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


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

Tags: , ,

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.

The Brexit story

Posted March 29, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: politics

Tags: , , ,

On this day the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, will trigger the process that will see the country leave the European Union, implementing the referendum decision of a majority (albeit a narrow one) of the United Kingdom electorate. I am no fanatical supporter of the European Union, but I believe that this decision and its consequences will define Britain for generations to come; and while the result may turn out to be benign, the risks are huge and the pitfalls are many. What more than anything else will make those risks and pitfalls more potent is the continuation of the easy optimism and bizarre over-confidence that has characterised much of the rhetoric of Brexit supporters; alongside their aggression when that is challenged. This process needs to be managed with realism and sensitivity (which includes sensitivity towards those people and those regions, including Scotland, who took a different view of Brexit).

What really must not characterise the Brexit story is the xenophobia and jingoism displayed by some of the more objectionable elements in the media and by some politicians, such as the appalling (but I hope now inconsequential) Mr Nigel Farage. If this story is to have a good ending, the dramatis personae must display generosity of spirit and a willingness to engage with those who think differently. And a message for the UK Prime Minister might be that this is not the same thing as telling these people (such as me) what we should be thinking; it is understanding, and responding generously to, what we actually are thinking.

The articulation challenge

Posted March 27, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

Tags: , ,

The aim of widening access to higher education has been a public policy priority in a number of countries for some time. The intention is to ensure that a university degree is not seen as a privilege to be claimed primarily by the wealthy, but as an entitlement based on intellectual attainment and ability. How successful this has been in practice is another matter and varies from institution to institution – but overall the participation rate by disadvantaged groups is now much higher than it was a generation ago.

One driver of the widening access agenda has been the practice of articulation. This involves a transfer of students from further education colleges (or equivalent) to universities under arrangements where the college education is counted as relevant to the university degree, therefore allowing students to enter university directly without having to start again. In other words, credit achieved while studying at the college is recognised and counts as credit (and therefore relevant study time) for the course and award at the university. The concept is widely known in a number of countries – in the United States for example it would apply to transfers from community colleges to universities. It helps in the access agenda because even highly talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may be reluctant to apply for a university course, and may find a transfer later to a university course to be easier.

Articulation has become a significant feature of Scottish higher education. But it has been observed that not all universities are as active or as successful in pursuing it. Now Professor Peter Scott, Scotland’s first commissioner on fair access to higher education, has according to a report in the Herald newspaper suggested that some universities are not entirely enthusiastic about the practice. The number of students articulating from colleges to universities varies enormously from institution to institution. So for example Glasgow Caledonian University in 2014-15 admitted 1,557 articulating students; of those 57 per cent were admitted with ‘advanced standing’ – that is, the received full credit for their prior college studies. In the case of my own university, 734 articulating students were admitted, of whom 67 per cent were with advanced standing. On the other hand the University of Edinburgh admitted 95 articulating students, and 5 per cent were with advanced stating. In the case of St Andrews University the figures were 29 students and 10 per cent.

In order for articulation to work well certain conditions have to be satisfied. Students need to see the whole articulation journey, from college to university, as a seamless transition in which they are part of the family of both institutions. Staff from both institutions need to believe in the process and to respect each other.  The syllabus in each needs to be aligned to the other. And the student needs to be seen as a valuable member of the learner community in both. If these conditions don’t all exist, the process may not succeed.

But beyond that, for articulation to work we all need to accept that a student who pursues a vocational course in which she or he transfers between further and higher education is doing something of real value in both systems, and that in doing so she or he does not diminish either sector. According to the Herald report, Professor Scott fears that some universities don’t like articulation because they fear it will undermine their standing in league tables. One must hope that this is not a widespread view; it is only when we celebrate articulation that we allow it to flourish.

Fake universities

Posted March 21, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education


We have all had to get accustomed to ‘fake news’, but we should also pay attention to the rise of fake universities. For those who think this is a minor issue, the global statistics do not support them. It is a feature both of developing and developed countries, and it is surprisingly difficult to police.

Recently India’s University Grants Commission listed 23 fake universities operating in the country.  Neighbouring Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission found 153 illegal or fake institutions. In the United States the Michigan Civil Service Commission has published a list of American institutions whose credentials it does not accept, and it is a long list. A Swedish university has estimated that, worldwide, there are some 2,500 fake universities, some of them with no fixed location at all and ‘hiding in cyberspace’.

The UK also encounters this problem: the Guardian newspaper reported last year that 220 bogus British ‘universities’ have been identified since 2011.  The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has set up an service called ‘Higher Education Degree Datacheck’, which allows employers and various bodies and agencies to check the credentials of an institution (and, for a fee, of the qualifications of a particular graduate). The website tells me, for example, that my own university (Robert Gordon University) is a ‘UK government-recognised university or college which currently gives degree awards’; but that something calling itself ‘International University Robert Gordon’ is not a valid degree-awarding body.

What all this tells us is that the credentials of a university matter. It is all too easy to adopt or make up a university name and then trade with it, exploiting the desire of people to acquire a status with which to better themselves. Some such ‘institutions’ may offer an element of instruction, some may just sell diplomas and degree certificates. But all of them undermine the purpose of education and the validity of higher education qualifications.

It is therefore all the more important that government authorities in all countries operate an effective method of accrediting universities, or institutions permitted to call themselves universities. This is in the vital interests of all legitimate institutions (including private universities). Equally of course it is important to ensure that the conditions attaching to such accreditation do not compromise institutional autonomy; and getting that balance right is not always easy.

But all of this pre-supposes that our understanding of higher education and of the awards of HE institutions remains more or less as we have it now. Technology, globalisation and mobility may yet create an international education and training sector whose aims are not the same as those of traditional universities and whose customers have different expectations of their educational experience and outputs. Some of this activity may be totally legitimate; and maintaining a recognisable international higher education sector that follows traditional patterns may not be altogether easy.