University challenge?

Currently the Great London Met disaster is trending.

Malcolm admits to being torn over this one. The students, and potential students, have been sold a pup. They have been treated quite disgracefully by the whole government and institutional bureaucracy.

Yes, we need wider access to higher education.

Yes, we should encourage overseas students  — and lecturers, and distinguished academics — to find a place, however transitory, in London. Everyone benefits.

But…

… there is something badly, madly, sadly wrong with some of our weaker “universities”.

Once upon a time this was the reputable Northern Polytechnic, one of those fine institutions that George Bernard Shaw recommended to the nation in Man and Superman:

Tanner: A little moderation, Tavy, you observe. You would tell me to draw it mild. But this chap has been educated. What’s more, he knows that we haven’t. What was that Board School of yours, Straker?

Straker: Sherbrooke Road.

Tanner: Sherbrooke Road! Would any of us say Rugby! Harrow! Eton! in that tone of intellectual snobbery? Sherbrooke Road is a place where boys learn something: Eton is a boy farm where we are sent because we are nuisances at home, and because in after life, whenever a Duke is mentioned, we can claim him as an old school-fellow.

Straker: You don’t know nothing about it, Mr Tanner. It’s not the Board School that does it: it’s the Polytechnic.

Tanner: His university, Octavius. Not Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, Dublin, or Glasgow. Not even those Non-conformist holes in Wales. No, Tavy. Regent Street! Chelsea! the Borough!—I don’t know half their confounded names: these are his universities, not mere shops for selling class limitations like ours. You despise Oxford, Enry, don’t you?

Straker: No, I don’t. Very nice sort of place, Oxford, I should think, for people that like that sort of place. They teach you to be a gentleman there. In the Polytechnic they teach you to be an engineer or such like.

Shaw, remember, had been on the London Schools Board. He knew of what he wrote. In a way, he could see where English technical education was failing. And Straker, the mechanic, is the Superman round these parts.

A disaster in the making

Let’s admit, the way London Met recruits has played straight into the hands of Damian Green.

So, let’s get that one out of the way immediately.

Green is an ambitious Mr Toad. He smoked his tyres in the run-up to Election 2010 over the immigration scare. He certainly left marks on the road.

Hence, he may have some reason to feel that the ConDem pact excluded him from a promised place at the Cabinet table.

It is re-shuffle time. Everyone in the second and third Tory ranks is feeling uncomfortable. Green needs to leave some more rubber on the carriageway.

London Met is in trouble

It consistently ranks at the bum-end of any league table. Only the University of East London keeps it off bottom spot. It has financial problems, which go back far beyond the present crisis.

Malcolm admits he has seen the joint from the inside. And is definitely not impressed.

Where to go?

Clearly something has gone awry with the way the UK has expanded higher education.

Once upon  a time there was a clear hierarchy: Oxbridge, Redbrick, concrete, lavatory tile. Unfair and silly. But we knew where we were when we (and our accepting institutions) made the choice. Nobody questioned that — say for engineering — a red-brick out-boasted any Oxbridge. Or if nukes were your thing, you went to Manchester. Or that concrete East Anglia’s creative writing beat anything else hands down. Even for accountancy, Wolverhampton was your thing.

Then it all went mad

Anywhere could have a “university”. One of the great arguments for Hull School of Art being translated (via the Humberside College of Higher Education and Humberside Polytechnic) into the University of Lincoln was that Lincolnshire was the last county of England to be denied its proper “university”. Lest we forget: it’s not one of the worst. Many of these “newest” universities are nothing of the sort: they teach undergraduates in a limited range of disciplines. Some might as well be specialist institutions — the Luton School of Computing, and the like.

Worse still, with the ConDem coalition, any joint — public, private (who cares?) can offer degrees. The market will decide — even though it might take ten years for the market value of a degree from Little Piddlebury International University of Chiropody to be valued in the public forum. So what? Several thousand students will have coughed up to £9,000 a year to test the market. Yes, the market will decide. Sigh.

Meanwhile degree mills will continue to churn out would-be lawyers, managers, social workers, health managers, information technologists and , of course, ready-coined apprentices in umpteen branches of the  media.

What’s to be done?

In the case of those unfortunate overseas students at London Met (and — one can but guess — in this xenophobic period, they are but the first of an annual swathe), not much. Some enterprising civil-rights lawyers will doubtless pursue their reasonable claims through the courts; and a settlement will be arrived at. Probably, and conveniently, after the next General Election.

However, Malcolm has a Modest Proposal.

In effect the universities have already created their own league table:

The Russell Group represents 24 leading UK universities which are committed to maintaining the very best research, an outstanding teaching and learning experience and unrivalled links with business and the public sector.

The universities of Durham, Exeter, York and Queen Mary, University of London, have joined the Russell Group, it has been announced.

The four universities have left the 1994 Group, which represents smaller, mainly campus-based, research-intensive universities, to join the Russell Group of elite universities.

It increases the membership of the Russell Group to 24 and reduces the 1994 Group’s membership to 15.

We use rigorous research and evidence based policy to solve complex problems in higher education. We publish research reports and policy papers and we submit evidence to parliamentarians, government and other agencies. 

And little fleas have lesser fleas upon their backs to bite ’em. And so ad infinitum.

In effect we have a Premier League, a Championship , and a couple of lower divisions.

Promotion and demotion

This we sadly lack, as yet.

So, here’s a wonderful opportunity for “open government” and the “big society”.

Micky Gove at the Department of Education would have to nominate these league tables — though with around a hundred institutions, it might work best if we had five divisions of twenty teams a league. OK: that might mean half a dozen have to go to the wall, or down into the Totesport Combination, where London Met is already. It might be more humane to arrange a few shotgun “mergers” to save Vice-Chancellor faces (and pensions).

Job done, we formalise an annual competition with promotion and emotion. We might award points, exactly as now, on a basis similar to that of the Times Higher Education Supplement:

Our rankings of the top universities across the globe employ 13 separate performance indicators designed to capture the full range of university activities, from teaching to research to knowledge transfer. These 13 elements are brought together into five headline categories, which are:

  • Teaching — the learning environment (worth 30 per cent of the overall ranking score)
  • Research — volume, income and reputation (worth 30 per cent)
  • Citations — research influence (worth 30 per cent)
  • Industry income — innovation (worth 2.5 per cent)
  • International outlook — staff, students and research (worth 7.5 per cent).

Indeed, the proposal gets better and better. Introducing a commercial element — each university could rebrand itself with sponsorship on the shirts: Adidas Liverpool, Honda Reading, Barkers Leisure Parks Aberystwyth — should appeal to those weirdo free-marketeers like ex-Times man, Micky Gove.

The THES comes from the belly of the News Corp beast. That’s the Murdoch octopus. Which has its own television arm in Sky. Were Murdoch in one form or another to sponsor the league, all we need to add is a swimsuit round — and the annual ceremonial promotion and demotion is ripe for primetime viewing:

Hello, Sky Center!

Here are the votes of the International Outlook panel:

FeetBiche Boat Cam’ Brig-tonne, douze points. FitBitch Boot Camp Brighton, twelve points 

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Filed under advertising., BBC, Britain, Conservative Party policy., culture, education, George Bernard Shaw, London, Michael Gove, Murdoch, politics, Sport, Times, Tories., underclass, Wales

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