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Recently Read: Making college free, a new OA journal, and student visas

I am not sure whether it was a mere coincidence or if it is somehow connected to the New Year, but in the past week there have been several quite important developments in Higher Education news. These included the plan, by President Obama, for the US government to fund college education; attempts, by Elsevier, to adjust their business model to Open Access mandates; and the defeat of the absurd proposal to expel overseas graduates from the UK.

Making higher education free

One piece of news that is, perhaps, of historic significance, was the announcement of a plan to make community college tuition-free in the USA. Under the plan, which was unveiled by President Obama on Friday, the US federal government will provide three quarters of the tuition fees for the first two years of college, and participating states will be expected to cover the remaining 25%. This should help students complete a two-year Associate degree, or cover half of their expenses towards a Bachelor-level degree.

The programme comes with strings attached: to qualify, students will have to be registered in a half-time (or more intensive) course, maintain a GPA of 2.5 of higher, and make steady progress in their studies. More details about the financial implications  of the programme will be made available in due course, but Inside Higher Education has reported that the plan might cost about 60 million USD in the coming decade. If the plan is ratified by the US lawmakers, and assuming that all the states participate, the White House expects that it will benefit approximately 9 million students, who could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year. Here’s how President Obama describes the plan, as quoted in USA Today:

America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we made a high school  education the norm, and then we sent a generation to college on the GI Bill. But eventually, the world caught on. The world caught up. And that’s why we need to lead the world in education again.

More to read: There are parallels between President Obama’s plan and the German decision to completely eliminate tuition fees at university starting next year: in both cases, the decision seems to be based on the understanding that educating the workforce is a requisite for economic survival. In the meanwhile, there are voices in the UK urging for additional increase in tuition fees (e.g., 1, 2). It remains to be seen which policy proves more efficient on the long run.

Developments on Open Access

On Thursday, Elsevier announced that they are launching what they describe as an “open access journal covering all disciplines on a platform that will enable continual experimentation and innovation”. The designation ‘journal’ seems to be used in loose way here. Rather than a field-specific journal that caters to the need of a well-defined discipline, what they seem to have in mind is a large online platform like PLOSOne. According to the announcement, “articles will be assessed for sound research rather than their scope or impact”, which means that any article will be published as long as there are no methodological flaws.

Elsevier, who also own Mendeley, hope to capitalise on their expertise in using analytics to facilitate the efficient use of what will soon become a vast database of articles. Here’s how they describe the process:

We will use data and technology behind Scopus to quickly match papers to relevant editors and reviewers, shortening peer review times. […] To enable greater visibility for research, the platform will use smart technologies developed by Elsevier and Mendeley, enabling us to make papers easily discoverable and to connect them to the relevant research communities and readers. […] Elsevier has spent nearly two decades developing smart content, search-and-discovery tools, and a wide range of platforms that are used by researchers worldwide. For example, we use semantic indexing to make search results more relevant and enable more efficient browsing for research on specific subjects. By adding citation and usage data to the indexing, we can enable readers to identify the articles most important to their research. […] The content will appear on ScienceDirect, which has more global usage than any other scientific publication platform, and on a dedicated website, where we aim to structure the content in a way that will make it extremely easy to discover so authors gain maximum visibility and credit for their work.

This decision comes in the wake of several policy directives, by the US Federal Government, HEFCE in the UK, the European Commission, the Gates Foundation, and -more recently- Chinese and Dutch higher education authorities, to make publication in Open Access journals a requirement for funding. What this means is that researchers who want to receive funding from any of these funding agencies will now have the option of submitting to this, somewhat inclusive, journal, and they won’t need to concern themselves too much with demonstrating the impact of their work in order to get published. Conversely, it also means that that Elsevier can now tap the money allocated by these funding bodies for making research publicly available, without having to set up new journals for each and every discipline.

More to read: In related news, Times Higher Education reports on the tough line taken by Dutch universities in their negotiations with Elsevier. In exchange for renewing their subscriptions, the universities reportedly want publishers to waive Article Processing Charges for any article whose corresponding author is affiliated to a Dutch university, and they refuse to tolerate raises in subscription fees that exceed inflation.

Anti-graduate immigration policy thwarted

On a positive note, it seems that the plan by the UK home secretary,Theresa May, to make international students leave Britain after their graduation has been defeated. In brief, May had suggested that measures should be taken to curb the flow of student immigration into the UK. May is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “121,000 students came in from overseas while only 51,000 left” and “by the 2020s we will see 600,000 overseas students each year in this country”. To check this influx, May proposed scrapping the ‘bridging’ visa, which allowed overseas graduates to remain in the UK for four months while they looked for suitable employment. If May’s proposal were to be implemented, graduates would have to return to their home countries, and reapply for a work visa once they got a job offer, presumably after conducting a job-search from abroad.

The plan was most vocally opposed by leading inventor and entrepreneur Sir James Dyson, in whose words:

Our borders must remain open to the world’s best. Give them our knowledge, allow them to develop their own and permit them to apply it on our shores. Their ideas and inventiveness will create technology to export around the world. May’s immigration plans simply force the nimble minds we nurture to return home and create competition overseas. Why would they return? Often they hail from emerging economies and nations that respect science and engineering.

Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at UCL, makes a similar point in blunter terms:

The slowdown of high-skill mobility into the UK is already hurting. It would hurt more if net migration comes down at a faster rate. Not only does this detonate two generations of marketing the UK (especially London), as the cosmopolitan global centre, Cool Brittania, it fundamentally undermines the economy. […] High cross-border mobility is the norm. It is culturally and economically inevitable. Countries like North Korea that go it alone pay the price.

One suspects that the defeat of May’s plan was influenced by intra-party politics more than by the persuasive power of arguments such as the above. One is also keenly aware of Marginson’s reminder (in the article cited above) that this battle is “far from over”. Even so, one might sigh with some relief at the news that at least some plans are too short-sighted and too disastrous for the Coalition government.


Featured image by Dan Dzurisin @ Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)

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