Debbie McVitty

More evidence out this week confirms what, in the main, we already know. Access to the most selective universities for working class young people is not only incredibly unequal, but apparently in decline, according to the latest report of the Milburn commission on social mobility and child poverty. But caught up in this debate once again are differing views about what a ‘good’ university is, and who they should be for. We need to stop having the same conversation over and over again.

Survey motivation

by Debbie McVitty October 10, 2012

This week I have decided to have a pop at the practice of asking students about their motivations for study in student experience surveys. It is not a particularly topical issue – but then, if we waited for some aspects of higher education policy to appear in the news cycle before talking about them we would be waiting a long time. This post is a reflection on the question of student motivation, how and why we measure it and what that says about us.

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Dispatches from a wonk’s nightmare

by Debbie McVitty May 2, 2012

Imagine, fellow wonks, if you will, your vice chancellor or chief executive coming to you one day to be briefed on the latest impenetrable funding council communiqué. Deciding what your institution’s or organisation’s opinion should be will involve speaking with experts and respected colleagues, reviewing research, thinking about how the media might tell the story and second-guessing your competitors. It probably includes waving a finger in the air to test which way the political winds are blowing.

It almost certainly does not involve handing the decision over to a thousand-strong student rabble with a three-day hangover. Who know significantly less than you do about any given policy issue in higher education. For a body of professionals hired and valued for our expert knowledge base, NUS National Conference must surely seem to wonks to be the worst idea ever concocted.

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What is Collini for?

by Debbie McVitty March 5, 2012

Stefan Collini’s much-anticipated book, What are Universities For? (Penguin, 2012) has not been received with universal approbation. The several positive reviews are in danger of being overshadowed by the rather bad-faith effort from Peter Conrad in the Guardian. This post is not a comprehensive review of the book, but a wonk’s reflections on some of the ideas that Collini presents.

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Widening participation for postgraduates?

by Debbie McVitty February 23, 2012

I’m not quite sure when or how it happened, but suddenly we are all madly concerned about widening access to postgraduate study. Before Christmas I wrote about the postgraduate policy vacuum – that the government seemed to have no fixed plans to build postgraduates into national strategy in either research or teaching.

But policy, it would seem, abhors a vacuum, and since the New Year we have seen a flurry of activity from within and outside BIS. The 1994 Group chose to make postgraduates the issue in early January. The Higher Education Commission launched an inquiry into postgraduate education. BIS had a roundtable. HEFCE replaced the teaching grant at taught postgraduate level for bands A-C. And last week the Open University held a national conference on widening participation to postgraduate education.

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Application with results: is fairness the issue?

by Debbie McVitty January 26, 2012

Last Friday, the UCAS Admissions Process Review consultation came to an end and now we must wait to see whether the proposals to shift to an ‘application with results’ (formerly known as PQA) system has legs. In short, UCAS is proposing that (young) prospective students should apply to higher education, results in hand, within a short timeframe in the early summer. Applications would be turned round and decisions made within a matter of weeks.

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The postgraduate policy vacuum

by Debbie McVitty December 19, 2011

During the festive season it is traditional to turn our minds to those less fortunate than ourselves, and so it is appropriate that we take a minute to reflect on those poor neglected postgraduate students. It is incredible to think that during the upheavals we have seen in the past twelve months of higher education policymaking, postgraduate students have barely got a mention. If undergraduate students are to be ‘at the heart of the system’, it looks like postgraduate students are an amputated limb.

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Why ‘students as customers’ is bad for policymaking

by Debbie McVitty December 6, 2011

Are students becoming more like customers? Do they consider themselves consumers? In the abstract, it is a philosophical question, except that it is so emotive in the higher education context that it is rarely approached with philosophical objectivity. To answer the question we would need to have a clear and distinct idea of what we mean by ‘consumer’, for starters. Buried in the concept of the ‘consumer’ of higher education are implicit ideas about passivity, greed, unreasonable demands and lack of intellectual rigour (‘the customer is always right’ – but students need to learn how often they are wrong). But where did these ideas come from and are they appropriate to this context?

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What are universities for?

by Debbie McVitty October 11, 2011

Today the Guardian asks the question, what are universities for?

In the course of the article we see the usual dichotomy emerge between the traditional view of ‘learning for learning’s sake’ in which universities are positioned as guardians of knowledge and ‘institutions committed to deepening human understanding’ and the ‘marketised’ view of universities as contributing to public economic growth and preparing students for employment. Cambridge don Professor Stefan Collini is quoted in defence of the first view, with Carl Lygo, chief executive of BPP espousing the second. Lygo suggests that the fact that more students from his kind of background (he was the first in his family to attend university, and was eligible for free school meals) means that universities have become more utilitarian in their understanding of their purpose.

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UKBA’s student immigration proposals have no intellectual coherence

by Debbie McVitty February 2, 2011

The immigration minister Damian Green gave a speech yesterday to the think tank Reform explaining the proposals set out by the UK Border Agency in its consultation on student visas.

The legal firm Pennington’s, who are experts in immigration law, suggested this week that the consultation itself could be illegal.

The Conservatives pledged to lower net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’ in their General Election manifesto. Since taking office they have realized that through a quirk of data processing that counts student in net migration figures even though very few international students take up permanent residence in the UK, enacting this pledge would require drastic cuts to international student numbers.

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