Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

Not fit for women (or men)?

July 22, 2014

Around this time of year many universities will have been holding graduation ceremonies. And as the graduands approach the stage, it will have been noticeable that in some disciplines they were predominantly of one gender. Engineers and computer scientists will more often than not have been men, while nurses and teachers will have mainly been women. In some subjects – say, law – the gender gap is also widening, with women making up the majority. Is this an avoidable state of affairs, or something we just have to put up with?

Dr Gijsbert Stoet of the University of Glasgow suggests the latter. As reported in the Herald newspaper, he has argued that ‘we probably need to give up on the idea that we will get many female engineers or male nurses’, and that initiatives to bring about another outcome ‘completely deny human biology and nature.’ He also said that it should not matter to us whether the person who fixes our computers is a man or a woman. Rather, in a free society we should let people choose their professions without worrying about what that produces in terms of gender balance.

Of course historically there have been other implications. A profession dominated by women has tended to be an under-valued one, with lower pay and fewer opportunities for career development. In addition, such professional imbalances tend to perpetuate themselves as they restrict the availability of role models to persons of the other sex. Whether these patterns may change as women take hold increasingly of previously male-dominated careers such as law remains to be seen. Equally, as evidence grows of the disengagement of some boys from education more generally, we will need to see whether this produces new social problems.

The patterns of university education have a more profound impact on society than many other things. Nobody expects or requires the student population across all courses to be perfectly gender balanced, but it is unhealthy for gender stereotyping to be reinforced in higher education. There are no quick or easy solutions, but it would be a good start for us to recognise that we still have a problem, and that while the specific nature of the problem may change from profession to profession, it still needs to be addressed.

Sic transit

July 14, 2014

Readers of this blog may forgive me for a very short post today. I have been on a short holiday in America, and have only just returned. This week RGU has its summer graduations, and it is a busy week for me as I recover from jet lag.

However, I would want to note that over recent days, in two separate jurisdictions that both have had cabinet reshuffles, Ministers in charge of higher education have retired from the scene. In Ireland it has been Ruairi Quinn, and in England David Willetts. These are both very different men, but they have shared one thing in common: that they both value and have wanted to engage constructively with universities. One of these Ministers may have views that are rather closer to mine than those of the other, but I have met them both and found them both impressive, in different ways.

All too often university affairs are governed by politicians who have little understanding of higher education and who see their responsibility primarily in terms of where it will take their careers. Neither Ruairi Quinn nor David Willetts were of that kind. I wish both of them well, and I suspect they have more to offer still, and that we may yet get some of their reflections in published form.

Dealing with debt

July 8, 2014

As the global debate continues about how to resource higher education, there are some strong voices suggesting that the only way to generate sufficient cash to pay for educational excellence without discouraging the less affluent from entering universities is through tuition fees funded through student loans. Under such systems students pay nothing on commencing their studies, but rather take on a loan, with the sum of the loan representing some or all of the cost of their courses. That loan is later repaid by instalments when the student, now a graduate, is in employment or economically active and earning more than a specified income.

This system, it is suggested, is superior to ‘free’ higher education (i.e. studies funded entirely by the taxpayer) because it secures more resources for universities than the taxpayer could afford to provide, and to a tuition fee-based model because the student pays nothing up front or during the course of their studies and so is not excluded by lack of means. It is used in Australia (where the Higher Education Contribution Scheme – HECS – was introduced in 1989) and more recently in England (and not, as is sometimes suggested, in the United Kingdom as a whole).

The introduction of a similar scheme in Ireland has been proposed by some for a while. The Irish Universities Association began to argue for the ‘introduction of a system of income contingent loans and top up fees’ by 2009. More recently the new President of University College Dublin Professor Andrew Deeks, in an interview with the Irish Times, said:

‘My personal view is that the contribution system that has worked in Australia for the past 20 years now provides a good model. It is a deferred payment of a debt, which is accumulated module by module as students progress through the course.’

There is little doubt that the Irish system of higher education is now seriously under-funded. It is also easy to see the attraction of a resourcing framework that does not create a financial entry hurdle for students. Whether the Australian model is as good as is suggested could however be open to argument. One of its significant features is the by now very high level of unpaid debt. It is estimated in Australia that over A$30 billion in student debt is outstanding, of which up to A$7 billion will never be recovered (nearly £4 billion). Now one of the live issues in Australian politics is the question of whether student debts owed by people now deceased can be recovered from their estates. Other studies have suggested that the prospect of high indebtedness is also discouraging some poorer students from entering higher education.

Nobody has yet found the silver bullet for funding higher education, and all debate and exploration should be welcomed. As countries in the developed world identify the need to promote universities that are resourced to host world class discovery, attract very high value industry investment and provide graduates with top skills, it is clear that the funding burden is not an easy one for the taxpayer to carry. Equally it remains of vital importance that appropriately able people from all socio-economic backgrounds are encouraged to pursue a university degree. However, whether a loan system is the answer is, in my view at least, somewhat doubtful.

Finding the formula for higher education

July 1, 2014

If you read the pages of political and business magazines these days, then sooner or later you’ll come across an article on higher education that will, almost certainly, suggest that the traditional university model across the developed world is falling apart: buildings, infrastructure and equipment are becoming too expensive; people with great academic potential are being lured away to industry; governments are interfering too much and paying too little; students cannot afford the cost of a university degree; disruptive technologies are creating havoc amongst the old institutions; and so on. Some add that this toxic cocktail of problems will cause many universities to go bankrupt.

The latter prediction one can justifiably take with a grain of salt. For the past decade or so the demise of institutions has been predicted again and again, but none of any significance has in fact collapsed. Some no doubt are living precariously, but they are all still there. Many universities have learned to do what business always does – to respond to financial challenges by cutting costs suddenly and dramatically; redundancies are not so rare now in this sector. But the institutions survive.

And yet there is change in the air. New online courses (including MOOCs) create new learning environments and outcomes (the latter including alarmingly high drop-out rates). Interaction with external partners has become the norm for almost everyone. Research is now often aligned with the drive for national technological innovation.

If we are looking for new models for universities, we need to find an agreed framework for evaluating these. Such a framework must address the two most important questions for assessing higher education: (1) what pedagogical aims are we pursuing? – and (2) what impact do we want scholarship and research to have? Too often I find people discussion higher education innovation in terms of capacity (‘we are doing this because we can do it’) rather than in terms of principle (‘we are doing this because we should do it’).

If universities do go bankrupt, I suspect it is because we are no longer clear about what higher education is for. There is of course more than one good model. But let us at least be clear about what these models are, and why they are desirable.

Finding the right ratio

June 17, 2014

One of the key performance indicators that influence university rankings and attract comment is the student-staff ratio. In almost every assessment of higher education there is an assumption that a smaller number of students supported by a larger number of academic faculty  is better for quality, student support and educational outcomes. That position has been underlined again by the new President of University College Dublin (UCD), Professor Andrew Deeks, who has said in one of his first public statements since taking up the post that Irish universities’ student-staff ratios are ‘considerably out of line’ when compared with international benchmarks. He was expressing concern that higher education funding in Ireland may not be sufficient to secure the resources needed to maintain quality. A similar comment had previously been made by the Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr Paddy Prendergast.

The student-staff ratio in Ireland is 19:1. This is higher than that found in some competitor countries, but is that important? Do we actually know what the appropriate or optimum ratio is? Should we assume that the lowest is the best, and that it should be 1:1?

I have great sympathy with those who argue for more faculty to provide a quality experience for students, but I don’t myself know whether we have any really robust evidence of what the right figure is. Nor have we really asked whether changes in pedagogy, or in teaching and learning technology, or in demographics, should have any impact on this figure. So for example, a very low ratio would create such extraordinary costs that it would become possible to provide university places for a small minority of the population only. A very high ratio on the other hand would make it very difficult to provide any effective student support, no matter how good the learning technology.

In addition, there are all sorts of questions both about how reliable the figures really are when they are published, or what should be read into them.

It is therefore time to look at all this in a more scholarly manner, and to investigate much more closely what is needed for a good education system. ‘Lower is better’ is not of itself a sufficient principle.

Going entirely online?

June 9, 2014

A major change in higher education over the past decade or two has been the erosion of the belief that there is just only one quality model of higher education. Until very recently everyone who mattered thought that the gold standard was set by universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard, and that institutions were good to the extent that they managed to create a learning experience that resembled the Oxbridge/Harvard model as far as resources would allow: intensive teaching in small groups on a well resourced campus, cutting edge research that prioritised ‘blue skies’ discovery.

The Oxbridge/Harvard model is in many people’s eyes probably still the gold standard, but then again even those universities have changed what they offer, or at least some of what they offer, quite considerably. And this week one of those that was always thought to base itself on the Oxbridge model, Trinity College Dublin (or whatever it is now called), announced that it would later this year offer its first ‘MOOC’ (‘massive open online course’), something it is doing just as a greater degree of scepticism regarding MOOCs is beginning to take hold in the higher education community.

Then again, TCD may be doing what students globally would want it to do. A student survey carried out recently on behalf of the Laureate Group of universities (a global network of institutions that focus on vocational courses, of which the University of Liverpool is a member) produced some interesting results. The students who took part on the whole predict (and, it appears, want) universities of the future to offer their courses online, for free, and in flexible settings without fixed times for classes or other formal engagements.

They may of course be right. But if they are, almost every assumption we have made until now about higher education will need to be revised. In particular, higher education would be individualised, with the removal by and large of the notion of a community of learning based on a campus experience. That has implications for pedagogy, for assessment and for student engagement; but it would also necessarily have a major impact on how academics interact and conduct their scholarship. If moreover the educational experience is to be completely ‘open’ – i.e. free – then that will create a framework in which quality and standards will be very hard to assure, in the absence of any obviously viable business model.

But if the students are right, one casualty would also be diversity in higher education. If everything goes online and high volume, then the capacity to develop institution-specific models with distinct missions becomes much more difficult, as content becomes increasingly driven by method.

I guess that my own perspective on this is that the higher education system should not just slip into some new learning model that has been made possible by technological advances, without engaging in a much greater assessment of what this would mean for the whole concept of a university. Of course we must welcome and harness technological innovation. But that does not mean that a particular use of it should be inevitable, bringing with it a whole sackful of unintended consequences.

A world in which students can expect online access and resources, an openness to lifelong learning at different stages of people’s lives and careers, and inclusiveness must be part of the future mix of higher education. There must be a considerable diversity of mission. But we must also ensure that the engagement of students and faculty with scholarship and inquiry  is not cast aside in a rush to adopt one particular model of educational provision.

Full-time undergraduate education: an unnecessary extravagance?

June 2, 2014

This post is written by Brian Mulligan, a lecturer and programme manager in the Centre for Online Learning in Institute of Technology, Sligo, Ireland.  His blog can be read at elearngrump.blogspot.com. This post was presented at the EdTech2014 conference in University College Dublin, on May 30, 2014 (www.ilta.ie). A recording is available on Youtube here: http://youtu.be/zX8WeeVbJQY

It is now thirty years since I started teaching at Institute of Technology, Sligo, and 12 years since I started working with distance learners online. During those 12 years I made two significant observations that have led me to the conclusion that the way we approach higher education needs to be changed. However, the change I am proposing here is not a small one: we should get rid of full-time undergraduate education.

In the early days of our online teaching, worried that some people might be sceptical of this form of education, we always ensured that our online students sat the same examinations as our full-time students. We very quickly noticed how much better these working adults performed in examinations than the full-time students. We would have liked to attribute this performance to our online teaching methods, but we knew it was more likely to be due to the fact that they were situated in workplaces where they could see the relevance of what they were learning. Although the first observation came as early as 2003 when we ran our first examinations, the second observation came much more slowly: it was that online learning has the potential to be much more cost-effective than campus-based education and, in certain situations, to be of even higher quality. I was led to conclude that undergraduate education, in most countries, is more expensive than it needs to be, and less effective than it should be.

So, if this were true, how might you design an alternative approach to undergraduate education? Well, as it happens, such an approach already exists in the apprenticeship model. We have long recognised that the best way for people to learn a trade was to combine work with learning. In fact it is only relatively recently that many higher professions such as architects, lawyers and accountants have moved away from this work-based approach to learning.

However, there were good reasons why universities emerged in the middle ages as repositories of knowledge and places where rich young men were sent to become familiar with all of the advanced knowledge of the time. As we moved towards the massification of education during the the last century, it was expedient that other forms of education copied this model and even tried to gain some of the status of these institutions by taking the title of ‘University’. But this is the 21st century, and we are now well into the information age, where we do not need to travel to access the knowledge of our greatest minds or enter into rich discussions with fellow learners. We are not working under the constraints of the past that required physical access to these centres of learning.

To add to this, the cost of higher education has been steadily increasing to the point where states, if not people, can barely afford it. As manufacturing and services companies constantly strive successfully to reduce their costs and improve their quality, do we, as educators not owe the same to our funders and learners: a better education at a lower cost?

So I would like to propose that we get rid of full-time undergraduate education and replace it with work-based learning, where learners take positions, even menial ones, in workplaces closely associated with the profession they wish to pursue and take most of their courses online, attending their colleges occasionally to help build relationships with their classmates and carry out activities that are best done in that setting. It may be necessary to stretch out the courses over a longer time, but it will result in significant savings, including the opportunity to earn while studying, and result in better learning outcomes.

Will our young people be mature enough to survive in this new model of learning? Well many believe that they were in the past, and that perhaps we don’t challenge them enough these days. What about the the social and personal development aspect of a college education?  Well, I made the point to my brother, who entered the civil service as an 18 year-old in 1972, that, as I had been to university, I was more developed socially and personally than he was. I will leave it to you to imagine what his response was. And what about our guilt at denying our young people the pleasure of a college education? Spending the state’s money on pleasures we cannot afford might just fit the definition of extravagance.

Experiencing a nasty turn

May 26, 2014

I’d like you to read the following passage, but I feel I should warn you that it may be a distressing experience:

‘Based on constructivist epistemology, the linguistic turn puts forward a conception of history as a constructivist enterprise based on a textualist conception of the relation between language and reality (White, 1987). Textualism presumes that whatever is taken as the real is constituted by representation rather than pre-exists any effort to grasp it in thought, imagination, or writing.’

The passage is taken from an article by an American social scientist, entitled ‘Introducing the “linguistic turn” to history education’. But what does it mean? I am not querying the academic prowess of the author; indeed I am deliberately not naming him or her because I am not trying to make an ad personam point; countless other academics write in similar style.

I came across this passage recently when I was referred to it by another scholar. I could not make out what the author was intending to say; I couldn’t even work out what ‘turn’ meant in this context. Indeed much of the article was, to me at least, completely impenetrable. But when I asked a former colleague what he thought of it, he assured me that you could not hope to be published unless you used this kind of style; anything easily accessible would be considered an example of dumbing down.

It is not just that the extract is hard to understand, it also displays a penchant for Romance verbiage. This includes ‘constructivist’, ‘epistemology’, ‘conception’, ‘textualist’, ‘reality’, ‘constituted’ and so forth. One of the  five rules suggested by Henry Watson Fowler in his classic book The King’s English was that writers should prefer Saxon to Romance words, and that their style should be ‘direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid’. Much of today’s academic output, particularly in some disciplines, has turned all of that on its head and has gone all out for inaccessibility and complexity. Too much writing leans heavily on jargon and on the apparent belief that knowledge is the property of a cult.

Nobody is suggesting that you can publish a worthwhile academic treatise on quantum mechanics in text that anyone could understand. But history education does not need to be presented as a form of quantum mechanics. There is no need to create and deploy a secret language that uses complex codes. Accessibility does not betray an aversion to critical thought. It is time to bust the jargon.

Where will the world’s leading universities be?

May 20, 2014

How countries and regions respond to dramatic economic circumstances can have significant longer term effects on the global balance of power. Two historical developments, for example, shaped the world’s political make-up for the later 20th century: the financial fall-0ut from the First World War, when US dollars moved in to bankroll some of the key European combatants, including Britain; and the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal response to the Great Depression. The Second World War, while significant in that its outcome temporarily side-lined Germany as a major power, merely reinforced what was already a fact in international relations, the supremacy of the United States. Furthermore, the decline of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, demonstrated that military muscle not supported by economic power was actually a handicap rather than a support, a point underscored also by the rise of Japan and (West) Germany in the 1960s.

The recent recession, which may now at last be coming to an end in global markets, will probably also leave a significant legacy, and this time it is higher education that may see some of the major changes. In itself that is not new. The ability of the United States to consolidate its global economic dominance in the 1950s was hugely supported by major investment in higher education, and by the tendency of the US to attract and retain talented scientists and academics from across the world to add excellence to its universities. When we see the global university rankings, we don’t just discover where to find higher education excellence, we observe the world’s power structures.

The question now is whether those rankings will still look the same in 10 years time. Many presume that the position of Asian universities will have improved dramatically, as the key countries there are channelling big investments into their higher education systems right now. Not just China (which has been investing huge sums in its universities), but also Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand are taking aggressive steps to give their universities a chance of global recognition. But this is coming at a time when the major western countries in the North America and Europe talk the language of higher education development while simultaneously withdrawing the resources. For some time now the University of California system, containing arguably the best cluster of public universities in the world, has been under serious threat due to funding cutbacks. In Europe the rankings show no sign that any national sector other than the British is on the rise.

However, I believe that the US will turn itself around and continue to drive global excellence in its higher education, even if they may find themselves sharing the limelight a little more with universities from Asia. But in Europe? The signs are not necessarily that great. Even the new U-Multirank ranking system that has been devised in Europe (with the hope held in some quarters that it would return more European universities in the top places) still shows American universities leading the field. To change this, countries in this part of the world need to show ambition and vision in their higher education policies. If they don’t, we are in a community of nations doomed to slip into the second tier and stay there. It’s not too late to correct this, but there isn’t much time.

Time to retire the sage on the stage?

May 13, 2014

For centuries universities in the west have based their learning methods on the lecture. The concept is simply enough: a lecturer stands in front of an often large group of students and delivers a monologue on his or her specialist topic. Students take notes. Then at some later point there is an examination, during which the students will try to recreate the lecturer’s approach to the subject, and maybe add some analysis or commentary if they dare. And if all of that works well, the student gets a degree.

Of course a good deal of lecturing is better than that, but some isn’t. Truly interactive lectures are still rare, and nowadays many student don’t turn up at these events at all. Still, this is a resilient form of teaching, and even now new university buildings will typically contain fairly inflexible (in terms of design and furnishing) lecture theatres. But is that justified?

A recent study in the United States has again called into question the usefulness of the lecture. It revealed that students taught principally through traditional lectures have a high failure rate and learn less effectively. This does not mean that teaching large classes is always bad, but rather than various ‘active learning’ and participation techniques will create a better pedagogical setting. This could include the use of technology, or breaking into smaller groups for more interactive discussions.

In reality many lecturers will already employ interactive learning techniques, even in large lecture classes. However, it is perhaps time to look again at how useful the lecture really is. Certainly in the internet age it can be seriously questioned whether lectures are needed where their purpose is simply to disseminate basic information. But it can also be asked whether a theatre-style lecture room is what is needed as we make use of newly gained pedagogical insights, and whether new academic buildings should contain such facilities at all. It is time to ask whether lecturers really should, well, lecture.


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