'Tries harder but could do better': the education debate goes on

Education comes at a cost, and higher education in Britain has traditionally been sustained by a massive subsidy, courtesy of the bulk of tax-payers, for the benefit of a minority. While the system remained small, this was affordable. Now the system is anything but small one needs to overhaul rather than tinker with the funding regime. This and other funding issues were discussed in a seminar on higher education, held at the Finnish Institute in April.

Aiming to find a remedy for the present funding crisis, Roderick Floud, Provost of London Guildhall University and economic historian, presented three theses:- "First, research funding should be disentangled from teaching funding and given to the research councils. The universities could then concentrate on teaching and the funding for teaching. The present system is not producing the correct results for the state and is difficult to justify in terms of accountability of public funds. Second, fees should be disentangled from maintenance. We have been bedevilled long enough by the fact that when people talk about paying for higher education, they do not distinguish between paying for tuition and living costs. And third, since higher education is evidently a good investment both for the student and the state, there is a role for both in paying for it."

Issues of cost and value that were related but of a different nature were examined by Carol Pearce, Registrar at SSEES (School of Slavonic and East European Studies). "A college of the University of London with 500 students, SSEES is like a bonsai tree: we are small, specialised and enjoy a niche market. Like a bonsai tree we would also benefit from long-term care and investment. A centre for the study of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, our specialities are recognised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which provides much-needed additional finance through the Minority Studies funding scheme."

However, the School labours under the present system where research funding is part of the overall university budget (see Floud's theses above). A drop in research ratings would mean a loss of a hefty proportion of funding, and this is what has happened. "The Research Assessment Exercise does not want new textbooks and language guides, which many of our staff have been writing in response to external needs," says Carol Pearce. It seems to be a no-win situation for the time being, but it has meant that SSEES has chosen fund-raising as a top priority for the next few years.

Increasing the proportion of external funding has been one of the goals of the University of Lapland, as the seminar heard from the university's research liaison officer Leo Pekkala. In this sparsely populated area inhabited by an average of two people per square kilometre and where the unemployment rate rose to 38 % in the worst recession years of the early 1990s, the northernmost university in the European Union is a key player not only in higher education but also in regional development. Which is where the regional development programmes of the European Union come into their own.

The University of Lapland wants to educate professionals who will stay in the region, and set up research and development projects to benefit small and medium-sized enterprises and the public sector. Since Finland joined the EU in 1995, the University of Lapland has increased the proportion of external (mainly EU) funding to 25-30% of its total annual budget. At the same time it has developed lobbying skills to find national funding to match funds from the EU. "We have invested in a strategy for the university and for regional development; we have the skilled personnel and the physical capacity to absorb external funding and take on new projects; and we have been able to take a long-term approach to securing funding and initiating collaboration. We are now well placed to take full advantage of the fruits of our labours," Leo Pekkala concluded.

European funding is a relative newcomer to Finnish higher education. Another newcomer, even more hotly debated, is evaluation. Research evaluation was started in the mid-1980s (by the Academy of Finland), institutional evaluations in 1992, and evaluations of quality assurance systems only last year.

"All twenty universities in Finland will be evaluated in the 1990s using a tailor-made formula for each institution. We do not want to control or inspect the universities, but to develop them. Both self-evaluation and international teams will be used, and the whole process will be planned together with the university and the Finnish Higher Education Evaluation Council," said the General Secretary of the Council Kauko Hämäläinen.

Despite the best intentions, he also saw dangers in the current enthusiasm for assessment. "External evaluations in particular can assume a life of their own without leading to any real change." Using mind-bending substances as an example, he said, "Take alcohol and take evaluation. Only take them in moderation. Too much of either will do you no good."

Coming from a different evaluation culture and contrasting with Kauko Hämäläinen’s basically optimistic view about evaluation was Claire Fox, Education Editor of LM Magazine: "There is an obsession with evaluation that has compounded problems and led to a deterioration in education standards. Quantity and quality are conflated, when there is a move towards targets and quantitative indices to measure quality. The way I see it is that universities are in danger of becoming glorified colleges of further education."

A lecturer at an FE college herself, Claire Fox also saw external scrutiny eroding academic autonomy. And how exactly do you evaluate education? Would you judge it by the end results, the qualifications? "The standard of our degree courses would decline if this happened as will be the case if funding is related to performance."

Moving from standards to internationalisation in higher education, Outi Snellman, Director of International Relations at the University of Lapland, examined the concept in the Finnish context. Before the late 1980s, internationalisation meant personal links, while the scene has since been crowded with large international exchange schemes.

"We were told by the Ministry of Education that internationalisation is good, so we went for it. CIMO, the Centre for International Mobility, was established to serve the universities, and it proved crucial as a source of information and assistance. International offices were established and modular teaching in English arranged to facilitate exchanges, since student mobility was a key objective. Little attention was given to the quality implications of student mobility in this boom period of 1989-1994."

That situation has now changed. The ultimate goals have been somewhat redefined by the universities and CIMO. Outi Snellman elaborates, "The goals should be more about quality than quantity; they should be an end rather than a means and have an impact on education and on the degree programmes; academics should become much more involved."

This started a qualitative process in which the European policies of the Finnish universities are being evaluated. Problem areas are also analysed in greater detail, including the fee policy and funding system in Finnish higher education, the use of a foreign language (mostly English) as a medium of tuition, and the internationalisation of the curriculum.

Future priorities lie in sustaining the enthusiasm that the Socrates exchange scheme has generated in Europe and also casting the net wider by looking beyond Europe to ensure that the internationalisation of higher education in Finland is a truly worldwide endeavour.

In Ireland, the starting-point for internationalisation was different. The key issue in Irish higher education is the demand for it. "It is hard to talk about internationalisation in Ireland because of this, especially if one thinks about student mobility and encouraging overseas students to take their degrees in an Irish institution. Internationalisation does not come high on any list of priorities while there are more Irish students wanting to get into higher education," said John Lynch, Director at the International Education Board in Ireland.

Still, Ireland has natural links to Britain and the United States, and there has been a growing Europeanisation in higher education, especially in the field of technology. According to John Lynch, it would pay to invest in collaborative research links and international programmes to benefit Irish students and make higher education more international.

Towards the end of the seminar, Dave O'Reilly started to tackle one more big issue by discussing teaching and learning in higher education. Working at the Educational Development Service at the University of East London, he depicted a future society riddled with global risks that do not recognise national borders or academic barriers. In answer to the educational needs of such a society, he preferred an option where the learners take more responsibility for their careers and do more learning by themselves.

This obviously leads us to the so-called learning society. "At last, officialdom is talking about life-long learning. Learning society may even become the ‘normative metaphor’ of our age, just as market forces and competition have been the normative metaphor of the past eighteen years," said Professor Brian Groombridge.

"Admittedly, some of this talk about the learning society is hot air. It can be rhetoric without much substance, but to make it work, we need to integrate the formal and informal systems of education and take heed of organisations with educational functions (such as churches and trade unions)."

According to Brian Groombridge, Finland may have a cultural and political advantage over England and perhaps over the whole of Britain in establishing a learning society. "In Finland, as I understand it, education, democracy and nationhood have been historically coterminous. In England, nationhood came before democracy and - like educational opportunities - had to be wrested out of that particular power structure. We now have a language of politics where education is a trinity of sorts. What will be achieved with education, education and education remains to be seen."

The dialogue in higher education between Finland, Britain and Ireland in the Finnish Institute will continue in the autumn with a follow-up seminar.

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