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This is the text of a couple of invited lectures that were given in Turkey, at Hacettepe University, Ankara, and at Boğaziçi University, Istanbul during May 1998. They are based on my experience, represent my own thoughts and opinions and have no official standing. It starts with a brief account of the educational system that was traditional in England up to around 1979 and I then trace some of the dramatic developments that have happened since then. Very similar educational revolutions are happening in Turkey and in other countries and for very similar reasons and it is therefore of interest to see how our changes have happened and what their effect has been.
The English system will be the focus of my attention: it is the one
I know best, but it does differ somewhat from the educational system in
Wales, Northern Ireland and especially Scotland. I have spent some time
explaining the traditional system since many features of our new system
are derived from it.
Early days: quiet before the storm
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Up until the early 1980's we had a very traditional and elite higher educational system. There were some 38 Universities in England and these catered fur about 14% of the 18-21 age cohort, in other words about 1 in 7 young people went into University on leaving school.
The vast majority of students who wanted to go to University stayed
at school until they were 18. By that time they had done some 6 years of
"high school", learning along rather specialist lines; thus the typical
student took either an Arts or a Science track, without very much material
from the other. At the end of their fifth form, at age 16, they took the
first major public examination, the General Certificate of Education (Ordinary
level) in typically 6 or 8 subjects. They then went into the "sixth form"
to study (usually) three subjects to the higher level which they would
then offer for the General Certificate of Education (Advanced level). Thus
a physical scientist would offer Chemistry, Physics, and Mathematics; a
linguist perhaps English, French and Spanish or German; other popular combinations
were history, Geography, and English and so forth. Both the O-and A-level
examinations were nationally based and quite independently assessed. The
A-level was a strongly competitive examination and very good grades were
needed to get into the most popular courses at the best Universities.
For the most part University courses were very closely structured: they were mostly high level ("Honours") courses of three years' duration to a Bachelor's degree (usually BSc or BA) in which the students took all of a carefully laid down syllabus in a single subject (e.g. chemistry, or French) or perhaps a double subject (chemistry and geology, or French and history, for example). There was little choice up to the final year when some optional courses were usually introduced. The key features of the syllabus were series of lectures on given topics, given by a lecturer to a (largely silent) class of listening students. Interactions were rather few, though the tutorial system did encourage this at another time. In practical subjects, students also spent long hours at the bench doing experiments.
The courses were assessed by written examinations held at least once
a year. Students were obliged to pass them with a mark of at least 40%;
if they failed they usually were allowed a second try, but this was not
the case for the final examination. The Final Examination at the end of
the third year was normally the key to the whole University course. The
marks for the examinations (and some practical marks too) were added and
averaged and the students in the class were then ordered with respect to
their overall mark. Those with an average of 70% or better were then awarded
First Class honours (a rather rare mark of distinction); those with 60-69%
were awarded Second Class Honours (upper division, often known as an "upper
second"), those with 50-59% were awarded "lower seconds" and so forth.
Students who performed poorly but who had satisfied certain criteria for
a degree were sometimes awarded a non-Honours (or Pass) BA or BSc.
The examinations were set and marked by the lecturers (the Internal examiners) again along traditional lines but, to maintain standards, the Final Examination scripts and marks were checked by one or more External Examiners. These Externals came from another University in Britain and provided an independent vetting. Although major disagreements between Internal and External examiners were rather rare, the externals played a vital role in defining the borderlines between the various classes of honours degrees.
The tutorial system, pioneered at Oxford and Cambridge Universities,
also became a feature of the whole University system. Basically students
in a class were divided into small tutorial groups (ideally two, but very
often much larger, because of lack of staff resources) who were assigned
to a member of staff (the "Tutor"). They would do assignments for their
tutors which would then be discussed in detail at a tutorial, typically
lasting an hour once a week or so. This allowed considerable interaction
between the student and the tutor and made the University course less impersonal;
however the tutorial system was very labour-intensive and represented a
heavy work-load for the academic staff. An interesting and unique feature
of the UK system up to quite recently was that students who were admitted
to University had their fees paid and also received a grant from the State
(usually the local authority) towards their living expenses. An unusual
feature of the English system (but less so for Scotland, Wales and Northern
Ireland) was that students tended not to study at their nearest University
but would travel some distance for their studies to one about 100-150 km
distant from their home. This allowed them to be away from home to develop
their individuality and prepare for "life" without immediately breaking
the links to their parents. It was made possible by the generosity of the
1980's radical new Ideas
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In 1979 the government of Mrs Thatcher was elected. They had very radical ideas; the welfare state was now slowly to be disbanded, free market economic theory and practice would henceforward dominate. On the education side two themes gradually developed over the next few years: the need to improve the level of our education in the schools and the need to widen access to higher education (HE). A fundamental tenet of the Thatcher policies was to minimise what was considered to be "interference" by the state: this meant that central (and local) government would be less responsible for many functions that had previously been funded by the state, such as education (schools and HE), health care, pensions, and so forth.
Education was a typical example: henceforward it was to be the responsibility
of the student and his/her parents. They would have to pay if they wanted
education above a very basic level. The free market theory said that this
would decrease the need for taxes to be collected and for money to be administered
centrally, thus reducing one level of government bureaucracy. People could
then choose how to educate their children and pay accordingly. The ideal
was really a "privatised" school system but even 10 years of Thatcher plus
another 4 years of Mr Major's government never completely un-did the more
centralised system which had evolved during the previous 35 years. It became
apparent even to the most ardent advocates of Thatcherism that in seeking
to privatise education the reformers had taken on a very formidable task.
The second leg of the new policy, to widen access to HE, proved more successful, perhaps because the public could see direct personal benefits. Thus the early 1980's saw the beginning of an expansion which lasted until well into the 1990's. Today about 1 in 3 young people leaving school go into some form of higher education and the current target is to bring this up to 40%. The proportion of women has also increased, from 42% in the 1980's to 52% today.
An expansion of the HE sector and a widening of access is clearly a good thing. The problem was that the traditional way of doing it, by the state collecting and spending more public money was against all the tenets of Thatcherism. In particular, more government money means higher taxes which of course equals electoral unpopularity! Further, public funds were under great pressure from other competing demands (health, social security, etc) and the expansion of HE would not get a large share of new money: economies were needed.
Indeed an early act of the Thatcher government was to reduce the University
"unit of resource" by 10%. Since most of the costs of a University are
for academic staff salaries, a consequence of that was a drastic cut in
the number of academic posts. For the most part those cuts were relatively
painless: permanent University staff were on a pension scheme and thus
many older staff were encouraged to take "early retirement". Normal retirement
age in England is 65 but under this scheme most of those over 60 went.
In many cases the Universities then re-hired them on short term temporary
contracts. This cost the University little money, provided experienced
teachers, and gave the staff a welcome extra bonus to their pensions, as
well as giving them some further mental stimulation!
Transformation: Polytechnic Into University
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That is a way to keep the status quo while keeping very tight rein on funding. The problem then arises, how does one expand a very expensive service while actually decreasing costs. One further way to make savings is to only give marginal cost, and to make "efficiency gains" - gradually cutting spending per student. Thus if you are teaching a subject, say biochemistry or Icelandic, to 100 students this year and to 120 next year, you will certainly not need 20% more resources next year. Since most of the infrastructure (the salaries of teachers, the buildings, lecture theatres, and so on) will already be in place, all you really need is for the students to squeeze up a little in their lecture theatres and laboratories, and for the academic teaching staff to work a little harder! Further as many in government believed them to be a group of idle talkers, a little stick there would be a good thing in any case.
These various measures allowed the increases in public expenditure on HE to be kept to a minimum, and public spending on higher education has only risen by 45% in real terms over the past 20 years while student numbers have increased more than 100% (from 800,000 to 1,700.000). Over the period 1989-1999 the unit costs per student are estimated to have decreased by 40% from an average value of just over £7000 to under £ 4,500 by application of these various efficiency gains.
However a doubling of the University student population could not be achieved just by these means alone: more physical plant (buildings, etc) were needed as well. This was provided by changing the function of the Polytechnics gradually during five or six years. Over previous decades England had developed a very good level of higher education in the Polytechnics which concentrated on teaching, at a rather more vocational level. While all academic staff at the old Universities had a duty to carry out original research, written into their contracts, in the Polytechnics there was essentially no pressure for staff to conduct original research; indeed the resources to do so were largely absent as well. Nevertheless there was available a ready made "New University" sector, consisting of the former polytechnics, and roughly equal in number to the "Old" Universities already in existence.
In 1992 the government gave the Polytechnics the opportunity to turn themselves into Universities. Virtually all the 35 Polytechnics in England chose to do this and thus the number of Universities doubled overnight. The full implications of this change are still being felt. For example the new Universities now try to put the same requirement for their staff to research, as the older ones have traditionally done. This can lead to serious difficulties since many of the staff of the Polytechnics were appointed as teachers and not as researchers. By contrast academic staff were traditionally appointed to the old Universities more for their research ability than their teaching.
It is generally believed that people are at their most creative and
research active when they are young, for example mathematicians are often
said to be "over-the-hill" already by the time they are 30 as they have
mostly done their most creative work by then. Thus one implication of the
change of status from Polytechnic to University is that the older teaching
staff must be replaced by bright young research (and teaching) staff. Another
effect is that there are now potentially double the total number of academic
researchers applying for research grants!
Quality: Research Assessment Exercises (RAEs)
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Another question that the new government voiced in the early 1980's was whether the student (and of course the voter) was getting sufficient "value for money". In order to answer this question satisfactorily some way of measuring quality (both for University teaching and for research) had to be developed. Research, as a topic less easily appreciated by the average voter, was the first to be quantified, in the first Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 1986. Teaching came much later. The RAPs covered essentially all disciplines and all Universities.
The first RAE was quite a gentlemanly affair. It and all the subsequent ones were carried out on a subject basis. In chemistry the assessors sat around a table and discussed the research carried out by academic staff of chemistry departments of the various Universities. This was largely on the bases of our experience, for example from involvement with Research Council research grant peer review procedures. The departments were rated qualitatively on a simple numerical scale from 1 (low) to 5 (high). The results were published and were greeted with small interest and little concern.
Three years later, in 1989, the second RAE was conducted. This time a new umbrella funding organisation for distributing government money to the Universities, the University Funding Council (UFC), had replaced the older University Grants Committee (UGC). The main difference between the two was that the UFC had fewer academics and was dominated by part-time people from the world of industry and commerce. The method of working of the 1989 RAE was more organised: numerical data on staff numbers, postgraduate student numbers, funding, and research publications (as well as the publications themselves) were available. This was a more serious assessment and now the point of it gradually became clear: University research funding would be influenced by the grade obtained. People began to think impolite thoughts about tile assessors.
Three years further down the line, in 1992, came the third RAE. This was really serious and we were told in advance that a direct link would be established between the grade and the research funding from UFC (this was itself later transmuted into HEFCE, the Higher Education Council for England, which is the current body for disbursing funds to the Universities). Masses of statistical information, relating to the academic and technical staff and students in various categories, funding, and research publications, were supplied for this RAE. This involved a huge effort and the Universities stopped much of their other work for many weeks in order to concentrate on putting together as a strong a case for the RAEs as they could. In this case each academic staff member was expected to produce two papers on which his/her work could be judged by the independent assessors on the panel.
And who was on the panel? The composition of the panels varied with the discipline; in chemistry it was made up of some seven distinguished chemists from around the country, plus advisers. The panel members had extensive experience both of research and of the peer review processes used by the research councils in assessing grant applications. Of course every effort was made to ensure impartiality and fairness (for example, panel members were not involved in the discussion or assessment of their own institutions), but at the end of the exercise when the outcomes were published, there was still quite a lot of complaining at the results. This came in part (but not exclusively) from members of the New Universities who just could not believe that they were rated so low.
The fourth RAP was held in 1996 and the progressive strengthening of the criteria continued. Examples or the criteria used were, the existence of considerable evidence or international excellence in a majority of sub-areas of the subject for the very highest rating (5* in this case), via substantial evidence of national excellence for intermediate ratings (3), down to no national or international excellence (1). This time we were warned beforehand that a large fraction of our future funding would hang on the results of the RAE; thus each University department took every action it could to strengthen itself. Academics with good publication lists were hired from other Universities, and many younger staff were promoted internally to prevent them being poached by other institutions. Professorships were created with lavishness. This gave rise to what may be termed the "RAE inflation". From the point of view of the better researchers among the University teachers, this was good as it had a substantial "loosening" effect of the rather rigid pyramidal structure of the University profession - advancement became much easier.
The results of the RAEs, at least at the top and the bottom, were just
what everyone anticipated; the older Universities came high in the RAE
ratings (and 70% of their departments scored a 4 or better), while the
new Universities came very low (only 4% of their departments scoring 4
Quality Teaching Assessments
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Having successfully devised measures of research quality for university
departments, attention then focused on their teaching and a comparable
assessment of that was launched. Since the output was less easy to measure
than research, the Teaching Quality Assessments have been more controversial.
Again much information was gathered together on paper. In addition visits
were undertaken to the department concerned by teams of external experts,
who interviewed staff and students, sat in on lectures, tutorials and laboratory
classes and examined the aims and achievements of the courses given. The
teaching assessments clearly required even more work and more effort than
the RAEs did. Nevertheless, we now have some national data of Teaching
quality based on six factors, each rating up to four points, making a maximum
achievable total of 24 points.
Assessments: what next?
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We now have in place yardsticks for measuring the quality of a University
Department. This allows several steps forward. It allows us to measure
progress, for example how much better are we than our sister department
close by. It also allows us to measure progress since the last assessment-
are we going up or (heaven forbid) down? This allows the University managers
to take action either to strengthen a given department or (occasionally)
to close it down entirely. For example one or two Universities decided,
in view of the shortage of physical science students and the huge costs
involved in successfully running a physics or a chemistry department, simply
to close the efforts in that area and concentrate their resources elsewhere.
One problem is that these Assessment exercises are very costly in time and resources. Thus for example the 5th RAE should have been held in 2000 but has now been put off till 2001, and even the first round of Teaching Assessments have not yet been fully completed.
I don't think government will let us off the quantification easily;
my guess is that more arbitrary criteria will be adopted in future to make
the assessments faster, easier, and less costly. For example, we may end
up not even looking at the research papers published by those being assessed,
but simply noting the journals they are published in, and looking up their
"impact factors". These numbers are readily available for each scientific
journal and immediately tell us how many times a given journal has been
cited - in other words, what the "impact" is of papers therein, and by
implication what the impact of the work done by the authors being assessed.
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Where are we now and what have we accomplished? We are now out of Thatcherism and monetarist thinking and into New Labour ideology, and Cool Britannia. However so far as many facets of our lives are concerned the New Labour ideology looks very much like the previous one. We are perhaps not quite so dogmatic about monetarism and the attempt to end state "interference" in our lives, but the basic principles are unchanged. State subsidies are as unfashionable under Blair as they were under Thatcher and Major. "Looking after oneself" has now become an established part of our life and our thinking. Thus it comes as no surprise that New Labour is continuing and expanding the policies of the Conservatives. For example, after vehemently opposing the whole principle of making students pay for their studies while in opposition, Labour is now bringing in significant University fees for HE students. Maintenance support grants are being phased out, and now everyone going to University either pays for himself or takes a "means test" to show that s/he is too poor. It is now recognised that further expansion or improvement of the University system requires new money; this means that grants must be cut and, further, that students will now for the first time have to pay a significant sum towards the University fees. This figure has been set at £1000 per student per year for the coming academic year, and is likely to cause considerable problems.
On the positive side however, access to Universities for bright 18-year olds is now much easier. There are many more institutions to choose from and also many more courses available. Very popular today are "media" courses, communications, information technology, business, and so forth. Few of these figured on the curricula of the old Universities 20 years ago. Course structures have also changed. There is often less emphasis on formal lectures and formal laboratory work and more on self-development, seminars, discussions. Courses are now modular and less narrowly defined, and students will soon receive transcripts of their marks, in the American style. Above all, the system now has as a paramount nd clear aim - the production of a graduate who is not necessarily expert in a narrow field but one who can cope with many work situations. Communication skills are highly prized today and we spend a lot of time and effort in inducting those into our students. We give them practice at talking about and explaining their projects: they have to learn to give short talks, to use visual aids, to make poster presentations, and so forth. To have been President of the Students' Union is much more prestigious than getting a first class honours degree.
The "down side" of greater and freer access is that elitism and specialisation have gone. No longer are our Universities the shrines of all-encompassing knowledge that once they were. Professors and lecturers are like the other pundits who appear on TV or radio: they are measured by how well they talk (communicate), not how expert they are.
The academic revolution in the UK has been quite painful to live through,
but we hope that the pain will prove to have been worthwhile.
Hacettepe Haber, sayı 21 (haziran-temmuz 1998): 4-6.
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