11 October 2009

Manchester, and the Indirect Route to Excellent Education

There was an article in Student Direct, Manchester's student newspaper, the other week, that got my proverbial goat. I don't have a real one, alas. Anyway, the guts of the article was that Alan Gilbert, current head honcho at the University of Manchester, has admitted that the undergraduate experience at Manchester isn't what it might be:
'Vice-Chancellor Alan Gilbert has publicly admitted that students at the University of Manchester do not receive a satisfactory student experience.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Westminster, Gilbert said: “I am not satisfied with the quality of undergraduate education in the University.”

He also branded it as “too impersonal” and not “sufficiently interactive”, adding that “the curriculum has been developed a little incrementally and has not been profoundly thought through.

“The student experience can be considerably improved.”


However, Gilbert implied that the main reason for the shortcomings was insufficient funding for the University, as the top-up fees introduced two years ago nation-wide to boost institutions’ finances were too low to actually achieve this.'
I'm not sure that there's anything wrong with things developing incrementally, that being the English way, but it's good that Alan G has recognised that things aren't what they might be in Manchester. He said this more than a year and a half ago too, of course, but still, it's nice that he's not forgotten.

In the 2009 National Student Survey, not merely does Manchester fall four percentage points below the national average for student satisfaction, but of the 154 institutions listed here, 120 do rather better than Manchester. For one of Britain's leading universities, this might strike you as shocking, but in a way it's not really surprising. Manchester tends to do extremely well in global research-based league tables, invariably being in the top handful of British universities on such lists, but its ranking in domestic league tables, which focus more on teaching and the actual educational experience at universities, is as a rule far less impressive: perhaps most dramatically, the Guardian's latest table has it at a feeble 32nd place!

What's going on? Is Alan Gilbert right to say that the University is insufficiently well-funded?

I don't think he is. In 2007, Manchester's income was around £637 million, more than that of any other University -- although to be fair, Oxford and Cambridge colleges have extra sources of income independent of the respective universities. In other words, Manchester has more money than almost any other educational institution in Britain. This shouldn't come as a surprise: Manchester is enormous, and probably, in real terms, the biggest university in the country. Even so, though, it sounds as though the system is under some strain.

Look, let's be fair. Manchester has made a strategic decision, which is to try to become one of the world's top 25 research-led institutions. It's throwing its resources into that, with the plan being to invest heavily in research and to do whatever it takes to recruit prominent academics so that other prominent academics will be drawn to Manchester. This seems to be working: Manchester is slowly working its way up the Shanghai Jiao Tong league table, which as far as Professor Gilbert is concerned, is the only ranking that matters.

The problem is that without limitless resources you can't cover everything. Frederick the Great put it well: he who defends everything defends nothing.

Elite universities may well be destinations of preference for many of the best students in the world, as Professor Gilbert said in outlining the University's 2015 strategy; they may well support excellence in teaching and provide students with a superb learning experience. It seems that Professor Gilbert really wants Manchester to become such a place. The thing is, that may not be possible just yet. It may simply be the case that there's not enough money to go round to do everything at once, and so a strategic decision has been taken to make teaching take a back seat. Professor Gilbert effectively admitted this back in February 2008, when he said there was a trend in most of Britain's leading institutions towards emphasising excellence in research at the cost of excellence in teaching. This, he conceded, was far from healthy:
'Whether you like it or not, universities are fundamentally about the education of students, both undergraduate and postgraduate ... it is clear that a university becomes non-viable unless it is a satisfactory destination for good students. There is a flaw in the business of a research university unless it is seen to be dedicated as much to the learning outcomes of students as to its research outcomes.'
Manchester, he said more than a year and a half ago, was taking steps to rectify this. Given dropping rankings in national league tables -- 24th to 32nd in the Guardian table and a drop from 81% to 77% in the National Student Survey -- it looks as though these steps might not be working, but maybe they will in time.

In the meantime, it'd probably be useful if the University honestly and openly defended its strategic decision to invest in research in order to join the ranks of the global academic elite, with a view to using that position and the wealth it hopes to generate through leadership in research to become a world-beater in teaching as well. If this means that the interests of Manchester's actual students of today are to come second to the interests of Manchester's imagined students of tomorrow, well, that's an unfortunate price that just needs to be paid. Sometimes you have to play a long game.

Seriously, this is a defensible position. I'm not sure I'd like to be defending it, given that students, parents, and taxpayers from all over the UK might have doubts about so much indirect long-term investment in the English north-west, but the case could be made, and probably should be.

Honesty's usually the best policy, after all.

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