Posted by AaronPorter in Higher Education, Tuition Fees.
Tags: Browne Review, HEFCE, lord browne, National Union of Students, NUS, QAA, Quality Assurance Agency, student engagement, THE, times higher education, University of Exeter
Times Higher Education, 24 November 2011
Listen to the heart
Aaron Porter says that in a high-fees world, the sector must do more to involve an increasingly diverse student body in decision-making
Today, it seems, there is barely a consultation paper or university strategy that does not refer to the importance of “student engagement”. But for all the talk, how effectively does the academy engage with students? Has it merely become adept at paying lip service to the idea?
It is often observed that since the introduction of tuition fees, students increasingly have asked what they will get for their money. The Labour government’s response was to introduce numerous initiatives for student engagement, including student juries, a national forum and even a minister for students. The usefulness of each, however, was questionable – and all were axed by the coalition when it came to power.
The emphasis on student engagement has grown for other reasons, too. One imperative has been the move from an elite to a mass higher education system and the consequent need for universities to involve students other than full-time, 18-21-year-old undergraduates. This has led to an important shift in activity by the National Union of Students.
I know from my time as NUS president that its emphasis on student engagement – built on a sound evidence base – has played a considerable role in ensuring a credible and more mature student contribution to national debate. It has also supported students’ unions to do much the same at the institutional level.
When universities are asked how they engage with students, they are quick to point to committees with student representation, and to students’ unions that have been consulted in their decision-making.
But whether these structures genuinely reach beyond traditional full-time students is questionable. And for all the consultation that takes place, do students really have a greater influence than they did decades ago?
I am not convinced. There has undoubtedly been progress, but it has been too slow and too constrained. Far too many universities are still content to have a handful of students on their committees and a staff-student liaison meeting once a month.
Relying on committees does not cut the mustard. Often the students who attend these meetings have the time to do so because they do not need part-time jobs and don’t have caring responsibilities. How are part-time students or distance learners being involved? The overwhelming majority of student representatives are still drawn from a narrow pool.
Nationally, the same accusations can be made. The political parties and the higher education sector waxed lyrical about the importance of student engagement when the groundwork was being laid to increase tuition fees. But there was more than a whiff of double standards when formal student representation was left off the terms of reference for the Browne Review.
And while sector bodies such as the Quality Assurance Agency and the UK funding councils have made huge strides in recent years – many adding student members to their boards – the documents and reports they produce remain impenetrable to those who are not higher education policy experts.
Will the changes being introduced next autumn really lead to a more “student-focused” higher education system? The answer here is perhaps the most dispiriting. I do not believe for one second that the title of the higher education White Paper means what it says – unless you think that being at the “heart of the system” means giving students a bit more information (not provided by the government, of course, but left to others) while demanding a hugely increased financial contribution from them.
Universities must do more to open up their books and to involve students in decision-making and strategic planning. It is great to see that the University of Exeter has created a budget scrutiny committee jointly chaired by the university’s registrar and its Students’ Guild president. This committee will oversee where Exeter’s additional tuition-fee money will be spent. It actually grants real decision-making power to students, rather than giving them leave to offer views that may or may not be taken on board.
After all, the only way we can make the reformed system work – and truly place students at the heart of the system – is if universities and students’ unions work together. The responsibility lies at the door of both organisations to ensure that students’ diverse voices are heard. Excuses to ignore them are wearing thin.
Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education.
Tags: China, David Cameron, ed miliband, engineering, India, Linda Katehi, lord browne, nick clegg, Nobel prize, Occupy Wall Street, Queen Elizabeth, Royal Academy of Engineering, united states, University of California Davis
Lord Browne and UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi: first or fail?
Lord Browne redeems himself with a new prize for engineering, but the chancellor at University of California, Davis comes under fire
A petition is calling for the resignation of Linda Katehi, chancellor, University of California, Davis. Photograph: Paul Sakuma/AP
Heading for a first: Lord Browne
Almost exactly one year after his much contested review into higher education was published, Lord Browne of Madingley returned into the spotlight this week as the chair of trustees for the foundation overseeing the new Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Unlike his funding review, this announcement was greeted with fanfare and the even rarer sight of cross-party support as David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband all got behind the new initiative.
Since the industrial revolution, the UK has arguably the richest history of any country when it comes to engineering, and while the United States, China and India have probably soared past us in recent years, the establishing of a new £1m prize here in the UK to reward the very best global engineering feats has undoubtedly set engineering hearts racing in this country, and further afield too.
Remarkably this is the first prize that the queen has put her name to, and given the interest it has sparked in the global engineering community it is already being talked about as a rival to the Nobel prize. If ways can be found to start exciting the imagination of the pupils in our schools too, as well as the engineers in our universities and in industry, then its contribution will be worth several times more than the £1m prize fund that will be awarded to the winners every two years.
Heading for a fail: University of California Davis
This week UC Davis was plunged into disarray as its chancellor Linda Katehi allowed riot police to disperse a rather modest gathering of students occupying a part of the campus. In the wake of Occupy Wall Street, emulated this side of the pond with a similar gathering outside St Paul’s cathedral in London, a number of tented protests have sprung up on university campuses in the US. Although US authorities tend to be rather less tolerant of occupations, few expected the show of force that was thrust on protesters at Davis.
After getting the green light from Katehi, riot police wasted no time in trying to clear the small gathering of students. As students chose to hold their ground, what happened next was truly dreadful. Within minutes police moved from persuasion to forceful removal, but most shocking of all was the repeated use of pepper spray directly in the faces and mouths of non-resisting students. The whole farce was caught on film and has spread like wildfire on the internet.
Faced with the video evidence, Davis has been forced into acting decisively. The chief of campus police, Annette Spicuzza has been suspended while an investigation attempts to get to the bottom of exactly what happened and who it was authorised by. But as it was Katehi herself who sanctioned the police actions, and although she instructed them to do so peacefully, thousands of people have signed a petition calling for her resignation – no doubt fuelled with the anger of seeing students unceremoniously subjected to pepper spray.
Whatever your opinions on occupation as a tactic, there can surely be no justification for the use of such outrageous police actions to disperse a group of students who are peacefully trying to make a point – whether you agree with them or not.