Archive for December 2015

Keeping the library open

December 21, 2015

This post will be slightly more philosophical in intent than the title may suggest.

In the late 1970s I was a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge in England. As was the case with many of those doing research for a PhD, I spent a lot of time in the library. Or maybe I should say, in the libraries, because Cambridge had a number of these and I frequented many of them, in part because I was trying to stretch my work across disciplinary boundaries. I loved the libraries, and I enjoyed working there and eating there and observing other users there.

And then I attended a talk at which the speaker suggested that the age of libraries was nearly over. At the time we were not yet in the era of personal computing, but the speaker predicted – accurately – that this was just over the horizon, and (less accurately) that once computers became accessible to the masses libraries would be out of business. Books, he suggested, would be acquired for their historical and aesthetic attractions but not for reading.

Earlier this year, on a visit to London, I sought out a library I used to frequent on visits from Cambridge, and found much of it as I remembered it. There were plenty of readers, and while some were sitting at desks with iPads out, others were immersed in old fashioned print. But there was a difference. I don’t know whether it was just that particular day, but what I found was that the readers were interacting with each other much more than in former days. Back then we would sit quietly and do our reading and writing, and the only interaction would be an irritated glance at someone making a noise. Now people were exchanging views, pointing to things 0n their iPads or their books, quietly arguing or discussing.

If there has been a change, I suspect this will have been caused by a number of different factors; but I think the accessibility of technology-disseminated information will have played a part, as this breaks down strict disciplinary boundaries more easily than, in former days, cautious attempts to invade some other discipline’s scholarly spaces. And books have kept pace, still read, indeed perhaps more widely shared now than before: the analog and the digital in harmony.

Employability: the purpose or a by-product of higher education?

December 15, 2015

A little while ago I attended a talk at which the speaker, an academic from a highly respected traditional university, argued strongly that higher education should not have a purpose. It is, he suggested, an enriching experience for the student and is desirable for that reason. Whether it enhances the chances of the student, upon graduation, to find a job is not important (though no doubt congenial to the student if it does). He was followed by  another speaker, a recent graduate from the same university, who suggested that most students see their university course only in one light: a passport to a job and a career.

I was reminded of this last week when the Higher Education Policy Institute published a paper entitled Employability: Degrees of value. In this the author, Johnny Rich, suggests the following:

‘…The development of sound higher education policy does need some practical answers because, if universities are to command public investment, then a public good has to be served and observed. The money could otherwise be spent on the ill, the aged and the unhoused. Without equations to demonstrate impact, it is hard to measure the public good and, in an austere world driven by econometrics, what is hard to measure is hard to fund.’

As the author explains, recent decades have seen governments trying to find ways in which the utility of higher education can be measured. Most of the schemes introduced have been flawed. But there is, he suggests, one good way to address this: to identify the ‘three components’ that measure learning and address social and economic need. He concludes:

‘The three components are: knowledge, skills and social capital. Together, they make up “employability”.’

I suspect many academics will still baulk at this. So for example the Council for the Defence of British Universities on its website declares its opposition to the ‘instrumentalisation of knowledge’ (though it acknowledges that the fostering of intellectual skills needs to be undertaken ‘with due regard to the demands of a rapidly-changing economy’). Some academics still argue that education is good ‘for its own sake’ (an expression I find rather meaningless) and that its value is unrelated to the extent to which it leverages employment and income for the graduate. But even these academics would presumably agree that education produces a social and economic benefit.

It will always be difficult to find metrics that capture excellence in learning, and I am still open to the argument that, in reason, all such metrics are flawed. But I believe that higher education is at its most powerful when we can articulate what it achieves, and employability is one of those key achievements. We should not be afraid to declare that knowledge, skills and social capital are desirable outcomes of an excellent education.

Culture wars on American campuses?

December 8, 2015

As we all know, youtube videos can go viral, and here is one that has done so recently. It shows an exchange of views – if we can call it that – at Yale University. Should you wish to learn a little about the background to this incident, you can read it here. And finally, here is another account from a participant of sorts, published in the Washington Post.

Should you not wish to read the stories, here is a short summary. A Yale academic, Erika Christakis, sent out an email in which she reflected on the potential benefits of students and others being allowed to express themselves (in this case in the choice of Halloween costumes) in ways that could include being ‘a little bit inappropriate or provocative’. Some students took offence at the email, and this in turn led to the recorded confrontation between Dr Christakis’s husband (who was defending the email) and some students.

The question that all this raises is one I have covered before in this blog – whether there is on a university campus (or for that matter, anywhere else) a right not to be offended. Do universities have an obligation to ensure that no one is troubled or disturbed by what they see or hear? And of course, how does all of this affect freedom of speech?

Of course universities do have a duty of care towards their students, including a duty to ensure that students are not the victims of discrimination or bullying and that they can learn in an environment that encourages them and supports them. I do not believe, however, that universities are obliged to ensure that no student ever hears anything they do not like, or that they never meet anyone who disagrees with them. Intellectual inquiry is about hearing every point of view, even offensive ones.

As a result of the backlash against her email, Erika Christakis resigned from her Yale University teaching post. That, I would suggest, was not a good day for the university.

Managing debt. Or not.

December 1, 2015

For many policy-makers on higher education wanting to work out how to fund universities the answer has seemed simple: let students pay, but not at the point of use. This policy, which began in Australia and has spread elsewhere, is based on the view that students should be encouraged to enter university, that they should not pay anything up front, but that the cost of their education should be funded through a loan that eventually they will re-pay (or at least will pay if their salary rises above a certain threshold).

However, outstanding student loans are fast becoming the new major debt burden, in America even outstripping credit card debt. A recent report from Missouri documents a high school teacher who, through ‘a series of unremarkable decisions about college and borrowing’, ran up debts of $410,000.

Large debts also quickly become bad debts. In Australia the total amount of unpaid student loans is estimated to be around AU$70 billion. It is too early to say how this will play out in England, but it is unlikely to follow a completely different pattern. So far, nobody has put any particular thought into how this will be managed, and who will pick up the tab.

As I have said before in this blog, I am in favour of tuition fees, not least because the taxpayer simply cannot afford to fund the entire cost of a higher education system that is internationally competitive. I am also in favour of grants made available to support those who cannot afford to pay, so that nobody is barred from higher education by the inability to pay. But I am  not in favour of a loans-based system, not least because the delayed payment makes the student less conscious of the quality or  good value (or otherwise) of the education she or he is being offered, and because it appears to absolve the state from bothering with higher education funding at all.

The debt bubble connected with property triggered a severe global recession towards the end of the last decade. It is time to think again about the funding of  higher education.