Archive for May 2011

Opening or closing down the big higher education debate?

May 31, 2011

For anyone interested in assessing the options for higher education development, this could be a golden age. All over the developed world governments, major interest groups in society and the academy itself are voicing concern about the vitality or sustainability of the higher education sector, and are offering a bewildering array of solutions. These range from ‘as we were’, but with rather more money, to somewhat more exotic market-driven (or apparently so) ideas. All of this is backed up (or made more confusing) by position papers, discussion documents, articles and speeches.

Nobody knows where all of this is going. Indeed how could they, as the common feature of almost every assessment is a belief that something (though not necessarily the same something) is badly wrong and change is urgent; but there is no consensus as to what that change should be. There isn’t even a consensus as to what options should be on the menu. Actually, there isn’t a consensus as to what higher education really really is nowadays.

Various academic commentators (not excluding this one) write about how low morale is, and how academics feel they are under attack from all quarters. But maybe that isn’t the real problem: what makes it all so difficult is that it is so overwhelmingly chaotic.  I don’t mean that there are too many competing views: there’s nothing wrong with a competition of ideas. Rather, I mean that those devising public policy seem at sea, jumping this way and that at a moment’s notice, and all too often appearing to present budgetary solutions masquerading as education policy. So perhaps not a golden age.

One politician chucking ideas around like confetti at a wedding is the English Universities Minister, David Willetts. He is a member of a somewhat volatile government many of whose fault lines run under the higher education landscape. Almost every suggestion for change coming from the Cameron/Clegg administration has the potential to derail the coalition, before you even get to the effect it may or may not have on the education system itself. Most recently Mr Willetts came under fire from all sorts of quarters, including it would seem from his Prime Minister, for suggesting that off-quota student places could be sold off for a profit as a way of bringing extra cash into the universities. The howls of opposition (or derision) had closed down the idea between breakfast and lunch on the same day. Quickly the message was put out that the Minister had been misunderstood, and the discussion was shelved.

In some circles this shutdown of the debate generated unease. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Don Nutbeam, wrote in the journal Times Higher Education:

‘Willetts should be encouraged, not punished, for testing ideas in public, however radical they may be. Every time debate is closed down, we lose an opportunity to examine and test more fully the implications of the government’s direction in higher education policy, and its overall coherence.’

In the same issue of THE the editor, Ann Mroz, asked in an editorial why we are ‘so hostile to one who attempts to enlist rational debate to find solutions’ and wondered whether this response from the academic community placed them at risk of having reform forced upon them without the opportunity to influence it.

In general terms these are very reasonable comments. Intellectual debate is not won by those who shout loudest but by those who present a well argued analysis with compelling evidence. As I understand Don Nutbeam and Ann Mroz, they both had strong doubts about the Minister’s proposals but felt that the academy’s response should have focused on the arguments rather than heap abuse on David Willetts.

It’s hard to disagree with that. However, there is a fundamental difference between opening a debate and announcing a policy, even tentatively. The problem with the UK government’s approach to English higher education is that it has not recognised the proper demarcation between what Don Nutbeam calls ‘testing ideas’ on the one hand and policy formulation on the other. On top of that, policy formulation has been erratic and often very badly explained. This in turn creates a kind of raw nervousness in the academic community and helps to explain the responses.

The main reason why I suspect we are not living in a golden age of higher education debate is because very little of whatever debate we are having is actually about education. It’s about means, resources, processes, institutions, regulations and controls; it’s not about knowledge, pedagogy and scholarship. The tetchiness of the exchanges is prompted by the inadequacy of the subject matter. The grandeur of education is being stuffed into a budget envelope. This is as true of the academic contributions as it is of government policies. We need to raise our sights, and more than a little, and need to rediscover some sense of the potential of higher education in its real mission.

Getting to the point

May 31, 2011

One politician who continues to impress is Ireland’s new Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn. Yesterday I attended an event organised by the Royal Irish Academy at which the Minister outlined the issues facing higher education and addressed certain challenges to the academic community.

Of particular significance is the Minister’s view that the CAO points system needs to be changed – a view I have been putting forward for some time. In his speech the Minister said that the points system is ‘designed around the dominant needs of a cohort of full-time, school leaver, entrants’, which no longer reflects the overall student body or how this is likely to be affected by demographic and other trends. He told his audience that they need to find ‘radically new approaches and alternatives to the current arrangements.’

Elsewhere in his comments the Minister refused to rule out new student contributions or tuition fees.

Irish higher education is clearly facing some very difficult times, and given the state of the pubic finances there are no easy solutions. But the country has an education minister with a genuine interest in higher education and a determination to get things done. That’s a good start.

What’s your degree worth?

May 30, 2011

It is often claimed that university graduates earn significantly more than those without higher education qualifications. But in the United States at least (and certainly on this side of the Atlantic also) not every degree has the same impact on earning power. The US journal Chronicle of Higher Education has published details of median earnings enjoyed by graduates from certain university degree programmes, and it is clear from the figures that some graduates are able to earn considerably more than others. The figures are median earnings, so that they do not represent the upper limits of earning power.

The highest median salaries, according to this list, are enjoyed by graduates of petroleum engineering ($120,000), while the lowest pay can be expected by graduates of counselling psychology ($29,000). Other degrees whose graduates are very good earners are pharmaceutical sciences ($105,000), computer science ($98,000) and aerospace engineering ($87,000). In fact, engineers overall are the highest earners. Other poorly paid graduates have degrees in theology ($38,000), social work ($39,000), botany ($42,000).

What this tells us is that some graduates can indeed fairly quickly command high salaries, but that other are far less likely to be able to covert their degrees into pay. While it is easy to see why petroleum engineers are in demand and thus well paid, it is harder to see the reason for either high or low pay in other professions that require higher education qualifications. Some of it is connected with the value that we, as a society, either do or do not attach to certain jobs.

Assuming the figures published in the Chronicle are not wholly out of line with the position in this part of the world, they should raise certain questions in the debate on university funding and tuition fees. If certain degrees don’t secure higher salaries, then the case for graduate contributions in those fields is weak. This might suggest that tuition fees (where they exist) should not be the same across all subject areas.

In your dreams

May 29, 2011

Are you not experiencing the dreams you want? Well, help is at hand. or rather, it’s fitted around your head: for a mere $180 you can buy the ‘I Dream Head Massager’ which relaxes your head and allows you to have better dreams. Or of you just want a good night’s sleep, the ‘Nightweave Sleep Assistant’ might be just the thing for you; it ‘uses light to elicit deep relaxation’ (the light is blue, by the way’). Or if you’re gasping for breath, $300 will buy you the ‘Personal Oxygen Bar’ (with added aromatherapy).

These items are on a list of ‘ridiculous health devices’ which gets released from time to time by the website dvice. Some of them are pretty ridiculous, and they are presented in the same spirit as the lists that are occasionally published of far-out inventions that were patented but that, not at all amazingly, never saw the light of day; like the ‘flatulence deodorizer’ registered in 2000 that involves ‘a pad to be worn by a user for absorbing gas due to flatulence'; or the jet powered surfboard.

And yet, when I see these lists I don’t tend to laugh at the sheer idiocy of the ideas (as we are really being invited to do). Rather, I marvel at the inventiveness of humanity and at our capacity to keep thinking of new possibilities for advancement and new solutions to old problems. I’ll probably never buy the ‘I Dream’ or indeed the ‘flatulence deodorizer’, but somehow I’m glad there are people out there bothering to register and develop these ideas. We’re a little richer for them.

The very latest higher education idea: pay students to drop out

May 28, 2011

Here’s an interesting initiative: Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel is offering $100,000 each to 20 students willing to leave university for two years to start their own companies. And why do this, rather than offer the incentive to graduates? Because Mr Thiel believes that ‘ideas can develop in a start-up environment much faster than at a university’. Indeed he is reported to want to ‘question the idea of higher education’.

I won’t worry too much about Peter Thiel, who is a successful entrepreneur, but is also often described as a ‘libertarian’. However, the question must be asked whether he is encouraging student conduct that most academics would consider reprehensible. And is he right to suggest that innovation stalls in a university environment?

It is perfectly possible to argue that not everyone should go to university. However, once a student is there he or she will work with staff and students in a journey of discovery, and what they acquire is not so much a degree certificate as a capacity for critical inquiry and innovation. It is silly to suggest that a university education is somehow a bad idea for entrepreneurs. Right now an increasing number of start-ups trade in intellectual property and therefore rely on knowledge and scholarship for success.

Peter Thiel himself has two university degrees. He should be slow to suggest that dropping out is better – for anyone – than what he himself did in completing his education.

The allure and mystery of new learning technology

May 26, 2011

Way way back, in the pre-historic age (as far as technology is concerned) of the late 1980s, as a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, I managed to strike a deal with Apple Computers (as the company then was) under which staff and students were able to purchase the then brand new Macintosh laptops at a discount. I think the machine was called a Macintosh ‘Portable‘, which it was, in the sense that two sturdy men who had recently had their breakfast would have been able lift it in an ergonomic sort of way. Anyway, I digress. The thinking behind the deal was that we might be able to make some use of these computers in teaching. It never really came to that, because while some students did buy them, not enough did to make them a tool that could be widely used.

But here we are, some two-and-a-bit decades later, and certainly what Apple is offering now is very ‘portable’ indeed. Whether it is the MacBook Air, or the iPad – or indeed whether you choose some of the computers and tablets offered by other manufacturers and with other operating systems – it would be very easy to have one on every student’s desk or lap during a class. Indeed, a recent survey has shown that students have been buying iPads in a not very precisely defined expectation that, amongst other things, it will turn out to be a very valuable learning tool. But the same survey has also revealed that not too many students use them for this purpose. And so I wonder, why is this?

A possible answer is that students are adopting new technology but are not necessarily finding that their universities are doing so. Therefore the pedagogical value of the gadget is a selling point, but students are finding once they have bought the gadget that they they cannot easily use it in their degree programmes and so they just watch movies and play games instead.

Right now technology that is usable for teaching is flooding in, but universities (with some exceptions) are very slow to look radically at how they enable it for that purpose. There are groups of academics everywhere discussing new learning technology, and some really interesting ideas are emerging, but overall across universities as a whole not very much is happening. The whole field of technology-enabled learning needs to be mainstreamed to a much greater extent; it is not (or should not be) the preserve of nerds.

Funding Irish higher education

May 26, 2011

According to a report in yesterday’s Irish Times, the Irish Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, has expressed concerns about higher education funding:

‘Mr Quinn also conceded yesterday that it was “hard to see” how the third-level sector could achieve the ambitions set for it by Government within the existing funding framework.’

It is good that the Minister has expressed his awareness of this, and it is to be hoped that the sector will work constructively with him to find a workable solution. What seems to be clear right now is that the Irish universities are crucial to the economic regeneration agenda, but that the public finance crisis is preventing the government from sustaining it in a way that is viable. If tuition fees are off the agenda, it may be time to accept that it is not possible to continue to admit the number of students currently going through Irish higher education, not least because these students will no longer be sure to have a high quality education. This, too, would not be an easy decision, but what is happening now is unsustainable.

While Ireland still does not have a solution to its higher education problems, at least these problems are being properly identified. That’s a start.


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