The End of The University : Part I

A few days back saw the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. A pretty impressive list of luminaries are behind it, including some you would have expected – like Alan Bennett and  Richard Dawkins – and some you might not have – like John Cadogan and William Waldegrave.

Many people feel that academic values have been under persistent attack since the Thatcher era. Why the new feeling of crisis? Its not just the fees thing, or we Scots would be complacent. Its not just the “impact” thing – its pretty understandable and even good that we should feel some pressure to be relevant to UK PLC. No, its the student as customer thing. Take a look at the Browne report   – it really is quite scary. Stefan Collini’s LRB article  explains it all very well. Then if you want to be really frightened, look at the happy smiling faces at the Key Information Sets website   or the official KIS info at the unistats web site.

From now on, you see, student choice will magically drive up quality as long as we collect and publish information on how many toilets the library has and so forth. No need for the state to do anything!  All we need to do is give the seventeen year old kids some money, and let them spend it on the universities they reckon are best! Mmm.. sorry, whats that? How can they do that before they have any experience of what university education is actually like? Well, thats what the Key Information Sets are for!


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13 Responses to The End of The University : Part I

  1. This idea of the student being a customer leading to improved universities as the invisible hand of supply and demand does it’s thing is one of the most absurd fallacies of our times.

  2. MatthewH says:

    The KIS site really is a shocker, insulting the intelligence of the “customer” as a first step to helping them to make the best choices for themselves, great idea.

  3. telescoper says:

    There is indeed a lot to be worried about in the future of UK Higher Education, but I think there is a positive side to all this NSS/KIS malarkey. Universities now realise that it’s actually in their interest to listen to the students and make changes where necessary to improve things for the future. I don’t mean dumbing down courses – there’s no evidence that easy courses get higher scores on NSS – I mean improving facilities as well as providing a better overall learning experience for students. I think it’s a good thing that universities are now paying much more attention to such matters than they used to, although the effect of the REF is in the opposite direction.

    However, I’d also say that one of the problems is that universities now market themselves so vigorously that students often arrive with unrealistic expectations of what they can expect. with inevitable consequences.

  4. andyxl says:

    Peter – I do agree that listening to students is important, and universities should respond, just as I do think that universities should respond to the pressure for relevance. Its just that the mechanism – put the money in the students hands – is completely daft. Also, the KIS thing is a classic government bureaucratic overkill. If we were serious about operating like commercial enterprises, we wouldn’t do any of that nonsense ! As for overmarketing .. well, can’t remember where I saw this, but apparently 25 UK universities claim they are in the top 10 UK universities…

    • “Its just that the mechanism – put the money in the students hands – is completely daft.” Spot on, Guv’nor. Supply and demand can work in some cases: if I don’t like the food in a restaurant, I can go somewhere else next time. Students don’t usually move to another university when they find that the first one isn’t to their liking. First, they have no basis to decide whether it is good or bad, compared to others. Second, it is not trivial to move.

      “apparently 25 UK universities claim they are in the top 10 UK universities” I used to get spam emails encouraging me to pay money to have some “expert” pimp my website: “We have placed thousands of websites in the to 10″. :-|

      There is also a false dichotomy: either some fancy new system and the universities respond, or the old system and they don’t.

    • telescoper says:

      I agree that the system is daft. So daft that I don’t think it will survive very long. My biggest worry, though, is that given recent trends it seems likely to be replaced by something even dafter.

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    One problem with the KIS idea is that it’s content is, at least initially, largely noise: we calculated that two disaffected students who deliberately give the lowest scores they can could make ten places of difference in ranking. If this all just averaged out over a few years, it wouldn’t matter so much, but there is a serious risk of the noise being amplified into signal, with good students deciding not to go to a university because it has had a bad year, thus perpetuating the low scores. Surely it should be obvious that introducing such instability into the system cannot be good for the long-term health of the sector.

  6. Andrew Liddle says:

    The survey you are thinking of is one by the former Chair of Universities UK who found that more than 50 UK universities claimed on their WWW site to be in the top 20.

    An interesting corollary is that any university claiming to be in the top 20 almost certainly isn’t. Because if they were in the actual top 20, then one of the many surveys would by chance have them in the top ten, and then they would be claiming that.


  7. andyxl says:

    Interesting article at THES suggesting that the CDBU is too white-male-Oxbridgey so is doomed to failure because it will look elitist. There is a worry there.

  8. Anchor2 says:

    Now I am going to do my breakfast, later than having my breakfast coming yet again to read other news.

  9. [...] Everybody is obsessed with bums on seats, and with the ghastly Key Information Sets etc (see this post). Market forces will mean that some thrive and some [...]

  10. [...] to do Papers II, III etc. Posterity looks unkindly on failed pomposity. Back in November I wrote End of the University : Part I which was about the Browne report and a naive approach to “student choice”. I think [...]

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