Archive for August 2017

The technology problem

August 28, 2017

As has been noted previously in this blog, there are differing opinions on the extent to which universities should develop education strategies to provide skills needed in the economy. Some of those who might be sceptical about such strategies argue that universities should not be vocational training institutions; some point out that we don’t really know what skills will be needed a few years from now, so that universities should not try to meet every passing request for specific skills training. Then again others will point out that shortages of people with particular degree qualifications will influence key corporate investment decisions; and this might suggest that universities should recognise the need for graduates in specific disciplines.

Ever since the dot.com bubble burst some 16 years ago, schools and parents have become cautious about advising your people to take degrees in subjects such as computing and software engineering. Over the past 10 years or so this has led to a growing number of vacancies in the IT industry in the United Kingdom and Ireland, seen as a key industry with the ability to secure economic growth. So it is being described as a matter of concern that the number of students applying to take relevant subjects continues to be lower than desired. This has recently been again reported as a serious problem in Ireland, and in England the same problem is thought to be growing due to the inadequate number of GCSE pupils taking computing classes in schools.

It is of course right that universities must play a longer game and that they cannot just redirect their resources to meet changing demands of industry or government. General and transferable soft skills will always remain important. But ever since universities initiated what are essentially vocational disciplines – such as engineering, accounting, law, and so forth – they cannot easily suggest that equipping students with profession-specific skills is not part of their mission. But then again, universities cannot meet these demands if pupils leave schools not well prepared for courses that address society’s specific needs. Solving this problem will need intervention much earlier in the education system.

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Making the grade too easily?

August 21, 2017

It’s mid-summer, and so of course it’s the time of year for breathless comments about grade inflation in universities, and particularly about the number of students being awarded a top grade in their final examinations and assessments. This year again we are told that ‘one third of UK universities and colleges awarded the top grade to at least a quarter of their students.’ Indeed English universities are to expect the British government to initiate ‘a crackdown on the rapidly increasing proportion of top degrees being awarded by universities’.

Grade inflation, in so far as it is an issue, is not restricted to any particular country or system; indeed whatever grade inflation there may be in these islands is not so significant when compared with grade inflation elsewhere. And as it happens, some of the most serious grade inflation, over a protracted period of time going back to the 1940s, has been in the United States, and is continuing into the present time). Indeed this has reached a point where some American educators are pointing out that there is no longer any objective way in which the grades of really excellent students can numerically be distinguished from those who are merely good, because an increasingly large percentage of results is clustered around the top of the range of marks.

In reality this does not particularly tell us that unmerited grades are being awarded, but rather that there may not be an adequate consensus around various pedagogical issues including assessment methods and outputs. Should grades reflect performance, measured as objectively as possible, or should they separate a top-performing elite making up a fixed percentage of students (say, 10 per cent) from everyone else, regardless of the extent to which all these students meet any criteria for excellence?

In the end, the noise in the system around grade inflation may encourage us to ask more significant educational questions about what exactly it is we want a university education to provide and how we want to assess their performance and skills. If that is what we get from all this it will be a good thing. But if we remain stuck in the groove of claims and counter-claims about trends in examination results we are unlikely to address the real pedagogical issues. What we probably need least of all is politicians declaring from outside the system how many students (whose performance they have not seen) merit a top grade.

An educated vote?

August 14, 2017

Research on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum in the United Kingdom has apparently revealed that ‘university-educated British people tend to vote consistently across the U.K. for remain’ – as areas with higher proportions of graduates voted more heavily against Brexit. The researchers have claimed that if there had been just 3 per cent more graduates, the referendum outcome would have been different.

I am, as readers of this blog know, increasingly dismayed at what the Brexit vote has done to Britain (and may yet do), but that is not the point of this post. Rather, it is the more general question about the status, if there is a particular one, of education in the political process. University constituencies – in which graduates are the voters – existed in the United Kingdom until 1950, and still exist in Ireland in Seanad Eireann (the ‘Senate’). The latter constituencies in Ireland have elected Senators of some note, including the last three Presidents of Ireland at some points in their careers.

We may believe that education equips its students with judgement and insight, and so it may seem right to give graduates some special opportunities to exercise that judgement politically. But we also believe in democracy, which requires us to value the judgement of all people equally when it comes to electoral decision-making. We have also not adopted the view – not yet, at any rate – that all citizens should receive a university education, so we should not welcome a system that implies second class status for those who are not graduates.

I guess that if a higher participation rate in higher education would have produced a different Brexit referendum outcome, then I might have wanted a higher participation rate. But I am uneasy with my own conclusion. I am reluctant to argue that those who have not enjoyed my privileges are less worthy of having their voices heard. And as we try to decide how far into the population higher education should expand, these are questions we must also address. There is no easy answer.

Erosion of support for higher education?

August 7, 2017

One of the points of wide consensus in the world over recent decades was the desirability of extending higher education to a much greater number of people, both so as to create a more equitable society and to ensure that high level skills were available to the economy.

Recent debates may be starting to call that consensus into question. In the United States universities have increasingly come to be seen as being part of the liberal political cluster, and their value has accordingly been called into question by some on the conservative wing of politics. In the UK and elsewhere criticism of pay and conditions for senior managers has become widespread, giving universities a bad press.

Opposition to universities is not on the whole based on arguments against higher education, but on dissatisfaction with this or that attribute or practice of the sector. This has the capacity to put at risk support for educational excellence at tertiary level, which would have more serious implications. Universities should therefore consider it a priority to look at how they are perceived by society (or sections of it), and how they can steer the system back to where a broad consensus supporting higher education can be found. This is vital for any number of economic and social reasons.

Foolish, in anyone’s language

August 1, 2017

The benefit and the curse of living in an English-speaking country is that so many people around the world speak some English – we have come to expect that of them. And so it doesn’t seem so surprising that, in this case in Scotland, over ten years there has been a drop of 59 per cent in the number of school pupils taking foreign languages, with only Spanish seeing an increase. The same trend has been observed for a while in England, and all this has had a predictable impact on universities.

There are countless reasons why this is not good news. We may be able to order our pizzas in Tuscany without learning Italian and order our Volkswagens in English, but success in global interactions is critically enhanced by understanding other peoples’ cultures, particularly including their languages. A Chinese colleague once told me that winning in business dealings with British and American businesspeople is made so much easier by their lack of linguistic and cultural awareness.

This trend can be stopped, but such action has to be led visibly and audibly by government and the business community. Right now that is not happening. It needs to happen.