Archive for May 2018

What do you want from your university? Skills, knowledge? Or just a degree?

May 14, 2018

There is no shortage of studies suggesting that university graduates benefit significantly from their qualification as they progress through their careers. In 2015 it was suggested that the value of a university degree could be as much as £500,000 over a lifetime. If this is true, it is still not really clear what exactly confers this additional cash benefit: the knowledge acquired during studies? The skills, vocation-specific or transferable? Or is it maybe just the actual degree certificate, as an entry qualification into higher-paying jobs?

As long as we are committed to the degree as the currency of higher education qualification we run the risk of maintaining a club, even if the membership of that club has been growing. The degree certificate is the membership card. We can argue all we like about what universities should be doing pedagogically if all the student, or for that matter the employer, cares about is the piece of paper.

University degree programmes have a fairly high level of structured uniformity. They require student participation over a fixed period (though the visible extent of that participation on a day-to-day basis may vary greatly), with a small number of fixed entry and exit points. There is some flexibility for those using non-traditional versions of the product, such as distance or online learning, but the model is still recognisably the same. This may be appropriate (and continue to be so) for school leavers, but is this uniformity necessary for a mature learner population or others using higher education in a non-traditional way?

The time may have come to re-consider the importance of degrees as the sole quality mark of higher education, because doing so may allow us to focus much more on the content and purpose of what we teach rather than the formal framework in which learning takes place.  Such a review may be even more appropriate in the light of recent doubts as to whether university degrees really do still confer the financial rewards once considered certain. It may be that in 2018 university degrees do not need to be the sole, or even main, offering in our institutions. It is at least worth a discussion.

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You say you want a revolution…

May 7, 2018

Anyone following contemporary debates about the future of work and civilisation will, sooner or later (and very probably sooner), be listening to comments about the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’. It’s everywhere, and while its exact meaning may not always be clear, what is constantly repeated is that it is happening now and is changing absolutely everything. Everything is being digitised, brought online, automated, and subjugated to robotics. Your job and mine will go, we will be replaced by machines that will not only do the job better, but will also understand better than we can how the job needs to evolve. The jobs we may apply for 10 years from now don’t on the whole exist yet, so we can’t properly prepare for them, and the best we can do is acquire every possible transferable skill and find out what will still need real human interaction; unless robots get better than us at that too. And watch that toaster, it’s online, smart, and may be planning to do away with you so it can watch daytime TV rather than bother with your nutrition.

That sort of thing.

As with everything else, the best thing to do when you encounter breathless hype is to take a step back and think about what you are being told. There is no doubt that the digital world is moving at a fast pace and is changing how we do things: how we communicate, how we analyse, how we adapt our technology to improve safety and efficiency, how we access news. The ‘internet of things’ is creating smart gadgets and appliances. Big data is yielding insights and solutions that eluded us in the past.

But the use of science and technology to effect social and industrial change is not new, nor are we now witnessing profound and speedy change for the first time in history. The development of the printing press and the use of paper to allow high-volume dissemination of its outputs probably produced a bigger social upheaval than anything we are seeing today: suddenly information and knowledge were no longer the private property of the elite, and absolutely everything changed. The (first) Industrial Revolution totally changed the way we live and work, in particular by opening up mass transport and urbanisation, putting an end to agrarian societies with feudal structures, and ushering in the age of capitalism with its attendant consequences, good and bad. The two world wars of the 20th century changed global politics beyond recognition. Contraception changed social interaction and opened up the workforce.

It may be interesting to observe that while a typical person, not from any social elite, would have had a fundamentally different life in the 19th century from what a similar person might have had 100 years earlier, the life we live now is not so fundamentally different from that experienced in the post-war 20th century. The technology has changed and allows us to do things that we couldn’t have done before or which would have been much more laborious, but socially and culturally our experiences are still recognisably similar. What is it that makes us think that the next few years will be so totally different?

We have always been bad at predicting the future, particularly where technology is involved. This is in part because we sometimes predict the future with the same kind of sensibility we apply to science fiction, including the desire to get a thrill from something really horrible. So when Elon Musk makes our flesh creep at the prospect of the spread of malignant artificial intelligence, he is tapping into the same fascination that gave us the Terminator movie franchise a couple of decades earlier. And to be honest, I’ve got sick of the statement (by now a real cliché) that 40% (or whatever your preferred percentage is) of jobs in demand in 10 years time don’t exist today. Well, maybe they don’t, but history doesn’t support this proposition: what job known to you now didn’t exist 10 years ago? Jobs may change in what they demand of those doing them, but that is a natural process of evolution.

This blog post is not an invitation to go into denial about the pace of change today. There is of course a huge technological, digital, fast-paced evolution taking place. Google, Amazon, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla – even the possibly departed Cambridge Analytica – are changing all sorts of things in our lives. But how adapt to that, and how we reform society to contain the risks, are issues to be debated and decided in a sober frame of mind. In that process, we do well to look at some of the social fundamentals, such as how we can protect the integrity of truth in the face of all-out assaults by those wanting to manipulate us, and perhaps worry a little less about what our toaster might get up to. Even if the latter is more fun, in a Hitchcockian sort of way.

Icon of another age

May 2, 2018

If he were still alive, Ralf Dahrendorf would have celebrated his 89th birthday yesterday.

I fear that many readers of this blog will not know who he was, but Dahrendorf was a key political and intellectual figure of the second half of the 20th century. He was born in Hamburg in 1929, and in the course of a full life he was active in the anti-Nazi resistance (and was sent to a concentration camp in consequence), became a German politician (in the Free Democratic Party), was a European Commissioner, was appointed Director of the London School of Economics and later Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and was a Research Professor in Berlin. He was awarded national honours in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom; in Britain he became a life peer, taking the title Lord Dahrendorf of Clare Market. He died in Germany in 2009.

As a writer and thinker, Dahrendorf engaged strongly with different political traditions, focusing on social equality and integration in his key works. His analysis of this is contained in his seminal bookClass and Class Conflict in Industrial Society.

The political and intellectual tradition to which Dahrendorf belonged and which informed his thinking has not fared well since his death. I suspect he would have been horrified by Trump and Brexit, but also by the language and actions of those making up the opposition to both. We now have an angry society that looks everywhere for treachery and deceit, and has little time for cohesion and a common purpose.

It would be good if Ralf Dahrendorf, and others like him, were not forgotten.