What exactly is teaching?

Posted March 12, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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My generation of academic has learned to expect a constant re-assessment of what it is we actually do once we are in the classroom, or indeed during any moment of our professional activities. We used to say pretty confidently that we were ‘teaching’. During the late 1980s and into the 1990s it became absolutely necessary to describe classroom engagement as ‘teaching and learning’, which in some cases became ‘learning and teaching’. A more recent expert view has been that what academics do is ‘facilitate a learning environment’.

As we have recently seen in England, teaching (or teaching and learning, or whatever you prefer) is now seen by some as a contractual activity that promises (or at least may promise) particular outcomes, including reputation and career. This perspective of teaching as outcome-driven bargain sits uneasily with the idea of self-motivated and ‘facilitated’ learning favoured in much contemporary pedagogy.

There are lots of things we have, as a profession, never really decided. Do we still need lectures (given the widespread availability of virtually all information online)? Should all teaching now be in small groups? What are students entitled to expect or indeed demand from institutions and their faculty?

However all of this is resolved, let us hope it is not in the courts, because that is probably the least good way of settling these questions of contemporary higher education.


Away from home

Posted March 5, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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Some 44 years ago I became an undergraduate student at Trinity College Dublin. On my first day as a student, I took a guided tour of the institution organised by the Student Representative Council (as it was then called).

I started chatting with two other students. One of them was self-assured, came from a solid middle class background, and told me he had taken his first major decision as a student: he would join the Geography Society (which had developed a reputation for field trips that involved many things apart from geography). The other was a young woman from a working class area of Dublin, who had come to TCD despite her parents’ misgivings about its Protestant history; she would live at home so that, she told me, her parents could ‘keep an eye on her’.

I don’t remember the names of either student (if indeed we exchanged names at all), but I sometimes wonder whether and how university life changed them. I fear a little that it may not have totally evened out the social gap between them. Or maybe it did, but the chances of that would have been greater if the second of the two managed to move out of the parental home at some point during her studies.

It is almost a cliché to say that the university experience should be more than just one of studying. It has a vital social dimension, which is about much more than having fun (though that, too, is good). That social dimension can be harnessed most effectively when students move away from their parental home and mix with other students outside of formal teaching and learning. One website offers 18 reasons (a good few of them tongue-in-cheek) why living away from home during university studies is good.

Now in a recent study the Sutton Trust has found that a majority of British students live at or near their homes, but that this choice is often driven by social class, with students from state schools significantly more likely to choose to stay at home than those who have been privately educated. These patterns are also reinforced by regional considerations, with students from less prosperous regions making choices that keep them there during their studies.

If this is a problem helping to sustain social inequality, it may not be easy to find a quick solution, as the forces sustaining this pattern are financial, structural and cultural. But it is important that higher education is a social leveller and does not help to perpetuate disadvantage. The Sutton Trust makes a number of recommendations, including the provision of targeted funding and a greater effort by universities to structure learning in a way that will help students living at home to achieve greater independence. These recommendations should be taken seriously by government and higher education institutions and should lead to appropriate action.

Where would you find the higher education elite?

Posted February 27, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society

Tags: , , ,

Last year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) identified excellence in teaching and learning in United Kingdom universities. When the results were published, a frequent observation in the media, as in this case, was that many ‘elite UK universities’ had been found to be less than excellent. My purpose in reminding readers of this is not to pursue an argument for or against TEF, but rather to ask why particular universities should be classified as ‘elite’, particularly when the narrative is just suggesting that they are not.

Ask anyone to name the world’s ‘elite’ universities, and no doubt without much hesitation they’ll come up with Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton – you recognise the sort of institution likely to be suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, let me stress that these are great universities, and that they have many impressive academics and very smart students. But why would we say they are part of an ‘elite’?

The problem with this form of intuitive ranking is that it is self-perpetuating. When we say that Cambridge is an elite university, we don’t mean that all the evidence suggests it is so, but rather that we know it is so because this is what has been handed down through the generations. This assumption is made and recycled so effectively that the university is able to gather up very smart and ambitious students, willing donors, media supporters and so forth, to the the point where any argument that it is not in the elite will sound absurd to most.

The consequences of this reach into society and the economy and perpetuate all sorts of things we’d rather not have, including significant social inequalities.

But it need not be so. Recently Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and recognised as one of higher education’s most innovative leaders, pointed out in a speech to the US National Governors Association that intelligence is not reserved for students in Ivy League institutions, and that many of the smartest people are in other universities less often associated with the elite. This is not just the case, but needs to be more vigorously asserted if we are to be successful in securing a more open and equal society in which access to influence, money and power is not a form of club membership. And it may be time to think again about the metrics used to determine how close your institution and mine may be to ‘elite’ status.


Finding value in higher education

Posted February 19, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Today the British government launched a new review of English higher education, the aim being ‘to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone’. This review has been heavily trailed for some time, and appears to be based on a sense of uneasiness with the existing framework. One particular angle was given expression by the Prime Minister in her speech announcing the review: she suggested that higher education was influenced by ‘outdated attitudes’, and that in particular there was too much much of a tendency to maintain a gulf between higher and further education.

The terms of reference of the review set out further concerns with the existing system:

‘… The system has encouraged growth in three-year degrees for 18 year-olds, but does not offer a comprehensive range of high quality alternative routes for the many young people who pursue a technical or vocational path at this age. The majority of universities charge the maximum possible fees for at least some of their courses and three-year courses remain the norm. Average levels of graduate debt have increased, but this has not always led to higher wage returns for all graduates. And the system does not comprehensively deliver the advanced technical skills that our economy needs.’

In the meantime, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP, in a television interview on Sunday suggested that a problem with the current system in England was its pricing uniformity: as the BBC reported, he suggested that tuition fees should reflect each degree’s value to society:

‘What we need to look at is the different aspects of pricing – the cost that it is to put on the course, the value that it is to the student and also the value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future.’

This again raises a number of questions about the value of higher education, and how that should relate to is cost. This is a complex issue in a system that bases university funding on tuition fees paid by students, but in a tightly regulated framework. Higher education in England is not a market (which few in the UK would want it to be), in the sense that universities cannot base their fees on supply and demand. But if not a market, then what? It is not offered as a social service, either. Indeed, it is much easier to say what it is not than to suggest what, in public policy terms, it actually is.

So the problem with the expectations that this new review may raise is that it is unclear what political perspective the UK government wants to adopt to inform its higher education strategy. Some of what we know is laudable: the drive for more participation by disadvantaged groups, for example. But it is hard to see an overall philosophical direction in the government’s pronouncements and actions.

In fairness, many (and not just the UK government) struggle to articulate and pursue a clear higher education policy. Is it all about protecting and resourcing a public good? Is it about recognising the benefits to the individual of a degree and extracting a contribution from that individual? Is it about meeting society’s skills needs? Back in 1963 the Robbins report set out a clear vision of turning what had been a benefit for the elite into a national resource. The sheer success of that vision eventually made its continued development difficult, because of the enormous cost involved. It will be interesting to see whether this new review, chaired by City equities broker Philip Augar, is able to make a significant contribution to finding a new vision that is based on a coherent outlook and is capable of being implemented successfully.

Frankly, that is quite a challenge.


My friend Gavin

Posted February 12, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society

Tags: , , ,

“Hi Ferdinand”. This was the friendly salutation in the first email I opened this morning. But then came one of those phrases I particularly hate in emails, and in letters for that matter: “I hope this email finds you well.” At that point I could safely say that the email didn’t “find” me well, mainly because it had actually found its way to me.

“Regarding your marketing needs in your company, can we arrange to have a chat on the phone later this week.” No question mark at the end of that sentence, by the way. If I were to reply to this, the text of my reply might be “Fat chance”, or words to that effect.

Two other irritants. The email is signed “Gavin”, with no surname, and a company name, but no indication of what role Gavin plays in the organisation. The subject line is “Your query”. Now if I had the time and energy to focus on Gavin, I would indeed have a query or two, but none related to his ability to service the marketing needs of “my company”.

Of course we all know about the spam problem. In 2016 it was estimated that 59 per cent of all email traffic was spam – which, mind you, was an improvement on the 71 per cent estimated for April 2014. But actually that’s not my issue here. Gavin wasn’t selling me Viagra from dubious sources, or offering me the chance to meet some desirable Russian ladies. Gavin, in fact, works for a quite reputable company which I have come across a few times and which, I believe, offers an appropriately professional service. So what on earth has persuaded Gavin that this is a good way to get my business?

So for all the Gavins out there, don’t do this. Not because it annoys me (though it does), but because you won’t get my business this way, even if your product looks interesting. Your email is destined for the bin. Don’t address me as if I were one of your oldest friends, if we have never met. Don’t address me at all if your product or service is obviously handled by someone else in my organisation. Don’t suggest I run a “company”, at least make the effort to find out what kind of institution this is. Don’t suggest a “chat”, or even a cup of coffee. Don’t, in fact, be such a complete pillock.


A learning society?

Posted February 5, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: ,

Since about the late 1980s, one of the key assumptions of all higher education planning has been that university education would not in future be mainly focused on the learner progression of school leavers but would be available to people at various stages of their lives and for different reasons. The concept of ‘lifelong learning’ was born, and it informed a good bit of education policy over the ensuing decades.

But has something changed? In the reporting of a noticeable drop in university applications in Ireland just now, one element of this that has received special mention is the decline in applications by mature students. This has been put down in part to the current economic recovery, which it is suggested has made continuing education less attractive to those already in employment.

But this decline in mature student numbers has not been unique to Ireland. In England the decline has been attributed to the impact of tuition fees.

Whatever the reason, if we are going to see fewer mature students (usually referred to as ‘adult learners’ in the United States) then this will have an impact on planning in higher education at various levels. It is time to re-state what public policy actually is in this area, and how it can best be realised.


Inflation buster?

Posted January 30, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

The Times Higher Education journalist (and director of the journal’s global rankings), Phil Baty, recently ran an informal Twitter poll in which he asked whether it was time to abandon degree classification and adopt the grade point average framework. Of those who responded, 65 per cent were in favour of this particular reform. This is not of course a scientific survey, but has it become more and more inevitable, in the light of the claimed trend of grade inflation, that there will be change in the traditional way of classifying student performance?

Or is the time right for this particular reform, but for reasons unrelated to the charge of grade inflation? Some UK universities have already adopted the grade point average system – it may make sense to review how this has worked for them.