Archive for November 2015

Very frequently, not unique

November 24, 2015

For all you academic authors out there, what you need to know about the title of this post is that you must never ever use any of the words in your writing. Nor should you ‘feel’ anything ‘eagerly’, or indeed ‘frequently’, and ‘finally’ you should ‘never’ write about ‘the public’.

Who says? Well, it’s a support service for writers called Tameri, and they have a guide for writers that contains a  list of words and phrases to avoid. And indeed they also suggest you stop using adjectives and adverbs; and infinitives. Only then will your writing be perfect. Or not, as you mustn’t use ‘perfect’.

An office for students?

November 24, 2015

The major higher education event in the UK this month was probably the publication of the UK Government’s plans for English higher education in their Green Paper, Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. It is amongst other things a fairly comprehensive statement of the priorities and intentions of the new UK Minister of State for Universities and Science, Jo Johnson. In his introduction the Minister sets out his agenda:

‘We will reward excellent teaching with reputational and financial incentives; widen participation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds; provide greater focus on employability; open up the sector to greater competition from new high quality providers; and reform our regulatory structure so that it drives value for money for students and taxpayers.’

Each of these elements has a section within the Green Paper, and I shall return to each of them in due course. On this occasion I want to comment on the Green Paper’s proposals for a new regulatory structure, or as it is put in the document, for ‘simplifying the higher education architecture’. At the heart of this is the UK Government’s proposal to establish a new ‘Office for Students’, which would be a ‘single, light touch regulatory system for all providers of higher education’, and would be both a ‘regulator’ and a ‘student champion’. This new agency would combine many or all of the functions of the current nine public bodies regulating or supporting higher education; but it would also have a particular focus, based on what the government regards as they key reasons for government intervention:

‘(i) information asymmetries between students and institutions and insufficient demand side pressures to ensure quality; (ii) the inability of students, in the quantities desirable for society and the economy, to finance higher education at the point of entry without support; and, (iii) the broader benefits to society of having a highly educated population.’

The frame of reference therefore guiding this reform is that higher education operates in a market which the government needs to regulate to protect the consumer (i.e. the student). This can be compared with the role of the current primary higher education  regulator in England, HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England). This is how HEFCE explains its role:

  • ‘ensure accountability for funding and be a proportionate regulator
  • act in the public interest and be open, fair, impartial and objective
  • be an effective broker between Government and the sector and in doing so, ensure that we are implementing government policy effectively.’

The role of HEFCE is to act as an intermediary between universities and government, and in that setting to recognise and protect also the standards of higher education and the interests of students. That is not the same role as the one now being proposed for the Office for Students, and the Green Paper contains little analysis or argument about what this change might imply and how it might change higher education practice. HEFCE is what is generally referred to as an arm’s-length body – this is a body that ‘delivers a public service, is not a ministerial government department, and which operates to a greater or lesser extent at a distance from Ministers.’ In the higher education field such bodies generally channel public money to universities and monitor performance under various headings; but they provide a voice for the sector in the sector’s dealings with government. If the new Office for Students is principally concerned with student interests, a key support function for universities will be lost – not a minor issue at a time when some institutions are thought to be very vulnerable.

But in any case, it must be doubted just a little whether the new agency will in practice primarily work to support students; not least because most student representative bodies are pretty hostile to the system being implemented.

This reform may not be the wrong reform; but it may need a more explicit narrative that recognises and assesses the fairly fundamental shift in higher education assumptions that it is introducing. That is what is missing.

Liberté, liberté chérie

November 17, 2015

This is not the time to offer a political commentary on recent events. But it is perhaps apposite to remark that many of the values we take for granted in our part of the world had their intellectual origins in France – together with those nourished or developed in the United States and in Britain.

The world is a complex place, and difficult dilemmas face us, but these values should continue to drive us: of tolerance, political secularism, equality of opportunity and personal freedom. Standing in solidarity with France, we should never compromise on these.

[Liberté, liberté chérie is a line from the sixth verse of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.]

Charles W. Eliot, and the nobility of ideas

November 10, 2015

There are certain books, I would argue, that everyone who has an interest in higher education should read at some point. One of these without doubt is a collection of essays by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard University for an amazing 40 years until 1909 and a cousin of the celebrated poet T.S. Eliot, published in 1898 under the title Educational Reform. It was Eliot who turned Harvard into the world leading university it is today, and along the way he contributed to some really interesting public debate about the nature and purpose of higher education.

The book is full of fascinating reflections on a variety of subjects connected with education, but it is best for the reader to start with the first essay, which is in fact Eliot’s inaugural address, delivered at the beginning of his presidency when he was only 35 years old. This essay not only sets out Eliot’s views on education, but also illustrates, by describing the system he had taken on, how much he managed to change it during his presidency. But it also contains insights that are still important today, including this:

‘The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities and public schools, from primary to professional. The worthy fruit of academic culture is an open mind, trained to careful thinking, instructed in the methods of philosophic investigation, acquainted in a general way with the accumulated thought of past generations, and penetrated with humility.’

In the same essay Eliot suggested that the task of the university is to make people (well, he said ‘men’, but they were different times) ‘be loyal to noble ideas as in other times they had been to kings’. Today one would say that different universities can and should have different missions, but the integrity of intellectual thought – ‘noble ideas’ – needs to be common to all institutions still. Eliot’s ideas are worth reading.

Don’t expect too much of every new disruptive innovation in higher education

November 3, 2015

There is no doubt that higher education has seen significant change over recent years, but not the kind of fundamental shift that some commentators were expecting a couple of years ago. At the beginning of the current decade a number of people – including some university leaders – were predicting that all universities would have to adopt MOOCs (‘massive open online courses’) if they were to survive. MOOCs would subvert and replace the pedagogical model used for as long as anyone can remember in higher education; and for that matter the business model also.

It hasn’t happened. Over recent months there have been several articles and studies suggesting that while MOOCs are not dead, they are unlikely to dominate university education. They are too easy for people to access, so too many people are dropping out early; they are not being recognised by employers; they are too expensive to design and run, particularly if they produce zero revenues.

I shall avoid saying that I told you so right from the start; though of course I did. But I will say that higher education is by its nature too conservative for all of its traditions and practices to be swept away overnight by one piece of disruptive innovation. Technology-enabled distance learning will continue to grow and develop, but the courses it spawns will not at a stroke become the new norm, particularly if they are un-funded and nobody is paying. There is clearly room for innovation and change, but it needs to be driven by analysis and evidence.