reckless in its impact on standards.

Secondly - and this is the most crucial element - universities here (and indeed in most of Europe) are left in a no man's land, in which they neither get enough funding from the state nor are they allowed to raise money themselves beyond the ridiculously low limits of the tuition fee. Universities today get 1.1% of GDP in this country, compared with America's 2.6%.

This is not something we can simply blame on Labour governments. Until the 1970s, universities were pretty well funded, but the expansion of higher education since then has been paid for by squeezing the amount of government money available per student. In the last two decades of the twentieth century we doubled the number of students and halved the amount of money given to them. And resources were squeezed particularly hard in the Conservative years, although this was a trend that was continued in the early Blair-Brown years too. I don't think the Conservatives can look back on their stewardship of universities with any great pride.

The problem was that we didn't have the courage of our convictions. We squeezed public spending on universities, but we didn't then say to universities: "You must go out and raise money yourselves".

At the root of all the problems facing universities in the UK and across Europe, there is a resource issue that we cannot go on ducking. If America spends roughly two-and-a-half times what we do on higher education - and moreover if they are spending two-and-a-half times what we do on a limited number of elite universities - we shouldn't be surprised if we fall further and further behind. And while we are resting on our laurels we must remember that China and India are coming up on the outside.

Universities have three main sources of revenue:

  • The taxpayer
  • Private endowments
  • Tuition fees
If you decide the government can't afford to spend any more of the taxpayers' money, and if at the same time you conclude that private endowment requires a major sea-change in public attitudes that will not happen overnight, that only leaves tuition fees.

Top-up fees have become a very emotive issue in this country, but really the answer is very simple. The main determinant of people's lifetime earnings is whether they go to university or not. Therefore, it does not seem unreasonable to me for some investment to be made by the students who will benefit. University is a middle class ramp-up, after all. It is perfectly crazy that parents are prepared to pay £10,000 or even £12,000 a year for private day school, but then they groan in horror about paying a few thousand pounds for tuition fees.

The most common argument levelled against tuition fees is that they put people from poorer backgrounds off going to university. Yet there is absolutely no evidence at all that this is the case.

It hasn't been the case in New Zealand, so why should it be so here? If you look at the social composition of the student population over the last 50 years the proportion of children from blue-collar families and the proportion of children from white-collar families has remained static. The proportion was exactly the same at the end of the last century as it was in the 1960s. The huge expansion of higher education simply has not drawn in a higher proportion of kids from working-class backgrounds.


Yet, is there the political appetite to face up to this problem and drive universities forward?

Gordon Brown is clearly genuinely interested in higher education. While Mr Blair can take some credit for having been converted to the principle of top-up fees by Roy Jenkins, I don't think he is really very concerned with the university sector. Probably the best thing Tony Blair has done for research was to leave Lord Sainsbury in the science minister's job for as long as he did.

Mr Brown is dogged by three factors:

  • First is the sort of knee-jerk class war socialism that was discredited in the very public Laura Spence case at Oxford.
  • Secondly, I think he is excessively enthusiastic about the management competence of American universities in comparison with ours. True, they may achieve a lot, but they are achieving a lot with vastly greater funds.
  • Finally, I think Mr Brown is always inclined to exaggerate how much new money he has actually put into the system.
Sooner or later we will have to face up to the fact that we have to ask students to pay for their higher education. I would like to see universities set their own individual caps on tuition fees. The principal government interest should be in ensuring that universities who raise fees for different subjects - because there is no reason why different subjects should have to cost the same - have in place adequate bursary schemes to ensure that admission is needs blind.

Of course, this would put a particular pressure on universities like Oxford and Cambridge to raise a large amount of money through endowment for generous bursary schemes. The battle that has been rumbling in the background at Oxford for years over governance is not irrelevant here. If we can demonstrate to alumni and benefactors that we are interested in their intellectual contribution to what we are trying to do, and that we are open to their advice, then it makes it much easier for us to encourage people to give money.

It is extremely difficult if we are effectively saying, "We don't want your opinions, we just want your cheques". It is frankly offensive to assume that any alumnus of Oxford who might donate has a secret yearning to transform the institution into Asda.

It is important for the Conservative party to avoid, under pressure, blocking off any options on top-up fees before the general election. I would be inclined to keep my options open, and then after an election I would want to establish a commission to explore the issue and look at real evidence.

That said, we don't have much time. Top-up fees will be reviewed again in 2009. I think it is very likely that a Brown government will either kick the ball into touch, or make a modest adjustment. Fees of £5,000 would be better than £3,000, but it still would not be enough revenue to support our cash-starved universities.

One of the most popular courses at Oxford - engineering and management - could be filled twice over with students, and there are lots of potentially exciting options for expansion, but it costs £15,000 a student to teach and we only get £5,000. We could subsidise it from other courses, but where does one stop with such an approach? The problem is the same for physics and management, and chemistry and management, to name just a couple.

We can no longer afford to bury our heads in the sand. We must loosen the red tape that binds British universities and allow them to raise the money they need to truly compete.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Free Market Universities

Globalization is changing everything ... at least that's what most people think. The extent of truth attached to this statement however is open to contradiction. Meanwhile, statistics seem to paint a picture in support of the former.

The growing competitive ambiance, arising in the Asian Tigers, China and India is anticipating tougher times for some under funded and unilaterally developing British universities.

It is being debated that, should universities be allowed to continue to depend upon the tax payers money or should a free market university system be introduced?

The introduction of commercial institutions in the academic system will subsequently coerce them to raise standards and get rid off the sedentary ones as the number of home students is in constant decline and research content and international student recruitment is becoming fierce globally.

The development of *business facing universities* is a critical step in enhancing graduate level skills as they have been termed indispensable in the Leitch review 2006.

In the succeeding decade, it is expected that universities will be compelled to develop a watchdog like OFSTED which will monitor the progress of underachievers as they may prove to be a blot on Britain's competitiveness.

Academics argue, that research and teaching go together, however cultural change and experimentation will be inevitable and should be obligatorily adapted by all.

Whatever the decision be i.e either allowing universities to flourish in their respective fields without pressurizing them for overall success or developing cut throat competition in establishing free market universities, what concerns students like me is all this fair?

The conversion of education from an imaginative and critical developmental process to becoming a commercial commodity is not only unfair but also un progressive which makes one think that are moving forwards or back?

Sunday, 30 March 2008

World Class Education OR Curriculum Confined Knowledge?

The perception and attitude children develop in their early years continue to support or haunt them through the later years of their lives.
In the same way, the approach and stance these kids formulate during their primary and secondary schooling directs them when they go to universities.

The latest PISA results show the UK's declining position in terms of its students' mathematical, scientific and reading abilities while Finland's claim to have a world class education system has been reinforced with the comparisons.Finland has secured the top position once again and is being closely followed by Hong Kong, China and Canada.

Peter Mortimore's article "A League Table to worry us All " gives detailed insight on UK's rankings in each domain.,,2236584,00.html

Some of the issues which have been raised due to the results of this report include:

  • UK's performance contrasts sharply with the rising scores in national tests such as SAT's and GCSE's even when the standards of PISA are held constant.

  • Boys are outperforming girls in both Science and Maths.

  • Streaming and testing regimes are proving to be less beneficial than had been estimated.

  • Late compulsory starting age for school at seven is yielding much better outcomes than kindergarden schooling.

Nevertheless, critics claim that all PISA reveals is that if you cannot read the language fluently i.e have an immigrant background which a lot of students in UK do whereas Finland , Sweden, Japan and Korea have a homogeneous population you don't do particularly well at school.

This is an eye opener for many of us as it tells us that even if we are ranking very high in the world class ranking of universities we are gradually falling behind in our primary and secondary schooling.

Finnish and Swedish teachers who possess a high level of autonomy in shaping the curriculum according to their needs in comparison to our highly centralized and politically intervened one makes one ponder what we are aiming for.... world class education or curriculum confined knowledge?

Monday, 24 March 2008

Comparitive Education

Comparing universities on an individual basis is quite a daunting task but there is actually an established academic field of study which examines educational policy and standards in many countries and is known as Comparative Education.

This field of study is unknown to most but is gaining recognition as prestigious universities such as Stanford, Columbia and Oxford have introduced these programmes.

However, another source of recognition are some large scale projects as PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS who strive to assess the extent to which students are capable of full participation in society.

The programme for international student assessment (PISA) is project of the Organisation for Economic Co operation and Development (OECD) which examines the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in three domains including scientific literacy, mathematics and reading .

It aspires to answer abstract questions including :

  • Are young adults prepared to meet the challenges of the future?

  • Are they able to analyse, reason and communicate their ideas effectively?

  • Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life?

  • Are some kinds of teaching and school organization more effective than others?

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), on the other hand provides reliable and timely data on the mathematics and science achievement of U.S. students compared to students of other countries. It is carried out every four years at the fourth and eighth grades covering more than 60 countries of the world.

Such programmes bring out the actual reality of educational standards and their glory and plight as comparisons are made irrespective of financial resources and teaching methodology.

They can prove to be highly beneficial for our nation and its education policy makers as we can simply adopt the methods of the countries whose performance is exemplary and ensure that we maintain or embrace the necessary measures.

Friday, 21 March 2008

A deviating outlier

Whenever we think about universities , the first thing that comes to most peoples' minds is EXAMS!

No matter how much we loathe them,they have been up till now considered as the most reliable and valid assessment procedures in most of the countries worldwide.

While I was researching about the different educational systems , I stumbled over something which caught my eye and I thought would be worthwhile sharing.

The number of exams, university students must and can take in a university differ from country to country and in certain circumstances university to university too.

But Italy, among all other developed countries seems to be highly deviated outlier.

John Hey, an economist and a university of York professor who teaches in Italy as well has put up a page which shows the different trends unknown to most people.

ONE exam per course each year with no right to resit: Canada, United States
ONE exam per course per year with at most one resit: Denmark, France, Germany, Mexico, Switzerland, United Kingdom
ONE exam per course per year with at most two resits: Austria, The Netherlands
(Up to) TEN exams per course per year with right to resit as often as you wish:Italy

This kind of practise is uncommon in any other country of the world but leaves us thinking about the standards of education that would be prevalent in Italy and where does that leave them standing when its counterparts are way ahead leading the world and the university rankings too.