Dangerous research

by Paul Maharg on 16/09/2014

I’ve been catching up on and re-reading the recent regulatory literature coming from the ABA, now that I’m here in the USA and discussing experiential learning, assessment and much else with Roberto Corrada and his colleagues at Sturm Law School, University of Denver.  The ABA Task Force report & recommendations that came out earlier this year is fascinating, not least for how it is responding to the crises of legal education in the US — the positions it takes up, those it’s in the process of abandoning.  It should be required regulatory reading, in any common law jurisdiction.

It drew me to thinking about the research data that underpins legal educational policy formation.  In England and Wales (but not Scotland) the experiment in the marketization of HE  proceeds apace, as this THES article points out.   The article explores the links between higher status degrees and higher fees — effectively, the measurement of long-term graduate earnings correlated against institution attended and subject studied and (this is where our politicians sit up and take interest) an estimate for each institution of the proportion of loans never repaid by graduates.  When we researched the literature on recent changes to HE for LETR it was clear that this was one direction of research that just had to be explored, for it would enable finer-grained economic analysis of institutions as well as their students.

The line of research has been described in THES as ‘dangerous’.  It depends, though, who is interpreting the data and to what purpose, and the context of interpretation.  The data is really part of a hugely complex multi-factorial situation, and needs to be set beside other research, e.g. on the results of student choice, diversity and social mobility, well-being, institutional strategies and their effects and much else.  It would be interesting, for instance, to correlate the results of this research with market strategies adopted by universities to raise capital.

But good grief, how might this research be misrepresented politically and culturally, in pursuit of a relentlessly economic view of the good of HE?  Let me count the ways…  By contrast Andrew McGettigan’s excellent work (in articles, eg on how new forms of capital and constitution are changing higher education, and in his book The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education)  exposes how, in the bonds market, university league tables powerfully affect the perception of the market, and therefore the amount of capital that can be raised, and under what conditions; and revealing how high-status universities retain their power.  He points to the experiences  of Californian institutions in raising bonds, explores the link between bond issuance and higher fees, and offers interesting insights from the US for UK institutions, noting inter alia that while bonds may make life easier for universities, ‘they also liberate a generation of politicians from their traditional responsibilities.’  Who could disagree with that.

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1 Paul Maharg September 17, 2014 at 01:11

Update — Hardly pressed the Publish button on this when I read in today’s Wall Street Journal, p.A6 that the U of California is planning a $250M venture-capital fund to finance startup companies stemming from research conducted by its faculty and students. UC has ‘invested $2B in venture-capital funds’ over the past 30 years. Not all faculty agree: ‘some faculty members have expressed concern that such investment activity favours certain departments and fosters a competitive market-driven atmosphere that isn’t conducive to pure academic research.’

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