Monday, February 14, 2011

The Tertiary21 Manifesto for Higher Education

If I was a political party, what would my higher education manifesto be? Have spent the last two posts poking at the Hunt Report and the Higher Education Policies of the political parties contesting the upcoming general election, isn't it only fair that I nail my colours to the mast and say what I would do to (for, even) Higher Education when I'm inevitably appointed by mass acclamation as planetary despot-for-life.

I've spent almost four hours working out the detail of my proposals (by my estimate, double the time spent by most of the main parties) I'm entirely open to suggestions for improvements or for odd incentives my framework will create. In a short posting I need to keep it high level - I recognise that every sentence of this probably needs many pages of operational policy to flesh out the details and smooth out the fish hooks.

Firstly, all higher education institutions need to be entirely autonomous, as non profit entities. I don't care what they teach, who they hire, what they charge, whether they grant tenure or not. Off you go. Enjoy yourselves.

Of course there is a catch.

Funding will be a state supported student loan model, largely following the Browne Framework. I'd love to simply make it free for all, but I haven't got the money. What I will try to do is make it a cheaper system, through other reforms, turning the screws to drive adoption of new, open learning paradigms. Full economic fees for an Arts Degree are €10,000, which is ridiculous. More on tackling that later.

A state run loans system does give me a bunch of handy levers. I can set some courses at zero (or inflation only) interest if we a short on graduates, or even write down loan balances for people who go on to do necessary, but underpaid jobs like teachers and nurses (that is, if actually paying them decently in the first place remains untenable). Loans will be drawn down module by module, and should be straightforward to access, not means tested.  Income levels for repayments need to be set so that you are only repaying the debt your education actually helped you earn more than a comparison group that didn't borrow or study.

There are lots of potential fish hooks to be watched for. We'll need some provision in the system to ensure people don't abuse it by failing module after module. Loan levels for some modules will need to be capped if the employment outcomes aren't panning out. There will be an incentive in the system to create expensive, cool sounding modules ('Outdoor Adventure Instructors' say) that will draw students, but not, once the job market is saturated, actually help them all that much professionally. We'll need a way of handling dropouts and partial completions.

Funding for living costs is a genuinely thorny issue. We need to support poor (sorry, economically disadvantaged) people who actually get as far as third level and want to study full time. At the same time, we want to discourage people from becoming eternal full time students, living on loans they will never repay.  While cheap loans for tuition go to what is, for now, a small controllable group of Higher Education Institutions which were already state funded, cheap loans for living expenses get spent and go straight into the economy - it's potentially very expensive, and much more macroeconomically active. There's no easy one paragraph answer to this issue. It's going to take some very delicate policy work to find a good solution. We can figure it out, but not over a weekend, and not in a mid length blog post.

I can also set conditions which must be met for a given module to be eligible for loans. You're not going to like them one bit.

To be eligible for loan funding, all of a modules material - course outlines, lecture content, slides, handouts, booklists, marking rubrics, sample papers, marking rubrics, teaching plans, who will teach it (and their qualifications for doing do) - must be open access, available online under a creative commons licence, ideally free for non commercial reuse (ie the other non profit HEIs can nick it). Course will change from run to run, so planned future variances must go up there too.

If you are not familiar with the ideas of open education, there are a couple of recent pieces in the Irish Times and the Times Higher Ed, or you could read DIY U, or take a look at people like David Wiley , a leading US advocate.

Here are a few rationales for Open Education at Third level in Ireland:

  • Taxpayers have paid for the material, and are entitled to see it. Virtually every piece of higher education teaching content in the state was developed with taxpayers money. You are entitled to access it. Public money should not be used to create private assets.
  • People not attending the course can benefit from open education materials. You might not be able to pay to sit the module, but you might still learn a bit by reviewing at the material online. The feedstock of a knowledge economy is knowledge, and the cheaper and more abundant it is to access, the better for everyone.
  • It shifts the value proposition of a module away from a content driven, transmission model, and on to genuine teaching and assessment. You can't really charge a four figure sum for a lecture based module where the lecturer interaction is limited to a Postgrad marking an essay or two. Either the costs must drop, or the institution must deliver real worthwhile teacher interaction and assessment, or provide access to specific equipment or facilities that justifies the cost.
  • By placing such a mass of courses online, it establishes Ireland as a central node on the global landscape of higher education. Freely available higher education online will speak with an Irish accent. If you liked the TCD course on Genetics online, why not come on over and do the degree in it here? If you like those Tyndall Institute nanotechnology modules, maybe you should take to them about doing some R&D for you company.
  • The Open access requirement will discourage for profit providers. They will be less willing to enter the market if they have to give away the goods. I'm uneasy about government backed loans supporting for profit higher education institutions,  as it hasn't worked out well in the US or elsewhere. This will give them some pause.

Making the content available for free will reduce the inventive for new module development, so we may need to put a funding mechanism in place to provide seed capital for creating new material. I'm conscious also that dumping a weak module online simply creates a weak online module, and there is a long road from there to full, true open education, but the first step on the road is as important as the last. The material can be improved upon over time, and having it in the public domain will create a strong incentive to do so. If it isn't good enough to show in public, how can it be good enough to teach in private? If we believe higher education is a public good, then it must be public. But it must also be good

A fair proportion of the material put online will, of course, be rubbish. But at least we can all see that now. An open rating and reviewing system, both for the module material, and the lecturers and course delivery, will fairly rapidly sort the wheat from the chaff. Outstanding material and teachers, of which we have many, will rise to the top.
For qualities sake, I would also add a requirement that the module materials get a peer review every few years, which will be published too in the same place online. This means potential students can balance their own opinion of the materials, with scholarly and module graduate perspectives before making their decision to use that module. The peer review can also ensure the modules dependencies (prerequisite or follow modules) are appropriate. Weak modules will wither in the sunlight, and good ones will blossom.
With this model, I can ensure reasonable course quality with relatively little bureaucracy, and empower people to make up their own minds on whether a module is worth doing or not.

We will, alas, need some bureaucratic oversight, targeting audits on modules that are unusually expensive, or have unusually high (or low) completion rates or uptakes, or are getting strange reviews.

Have you noticed there is nothing in this framework so far to stop an individual, or any organisation, designing a course, having it peer reviewed and accredited, putting it ip, running it for free for a cycle to get open reviews, and being eligible for state loan support? Well done. Keep it to yourself.

Deep Modularisation
Underpinning the points of Openness and Quality is an ideal of Deep Modularisation - the Bologna Process taken to it's logical extreme. The Module is now the critical unit, not the degree. Education, and credentialling, can be acquired in module by module chunks, as needed, from any institution, not just in degree sized chunks at the start of a career, when you don't know what you'll need to know. It makes lifelong, distance and part time education the logical central paradigm, and the idea of full time degrees a less logical one. These kinds of changes take a generation to work their way into the mindset, but if we change the framework in which we imagine higher education, that mindset change will come in time.

Deep modulatisation also opens the potential for a module to be more than simply a classroom led learning event. Many of the best learning experiences for students are outside classrooms (In my degree, I learned the most useful things on Fieldwork) and we can open that out further, recognising prior learning and other, non classroom structured learning experiences within the module framework. Could we, for example, use a loan funded module to support an international relations student to work for an NGO like Concern for a bit? I'd certainly like to hear a case made for it. Let's get creative - if it's good, real learning, I'll back it.

Universities will complain to me that this will shift people from accessing full degrees into accessing learning piecemeal. I will understand this is 'people will no longer buy our big expensive things and want smaller, cheaper things instead' which is exactly what I have in mind. I've been rattling on about how the quantum of learning is changing to smaller, more agile units. Deep modularisation recognises this reality.

Modules, of course, can still be stacked up into degrees, just like now, and modules will have prerequisite modules. No point in taking Quantum Mechanics 201 unless you have nailed a bunch of mathematics modules first. But tracing the web of modules down, there is a logical first module, for a 'prime learner, unlearned' which would have no formal prerequisites, and, as an entry level module, it should be possible to complete entirely by distance, just turning up in person for an exam (remote proctoring is, and will remain, technically dicey). So, in time, by picking off the bottom rung prerequisites online first, you can access higher education without bothering with the Leaving Certificate rat race, broadly seen as destructive of minds and (perhaps) lives, at all.

This should be straightforward. We need three main bits:
A body to administer the student loan and funding systems, it's all straightforward  stuff. In New Zealand, the Social Welfare system looked after that, it's just a bookeeping and payments/repayments management exercise. A couple of years ago, I'd just have tendered this job out to a bank or two to manage. Now, maybe not, but I'm not paying for a whole new agency from scratch for it, not with your taxes.
We'll need a good policy shop to get all over labour markets and outcomes and understand which modules we need to set at zero interest or incentivised in some way, and which we don't need to worry so much about where that sits in government doesn't matter (and, indeed, we can encourage independant research on the matter) once it's good.
Then we need a quality management agency. Their role is to make sure the modules are good, and deliver the learning outcomes they are supposed to, and manage module development grants and so on. They'll also need a rather bloody minded team of cost assessors, who can audit modules and make sure the list price bears some reasonable relation to the cost of delivering them.

Philanthropy and Endowments
I'd like to give Higher Education institution's a little bit of autonomy. After all, if they rely almost completely on loan funding, they haven't really got any independence, even though it is largely students who will control who gets the money. Independence is economic or illusory. Since their administrators will spend most of the next 15 years crying over these reforms we should throw them a bone.
We'll need to make sure that the tax incentives are strong for donations to long term institutional endowments, rather than buildings or isolated, piecemeal scholarships. I'd love to set up our existing Higher Education Institution's with a nest egg, like the US Land Grant system, but I don't have any land. Perhaps there might be something else, a little slot of RF spectrum perhaps, that we could transfer to them on a 100 year lease to give them the potential for revenue. It might be something that seems valueless to us today, as a publicly held good, but having title to it would create an incentive for them to find a valuable use for it. I'm open to ideas. This is a long term strategy, all the more reason to start right away.

That, in a nutshell, is it. An open, actively managed education system supported by government backed student loans. There are, of course, heaps of operational policy issues to address is detail, and whole areas like research and innovation policy, and international education, that I have left off for brevity, as as they sit outside a core educational scope, but I'll happily work out those details for you if needed.

I advocate the system for two reasons:

Firstly, most obviously, I believe it's substantially better than current arrangements. Some of the changes are fundamental, but, like many systems, the state of higher education is strongly dependant on it's history, and it has evolved itself into a dead end, with too much junk DNA from it's 1000 year history. Only an aggressive reform can set it free, and get it moving onwards and updards again. There is much good in our higher education institutions, and we can help set that good free.

Secondly, I think these changes are going to happen anyway. Global higher education systems will look like what I've described by about 2030. Ireland can lead the change, get in ahead, and put our higher education at the head of the global pack, or we can follow, and fall further behind. Leadership carries risks, and demands courage and audacity, but will bring great rewards for our children, and ourselves.

What do you think? 

1 comment:

  1. Total agreed – all points. Your logical conclusion of the Bologna Process echoes my notion of the 'Microversity' (

    Also, I’ve long been dismayed that publically funded institutions think that materials they have created with public funds belong to them?! I couldn’t believe that when I created materials as a school teacher I wasn’t allowed to make these publically available on sites like

    Finally some questions: Why does education continue to be so protectionist? What are the drivers? Who are the people making these decisions?