Equally safe

Posted April 23, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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One of the key duties of a university is to do all it can do offer an environment to students in which they are physically safe and given every possible support where they might be at risk from violence, bullying or harassment. Getting this right is not easy, because university students are adults who are free to make their own decisions as to how and with whom they want to live their lives. But many are also extremely vulnerable, and yet reluctant to show it.

A tragic example of what can happen was provided by the student Emily Drouet, who took her own life after falling victim to a manipulative and oppressive fellow student and seeing no way out of the distress she was experiencing. Her mother. Fiona Drouet, initiated a campaign to compel universities and colleges to provide safeguards and make sure students know who they can turn to for help and support. She developed the #emilytest, setting out actions which, if implemented, would help others in similar circumstances. Her campaign has received strong support form the Scottish Government, and the latest ministerial letter of guidance from Minister Shirley-Anne Somerville to the Scottish Funding Council set out expectations of what institutions must now do.

The Scottish Government has also supported Strathclyde University in developing an Equally Safe toolkit, which will be rolled out more widely and provide a framework of support.

It is probably true that no university has a perfect record in tackling gender-based violence. It is vitally important that no student should feel they are alone when faced with oppressive or psychologically bullying behaviour. They must have help available to them, and must know where they can find it. We really must try to fulfil this most basic but also vital duty of care, and to do so visibly.

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No place for racism

Posted April 16, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society, university

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A recent survey carried out by The Student Room (an online resource) found that over half of all UK university students have witnessed racism in the course of their studies, with 10 per cent encountering racism on a daily basis. Equally significant are the forums on The Student Room, with contributions there showing that a number of contributors do not appear to be clear what does and does not constitute racism.

It is perhaps part of an alarming and growing ambivalence in our wider society about what racism is and why we need to combat it. This ambivalence is given oxygen by those, for example, who suggest that discussions about the history of the colonial age are just manifestations of excessive political correctness, or those who seem not to be able to recognise the evil nature of antisemitism.  This bleeds into the question of what we can legitimately discuss, as distinct from what we endorse.

The integrity of society is seriously at risk if we start to believe that racist attitudes can be domesticated by euphemisms or justified by apparently neutral concerns (such as concerns about housing, urban violence, and so forth) which are in fact focused on specific racial or migrant groups.

Universities must have a special responsibility to combat racism. They need to be places of civilised values and interpersonal respect. That is where we need to start and finish. Finding the right way of doing that is not easy. And as the Student Room survey has shown, we are not nearly there yet.

EdTech: something so important nobody is talking about it. Yet.

Posted April 9, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: education, higher education, technology

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A couple of years ago I suggested in an interview that university education had, in its basic methodology, hardly changed since the Middle Ages. I was of course being deliberately provocative and was exaggerating my argument, but nevertheless I did believe that I was making a valid point. Over the next few days I was met with howls of indignation, some of them in public and in print, from colleagues in other institutions who said my assertions were ludicrous; and who listed the zillions of things that had changed in universities since Thomas Aquinas had paced the lecture rooms of the University of Paris in 1250. Certainly he wasn’t holding an iPad as he paced, and he was never having to address the attentions of the Quality Assurance Agency. He might even have been quite unable to explain the nature and purpose of a MOOC. You get the idea.

None of that of course was my point, and me being me, I probably expressed myself badly. I certainly wasn’t out to insult anyone, as I have nothing but respect for those who labour in the vineyards of academia, and who do not get the recognition they deserve. What I was trying to convey was that we were using the same pedagogical understanding of our educational process as in the Middle Ages, and that while we may have adopted various new methods of communication and technology, these did not change our understanding of what was involved in teaching and learning. I don’t believe that even the adoption of ‘learning outcomes’ changes the game fundamentally.

So what we have, mostly, is a new technological portfolio sitting on top of traditional pedagogy. But because the technology is now so ground-breakingly different, it is becoming more and more important to have a proper insight into how disruptive this can be. The thinking that has emerged so far, usually contained under the heading of EdTech (which however covers education at all levels, not just higher education), has tended to be driven more by industry than by academia. More interestingly, it has become an increasingly fertile terrain for entrepreneurs and start-ups. Now interest by governments is emerging, and with it the potential for some funding; though it is not at all clear yet where that funding will actually go.

It has been a recurrent theme of this blog that we need much deeper thinking on pedagogy. This is as true in EdTech as anywhere else; but it should be a call to universities to take that on and accept the potential benefits of technology that may disrupt our traditional understanding of education; and to own the policy ideas that underpin it.

Understanding migration

Posted April 2, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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Migration has become one of the central issues of modern politics. It is arguable that it was the key driver of the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote, and it may well have contributed to Donald Trump’s victory in the United States presidential election. Of course not everyone who based their votes on concerns about immigration will have done so for the same reasons. Some will have been concerned about pressures on social services; some will have believed that immigration drives up indigenous unemployment; some will have had concerns about the erosion of local tradition and culture; some (and I believe, very few) will have been motivated by racism. Some will have wanted to have little or no immigration at all (which was pretty much the position of UKIP in the UK), some will have been less concerned about numbers than about processes.

It is however important to say to those who believe that immigration is a dangerous new development and that it has a detrimental economic and social impact that there is little evidence to support their views. Mass immigration is certainly not new. In fact, if it were new I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it. Every country you are likely to have ever lived in or visited has a population built on historical mass migration. All of Europe got its ethnic mix – including its cultures, languages and national identities – from the Völkerwanderung of the first millennium. The UK itself is, in ethnic terms, the product of invasion and migration; there is little left of any earlier population. Interestingly these mass movements on the whole eradicated prior cultures, which is not something that today’s migration tends to do. And of course, the United States of America owes its entire identity to immigration.

There is also little evidence that mass migration is economically or socially bad. Almost everywhere, including in the UK, it has stimulated rather than depressed economic activity and employment. Indeed it is pretty clear that any sudden drop in immigration would have dangerous economic consequences, and would place considerable strain on public finances, particularly in relation to pensions.

It is important to say to those who believe in the retention of a fairly insulated ethnic composition and culture that this is not possible. Global travel and global economic activity have increasingly ruled it out, and advanced economies will necessarily be magnets for migration, and will need this migration to prosper. The only sensible discussion should be about how to manage this, and in what circumstances and by what means to constrain it. Numerical targets for net migration are unwise; no government can deliver on these.

For all that, unrestrained and unmanaged migration is not realistic either, but the management of migration will not be successful if it starts from the premise that immigration is bad and needs to be stopped. Politicians need to be honest with the people about the benefits of immigration and the ways it can be made to work. Allowing people to believe that there could be a return to some mythical history in which indigenous culture was unaffected by migrants is dishonest.

I have worked in universities for forty years. None of what we value in higher education would have been possible without significant academic migration. It is time to realise that this is true more widely, not only of universities.

Open and shut?

Posted March 26, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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People of my generation, and perhaps of my night time tendency to be awake, will probably have memories of the Open University as a provider of sometimes rather dry lectures on this and that academic subject in the late hours, occasionally with rather dodgy background sets. I was never an Open University student, but I watched a lot of Open University programmes on the BBC.

But for many people, the Open University was not something so casual. It was a key part of the then government’s drive to democratise education and create a more productive economy, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson as the key driver of this policy. Generations of students, many of whom would previously have had little opportunity to get a university degree, were now able to avail of higher education in conditions they could manage.

Now it appears that all of that may be at risk. As part of a major cost-cutting exercise to ensure the institution has a sustainable business model, measures are being taken which, according to some staff, will leave the OU as a digital online provider of higher education. Significant faculty dissent is being expressed, and some have asked whether the institution as a whole may now be vulnerable.

I have no standing to express a view on the rights and wrongs of current measures proposed in the OU. But I can say that the Open University pioneered an approach to higher education that has been of immense social and pedagogical importance, and that while the university system as a whole has changed enormously since 1969, the OU is still a vital part of it. Indeed the model has been copied elsewhere, as in the case for example of the University of South Africa (UNISA), which like the OU has gained an international footprint.

It is of real importance that the Open University continues to exist and to thrive.

Island stories

Posted March 20, 2018 by universitydiary
Categories: culture, society

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This blog is coming to you from the Orkney Islands, more specifically from Kirkwall. I am here to discuss with government agencies, the local council and partner universities the role we might play in developing a high-value innovation agenda for Orkney, thereby increasing its prosperity but also its attractiveness as a place in which to live or invest.

Like many islands, Orkney has a long history of cultural and economic activity, but a less certain future. But islands are important centres of human culture and endeavour and deserve to be supported and protected. They are also wonderful locations for biodiversity.

Orkney in particular is fascinating. Unlike Scotland’s western islands (the Hebrides), Orkney’s (and Shetland’s) ancient history is not Celtic but Norse; in historical terms it only joined Scotland relatively recently. But its contribution to Scotland is enormous, particularly in the arts and in the creative industries. This is a good place for universities to provide the kind of support that normally goes to city regions. That way Orkney will leave an even greater legacy to future generations.

PS. The Italian Chapel pictured above has a particularly interesting history. You can read more about it here.

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.