Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

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.


EdTech: something so important nobody is talking about it. Yet.

April 9, 2018

A couple of years ago I suggested in an interview that university education had, in its basic methodology, hardly changed since the Middle Ages. I was of course being deliberately provocative and was exaggerating my argument, but nevertheless I did believe that I was making a valid point. Over the next few days I was met with howls of indignation, some of them in public and in print, from colleagues in other institutions who said my assertions were ludicrous; and who listed the zillions of things that had changed in universities since Thomas Aquinas had paced the lecture rooms of the University of Paris in 1250. Certainly he wasn’t holding an iPad as he paced, and he was never having to address the attentions of the Quality Assurance Agency. He might even have been quite unable to explain the nature and purpose of a MOOC. You get the idea.

None of that of course was my point, and me being me, I probably expressed myself badly. I certainly wasn’t out to insult anyone, as I have nothing but respect for those who labour in the vineyards of academia, and who do not get the recognition they deserve. What I was trying to convey was that we were using the same pedagogical understanding of our educational process as in the Middle Ages, and that while we may have adopted various new methods of communication and technology, these did not change our understanding of what was involved in teaching and learning. I don’t believe that even the adoption of ‘learning outcomes’ changes the game fundamentally.

So what we have, mostly, is a new technological portfolio sitting on top of traditional pedagogy. But because the technology is now so ground-breakingly different, it is becoming more and more important to have a proper insight into how disruptive this can be. The thinking that has emerged so far, usually contained under the heading of EdTech (which however covers education at all levels, not just higher education), has tended to be driven more by industry than by academia. More interestingly, it has become an increasingly fertile terrain for entrepreneurs and start-ups. Now interest by governments is emerging, and with it the potential for some funding; though it is not at all clear yet where that funding will actually go.

It has been a recurrent theme of this blog that we need much deeper thinking on pedagogy. This is as true in EdTech as anywhere else; but it should be a call to universities to take that on and accept the potential benefits of technology that may disrupt our traditional understanding of education; and to own the policy ideas that underpin it.

Open and shut?

March 26, 2018

People of my generation, and perhaps of my night time tendency to be awake, will probably have memories of the Open University as a provider of sometimes rather dry lectures on this and that academic subject in the late hours, occasionally with rather dodgy background sets. I was never an Open University student, but I watched a lot of Open University programmes on the BBC.

But for many people, the Open University was not something so casual. It was a key part of the then government’s drive to democratise education and create a more productive economy, with Prime Minister Harold Wilson as the key driver of this policy. Generations of students, many of whom would previously have had little opportunity to get a university degree, were now able to avail of higher education in conditions they could manage.

Now it appears that all of that may be at risk. As part of a major cost-cutting exercise to ensure the institution has a sustainable business model, measures are being taken which, according to some staff, will leave the OU as a digital online provider of higher education. Significant faculty dissent is being expressed, and some have asked whether the institution as a whole may now be vulnerable.

I have no standing to express a view on the rights and wrongs of current measures proposed in the OU. But I can say that the Open University pioneered an approach to higher education that has been of immense social and pedagogical importance, and that while the university system as a whole has changed enormously since 1969, the OU is still a vital part of it. Indeed the model has been copied elsewhere, as in the case for example of the University of South Africa (UNISA), which like the OU has gained an international footprint.

It is of real importance that the Open University continues to exist and to thrive.

What exactly is teaching?

March 12, 2018

My generation of academic has learned to expect a constant re-assessment of what it is we actually do once we are in the classroom, or indeed during any moment of our professional activities. We used to say pretty confidently that we were ‘teaching’. During the late 1980s and into the 1990s it became absolutely necessary to describe classroom engagement as ‘teaching and learning’, which in some cases became ‘learning and teaching’. A more recent expert view has been that what academics do is ‘facilitate a learning environment’.

As we have recently seen in England, teaching (or teaching and learning, or whatever you prefer) is now seen by some as a contractual activity that promises (or at least may promise) particular outcomes, including reputation and career. This perspective of teaching as outcome-driven bargain sits uneasily with the idea of self-motivated and ‘facilitated’ learning favoured in much contemporary pedagogy.

There are lots of things we have, as a profession, never really decided. Do we still need lectures (given the widespread availability of virtually all information online)? Should all teaching now be in small groups? What are students entitled to expect or indeed demand from institutions and their faculty?

However all of this is resolved, let us hope it is not in the courts, because that is probably the least good way of settling these questions of contemporary higher education.

Where would you find the higher education elite?

February 27, 2018

Last year the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) identified excellence in teaching and learning in United Kingdom universities. When the results were published, a frequent observation in the media, as in this case, was that many ‘elite UK universities’ had been found to be less than excellent. My purpose in reminding readers of this is not to pursue an argument for or against TEF, but rather to ask why particular universities should be classified as ‘elite’, particularly when the narrative is just suggesting that they are not.

Ask anyone to name the world’s ‘elite’ universities, and no doubt without much hesitation they’ll come up with Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, Yale, Princeton – you recognise the sort of institution likely to be suggested. For the avoidance of doubt, let me stress that these are great universities, and that they have many impressive academics and very smart students. But why would we say they are part of an ‘elite’?

The problem with this form of intuitive ranking is that it is self-perpetuating. When we say that Cambridge is an elite university, we don’t mean that all the evidence suggests it is so, but rather that we know it is so because this is what has been handed down through the generations. This assumption is made and recycled so effectively that the university is able to gather up very smart and ambitious students, willing donors, media supporters and so forth, to the the point where any argument that it is not in the elite will sound absurd to most.

The consequences of this reach into society and the economy and perpetuate all sorts of things we’d rather not have, including significant social inequalities.

But it need not be so. Recently Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University and recognised as one of higher education’s most innovative leaders, pointed out in a speech to the US National Governors Association that intelligence is not reserved for students in Ivy League institutions, and that many of the smartest people are in other universities less often associated with the elite. This is not just the case, but needs to be more vigorously asserted if we are to be successful in securing a more open and equal society in which access to influence, money and power is not a form of club membership. And it may be time to think again about the metrics used to determine how close your institution and mine may be to ‘elite’ status.

Finding value in higher education

February 19, 2018

Today the British government launched a new review of English higher education, the aim being ‘to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone’. This review has been heavily trailed for some time, and appears to be based on a sense of uneasiness with the existing framework. One particular angle was given expression by the Prime Minister in her speech announcing the review: she suggested that higher education was influenced by ‘outdated attitudes’, and that in particular there was too much much of a tendency to maintain a gulf between higher and further education.

The terms of reference of the review set out further concerns with the existing system:

‘… The system has encouraged growth in three-year degrees for 18 year-olds, but does not offer a comprehensive range of high quality alternative routes for the many young people who pursue a technical or vocational path at this age. The majority of universities charge the maximum possible fees for at least some of their courses and three-year courses remain the norm. Average levels of graduate debt have increased, but this has not always led to higher wage returns for all graduates. And the system does not comprehensively deliver the advanced technical skills that our economy needs.’

In the meantime, the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds MP, in a television interview on Sunday suggested that a problem with the current system in England was its pricing uniformity: as the BBC reported, he suggested that tuition fees should reflect each degree’s value to society:

‘What we need to look at is the different aspects of pricing – the cost that it is to put on the course, the value that it is to the student and also the value to our society as a whole and to our economy for the future.’

This again raises a number of questions about the value of higher education, and how that should relate to is cost. This is a complex issue in a system that bases university funding on tuition fees paid by students, but in a tightly regulated framework. Higher education in England is not a market (which few in the UK would want it to be), in the sense that universities cannot base their fees on supply and demand. But if not a market, then what? It is not offered as a social service, either. Indeed, it is much easier to say what it is not than to suggest what, in public policy terms, it actually is.

So the problem with the expectations that this new review may raise is that it is unclear what political perspective the UK government wants to adopt to inform its higher education strategy. Some of what we know is laudable: the drive for more participation by disadvantaged groups, for example. But it is hard to see an overall philosophical direction in the government’s pronouncements and actions.

In fairness, many (and not just the UK government) struggle to articulate and pursue a clear higher education policy. Is it all about protecting and resourcing a public good? Is it about recognising the benefits to the individual of a degree and extracting a contribution from that individual? Is it about meeting society’s skills needs? Back in 1963 the Robbins report set out a clear vision of turning what had been a benefit for the elite into a national resource. The sheer success of that vision eventually made its continued development difficult, because of the enormous cost involved. It will be interesting to see whether this new review, chaired by City equities broker Philip Augar, is able to make a significant contribution to finding a new vision that is based on a coherent outlook and is capable of being implemented successfully.

Frankly, that is quite a challenge.

A learning society?

February 5, 2018

Since about the late 1980s, one of the key assumptions of all higher education planning has been that university education would not in future be mainly focused on the learner progression of school leavers but would be available to people at various stages of their lives and for different reasons. The concept of ‘lifelong learning’ was born, and it informed a good bit of education policy over the ensuing decades.

But has something changed? In the reporting of a noticeable drop in university applications in Ireland just now, one element of this that has received special mention is the decline in applications by mature students. This has been put down in part to the current economic recovery, which it is suggested has made continuing education less attractive to those already in employment.

But this decline in mature student numbers has not been unique to Ireland. In England the decline has been attributed to the impact of tuition fees.

Whatever the reason, if we are going to see fewer mature students (usually referred to as ‘adult learners’ in the United States) then this will have an impact on planning in higher education at various levels. It is time to re-state what public policy actually is in this area, and how it can best be realised.