Archive for October 2011

Crowdsourcing as academic methodology

October 18, 2011

Modern information and communications technology has allowed large groups of people in locations around the globe to participate collective analysis and debate. The best known product of this approach is Wikipedia, which publishes information online that is written and edited by anyone who chooses to do so, expert of otherwise. While academics often advise caution in the use of such collective work as source material, it is clear that Wikipedia has become the reference of choice for people in all walks of life, including members of the academy itself.

Now researchers from George Mason University are assessing the use of non-expert crowds in making judgements about the likelihood or nature of future events. The initial context for this research is intelligence analysis, but there may be scope for the development of crowdsourcing as a research method in other contexts as well. The initial assumption is that large numbers of people, even those without advanced expertise in the subject, can when their views are taken together make more accurate judgments on certain topics than smaller groups of specialists. Such methods are unlikely to find a cure for cancer, but they may be useful in gaining political or other social science insights.

It is not that academic study is set to become a giant ‘ask-the-audience’ exercise, but larger groups contain both wisdom and knowledge that can be tapped more effectively. It is at any rate worth some analysis.

Television and nation building

October 18, 2011

Travelling between Ireland and Scotland recently. I was struck by one aspect of Irish life that may not, or at least not yet, be part of the Scottish experience in the same way: there is a shared conversation that accompanies Irish national life and that reaches into the community; and its fuel is television. Apart from the ongoing soul searching about the recession, national insolvency and the attempted economic comeback, the national conversation involves analysis of the current presidential campaign. This is not because the campaign has caught the public imagination; if anything, the conversation is often about how the candidates fall short. But the campaign is being fought over the airwaves, and the various live debates have been a major talking point. It helps that one or two candidates seem to be self-destructing in public, but generally the coming election is a shared experience of the national community, made possible because it is being broadcast to the country as it unfolds.

In fact, the shared experience of television is part of Ireland’s recent history. Almost everyone has some reference point, whether that is the iconic Late Late Show, or the political magazine programmes over the years such as Today Tonight and Prime Time, special series such as that on Charles Haughey, or just the Nine O’Clock news. Even as hundreds of channels became available through cable or satellite, the main national channels (and RTÉ in particular) stayed there as the focus of national conversation. This shaped the country’s identity: who can deny that Gay Byrne’s Late Late made modern Ireland what it is much more than any politician’s manifesto?

Over here in what is now my home in Scotland there is also something of a national conversation, but it is not securely anchored in the same way. Interestingly the key topic of that conversation is nation building, in the setting of the anticipated referendum on independence. But even as this topic is developed, it lacks the compelling support of national broadcasting, lacking in part because the broadcast media are part of a wider United Kingdom heritage. The BBC has a good bit of Scotland-specific programming, but is interspersed between the dominant shared British output. The same is true of STV, which is still on the whole the Scottish arm of the UK’s ITV. The iconic programmes are mostly British. Of course the national debate about Scotland’s future gets along fine anyway, but I do miss the immediate and compelling nature of the  national conversation I am used to in Ireland. I suspect that Scotland needs this also to secure its identity. Perhaps the time has come to consider a genuinely Scottish television station, to share the airwaves with the undoubtedly excellent BBC and other broadcasters.

Quality in higher education

October 18, 2011

It would probably not be hard to get a consensus around the proposition that universities should aim for high quality in both their teaching and their research. But it is much harder to identify what quality actually is, how it can be recognised and how it can be measured. This is illustrated by the fact that some of the key policy documents on quality assurance for universities go into great detail about the process by which quality should be assured without ever once saying what actually constitutes ‘quality’. For example, the Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area issued by the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education in 2005 makes no attempt to define, describe or identify quality criteria. The Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) on its website has a page of ‘useful definitions in quality assurance‘, but the term ‘quality’ is not defined there. On its website, the British Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) does purport to define ‘academic quality’, thus:

‘A comprehensive term referring to how, and how well, institutions manage teaching and learning opportunities to help students progress and succeed.’

But is that actually a definition of anything?

It seems strange that a whole industry dedicated to monitoring and improving quality seems to have no advice to offer as to what ‘quality’ actually is. I once sat next to a senior academic at a dinner; he had been involved in the QAA’s quality assurance process for ten years. When I asked him what ‘quality’ meant, he chided me for asking an ‘irrelevant’ question. He suggested that the institutions themselves could determine what constituted quality, and the task for people like him was to see whether they lived up to their aims. That seems sensible at one level, except that if it were that simple then institutions could guarantee superb quality simply by setting themselves very modest ambitions, and then meeting or exceeding them.

However, because nobody has anything much to say as to what quality is, the temptation is to get out of this dilemma by focusing entirely on process: we cannot say whether what you teach is good quality, but we can ask whether you have followed the 20 prescribed steps when you developed the programme and are counting the answers students have given in the feedback questionnaires. And on the whole, that is how a fair amount of quality assurance has been conducted.

The problem with this is that if your excellence is – publicly – going to be measured on the basis of how satisfied people are with your processes, then you had better have comprehensive processes and stringent monitoring; and if that’s your concept of quality, then you had better steer clear of innovation, because innovation (like entrepreneurship) is risky and may sometimes fail or not enthuse the users at first. It is much safer to stay with your existing offerings and just make sure that all the paperwork is in good order.

We have therefore come to accept that quality assurance is about process, whereas it should be obvious that quality is about content and intellectual innovation. If we are serious about having a high quality higher education system, then we have to start asking questions about content, avoiding the risk of suggesting that there is one standard way of measuring this.

Is a university education losing its value?

October 16, 2011

Have we come to a higher education turning point? Are we entering a phase of history in which a university degree is going to be seen as a waste of time, effort and money?

Why am I asking? Well, for much of the period since the Second World War a key consensus in most of the world has been the belief in the value and efficacy of education, including higher education. Accompanying this consensus has been a commitment to increasing the proportion of the population to benefit from a university degree, to the point where everybody, regardless of background, means, gender or ethnic origin, would be entitled to enter higher education provided only that they had the ability and talent.

However, this consensus has come under pressure, as a growing number of people question the case for it. Partly this has been prompted by talk of an ‘education bubble’ (the notion that the personal cost of higher education is not recovered during the subsequent career facilitated by it).

Yesterday’s Observer newspaper carried a personal statement by columnist Philippa Young in which she explained why she abandoned an Oxford MSc programme after just one week, having concluded that it would not provide her with any benefits. Perhaps the two reasons that should concern us most in her reasoning are that universities are obsessed with formal tradition at the expense of pedagogy, and that they lack a capacity for cross-disciplinary intellectual inquiry.

Maybe one might want to argue that these problems are specific to Oxford. But we may now be coming to a phase in which more generally the growing loss of confidence in the ‘respectable’ institutions of society is also infecting attitudes to universities. In part this may be due to a lack of understanding as to what universities are for, and what those who enter them should expect to get from them.

Not everyone hoping for a fulfilling life and a successful career needs to go to university. Equally not everyone studying for a degree will need to be doing so for the same reason. Even within Oxford University not every programme will have the same objectives. The academy is now much more diverse than it was in the past. But this needs to be explained and understood much better. It is time to re-establish a social contract between society and its universities. Without it we may find a growing consensus supporting the idea of an education bubble. And we cannot afford that.

The Scottish dimension

October 15, 2011

It is still too early to say whether the people of Scotland will, in the referendum promised for the term of the current Holyrood parliament, vote for independence. It will of course depend on exactly what question they will be asked. But right now the signs are that the vote will be in favour: the news today is that, for the first time, an opinion poll has found a decisive shift in favour of an independent Scotland, and moreover there is now a slim majority in the UK as a whole for this proposition.

As a newer resident of Scotland, I am still learning about the country and its history and its ethos and its traditions. But I believe I have come to understand what for me are some important considerations. First, the noises from some sources south of the Border are missing the point. There is a lot of chatter from some political and media voices in England about the economics of separation, and the ability or otherwise of Scotland to manage its own affairs. This is annoying many in Scotland not least because of its patronising nature, but also because the key driver of Scotland’s search for a new status is not really about economics, but about values. The Scottish sense of community, whether it is better or worse than that in England, is at any rate different. This has become particularly clear to me in the debate about tuition fees, which is actually a debate here about a higher education ethos at least as much as it is one about funding.

Secondly, Scotland has a very different cultural and social identity from England, and there is a growing sense of confidence that the time is right to express this constitutionally.

But thirdly – and maybe crucially – I detect a sense that Scottish independence can be achieved without any hostility towards England. People I knew who lived in Scotland a couple of decades ago found little taste for independence but often quite visible antagonism towards English people. That has mostly gone, and has been replaced by a sense that the two nations can co-exist in a friendly manner but with each controlling their own destiny, to the extent that this is possible in today’s globalised world. The fear of independence has gone, and with it the sense of insecurity that may have accompanied it.

Of course independence should not be assessed sentimentally, it has to be evaluated in a sober way. But the backdrop to this assessment has changed. And that makes it a very interesting time to be in Scotland.


The great free speech dilemma

October 15, 2011

So here is the news today: Trinity College Dublin has announced that it will not allow the leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, to visit the college to take part in a debate on immigration at the University Philosophical Society. The BNP leader had been invited to the debate, but after students groups (including one named ‘Students Against Fascism’) had said they would obstruct the visit the invitation was withdrawn. In a statement the College said:

‘The University Philosophical Society and Trinity College Dublin have decided to withdraw the invitation to Mr Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party. Mr Griffin was invited by the Philosophical Society to participate in a debate on October 20th next. After careful consideration of the matter, involving a series of discussions between the Philosophical Society’s officers and the College and taking all safety considerations into account, the decision was taken today (October 14th). The College encourages balanced debate and freedom of speech at all times. It is a very important part of academic life, particularly among students and their societies. As part of the education of our students, the College also promotes the autonomy and self governance of student societies.  These are important principles observed by the College. Following careful review of operational and safety issues, the Philosophical Society and the College are now not satisfied that the general safety and well being of staff and students can be guaranteed. Access to the College will not be given to Mr Griffin or members of the BNP.’

So what should we make of this? Let me first stress that I consider Mr Griffin’s views, and for that matter his party, to be odious. The party appeals to the worst instincts of its potential voters, and its activities undermine social cohesion in parts of England. Thankfully it has not managed to gain much traction in Scotland.

But bad and all though it is, should we curtail freedom of speech for its leaders and members? I remember an incident while I was a student when the participation of a conservative politician in a debate was made impossible by a group of students shouting ‘No free speech for Fascists’. The politician in question was undoubtedly not progressive, but he was hardly a fascist, and in consequences it seemed to me that the protestors were potentially more dangerous than the person they were attacking. Indeed the same group threatened to obstruct a visit by the British Labour politician Denis Healey, arguing that he too was a ‘Fascist’.

Freedom of speech is arguably the most important civil right. Without it no democracy can survive. But it doesn’t really exist if it is conditional, and in the end we must argue that all people, including those with odious views, must be allowed to speak provided they do so within the law. Otherwise we may be defending something that is already lost.

I am not criticising Trinity College Dublin – the College had to take a decision based on the situation as they found it. But the fact that they were forced to do this is a matter of regret. What is more, Nick Griffin is not a persuasive speaker; he would easily have been shown in the debate to have no views worth admiring. The opportunity to showcase the superiority of the liberal democratic tradition was missed.

Do the rich go in search of really high tuition fees?

October 14, 2011

Here’s an interesting analysis. Professor John Holmwood of the University of Nottingham has suggested that the top-of-the-range fees charged by the universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews will act as a magnet for very rich students, enticing them away from the likes of Oxford and Cambridge as these charge £9,000 less over the full degree cycle. As a result, the two Scottish universities will be swamped by super-duper-rich English students, who will crowd out the Scots (who don’t pay fees) and hugely upset the local population with their plummy accents (well, he didn’t say that last bit, but you get the idea).  There is no sign in the report that Professor Holmwood is using any empirical evidence to support his contention.

To avoid any doubt, let me say that I am not suggesting that high tuition fees are desirable, but I am strongly sceptical of the idea that high fees are seen by anyone as a reliable quality statement. Overall in Britain some universities appear to have been attracted to the notion that unless you charge high fees people will assume you’re not much good. In this frame of mind, universities would set fees not in order to cover their costs and provide room for investment, but in order to place a designer label on their degree programmes. So if you follow that logic, a university which is, say, around number 90 in the league tables can at one stroke remove the difference with a university at, say, number 5 by ensuring that it charges the same fees or a little more. The subtext of all of this is presumably that the rich are thick.

There is an urgent need for a proper analysis of the case for and the impact of tuition fees, and of pricing methods in higher education – assuming that (as in England) higher education is not entirely funded by public money. But the idea that price of itself is a guide to quality needs to be nailed, not least because it is an exceptionally stupid idea. It does not become more intelligent if it is used by those arguing against tuition fees, as is apparently being done by Professor Holmwood.

Honour amongst academics?

October 14, 2011

As the university community around much of the world is placed under increasing pressures, ranging from financial pressures to the avalanche of bureaucratisation engulfing the system, some commentators are claiming to notice a more selfish attitude by academics. One American commentator, Rob Jenkins, himself a professor of English, wrote recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

‘If ever any group of individuals should pull together, it would be college faculty in today’s unsettled (and unsettling) political landscape. Sadly, I’ve witnessed more dishonorable behavior in a single committee meeting than I’ve seen on a week’s worth of CNN news shows. When it comes to protecting their turf — their discipline, their textbook, their pet project — an alarming number of faculty members will lie, cheat, bear false witness, shout down, and intimidate their opponents. I’m not saying all faculty members are like that, or even most, but far too many fit that description.

If higher education is going to survive the current climate of budgetary “austerity” and cultural warfare, we’re going to have to rediscover, as a profession, the concept of honor. And when I talk about the profession, I mean from the top down: from presidents and chancellors to the lowliest classroom instructor. Because if we continue behaving the way we have, our narrow-mindedness and cut-throatedness, our in-fighting and self-aggrandizement — in short, our politicking — may ultimately do more damage to our cause than any external threat.’

I suspect that if there is such behaviour on the part of academics it is not particularly new. As a student I was, for a year, an elected student representative on a faculty committee and, back then, I was amazed at the occasional bouts of hostility and aggression that were hallmarks of the discussions – although typically only involving a small number of people. At another university that I experienced as a visiting academic in the 1980s I found an extraordinary culture of bullying and personal hostility amongst the faculty, alongside an absurd personality cult that some of the star academics tried to build up around themselves. So if these negative traits exist, they were there before. They only ever represented a minority culture (albeit a rather toxic one), and I don’t believe that things have got worse.

However, I do agree that what the author calls honourable behaviour should be encouraged, and that we should not make life worse for those academics who are already more likely to feel vulnerable in these times. But then again, alongside the occasional aggression and arrogance, I often find academics who go to extraordinary lengths to help and support others, whether colleagues or students. And so I don’t think I subscribe to the idea that there is less honour in the profession now than there used to be; it is just that the others are a minority that is often more noticeable. So perhaps it is the job of people like me to encourage good conduct and to ensure that it is celebrated.

Money matters

October 13, 2011

Here’s an interesting statistic: Harvard University, with an enormous endowment of over $30 billion, hands out more annually in student scholarships than my university gets in income from all sources. Its overall annual income is over 20 times that of Robert Gordon University. In fact, its endowment could pay the full running costs of the entire British higher education sector for a full year; and its annual income is nearly twice that of the entire Irish university sector.

This tells us a number of things. First, however fast other university systems are developing, they won’t catch up with the US any time soon. Secondly, Harvard’s wealth is largely a product of the generosity of its graduates, and on this side of the Atlantic universities must also engage much more closely with the alumni community. Thirdly, financial support for those from a disadvantaged background is a vital part of a successful university system, and I suspect we’ll find that Harvard is paying out more for this than is made available in all of Britain and Ireland put together.

Of course Harvard is not typical in every respect of the US university sector. But even if it were a complete outlier (which it is not) its financial strength should give us pause for thought. There is a real risk that the relatively modestly resourced universities in Europe will lose out to the powerful US ones and the emerging institutions in Asia.

The funding of higher education is, at some level, a social contract. It is an expression of how society wants its universities to develop, and what role it wants them to play. It is unlikely that many universities over here will rival Harvard for money any time soon, but we must start to plan for the longer game. Set against the fees-and-funding chaos in England and the great funding uncertainties in Ireland, Scotland is having a much more stable experience as the government keeps to its promise to close the funding gap between England and Scotland. But at some time here too there will need to be a larger debate about the future: about what we expect of universities, how they will be paid for it, and what contribution they can make to society beyond education.

Does education have a purpose?

October 12, 2011

Prompted in part by discussions that have taken place in this blog, I recently asked a group of final year undergraduate students what they believed the purpose of a university education was. There were some variations in the responses, but most of them converged on the idea of purpose: universities were there to provide students with knowledge and skills that equip them for their careers. The students valued critical analysis and intellectual integrity, but they placed it firmly in the context of formation for their professional lives.

In fact, it is my belief that students on the whole are much closer to the view often put forward by governments – that education should be connected with specific national priorities and needs – than the more traditional view of education as an end in itself. But if there is a battleground of ideas in higher education policy, this is it: is there a purpose to education other than just education?

There are by now plenty of belligerents in this battle. The Guardian newspaper has recently set out the views of some of these, and what struck me in particular was the reported statement by Stefan Collini, Professor of English Literature and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. Here’s what he is reported as having said:

‘For Collini, “one way to begin to think about their distinctiveness is to see [universities] as institutions primarily devoted to extending and deepening human understanding”. This, he suggests “is a pretty outrageous idea: no other institutions have this as their primary purpose”. He wants to discuss their role “in more fruitful terms than the cliches about ‘contributing to economic growth’ which currently dominate public debate on the topic”.’

What do I make of that? Well, I have genuine respect for Professor Collini, who has made some extremely valuable contributions to the debate on education. But with all due respect, the idea of ‘extending and deepening human understanding’ is as much a cliché as ‘contributing to economic growth’. As I have mentioned here before, I have a huge problem with the argument that education is some sort of aesthetic construct which we admire because it looks beautiful, rather than a framework that provides tangible benefits to society because of the things it does. Of course what it does is something more than, and sometimes something different from, economic development. Of course education cannot just be an instrument of government. But its impact on quite functional things like social cohesion, cultural regeneration, employment and economic growth is vital, and if these don’t define the purpose of education entirely they do pretty much determine the extent to which education is supported and resourced.

It seems to me that there are considerable dangers in a view of education that seemingly disconnects it from society. The key liberal policy statements of the post-War period did not avoid making the link between education and social and economic purpose. Not every way of expressing this link in political action is equally good, but then again not every attempt to place it into the context of such purpose is bad. Education, including higher education, does have a purpose, and it is something more important than the (to me) still vacuous concept of ‘learning for its own sake’.


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