Archive for May 2017

Students first?

May 22, 2017

A survey in the United States of America has found that ‘nearly three out of five Americans believe that higher-education leaders put the long-term interests of their institutions first over the needs of students.’ This is, I suppose, a variant of the view held by some in this part of the world that managerialist higher education leaders prioritise business projects over educational excellence.

Whether or not that charge is justified, it is obviously true that universities are finding it necessary to implement a profitable business model to ensure institutional sustainability, and not just where income for institutions comes from private sources rather than from government funding. Tight public funding also requires universities to deploy entrepreneurial creativity.

The nirvana of universities receiving generous financial support from the taxpayer on a demand-led basis is not one we will experience again – it is an impossible scenario in a setting of mass higher education. A university business plan is not of itself a denial of academic values. But it does make it ever more important that institutional values are clearly expressed, reinforced and widely applied. The needs of students must always be one of the most important; if we marginalise this, we have lost all purpose. And if students believe we have done so, we have an urgent need to put that right.

The literacy imperative

May 15, 2017

The history of social progress, of public health, of prosperity has all been closely connected with the advance of literacy. Societies with high literacy rates are capable of social and technological progress that evades those with low literacy. The fact, for example, that the Central African Republic has a literacy rate of 37 per cent, while in Germany it is 100 per cent, gives you a very close idea of the difference in wellbeing between the two countries.

Literacy itself has become more complex. It has always been discussed alongside numeracy (which in turn strongly affects scientific capacity), but increasingly literacy is seen to include digital literacy in the information technology age. But even ‘traditional’ literacy is not always straightforward: employers in western developed countries often complain that people looking for employment are inarticulate and unskilled in basic writing tasks. In explaining this state of affairs it is sometimes suggested that ‘progressive’ learning methods have undermined literacy. For the generation entering school in the 1970s and 1980s, children were often given books in which, without basic spelling and phonetic instruction, they were encouraged to associate written words with pictures and related context (a programme known as ‘real books’). But this, it is argued, makes literacy depend on remembering how words ‘look’ rather than the ability to make connections between combinations of letters and sounds. It has been suggested by some that this pedagogical fashion did at least instil in young people a respect for and love of books; though whether it supported basic literacy is more questionable.

I do not myself belong to the tribe of nostalgia pedlars who believe there was a golden age (probably in the 1950s) when everyone could read and write perfectly. It was never perfect. Nevertheless, we do well to keep a real focus on literacy, because so much else depends on it. The attainment gap between rich and poor is directly connected with literacy.

Those who think that graduates today lack literacy often blame the universities. There are certain remedial initiatives that universities can undertake to help students who enter higher education with literacy problems, but overall the issue needs to be addressed at a much earlier age if such methods are to be effective. In Scotland the government is supporting some pilot programmes in primary schools to improve vocabulary – and that is where the initiatives need to be undertaken.

Science: on the march or in retreat?

May 8, 2017

In around 600 locations around the world, on 22 April 2017, there were demonstrations described as ‘marches for science’. These marches were organised to make the following point:

‘We marched because science is critical to our health, economies, food security, and safety. We marched to defend the role of science in policy and society.’

More specifically, the organisers wanted to reinforce one of the key characteristics of an enlightened society, that public policy (and other) decisions should be taken on the basis of evidence.

Less than two weeks later in the United States of America, the Environmental Protection Agency has dismissed from its scientific review board all its academic members, replacing them with representatives of the industries that the EPA was set up to regulate.

In the development and implementation of environmental policy there are, as in all areas of scientific investigation, reasons for ensuring that points of view contradicting received wisdom are given consideration. But in this as in every other area, such consideration should be based on evidence rather than assertion, and certainly should not overlook the vested interests of those expressing the points of view in question.

Social, scientific and cultural enlightenment was not won easily through the course of human history. It is very easily lost. Universities have a very special responsibility to make the case – the unarguable case – that clear evidence should be sought and given priority in all matters of public policy. Dismissing from view those able to provide that evidence should and must be seen as a scandal, to be highlighted as such.