Students first?

Posted May 22, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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A survey in the United States of America has found that ‘nearly three out of five Americans believe that higher-education leaders put the long-term interests of their institutions first over the needs of students.’ This is, I suppose, a variant of the view held by some in this part of the world that managerialist higher education leaders prioritise business projects over educational excellence.

Whether or not that charge is justified, it is obviously true that universities are finding it necessary to implement a profitable business model to ensure institutional sustainability, and not just where income for institutions comes from private sources rather than from government funding. Tight public funding also requires universities to deploy entrepreneurial creativity.

The nirvana of universities receiving generous financial support from the taxpayer on a demand-led basis is not one we will experience again – it is an impossible scenario in a setting of mass higher education. A university business plan is not of itself a denial of academic values. But it does make it ever more important that institutional values are clearly expressed, reinforced and widely applied. The needs of students must always be one of the most important; if we marginalise this, we have lost all purpose. And if students believe we have done so, we have an urgent need to put that right.

The literacy imperative

Posted May 15, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: education, society, university

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The history of social progress, of public health, of prosperity has all been closely connected with the advance of literacy. Societies with high literacy rates are capable of social and technological progress that evades those with low literacy. The fact, for example, that the Central African Republic has a literacy rate of 37 per cent, while in Germany it is 100 per cent, gives you a very close idea of the difference in wellbeing between the two countries.

Literacy itself has become more complex. It has always been discussed alongside numeracy (which in turn strongly affects scientific capacity), but increasingly literacy is seen to include digital literacy in the information technology age. But even ‘traditional’ literacy is not always straightforward: employers in western developed countries often complain that people looking for employment are inarticulate and unskilled in basic writing tasks. In explaining this state of affairs it is sometimes suggested that ‘progressive’ learning methods have undermined literacy. For the generation entering school in the 1970s and 1980s, children were often given books in which, without basic spelling and phonetic instruction, they were encouraged to associate written words with pictures and related context (a programme known as ‘real books’). But this, it is argued, makes literacy depend on remembering how words ‘look’ rather than the ability to make connections between combinations of letters and sounds. It has been suggested by some that this pedagogical fashion did at least instil in young people a respect for and love of books; though whether it supported basic literacy is more questionable.

I do not myself belong to the tribe of nostalgia pedlars who believe there was a golden age (probably in the 1950s) when everyone could read and write perfectly. It was never perfect. Nevertheless, we do well to keep a real focus on literacy, because so much else depends on it. The attainment gap between rich and poor is directly connected with literacy.

Those who think that graduates today lack literacy often blame the universities. There are certain remedial initiatives that universities can undertake to help students who enter higher education with literacy problems, but overall the issue needs to be addressed at a much earlier age if such methods are to be effective. In Scotland the government is supporting some pilot programmes in primary schools to improve vocabulary – and that is where the initiatives need to be undertaken.

Science: on the march or in retreat?

Posted May 8, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: science, society

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In around 600 locations around the world, on 22 April 2017, there were demonstrations described as ‘marches for science’. These marches were organised to make the following point:

‘We marched because science is critical to our health, economies, food security, and safety. We marched to defend the role of science in policy and society.’

More specifically, the organisers wanted to reinforce one of the key characteristics of an enlightened society, that public policy (and other) decisions should be taken on the basis of evidence.

Less than two weeks later in the United States of America, the Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed from its scientific review board all its academic members, replacing them with representatives of the industries that the EPA was set up to regulate.

In the development and implementation of environmental policy there are, as in all areas of scientific investigation, reasons for ensuring that points of view contradicting received wisdom are given consideration. But in this as in every other area, such consideration should be based on evidence rather than assertion, and certainly should not overlook the vested interests of those expressing the points of view in question.

Social, scientific and cultural enlightenment was not won easily through the course of human history. It is very easily lost. Universities have a very special responsibility to make the case – the unarguable case – that clear evidence should be sought and given priority in all matters of public policy. Dismissing from view those able to provide that evidence should and must be seen as a scandal, to be highlighted as such.

Things turning out right

Posted April 24, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: politics, sport

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The past 24 hours or so have brought me two pieces of good news. For an unreconstructed old liberal like me, the prospect of Emmanuel Macron making it to the presidency of France via the run-off elections in two weeks is hugely heartening, provided he manages to defeat Marine Le Pen convincingly. The main jarring note in all this was sounded by defeated left wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who appears to believe that Macron and Le Pen are equally unacceptable; thereby confirming my wariness of what the media describe as the ‘hard left’ in European countries (including the UK).

And secondly, Newcastle United FC, by beating Preston North End today, have qualified for promotion back to the English Premier League.

Not everything at the moment is bad news. Though there is still a lot of it.

Curiosity and education

Posted April 17, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: education

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Professor Chris Morash, who is Vice-Provost of Trinity College Dublin, made an interesting observation when interviewed for a recent article in the Irish Times: that the Irish secondary school examination system ‘is dampening students’ innate curiosity and leading to a culture of dependency among students on class notes and exam expectations.’ The question this raises is a profound one for educators: are we making students adopt a gaming approach (guessing what those examining them will want them to say), or are we stimulating their minds?

There has been lots of valuable research into curiosity. We know for example that the brain reacts in a particular way to heightened curiosity, so that information is processed more effectively and retained better. Curiosity is also a vital tool in discovery, leading for example to better diagnosis in medicine.

Yet we find all too often that education systems set out to kill curiosity and focus the student instead on securing a functionally efficient outcome to examinations.

I was given an illustration of this a few years ago when I was asked to join an event for secondary school students in Dublin. At that time the world’s airline travel had been thrown into chaos by the 2010 eruptions of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. Some of the young people I was talking with told me they had asked to discuss this at school and were told by their teacher that it would be a waste of time because the eruptions had occurred too late to be included in that year’s Leaving Certificate [final school] exams. I don’t believe that I have ever heard a better reason for a total reform of the system.

It is time to remind ourselves that an education that shuts out curiosity is not an education at all.

Opening up the university

Posted April 10, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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In 1979, when I was working on my PhD in Cambridge, I was invited to address a short course on employment law conducted by the university’s Department of Extra-Mural Studies, located a little outside the town in the amazing Madingley Hall. I don’t remember that much about it now – it was one hour on a Saturday morning – except that I found the participants to be interesting. It was a varied group, including a car mechanic, a factory shop steward and a retired army colonel. The conversation between the latter two was particularly lively.

The term ‘extra-mural’ is interesting. It is the traditional name for a university’s offering to those ‘outside the walls’ – i.e. those who are not members in a formal sense of the university. Today it sounds quaint, and many universities, in fact including Cambridge (and also Oxford), have now opted for names like ‘Institute of Continuing Education’, thereby moving the activity a little more into the territory of formal education for credit. In addition, many of the courses are now offered online.

But leaving the nomenclature aside, extra-mural education is an important university function. Higher education may be mostly about formal accreditation, but some of it should be about engaging with the wider community and offering some access to the expertise the university possesses in its people for those who cannot or will not take the formal degree route. It is also a way of ensuring that universities do not see themselves as keepers of a flame that gives light to a social elite. And so maybe it is also better that the term ‘extra-mural’ has been abandoned, because all of society should be somewhere within the walls; or rather, because there should be no walls.

The social academy?

Posted April 3, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, students, technology

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You’re all very young, so you’ve probably never even heard of Bebo. But actually, Bebo was the real thing in social networking before Facebook got going properly.

Anyway, I first came across Bebo (and social networking) in 2006, when a colleague in my then university asked to see me urgently and rather urgently implored me to ban access to the website, particularly in the library, but also everywhere else. Students were, he told me, logging in to it at all times and were neglecting their studies. Some could even be seen looking at Bebo during lectures (on their laptops, no real smartphones in use back then) and inviting others to look over their shoulders. The world as we knew it was about to end.

It was not just my colleague who was concerned. A few weeks later I received an email from a student, complaining that she could not get access to computer workstations in the library because other students were on Bebo and were preventing her from using them for her studies.

Nevertheless, I decided I would join Bebo, which I did that year. And as I became aware of it I also joined Facebook in 2008; and Twitter in the same year. As some readers will know, I am a regular twitterer, though a more restrained user of Facebook. I occasionally use WhatsApp and Instagram.

Fast forward to the current decade, and Bebo has been bought and sold and bankrupted and re-released as something entirely different; but Facebook and Twitter are still very much there. In universities in the meantime the discussion is not about whether or how to ban social networking on campus, but how and whether to include it in the academy’s armoury. This has become even more important as students have tended to move away from other forms of electronic communication (including email).

An interesting study carried out in the University of Glasgow revealed that 68 per cent of students think social media can enhance their learning experience; though it also concluded that inexpert use of social media can make it all go badly wrong. Overall, it is hard to ignore social media – and universities cannot operate in an environment that is divorced from the experience of their students. Back in the early 1960s I learned to write with a nib pen that you had to dip in an inkwell every few words. We don’t use that now, nor should we expect students to use the technological equivalent (for them) of the inkwell.

Universities are generally taking a more direct interest in social media as marketing tools. But the more interesting potential lies in pedagogy, not least because social media, as the name implies, provide a social experience which can be an enabler for learning collaboration. Some interesting work on this has been done by Dr Fiona Handley at the University of Brighton.

The significance of social media in higher education is not that universities can invade their students’ social spaces, but that they can adopt the look and feel, and the potential for learning interaction, that social networking platforms provide. That is the place to start.