Archive for March 2017

The Brexit story

March 29, 2017

On this day the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, will trigger the process that will see the country leave the European Union, implementing the referendum decision of a majority (albeit a narrow one) of the United Kingdom electorate. I am no fanatical supporter of the European Union, but I believe that this decision and its consequences will define Britain for generations to come; and while the result may turn out to be benign, the risks are huge and the pitfalls are many. What more than anything else will make those risks and pitfalls more potent is the continuation of the easy optimism and bizarre over-confidence that has characterised much of the rhetoric of Brexit supporters; alongside their aggression when that is challenged. This process needs to be managed with realism and sensitivity (which includes sensitivity towards those people and those regions, including Scotland, who took a different view of Brexit).

What really must not characterise the Brexit story is the xenophobia and jingoism displayed by some of the more objectionable elements in the media and by some politicians, such as the appalling (but I hope now inconsequential) Mr Nigel Farage. If this story is to have a good ending, the dramatis personae must display generosity of spirit and a willingness to engage with those who think differently. And a message for the UK Prime Minister might be that this is not the same thing as telling these people (such as me) what we should be thinking; it is understanding, and responding generously to, what we actually are thinking.

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The articulation challenge

March 27, 2017

The aim of widening access to higher education has been a public policy priority in a number of countries for some time. The intention is to ensure that a university degree is not seen as a privilege to be claimed primarily by the wealthy, but as an entitlement based on intellectual attainment and ability. How successful this has been in practice is another matter and varies from institution to institution – but overall the participation rate by disadvantaged groups is now much higher than it was a generation ago.

One driver of the widening access agenda has been the practice of articulation. This involves a transfer of students from further education colleges (or equivalent) to universities under arrangements where the college education is counted as relevant to the university degree, therefore allowing students to enter university directly without having to start again. In other words, credit achieved while studying at the college is recognised and counts as credit (and therefore relevant study time) for the course and award at the university. The concept is widely known in a number of countries – in the United States for example it would apply to transfers from community colleges to universities. It helps in the access agenda because even highly talented young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may be reluctant to apply for a university course, and may find a transfer later to a university course to be easier.

Articulation has become a significant feature of Scottish higher education. But it has been observed that not all universities are as active or as successful in pursuing it. Now Professor Peter Scott, Scotland’s first commissioner on fair access to higher education, has according to a report in the Herald newspaper suggested that some universities are not entirely enthusiastic about the practice. The number of students articulating from colleges to universities varies enormously from institution to institution. So for example Glasgow Caledonian University in 2014-15 admitted 1,557 articulating students; of those 57 per cent were admitted with ‘advanced standing’ – that is, the received full credit for their prior college studies. In the case of my own university, 734 articulating students were admitted, of whom 67 per cent were with advanced standing. On the other hand the University of Edinburgh admitted 95 articulating students, and 5 per cent were with advanced stating. In the case of St Andrews University the figures were 29 students and 10 per cent.

In order for articulation to work well certain conditions have to be satisfied. Students need to see the whole articulation journey, from college to university, as a seamless transition in which they are part of the family of both institutions. Staff from both institutions need to believe in the process and to respect each other.  The syllabus in each needs to be aligned to the other. And the student needs to be seen as a valuable member of the learner community in both. If these conditions don’t all exist, the process may not succeed.

But beyond that, for articulation to work we all need to accept that a student who pursues a vocational course in which she or he transfers between further and higher education is doing something of real value in both systems, and that in doing so she or he does not diminish either sector. According to the Herald report, Professor Scott fears that some universities don’t like articulation because they fear it will undermine their standing in league tables. One must hope that this is not a widespread view; it is only when we celebrate articulation that we allow it to flourish.

Fake universities

March 21, 2017

We have all had to get accustomed to ‘fake news’, but we should also pay attention to the rise of fake universities. For those who think this is a minor issue, the global statistics do not support them. It is a feature both of developing and developed countries, and it is surprisingly difficult to police.

Recently India’s University Grants Commission listed 23 fake universities operating in the country.  Neighbouring Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission found 153 illegal or fake institutions. In the United States the Michigan Civil Service Commission has published a list of American institutions whose credentials it does not accept, and it is a long list. A Swedish university has estimated that, worldwide, there are some 2,500 fake universities, some of them with no fixed location at all and ‘hiding in cyberspace’.

The UK also encounters this problem: the Guardian newspaper reported last year that 220 bogus British ‘universities’ have been identified since 2011.  The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has set up an service called ‘Higher Education Degree Datacheck’, which allows employers and various bodies and agencies to check the credentials of an institution (and, for a fee, of the qualifications of a particular graduate). The website tells me, for example, that my own university (Robert Gordon University) is a ‘UK government-recognised university or college which currently gives degree awards’; but that something calling itself ‘International University Robert Gordon’ is not a valid degree-awarding body.

What all this tells us is that the credentials of a university matter. It is all too easy to adopt or make up a university name and then trade with it, exploiting the desire of people to acquire a status with which to better themselves. Some such ‘institutions’ may offer an element of instruction, some may just sell diplomas and degree certificates. But all of them undermine the purpose of education and the validity of higher education qualifications.

It is therefore all the more important that government authorities in all countries operate an effective method of accrediting universities, or institutions permitted to call themselves universities. This is in the vital interests of all legitimate institutions (including private universities). Equally of course it is important to ensure that the conditions attaching to such accreditation do not compromise institutional autonomy; and getting that balance right is not always easy.

But all of this pre-supposes that our understanding of higher education and of the awards of HE institutions remains more or less as we have it now. Technology, globalisation and mobility may yet create an international education and training sector whose aims are not the same as those of traditional universities and whose customers have different expectations of their educational experience and outputs. Some of this activity may be totally legitimate; and maintaining a recognisable international higher education sector that follows traditional patterns may not be altogether easy.

The world today: it’s all about migration

March 14, 2017

Whatever part of the world or country or region you may call your own, the population you share it with got there largely as a result of mass migration. Most of Europe is populated by those whose ancestors took part in the major movements of Völkerwanderung, and populations changed and shifted through major major migration or conquests. No significant country you have ever heard of has had a settled population through the centuries. Nor is this all ancient history – it has been a feature of all centuries, to some extent at least.

One of the consequences of migration has been the internationalisation of learning. Even when there were hardly any efficient methods of transport, scholars and students wandered between centres of education and enriched each other’s cultures. Universities became knowledge exchanges of scholarship and cultures, influencing national development (of which Scotland, from where I write, is an excellent example).

Of course large-scale migration also poses challenges and requires the adoption of sensible policies to manage it. But the desire sometimes expressed in modern times for a recognisably uniform autouchtonous ethnic culture that has uniform traits is not at all an expression of tradition: it contradicts civilised human experience and has the capacity to align itself with tyranny.

Many of our recent global developments have their roots in the fear of migration: Brexit, Donald Trump’s wall, ethnic cleansing. These are not good developments in so far as they are driven by fear and insecurity. Politicians must address this with more wisdom than many have shown; but in particular they must recognise that scholarship and learning cannot thrive within closed borders. And the higher education academy must keep making the case for the shared international experience of the educational community.

Spoiling the party (redux)

March 7, 2017

A postscript to last week’s blog post

Hot on the heels of my comments last week came the publication of a ‘briefing paper’ by the Adam Smith Institute, claiming to have found evidence that ‘individuals with left-wing and liberal views are overrepresented in British academia’. This conclusion is based on some at best very arguable analysis, and an interesting riposte can be found in this post by anonymous blogger ‘Plashing Vole’.

Curiously the ‘briefing paper’ declares its author to be one Noah Carl, while elsewhere on the Adam Smith Institute’s website we are told it is Ben Southwood, head of research at the institute. No matter. Whoever it is, the author lost me right at the beginning, because he (assuming the author is male anyway) makes certain assumptions about how to identify where someone is on the left-right axis: assumptions which would place, say, France’s Marine Le Pen firmly on the left. And then at the end he lost me one last time by beginning the final sentence with the words ‘going forward’, an expression I would ideally like to see prohibited by law.

The key problem with the paper is that it draws conclusions from materials which would not pass muster in any decent piece of research. The main source used by the paper for its conclusions regarding party support amongst academics is a 2015 online poll open to anyone with a university email address. The author allows that this would include administrative and support staff; but of course it also includes students and, in the case of some universities, all alumni. While the poll was not uninteresting, you could not possibly use it to draw scholarly conclusions.

The analysis of this paper would not stand up to much scrutiny, and some of the passages are ludicrous (in particular that assessing the relevance of intelligence or IQ scores). For all that, in his conclusions (until he gets to the execrable ‘going forward’) he does make some valid points. The freedom of intellectual and philosophical thought that all academics must support – and which must absolutely rule out measures such as those proposed by Iowa States Senator Mark Chelgren (discussed in the last post) – should lead us all to seek to engage with views contrary to our own, and to treat them with a degree of respect. This is why ‘no-platform’ policies are unacceptable, and why an atmosphere in which dissent from received doctrine is discouraged should not be tolerated in a university. But then again, we must remember that in some disciplines, including areas in the social sciences (for example a number of economics departments), the received doctrine may not be leftwing at all.

The academy must always host an exchange of ideas, and must welcome ideas particularly when, to the majority, they are in fact most unwelcome.