The recent announcement about possible two-year undergraduate courses, which led to an initial critical response from many academics, has been followed by an article from Sonia Sodha demanding that ‘arrogant universities’ should get with the programme. This has, predictably, prompted further indignation among academics – something the Guardian seem to delight in provoking on a regular basis.

Anyway, this is a short-and-swift response to that article. In particular, there are three aspects that I take issue with –

1. Money money money…

Sodha suggests that universities are less than honest about how they are spending the extra cash flooding in from raised tuition fees (and I agree that we need public and open accounting). Indeed, she states that universities ‘have enjoyed a 28% extra windfall in average per-student funding’. 

I would like to see the evidence for this claim (Sodha offers none). Firstly, universities faced a 12% cut in government funding in 2011 (as the Guardian itself reported). Secondly, according to the OECD, UK universities spent on average $14,000 dollars per student in 2011. At exchange rates for that year, that would be about £8,500. Using the Bank of England’s handy inflation calculator, that’s now worth about £9,500. In other words (as far as available evidence shows, and assuming that universities have not substantially decreased their expenditure on students), universities are generally spending the same on students as students are paying. As Sodha points out, some courses or institutions cost or charge less; but some courses cost more to deliver than the fees charged, and are therefore effectively subsidised. 

It’s also worth emphasising that universities did not ask for the funding cuts or fee rises. Many academics would be delighted to drop student fees, if other sources of funding were available. 

2. …what is it good for?

Sodha also writes that ‘Students of history and languages report an average of just eight hours of lectures and seminars a week’, and implies that this is hardly value for money. This shows a colossal – but quite common – misunderstanding about how university education works. 

I would say that what a university provides is the resources to learn. One of those resources is teaching staff, and students’ time with them is obviously of vital importance to their studies (as I like to point out to my students). However, there are lots of other resources too. Working spaces on campus. Computers and software. Laboratory equipment. For arts and humanities subjects, a major resource are library books and journal or database subscriptions. These are very expensive (the model of academic publishing is a topic for another time). Perhaps some universities do not prioritise these resources as much as they should; but I suspect that if you tried to follow the same programme of studies without going through a university, you’d end up paying even more, because universities benefit from economies of scale. 

An important point here is that independent learning is key to university education. In teaching students critical thinking, we want them to do it by themselves: to identify and evaluate sources of information – to judge between reliable facts and ‘alternative facts’ – and then synthesise that information into their own understanding. This does not abdicate teachers’ responsibilities to guide and support students, but self-directed work is crucial. Taking classroom hours as a guide to teaching quality or the value of a degree is extremely short-sighted.

3. Three years or two?

My last thoughts are to do with the idea of two year degrees. In principle, I think flexible and alternative degrees models are a great idea: students are all different, and we should provide whatever works for them. However, I have three caveats.

Firstly, I am suspicious of ‘fast-track’ things. Doing something properly takes time. That’s not to say you can’t do a degree non-stop in two years; but there may be something lost in trying to speed up the process.

Secondly, I’m not convinced this model will in fact open doors that are currently closed. Some students might need to work through the summer in order to support their studies; or they might be prevented from undertaking full-time study by financial or personal commitments. A two-year fast-track degree is not going to solve those problems. I would be much more in favour of flexible part-time options – but part-time student numbers have declined by 38% in the last five years. There doesn’t seem to be much attention to reversing that trend.

Finally, the scheme could have side-effects. Most universities expect (demand?) that staff do things besides teaching, chiefly research. A course running all year might mean depriving some staff of the time to do these other activities; this would intensify the division that already exists between research and teaching staff (the latter already often on ‘Sports Direct’ contracts – according to the Guardian, and acknowledged by Sodha), and between research-intensive and teaching-intensive universities. I don’t see that as a good thing for staff or students.

Yes, universities need to innovate and provide flexible arrangements for their students, and open accounting is a good thing. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean we should blindly follow the latest policy idea. One thing you learn from studying history is that ‘new’ and ‘innovative’ are not always the same thing.

Agreements of the People

Britain’s seventeenth century history has lumbered into the news this week, with the High Court of Justice’s judgment that, according to the law of this country, the government cannot trigger the EU-exiting Article 50 without direct parliamentary approval. Two of the key precedents cited by the judges are the writings of Sir Edward Coke, an influential early-seventeenth-century constitutional lawyer, and the Bill of Rights, which was produced after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688-9. Both state that parliament is the sovereign maker of law in Britain, and are therefore the only ones who can change the law. These documents were originally produced in very specific contexts, and certainly not everyone at that time would have agreed with them (least of all ‘divine-right-of-kings’ Charles I, who literally lost his head over this matter), but their enduring legacy evidently cannot be denied.

Continue reading

All Aboard


The figurehead of the Batavia.

I have wanted to vist the Bataviawerf since I learned about it some years ago, and researching in the Netherlands finally gave me the chance to go. It is a museum in Lelystad, northeast of Amsterdam on the shores of the Zuiderzee, based around a replica of the Dutch East India Company ship the Batavia (if you want a quick introduction, there is a handy In Our Time episode from last March about the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC).

Continue reading

Boaty McWhoseface? Or, some thoughts on ships’ names

You must have heard of it – the online poll to name a polar scientific research vessel, won by a humorous (but, it must be said, not particularly inspired) choice that is considerably less august and impressive than the Natural Environment Research Council were probably hoping for. As it turns out that the voice of the people may be ignored and some other name chosen, it is being taken as a parable about democracy in our time. On a slightly different note, over at the History@Manchester blog Linda Briggs has written about the rituals with which early modern French monarchs and merchants named their ships. This seemed to me a good excuse to borrow the idea and take a look at early modern ship-naming in Britain and Europe more generally.
Continue reading

The water is too deep

It’s been a long time since I’ve written on this blog, so I’ll try to get it going again by posting about some of the research I am currently doing in the Netherlands (I’ll be digging around the Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Dutch national archives for the next few months). I’m here looking for evidence about sailors from Britain and Ireland during the seventeenth century, and what they got up to in another country. Did they take work on Dutch ships, or with institutions like the navy or the various trading companies? What kinds of relationships did they form with people and communities in the Netherlands? I hope that by building up a picture of their activities from the perspectives offered in Dutch records I can complement my research in British collections, and start to think about questions like how much national identities mattered to sailors.

Continue reading

Toe-dipping in the mainstream

These days, academics are encouraged to appeal to big audiences. We are told that we must have ‘impact’ (teaching 2.2 million university students doesn’t seem to count, oddly enough – but let’s leave that for another time). Just over a fortnight ago I had my first proper taste of this when I got involved in a collective letter published in History Today, whose readership and twitter followers represent a much bigger audience than I am likely to reach through my academic writing and teaching. Continue reading