Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Some Musings on Universities

In trying to formulate a response to Howard Hotson's piece in the current LRB, "Don't Look to the Ivy League", I found this quote about an English university:
The University of Cambridge is an exempt charity subject to regulation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) under the Charities Act 2006.

The University is a common law corporation, being a corporation by prescription consisting of a Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars who from time out of mind have had the government of their members and enjoyed the privileges of such a corporation. By Act of Parliament 13 Elizabeth Cap. 29 passed in the year 1571 the incorporation of the University and all privileges then held under charter or by prescription were duly confirmed.
I was tickled by the phrase "from time out of mind". Since, like yonks ago, to put it in the contemporary vernacular.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE, points out that all bar one, of England's higher education institutions, are incorporated as private charitable corporations. Essentially, in England, the only public institution of higher education is Guildhall School of Music which is controlled by the, not very democratic, Corporation of the City of London. All other institutions are in reality private corporations that are publicly funded. There is little democratic control of the trustees and management of these institutions. There is little in law to stop English universities deciding to go fully private, and refuse public funds tomorrow. That surely means they are not public institutions.

Hotson's argument amounts to looking at the different resources, including GDP and population in the US and the UK, contrary to accepted wisdom, the US actually underperfoms in the THE-QS World University rankings. He makes a welcome contribution to the debate when he argues that there is no evidence of private sector competition driving up academic standards, and, if anything, treating students as customers only serves to introduce grade inflation and leads to expenditure on "the student experience" instead of education. All reasonable conclusions with which I agree. However some of Hotson's reasoning is a bit squiffy.

In looking at the geographical distribution of the top 100 universities in the THE rankings for 2010-11, by which I assume he means this, he says "The wealthiest private universities at the top of the league table .. are concentrated on the northeastern seaboard of the United States". Now the list begins
  1. Harvard
  2. CalTech
  3. MIT
  4. Stanford
  5. Princeton
  6. Cambridge
  7. Oxford
  8. Berkeley
  9. Imperial
  10. Yale
  11. UCLA
Now, CalTech and Stanford are private institutions in California, which is nowhere near the northeastern seaboard. Perhaps he means another THE ranking?

Now, just because you can manipulate numbers it doesn't mean that you should. Hotson argues
According to Unesco, there are 5758 recognised higher education institutions in the US, about 1600 of which grant four-year degrees. So the 72 US universities in the top 200 represent fewer than 5 per cent of those offering four-year degrees. The US university system overall appears to offer poor value for money: none of the funding, public or private, pouring into 95 per cent of the higher education institutions in America makes any impact at all on the world university rankings. By comparison, the 29 UK universities in the top 200 represent nearly a fifth of the 165 listed by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. So British universities appear, on average, to be almost four times better at breaking into the global top 200 than their American counterparts.
That is statistical garbage. If all of the top 200 places were taken by US institutions that would mean that 1400/1600 or 87.5% of US institutions were outwith the top 200 and would mean that the funding of just under 90% "of the higher education institutions in America makes [no] impact at all on the world university rankings". Only 12.5% of US institutions can be in the global top 200. It's all a matter of scale.

Simply on the basis of numbers all 165 of the UK higher education institutions could get into the top 200. That would not make UK universities better at breaking into the global top 200 than other countries' universities. On the basis of Hotson's logic if a country gets 100% of its universities into the top 200, even if it only has one university, then its record at breaking into the top 200 cannot be surpassed. In this case ratios, and percentages, tell us very little.

I'm not disputing Hotson's conclusions it's just that some of his arguments are nonsense.

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