Archive for November 2013

Learning the trade

November 25, 2013

When I finished secondary school – which I did in Germany in 1972 – I did not, at that time, go to university. In fact at that point I had no intention of going to university at all, which is remarkable in the light of the fact that I have now been in charge of two such institutions. But back then I wanted to get into employment, and I wanted to do this while gaining a further qualification. So in August of that year I joined Dresdner Bank AG, then one of Germany’s three major banks, as an apprentice. The apprenticeship scheme saw me spend four days a week working in my local branch of the bank, and on the fifth I would go to a nearby vocational school (‘Berufsschule‘) where I had lessons in economics, accounting, finance and banking. In 1974 I concluded my apprenticeship with the formal examinations, and after passing these I had become a qualified banker, or Bankkaufmann. Maybe that profession doesn’t get the respect now that it had then, but it certainly was a valuable qualification.

I was reminded of this part of my personal history when I recently read an account of a young woman working as an apprentice at the technology company Cisco. As she works for the company, she is picking up several formal qualifications, including the company’s Cisco Certified Network Associate award, and a Diploma in ICT Professional Competence; and she has already had an article published in a professional journal.

The problem is that society regards apprenticeships as valuable, but appropriate mainly for those who do not have the intellectual firepower to go to university. As a result the trades which typically offer apprenticeships are seen as less prestigious. None of that makes sense, however. Not all careers need to be built on academic foundations, and apprenticeships may be a high value alternative, as long as the rest of us see them that way. Serious efforts are now being made in these islands to highlight the value of apprenticeships – Scotland’s ‘Modern Apprentice’ system is a good example – but in the end the success of such programmes depends on the apparent social cachet associated with the qualification.

In Germany there is a national code for apprenticeships, which not only reinforces their social value but also sets out the rights and obligations of apprentices. Those who graduate from these programmes enjoy a very similar recognition to that achieved by university graduates. This is important in a modern society that seeks to have a balanced view of the contributions that different people make to economic and social progress, but that also seeks to ensure that all members of society find an appropriate path to professional recognition. It is therefore important that the recommendations of Sir Ian Wood’s Commission for Developing Scotland’s Young Workforce should be taken very seriously, and that similar attention should be focused on building up apprenticeships in other countries also.

Do students embrace a ‘consumerist ethos’?

November 19, 2013

Another new report has just been published on English higher education and the impact of recent reforms. The report was commissioned by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), and the work was carried out by a team from King’s College London. It may be worth mentioning in passing that the authors refer to their report as addressing issues in ‘UK higher education’, but they clearly are dealing with England only, as the developments they describe are not found in Scotland or the other devolved regions. It has to be said that this is part of an increasingly common and occasionally annoying trend to write about ‘UK higher education’ as if it all followed the pattern of England, which plainly it does not. There is no UK system of higher education in that sense.

But I digress. The key substantive point of this report is that recent changes to university funding in England have created a student attitude which the authors describe as  follows:

‘Findings have indicated that a consumerist ethos of value as financial return on investment is prevalent within perspectives on both education quality generally and critical incidents in students’ experiences. This ethos was illustrated by the persistent equating of financial investment to academic contact hours on a weekly or yearly basis, with contact time being seen as a tangible measure of return for tuition fees.’

This does raise some interesting questions. Long before tuition fees were a feature of the landscape of these islands, questions were being asked about how students should see themselves within the higher education system. Were they learners, or partners in an education process, or customers of educational institutions, or consumers of an educational product? Furthermore, how would any such understanding that students might have or might develop influence pedagogy and strategy? And how would recent policy moves, whether in England or elsewhere, have influenced this picture?

There is a lot more wrapped up in this than just a question about the impact of tuition fees. As pedagogy has evolved, the idea that students should see themselves as undergoing a passive teaching experience has been increasingly rejected; instead they have been invited to see themselves as stakeholders or partners in a process, which in turn justifies them in making demands as to outputs. When you then add fees it becomes increasingly complex, as was shown in a 2011 Guardian online live chat in which the contributors could not easily agree on what status students have within the system. Perhaps the important thing to take away from all this is that students are now much more emancipated participants in higher education, entitled to form their own views as to what to expect from it. Whether that becomes a ‘consumerist ethos’ probably depends on how universities present the experience. The rush by English (and other) higher education institutions to push fees to the permitted upper limits has perhaps encouraged students to nurture ‘consumerist’ instincts.

Overall, we need to take a step away from presenting higher education mainly as a financial issue: funding, fees, pay. These are important, but they are not the essence. Right now a dispassionate observer might not recognise this, and that is a problem.


November 12, 2013

Yesterday was Armistice Day, the day on which the fighting stopped in Europe in 1918. Over the years there have been many debates in a number of countries about the value of commemorating this day, or perhaps about the way it should be commemorated. In a piece in the Irish Times newspaper yesterday Brian Hanley, an historian from St Patrick’s College Drumcondra, suggested that the commemoration of the armistice with the use of the poppy as an iconic symbol amounts to ‘fuzzy nostalgia’ that supports ‘the justification of war’.

I suspect this perspective on the poppy and on the commemoration at this time of year, while not unique to Ireland, owes something to the complexities of Irish history. Experiencing Remembrance Day on this side of the Irish Sea (and that includes the observance in Scotland) provides a very different impression. Here every town and village has some ceremony, and in each case it is not at all about the justification of wars, but the expression of community through a shared memory of what was lost. And it is that sense of community mourning that the wearing of poppies on television, or on football pitches, conjures up.

In Europe, my generation was the first in a long time to have been able to go through our lives without the threat of imminent war or the reality of armed conflict between European nations. We have taken peace for granted, although obviously we have been well aware of its absence elsewhere in the world. And in Western Europe at least, we have had democratic government, with all its faults.

There is of course an academic role in all of this: the task of the community is to remember, but the academy should assess, analyse, question, doubt. Still, I believe that it is right for us all to commemorate November 11th, in the hope that remembering the conflicts and killings of recent history will tell each new generation that we must live with each other in peace and show tolerance and respect for the rights and dignity of all.

University admissions in context

November 5, 2013

A couple of years ago I had a conversation with a middle aged businessman who told me that he was the first person in his wider family ever to have gone to university. Coming from a family of modest means, he had been fired up by the adventure of learning and, having passed all his examinations with very high marks, he eventually entered a top university. He went on to make a fortune in business. As he told me all this, he mused that he was the only one of his class to get to university; and in fact it took another eight years for anyone else from his school to go that way.

It is of course not difficult to grasp why some schools send so few students into higher education. A school with inadequate resources, shabby looking classrooms, inadequate or no science or language labs – and most of all, a lack of ambition – will not compete with well resourced private schools that will expect all of their pupils to go on to get a degree. And yet many will argue that the criteria for higher education admission should be blind to this fact, and should accept only those who meet the institution’s entry requirements; anything else would be social engineering and would undermine standards, as those admitted with lesser qualifications would struggle to cope.

As it happens, recently published evidence shows that disadvantaged students admitted to a university, having lower grades than those applying normally, will in fact often out-perform more privileged students by the time they get to their examinations. The practice known as ‘contextual admission’ is therefore  a useful tool in the box of those wanting to erode the discriminatory effect of schooling.

Contextual admissions are not a radical step designed to undermine the aspirations of middle class students and their parents. Rather they are a genuine effort by the higher education system to correct the discriminatory effect within higher education of poverty and deprivation. Many universities now routinely use such admissions methods, leading to not just a fairer system but, it appears, an intellectually superior one.