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How do we secure HE's role as a public good?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital3 October 2017

Simon Marginson. 
The current edition of the OECD’s Education at a Glance, published on 13 September, noted that in 2014, only 28 per cent of the financing of all tertiary education in the UK was from public sources, with 72 per cent from private sources, mostly from students. This was the lowest share of public financing in all 33 OECD countries for which figures were available.
The exceptionally high level of tuition fees in England makes the funding system vulnerable to the accusation that graduates pay too much. At the same time, it can be argued that the public is paying too little, and that over time this will lead to neglect of the common and collective goods derived from England’s university and college infrastructure. The debate about the extent to which university education is public good is conspicuously missing from much of the current, increasingly heated, debate on tuition fees.
Existing public subsidies
It is likely that the OECD 28 per cent ratio underestimates the extent of public subsidies in

(more…)

Performance management is here to stay, but TEF needs a rethink

Blog Editor, IOE Digital21 June 2017

Simon Marginson.

The post-election regroupement of the government provides a surprising and welcome opportunity to rethink the TEF before it does too much damage, before the shaping of behaviours and unplanned consequences become entrenched.

Let’s consider what might happen if the government took that opportunity—replacing TEF 2 (2017), whose first results will be announced – along with celebrations and wailing – tomorrow, with a much better TEF 3 (2018) for implementation next time round.
TEF 3 would need to start from three assumptions. First, for better and for worse we live (more…)

Priorities for a new Government: advice from our academics part 4 – HE

Blog Editor, IOE Digital31 May 2017

The IOE blog has asked colleagues from across the Institute what’s at the top of their wish list. We are publishing their replies during the run-up to the election.
Higher education
It almost goes without saying that the most early and urgent issue in higher education is to clarify the right to residency of non-UK EU citizens working in UK higher education institutions, and the second most urgent issue is to establish a skilled labour migration scheme that will achieve open employment of academic staff from anywhere in the world on a merit basis. By one count 40 per cent of the new appointments in the Russell Group in the last five years were from non UK Europe. This large pool of people has been absolutely crucial in sustaining the exceptional (more…)

Reforging American public higher education: how California dreaming could become a reality once more

Blog Editor, IOE Digital26 October 2016

Simon Marginson.
Modern higher education began in the United States in the 1960s. Participation grew rapidly in the world’s first mass higher education system, federal grants underpinned a remarkable growth in research, and the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education in California established a template for system design that was to shape developments across the world. (more…)

Universities have a crucial post-Brexit role in working across borders

Blog Editor, IOE Digital8 October 2016

Simon Marginson

At first, after the June referendum, it was unclear what ‘Brexit’ meant, but the post-Brexit landscape is now emerging. Theresa May will table the complex bill to leave the EU in the House of Commons in March 2017, but the two most important decisions have already been made. First, the Government will give priority to ending free people movement from Europe. Second, as confirmed by Home Secretary Amber Rudd this week, total net migration will fall. The referendum was decided because people opposed migration and it seems that for the Prime Minister both measures have become politically essential.

These decisions are truly momentous as they trigger both a harder Brexit and a tough medium term prospect for higher education and research. In the universities, where relations with Europe have been unambiguously positive and productive, the (more…)

Ten sure ways countries can turn away international students

Blog Editor, IOE Digital14 October 2015

Simon Marginson.
The pursuit of global mobility in a world divided up into nations invokes a fundamental dilemma. Free passage without harassment is a right we routinely expect to exercise whenever we travel abroad. Yet the right of people within a country to determine who enters their nation is enshrined in law. This unresolvable tension between sovereignty and mobility catches international students in its grip.
More than 4.5m students cross borders every year for educational purposes, mostly entering English-speaking countries, Western Europe, China, Japan and Russia. The great majority of these students return home when their education ends, though some become skilled migrants to the country of education, or other countries. Nations compete for international students – every country wants high-quality research students (more…)

New research centre will help UK become thought leader in the vital HE sector

Blog Editor, IOE Digital13 May 2015

Simon Marginson‌ 
In October 2015 the doors of a major new Economic and Social Research Council-supported research centre will open at UCL IOE. It will be the largest centre in the world that is focused on research in relation to higher education.
Higher education (HE) systems are now more important in societies and economies than they have ever been. The role of professional and skilled labour in the workforce is expanding everywhere, and while graduate salaries are falling relative to average incomes, graduates maintain their advantage over non graduates. This drives the continued growth of higher education enrolments everywhere, so that one third of all people in the world now enrol in some form of tertiary education. Participation in two-year programmes and degree programmes together is increasing at a rate of 1 per cent a year. At first sight this may not seem much, but it is extraordinarily rapid by historical standards, lifting the proportion of the population with tertiary education (more…)

Research excellence: getting better all the time – or is it?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital19 December 2014

Simon Marginson
Research assessment is only partly reliable as an indicator of the real quality of the work going on in higher education. It has a dual character. On one hand it is rooted in material facts and objective methods. Strong research quality and quantity should be and are rewarded in the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF), the results of which have just been published.
But the outcome is also shaped by the universities that select and fashion data for competitive purposes and the subject area panels that define research judged to be outstanding on a global scale.
Total research activity can never be fully captured in performance data. Some things, such as citations in top journals, are easier to measure than (more…)

University rankings and the aristocracy of merit

Blog Editor, IOE Digital11 March 2014

Simon Marginson

We can wonder why the world has taken to university rankings. Perhaps there is a deep longing for hierarchy, even aristocracy, in the human soul.

The celebrity culture suggests this. But unlike the older kind of aristocrats, the status of modern celebrities is mostly temporary. ‘Public opinion’, led by the tabloids, loves to push new celebrities up and then pull them down.

After all, ours is a democratic age, in which fame is determined by merit rather than by birth—and comparative merit can always be contested. We live also in a market age, and there is a market in status, in which no one stays on top for a long time unless they have much money (in markets, money always ranks high).

Thus it is with university rankings. A leading position in the university league tables is often insecure, especially in those rankings that have been deliberately designed to be volatile, which at global level are QS and the Times Higher Education.

In an aristocracy of merit, only those universities with the strongest inherited reputations and the deepest pockets, the Oxfords, Harvards and Stanfords, are guaranteed a position near the top. Other universities have to work at it.

Why should we have to work at it? After all, rankings are a distraction from the core business of a university: teaching, scholarship, research and public service. Competition between institutions does not necessarily improve their work and might drain precious resources away from teaching and research. Higher education institutions should be encouraged to cooperate, not compete.

All true. The problem is that global rankings, which originated largely from outside the higher education sector ten years ago, have become entrenched as a competitive process and as the main source of public information (a highly simplified and often misleading one) about higher education.

We can no more vanish rankings into a point simply by wishing for it, than we can snap our fingers and obliterate the £9000 student fee.

And there are costs if we ignore rankings. Institutions with a declining rank suffer over time, losing their attractiveness to students, staff, government and public. As stewards of their institutions, university leaders are obliged to take steps to maximize the ranked position of their institutions over the course of their tenure, even while pursuing other, often contrary, objectives. It is especially important to achieve this in the global university rankings, which are more significant than UK national rankings, especially outside UK.

How then does a university perform well in the global rankings? It depends which ranking.

  • The Shanghai ARWU is based entirely upon research performance, measured by the number of Nobel prizes won by former students and held by current staff, the number of high citation researchers, articles in Nature and Science, and total citations to published research papers;
  • The Leiden and Scimago rankings measured the number of published journal papers and the rate these papers are cited by other scholars;
  • Webometrics measure the number of web pages and hits on those pages;
  • The Times Higher Education ranking measures academic reputation for both teaching and research, research output, number of PhD students, income for research, international collaboration in publishing, quantity of staff (the lower the student-staff ratio the better), and the proportion of students and staff who are international (the higher the better);
  • The QS ranking is based on opinion surveys of both academics and graduate employers, citations per staff member, the student-staff ratio, and international students and staff.

All institutional rankings have one feature in common. They favour institutions such as UCL— comprehensive multi-discipline universities with high performing science-based faculties. This is especially true in research rankings, but also true of rankings that use opinion surveys, which are dominated by large universities.

Specialist single-discipline higher education institutions like the IOE cannot figure in the global rankings at all, except for those rankings that offer discipline-based league tables — the ARWU, Times Higher and QS. All three rank universities in terms of engineering, medicine, science and business. But only QS provides a league table in Education.

The IOE is invisible in the global league tables except on the QS website, where it currently sits at number one in Education. To stay there IOE must continue to excel in academic and employer surveys of reputation, and in research paper citations, and maintain high proportions of foreign-born students and staff. But Harvard, with its stellar reputation coupled to its sheer size (it publishes 64 per cent more journal papers than the world’s second largest science university, Toronto) can just go on being Harvard. Its ranking is not going to change.

Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education at the IOE, is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), and of the Editorial Board of the Times Higher Education.

He will be giving a keynote speech on Markets in Higher Education at a conference at the IOE on 20 and 21 March 2014 – The State and the Market in Education: Partnership or Competition? organised by Llakes (the Centre for Learning and Life Chances in Knowledge Economies and Societies) and the Grundtvig Study Centre, Aarhus University, Denmark.