Archive for May 2012

Sic transit

May 29, 2012

A little while ago at a meeting, someone handed me a note which read, inter alia, ‘this must be done ab inissio.’ Somehow this stumped me, and it took me a minute or so to realise that the writer was talking Latin, and that what he had wanted to say was ‘ab initio’. Welcome, then, to what’s left of the world of Latin.

In fact, Latin was after 2000 or more years condemned to death when the Roman Catholic church decided to celebrate the Mass in the vernacular. With the few other bodies that had required Latin all abandoning the language by the late 20th century, it was clear enough that the language could not realistically continue to prosper.

In fact, by the 1980s it was pretty much gone. I still belonged to a generation that had to learn Latin at school. By the age of 10 I could speak Latin fluently, in the sense that I could string together words that would convey a clear meaning – even if I, like most others, had no absolute idea what the Latin of ancient Rome sounded like, phonetically.

I am not normally given to traditionalist nostalgia, but it is my firm view that the removal of Latin from the syllabus of schools and other educational establishments was a mistake. Young people no longer have this tool that would help them to understand the origin of words and the structure of grammar. There is  very little else, and certainly nothing more modern, that would have the same beneficial effect.

I doubt I could persuade anyone to mount the barricades with me in support of Latin. But I regret that. I hope someone will see sense and restore Latin. Tam celerrime.

Who are our role models?

May 22, 2012

I remember attending an informal get-together a few years ago with some local young people near the university of which I was then President, Dublin City University in Ireland. Those who are familiar with DCU know that it is situated close to some very deprived neighbourhoods on the northside of Dublin. The intention was to make the young people feel positive about the potential of a university education. Anyway, the discussion moved to role models; who did these young people look up to? Two answers have stayed in my memory: one suggested Britney Spears, while another voted for ‘anyone who drives a BMW’.

Two things to note here. Britney Spears never went to university, and at the time that this conversation was taking place was just going through a very public personal breakdown. As for the BMW drivers, the young people in the room were probably seeing a few of these, but the chances were that in many cases these were drug dealers. So in the lives of these young women and men, role models diverted their gaze far away from education.

More recently, the New York Times invited young people of 13 or over to suggest their role models. There was a significant response, but the overwhelming majority of those commenting listed parents, friends or relatives as their role models. This looks better, but what you get from it is that people seek to emulate their parents or relatives; and if the family background is one of disadvantage, this limits educational ambition. And actually, if your background is one of privilege, you are probably attracted to safe jobs in the professions, for which there is no longer any urgent social or economic need.

Why does all this matter? If we are to have an impact on education and career patterns, we need to be aware of the impact of role models, both good and bad. If we want to attract people from poorer backgrounds into higher value jobs and lives, there may be all sorts of social and cultural influences pushing the other way. Young people need to hear from those they admire, and who set out for them the benefits of higher education, and the desirability of more entrepreneurial careers. We need to persuade them that to be an engineer (where we have serious skill shortages) is as good a choice as, and maybe a better choice than, being a show business personality.

We need to make our culture converge with our social and educational needs. And we need this to be led by people who know and understand the influences and pressures that young people face.

Social equity and access to higher education

May 15, 2012

One of the great developments of higher education across much of the developed world over recent years has been the dramatic increase in participation rates. Where once it was common to find fewer than 10 per cent of each age cohort going to universities and colleges, today it is not unusual to find up to and more than 50 per cent getting a degree. What was an elitist system is now much more inclusive.

Or is it? The latest data from Scottish higher education shows that the proportion of students coming from socio-economically deprived areas is actually falling. This is in line with statistics from Ireland, where also participation rates of persons from deprived backgrounds remain stubbornly low, having hardly increased at all since tuition fees were abolished in the 1990s.

The policy of securing equal opportunities for all groups within society seems not to make much of an impact in higher education. Why is this so? There are probably many reasons, but one of the chief ones is that too many politicians and policymakers have persuaded themselves that removing tuition fees is a sufficient way of securing social equity. This is not so, not least because in countries with tuition fees disadvantaged students often get their fees paid by the state anyway. The main beneficiaries of free higher education have been the middle and lower middle classes; those from poor backgrounds have hardly benefited at all.

Any policy to secure greater participation by such groups must pursue a combination of measures: tracking talented students in the school system from an early age and bringing them into the universities and colleges; persuading parents to support their children’s aspirations; ensuring good secondary education so that students have equal chances of being prepared for and passing final school examinations; applying flexibility in entry requirements for universities; providing adequate financial support to poorer students while at university; and maintaining professional offices in universities dedicated solely to supporting disadvantaged students.

All these measures are not only important, but also expensive, and in many countries the resources are not made available, or not sufficiently, to allow participation rates to grow. It is time to stop believing that any policy on tuition fees can fundamentally improve access, and to understand that access needs to be fully resourced. It is an important and necessary investment in our future as a society.

Academic years

May 8, 2012

Back in 1978, I sat my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days TCD had its exams in September, thus ruining everyone’s summer, and the last paper I tackled was on a Saturday towards the end of the month. Matters were not helped by the fact that, on the following Monday two days later, I was due to start as a PhD student in the University of Cambridge.

But if that was crazy, maybe we should ask whether the whole concept of an ‘academic year’ is now out of date. We enrol students for a September starting date, mostly, and round about this time of year they sit their exams. At least that’s how it is in this part of the world. Occasionally now we do make available entry routes that bring students in at other times, particularly just after the New Year. And for some postgraduate degree programmes it is even more flexible.

However, the concept of a shared journey through the course, experienced by students in groups, has value. If students came and went around the year as if they were using a train, it would become impossible to run a curriculum or maintain a group setting. In addition, it can be argued that modular structures require similar dates across subjects and disciplines, because without that you could not maintain an interdisciplinary menu.

So are we still stuck with the ‘academic year’, or is there scope for some creativity? This may become an increasingly important question, as students become less willing to set aside fixed years in their lives devoted exclusively to study. However, as long as we continue to see learning as consisting of a series of fixed segments that need to be experienced strictly in sequence, it will not be easy. Still, maybe that is what learning requires. Or then again, maybe we do not ask enough questions about pedagogy in a changing world.

Overwhelmingly granite

May 6, 2012

As some readers of this blog may know, Aberdeen is known as the Granite City. Most of its buildings are made of granite, and the scale of it can be almost overwhelming at first sight. But the biggest granite building of them all is Marischal College, seen here.

Technically, there are lots of things wrong with this photo: the severe lens distortion, the cars, and so on. But this was the only perspective I could use to show as much of the building as possible. It is in fact the second largest granite building in the world (the biggest is in Spain). It took nearly a hundred years to build, and was completed around the beginning of the 20th century.

Marischal College itself was originally an independent university, but became part of the University of Aberdeen in the mid-19th century. The university has now however largely left the site, and the building itself is now the home of Aberdeen City Council. It is a significant landmark in the city.


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