Amidst rather a lot of other things, the British government put out its plans for higher education reforms last week. Understandably, these haven’t had as much attention as would otherwise be the case. Fortunately, I’m both not an IR scholar and not tied up in work meetings, since there’s a strike going on, so I’ve got a bit of time to tell you about it all.
The plans are a much-belated response to a 2019 review of funding arrangements, which were in turn a result of a dodged shift towards a graduate tax about a decade ago. That system has cost more than planned, just as the current government (which was also the same government that dodged it all up in the first place) has come down firmly on the side of ‘driving up standards’ as its mantra for universities.
A priori, there’s nothing wrong with wanting better universities: the issue is that the way the government is going about it doesn’t really seem to stack up.
The model (as far as I can tell) is essentially one of stopping universities taking in students who won’t benefit, then using piles of metrics to identify courses/institutions that don’t do a good job with the students they have, then trying to pull back more of the funding cost from graduates.
Another year, another push by the UK’s Office of Students to “promote the very best in teaching”. Regular readers will know that I have struggled with the OfS’ approach to learning and teaching for some time now, mainly because its goals are partial and its operationalisation is deeply dubious.
Essentially, the proposals want to impose minimum levels of progression and completion of degrees, as well as targets for graduate employment post-study, because as you’ll know the sole factor in determining whether you get a well-paid job is the quality of the teaching you received. And there’ll be fines for not meeting these thresholds, to really make sure us lecturers get the point.
But let’s spread the love around a bit more and drag in the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan:
“When consumers buy a product in a shop, they expect two things when it comes to quality: firstly, that the product has satisfied minimum standards and secondly, that the product has proper labelling to inform them of the quality of what goes into it. So working with the universities regulator, the OfS, my new quality assurance plan follows similar principles.”
Since others have pulled apart the OfS’s plans with more incision than I could, I’ll just focus for now on Donelan’s comments.
Hopefully the category error between buying something in a shop and paying for your university degree should be clear, but just in case let’s run through it once more.
If I buy a book from my local bookstore, then indeed I expect that book to not fall apart when I pick it up and that it’s not made through exploitative practices. However, I don’t – can’t – expect that just because I bought that book that I will enjoy it, understand it or even that I’ll read it. The bookstore don’t let me stand there and read the whole thing, so I have to buy it on the basis of the cover blurb and/or anything I’ve heard about it. In short, buying something that’s safe and made with care doesn’t mean it gives me what I need.
With a degree, you buy access to an opportunity, rather than a completed product. I assume the minister would be horrified if a university just cut out the middleman and sold qualifications without any need for study. The point of studying is precisely that it’s about the student and their learning.
For most, that study works. They learn and it helps them to move onto the next stage of their life. But that next stage doesn’t have to be work (or more precisely, earning the big bucks): it might be that through the development of their critical reflection skills an individual decides they want to volunteer themselves in helping others, or to step out of the whole capitalism thing, or travel, or whatever. Under these proposals, all of these thoughtful choices would count against that person’s university.
Likewise, anyone who found that their personal situation was no longer compatible with studying at some point during their degree and so dropped out would be framed as a signal of their university not delivering good teaching. And as for those who struggle to hit passing grades, well again I’m guessing that the minister would hate for there to be any pressure on staff to go easy on such cases and let them get through on a nod and a wink.
Ultimately, this all speaks to the basic unwillingness of the government to accept the logic of marketisation that its predecessors introduced. The invisible hand was supposed to winnow out the weak and reward the strong, to the collective gain of all involved. But instead we have even growing intervention with metrics and thresholds and targets, all based on highly questionable data, that shift and change all the time. Certainly faster than any changes a university might make can show up in any clear way.
This isn’t a problem specific to English universities, or to the UK, but it requires a firm response if the confused logics and highly perverse incentives are not to become even more deeply embedded in the sector.
Learning is a social good: beneficial to the learner and beneficial to the learner’s society, in all its aspects. A system that commodifies and instrumentalises learning purely as a means of generating wealth not only loses that broader richness, but also undermines the very things it claims to value. The value of a degree is not in the piece of paper you get at the end, but in the process of getting (or even not getting) to it.
I’d write a book about it, but my readers might not understand it. At least they’d not ask for a refund.
Today we have a guest post from Daniela Irrera, associate professor of International Relations and Global Civil Society at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Catania. She can be reached at dirrera [at] unict [dot] it.
During Italy’s pandemic-induced lockdown, I found myself having to teach an entirely virtual course on European foreign policy, part of the MA programme on Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (GLOPEM) at the University of Catania. I usually include simulations in my courses, and given the policy implications of the Covid-19 outbreak, I decided to create Tackling Covid-19 in a Global Perspective—a simulated emergency G20 meeting in Geneva, called to plan a global strategy for managing the pandemic’s health, political, social, and economic effects. Students represented panels of experts for the following policy areas: public health emergency; economic consequences; infrastructure and human mobility; impact on refugees, migrants and non-nationals; and impact on the conflict in Syria.
Today we have a guest post by Jamal Shahin and Claske Vos, faculty in European Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Jamal also works at the Institute for University Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. They can be reached at shahin[at]uva[dot]nl and C[dot]Vos[at]uva[dot]nl.
Students in our one-year M.A. programme at the University of Amerstam needed to simultaneously gain knowledge of the EU and develop research skills, all in a four-week ‘skills seminar’ that runs every January. We decided to address this challenge by having students research policy by gathering data first-hand from EU policymakers.
We start by inviting the students to consider their ‘burning
question’—what they really want to explore—in their MA theses. In the seminar’s
second week, they identify methods and theoretical approaches, with a specific
focus on the relationship between policy fields and research methods. Students
draft deliverables, which are then peer reviewed at this stage. In the fourth
week, students learn more about the practice of European policymaking by
interacting with EU officials and other ‘experts’ in Brussels. To prepare for
this stage, students must first:
Arrange the interviews.
Create an interview protocol—semi-structured
Present a literature and policy
review in written form.
These tasks are intended to give students a clearer view of
the topics they wish to raise with their interviewees. At the end of the entire
process, the students are expected to write up a thesis proposal to submit to
their thesis supervisor.
From first contact to first meeting
Many students are daunted by the prospect of interviewing experts
in fields that they feel that they are only just starting to understand. It
therefore takes some effort to assure them that their requests for information
will not go unheard. We help the students write the initial emails that request
an interview, and provide them with a rough template that describes the
etiquette to use when presenting oneself to the potential informant. Our multidisciplinary
faculty, which includes anthropologists, historians, political economists, and
political scientists, can help the students express themselves to their interviewees.
We hold a half-day workshop with the students, in which a range of lecturers
from different departments present their own interview experiences.
Bursting the ‘Brussels bubble’
‘Brussels’ is seen by many as a distant place, remote from
the realities of daily life, even for students of European policymaking. This
course helps students break through this perceived bubble by allowing them to engage
directly with the policymakers themselves, rather than studying the policy process
only through literature. It also occurs after an intensive eight-week course on
European integration theories, and thus helps bring this knowledge ‘to life’—something
that for students is frequently an unexpected benefit.
Courtesy of the Human Security Studies Group at the Naval War College, I recently learned about EveryCRSReport.com, a non-profit project that has the goal of making every report written by the U.S. Congressional Research Service freely available online. This is unclassified, taxpayer-funded research on a huge variety of topics, produced for the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The Congressional Research Service itself refuses to supply these reports directly to the public, so a third party has taken up the task.
If you’re teaching an undergraduate course on U.S. domestic or foreign policy, or on the U.S. Congress, the website could be a useful resource for students.
This article on Medium explains more about the mission and history of EveryCRSReport.com.
Today we have a guest post from Josiah Marineau, an assistant professor of political science at Campbellsville University. He can be contacted at josiah [dot] marineau [at] gmail [dot] com.
For my Introduction to American Government course, I designed a simulation of the legislative process in which students are tasked with debating different policy options for the U.S. healthcare system. The simulation is intended to familiarize students to a key policy debate in contemporary U.S. politics.
The simulation will last two weeks. The first week will be preparation: explaining the politics of the U.S. health care system, the main options for policymakers, and how the simulation will work. Students will be introduced to the rules used in Model United Nations to govern debate and voting on bills. Students will use materials I provide to write policy position papers that advocate for a given policy solution to the challenges facing the U.S. health care system.
The simulation itself will run in the second week, over two class periods. Students will use their policy papers as the basis for debate and will give speeches in class in favor of or in opposition to proposed legislation. I expect them to form coalitions with other, like-minded students, and draft a bill that is amenable to a majority of the class.
As part of the debriefing, students will write a two-page memo reflecting on what they learned, what surprised them, what worked and what did not, and why. This memo will be due in the week after the simulation concludes.
I will grade the simulation as follows:
Quality of the policy position papers — 40%
Level of engagement in the simulation — 30%
Two-page reflection memo — 30%.
I will share the results of the simulation in a future post.
Today we have a guest post from Tyler Chance, a doctoral student and instructor at University of Missouri-St. Louis. He can be reached at trc6df [at] mail [dot] umsl [dot] edu.
Social Security and its financial problems is one important policy issue that is probably not on the minds of most U.S. college students. The Social Security Game (http://socialsecuritygame.actuary.org/#make-your-choice-now ), created by the American Academy of Actuaries, is a fun activity that I use to teach my students about policy choices. The game’s goal is simple: fix Social Security so that Americans can receive retiree benefits after the year 2034. You can choose to reduce benefits, increase revenues, or apply a combination of both. The game provides quick videos that explain the different viewpoints behind each policy alternative. After each decision you make the game uses estimates from the Social Security Office of the Chief Actuary to calculate how close you are to fixing the problem.
I like to use the game in my Introduction to American Government course, as well as in my Congressional Politics course, but it has wider applications. When I teach Introduction to American Government, the game demonstrates why paying attention to this policy issue is important and how it can be messy and hard to fix. I first have the class vote on whether we should reduce benefits or increase revenues. From there we vote on subcategories; for instance, if we voted to reduce benefits, we would then need to choose from a range of options provided by the game, such as increasing the full retirement age, reducing Cost-of-Living-Adjustments, and lowering benefits for future high-income retirees. A class in which students have diverse political ideologies quickly illustrates just how complicated the Social Security reform can become.
When I teach Congressional Politics, the game functions as a mock legislature. In this project, I play the role of a newly-elected president acting on a mandate to reform Social Security. I assign each student a specific legislator and have them research their stance on the issue and the demographics of their constituency (or you can provide students with that information on index cards). I then encourage the students to work through the game with their constituencies in my mind. So far, solving the problem of Social Security has been close to impossible for my classes, which allows me to show institutionalized gridlock and constituent-based constraints in practice.
The game can also be effective as an individual homework assignment. Have the students play the game and share experiences. Were they able to solve the problem? What route did they take—benefit reductions, increased revenues, or a mix of the two? Why did they choose a particular strategy?
Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Rauh, a doctoral student in political science at East Carolina University.
Active engagement of the student is a key facet of experiential learning. In-class debate is one classic means of generating engagement, but it can favor students who are more extroverted. In-class debate also tends to be relatively light on the application of concepts but heavy on critical reflection. As an alternative, I have used in-class experiments derived from economics to teach how policy preferences are realized (or not) as a result of different voting systems.
In these experiments, I begin with a discussion in which I ask students about their own policy positions on issues like gun control, abortion, tax policy, school vouchers, universal healthcare, and the death penalty. This allows for discussion of political representation in different forms of government, which then leads into experiments where students are assigned a set of preferences ranging from, for example, far right to far left, and are subjected to a set of voting rules. This type of environment makes it easy to illustrate differences between voting systems, such as first-past-the-post and rank order preference.
If one has taken a course in experimental economics then one knows it is fairly common to have small monetary payoffs—for example, $10. These real monetary consequences lead students to quickly identify which voting strategies will best increase their chances of winning in the experiment.
I have found that the applied nature of the experiments provides a way for students to engage with theories that would otherwise just be abstract discussion points. Students whose personalities make them less inclined to debate are more engaged because their votes do not require explicit public statements. They are able to understand that one strategy is preferable to another and make adjustments in each round of voting without being singled out. Students who participate in my voting games show better test scores at the end of the year and, according to colleagues, have a good understanding of policy preferences and the complex interactions between competing political parties.
For a full discussion of implementing an in-class voting experiment see:
Rauh, Jonathan. 2014. “In-Class Experiments as an Accompaniment to In-Class Discussion.” Journal of Political Science Education 10(4): 453-470.
For a full discussion of experimental economics games that can be applied in your class to teach about topics ranging from preference recognition to lobbying to voting, see Charles Holt’s VeconLab at the University of Virginia: http://veconlab.econ.virginia.edu/admin.htm.
For anyone teaching geography, urban planning, or public policy, the Brand New Subway game is a fun digital tool. Created for a competition in honor of the book “The Power Broker,” it allows players to design New York City’s subway system. Players can create an entirely new system from scratch, or modify past, present, and future systems. The game also includes an option for creating subways from scratch for other U.S. cities.
Players get three kinds of continuous feedback on their designs: the price of a single fare, the average weekly ridership, and the overall rating of the system. The overall goal is to design a system that attracts the largest number of riders and efficiently gets them to where they want to go at the lowest price. The trade-offs between ridership, operating cost, and system quality make the problem very difficult to solve.
The game’s user interface is fairly easy to figure out and players can save works in progress. A simple way to use this game: have student teams compete against each other to build the best subway. Include as part of the competition a presentation where each team defends its design against questions from other teams.
Today we have a guest post from Titus Alexander, founder of Democracy Matters. He can be reached at titus [at] democracymatters [dot] info.
Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of nationalism in China, India, Egypt, Turkey, Russia, and many European states, are seismic events in world politics. They have revealed deep divisions in our societies and chart radically different pathways for our future. They also serve as a wake-up call for educational institutions to play a more active role in strengthening democracy. To do this, political education needs to fulfil three key tasks:
Experts do get it wrong. They disagree. They debate facts and what they mean. But the fundamental principle of honest inquiry is as important in politics as it is to physics. Researchers must challenge ‘post-truth’ politics to ensure that public debate is grounded in evidence. Continue reading “Political Education in the Era of Donald Trump”