Archive for November 2017

Fearing the future

November 14, 2017

If like me you enjoy science fiction or drama based in the future, you will of course be well used to the assumption that it’s all going to be terrible. The future is dystopian, flesh-eating zombies are everywhere, authoritarian régimes play with people’s lives, machines have perfected AI and have become totally malevolent, the UK leaves the EU. Trust me, if this is it you really don’t want to experience anything much beyond tomorrow lunchtime.

It’s all good fun of course, and none of those things may actually happen. And yet our futurology tells us much about who we are right now, and what we fear. Orwell’s 1984 was not really prediction or even a warning: it was an assessment of the world from the perspective of 1948.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, many people were enthralled by visions of the future presented by the cartoonist Arthur Radebaugh, who in a series of images presented his idea of a world of the future which, interestingly, was quite prescient. A good few of his predictions have come true or may come true before long. Other would-be prophets may not always have been quite so good at telling the future. But the interesting thing is that most of the predictions, good or bad, have always been about how far technology will advance.

And in the universities, are we ready for the future, or do we fear it? The website fastcompany.com recently made what it described as ‘5 bold predictions for the future of higher education’. The common element in these predictions is the idea that we will continue to develop what we are developing now, but at a faster pace. Not one of these predictions is particularly ‘bold’.

So for those of us working on strategies for a future we don’t yet know for sure, what approach should we take? Should we apply a popular futurology approach and assume it’s going to be a dystopia for higher education, as much as for everyone else? Or should we just assume that it’s all going to be super-charged educational technology? Or is something more interesting than all that waiting for us? And how can we tell?

Of course education will adopt new technology, but that isn’t really the point of interest. The fascination a couple of years ago with MOOCs demonstrated a poverty of understanding of education. Education can be enhanced by method, but it isn’t about method. Rather it is about our understanding of knowledge, its uses and its values. This is the debate about the future that we need to have. Whether  the professor in a 2030 classroom is a robot hovering on a magnetic disc may be a fun topic of conversation but is totally irrelevant to the debate.

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Re-discovering confidence in higher education

November 6, 2017

I recently had a drink with a man who works for a think tank. I have known him for some time, as I gave him his first job, some years ago, in the university where I then worked. He enjoyed a promising academic career, and was promoted twice. But then he left university life. Why? Because, as he told me, it had become too depressing. The institutional culture had become toxic (to use his word), resources were never forthcoming to support the things he wanted to do, and the world outside had become increasingly critical of what universities did. Why, he asked, would anyone want to stay in that? Why be part of a system that was increasingly ill-at-ease with itself and the world it was in?

It is, you may think, the kind of message we hear all too often these days. And yet, his diagnosis of what was wrong was a little different. When he outlined his problems with ‘institutional culture’, he was not thinking of what people normally complain about: creeping managerialism or the excessive commercialisation of the academy. He was complaining about, well, the culture of non-stop complaining. Meetings, he said, were too often battlegrounds on which aggressive combatants targeted their enemies, both in the room and somewhere outside. External pressures were met with trench-warfare resistance rather than imagination and insight.

My friend’s key concern about higher education was that, in his view, it is a system that has lost confidence in itself; perversely, because actually it is doing rather well. But the drumroll of criticism has overpowered all the obvious signals of progress and innovation. It’s not that universities were failing, he suggested; it just wasn’t much fun any more to be there. And on top of that, he suggested, it had become increasingly difficult to voice your opinions.

The latter issue, that of free speech, has been raised in this blog on several occasions before. An anonymous academic writing recently for the Guardian‘s Higher Education Network blog, commented as follows:

‘For me, university is not a place where I can speak my mind. It is a place where I teach facts, present evidence and introduce a diverse range of other people’s attitudes. I seldom, if ever, make my personal opinions known, fearing accusations of bias and – ironically – of stifling free speech. It’s dehumanising to feel that I cannot be honest with my students.’

This, again – if the complaint is at all well founded – signals a culture in which intellectual creativity is stifled, sometimes by the system, sometimes by managers no doubt, sometimes even by students.

The common feature of all of this is a failure of confidence in the objectives and values of higher education, a reluctance to believe that what we do still matters and that academic idealism still has a place. It is no doubt hard to hold on to that when you feel under pressure and when you don’t recognise your values in the system in which you work. It is easy to slip into profound negativity; easy, but not good.

Now that it has become popular for populist commentators to criticise universities, it is the more important that the university community responds with a robust restatement of the importance of knowledge and learning; and that, internally, it behaves like a community with a common purpose and, externally, it presents an optimistic message for society.