Worth a glance #23: Money, money and more money

by reestheskin on 28/09/2015

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“Most universities misjudge their own brands, mistaking a longtime monopoly on access to top students for value.”

Assessing the quality of UK medical schools: what is the validity of student satisfaction ratings as an outcome measure? I have not read the paper, but you can guess the answer. This is all rather sad, and dangerous. I would just link back to some words from Harvard’s Larry Lessig I quoted earlier: 

The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this can’t be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

 Well if you can wreck real research, you can certainly wreck good teaching. 

And if you think I am complacent about the value proposition we offer to students, Rich DeMillo’s long awaited new book its out: ‘Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable’. I have only just started reading it. There is bags to whinge about, but unlike what AJP Taylor said of some academics, ‘He is 90% right, and 100% wrong’, DeMillo is wrong about the little things, and right about the big things that matter. Some quotes:

American Élites had little incentive to change, and change without the active involvement of the top of the academic pyramid was impossible. But then the outsider theory started to crumble. Influential insiders began to say in public what critics had been reporting all along: unequal access was a threat to higher education. Stanford’s president John Hennessy said that the cost of maintaining a large faculty was not sustainable and predicted that in the future, there would be fewer professors but they would be using new technologies to teach more students. He then took a minisabbatical—a rarity for university presidents—to acquire a deep understanding of educational technology.

Universities are generally conceived as vertically integrated entities, but as soon as families realize that they do not have to pay for unadorned content, the natural question is: “Well, exactly what do I have to pay for?” This is the central concern in chapter 2. Affordable quality is a goal of the Revolution, but it is achieved through an unbundling of a university’s value proposition that allows students to pay only for the value they receive. This is an innocent-sounding although in fact dramatic shift in the landscape of higher education.

Most universities misjudge their own brands, mistaking a longtime monopoly on access to top students for value.

Universities ‘decline charity research grants due to fall in public funding’ Not certain about the examples, but you cannot solve the crisis in HigherEd unless you look hard at the money flows, and the various cross subsidies. In medicine — until I have seen hard data to the contrary — I will stick to my view that this is a bigger problem that for other parts of the university. As DeMillo points out (ibid): ‘In fact, the rates paid by research sponsors are kept artificially low by cross-platform subsidies. Who subsidizes low research prices?’ For the Ivy League, the subsidy is from endowments, for many of the rest, it is tuition fees.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.This free online encyclopedia has achieved what Wikipedia can only dream of. Not entirely fair, but Wikipedia just isn’t sufficient for all, all of the time. But imagine how much poorer the world would be without it. And yes, Stanford is giving us this encylopedia for nothing, but note the following:

“Our grant application days are over,” says Zalta. “We are practically self-sufficient as long as we don’t try to grow too much or too fast.”

Now this chimed with something I read in Nature about the re-financing of the Scripps Institute. The quote was: 

Looking forward, I think many scientists realize that NIH funding is a good thing if you have it, but it’s not sustainable,” says organic chemist Phil Baran, who was on the search committee that selected Kay and Schultz. “What is stable are endowments, which you build by having products that give you proceeds, and by philanthropy. You get philanthropy by doing the best science, so that’s why there is such frenzied competition for the brightest minds.”

Many years ago I gave one of the President Council’s Guest lectures at Cold Spring Harbour (I forge the exact title). The audience comprised people who earned more by the day than I did by the lifetime, but I remember how nobody considered funding a PhD here or a project here, instead it was taken as given, that meaningful funding had to be endowed, so as to ensure secure long term funding — funding to play with, in the best sense of the word. Subsistence societies do not produce great artefacts, or produce the sorts of culture that is science (or most types of non-dogmatic learning, for that matter). Money flows matter. And our traditional   funding streams are broken. And my Univeristy Chair is endowed, but I doubt the pot of money has not been used to cross-subsidise something else