Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

The philosopher’s stone

October 9, 2017

Outside of the world of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, little attention is probably paid these days to the philosopher’s stone, or indeed the study of alchemy from which it derived. Even if we don’t now want to focus on the ostensible chemical transformation suggested by the concept (of base metals into gold or silver), alchemy provided an interesting framework for the study of life, enlightenment and perfection. Studies of alchemy provided early insights into both science and philosophy, as well as what we might now regard as more doubtful journeys into the esoteric and the occult.

What is interesting about all this is that in earlier periods of history scholars often had a much greater desire to understand more of the totality of knowledge than many would aspire to today, or indeed would be encouraged to pursue. The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for example, who also wrote learned works on physics, political science, law and theology in the 17th and 18th centuries, did not accept the constraints of single-subject expertise. He even developed some of the foundations of modern computing.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity have been the subject of attention in this blog before. But perhaps a starting point for us now might be to give more space to philosophical reflection in all areas of learning, to create a sense of understanding of how different areas of knowledge connect and how they can either underpin or endanger our sense of values. It is perhaps time to ensure that all people, at key stages of their educational formation, are exposed to the major strands of philosophy. In this way education can be what it needs to be, the alchemy that turns knowledge into wisdom.


Avoiding excessive student debt

October 2, 2017

Last year in Ireland the Cassells Report (Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education) offered three options for funding higher education. The third of these (deferred payment of fees through income-contingent loans) was clearly seen as the best option, as it appeared to provide the most realistic proposal that might actually lead to more resources for universities and colleges; the other two options were nice in theory, but required the state to spend more on higher education, which it has not shown much inclination to do.

Now however the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, has ruled out student loans as the way forward,  as he does not want a system that would leave students re-paying substantial debts. In my own opinion, the Taoiseach is right. I am not keen on the Australian/English model, and nor apparently is the British Prime Minister, much. The levels of debt that the English system is causing amongst young people is a real problem, as it has been in Australia, where massive sums remain unpaid.

I believe in fee contributions from those who can afford them, but not fees and loans for all. I doubt that the taxpayer in many countries, or possibly any country, can afford to fund the full cost of a high-quality university system, but the state must pay a substantial part of the cost (more than is the case now in these islands), and those who can afford it must make a contribution. In reality, that is there only way forward; and almost no politician will admit it.

The mysteries of academic recruitment

September 11, 2017

I have no idea on how many occasions I have set on university selection panels to fill academic or other vacancies, both in the various universities in which I have worked and in other institutions. Nor, to be honest, am I sure how often I personally got the decision right or wrong. And yet, these decisions change people’s lives and the destiny of institutions.

There are two key elements in staff recruitment. The first relates to the job specification – i.e. the particulars that are published describing the post and the attributes of the ideal candidate. The second is the selection process, including shortlisting and interviews. Both of these are critical: they contain a vision of the institution and of people who can help it to thrive, but that vision may be faulty, may be affected or undermined by bias or prejudice, and may be applied without proper expertise by those making the selection.

Mostly those taking part in faculty and staff recruitment do so with great care and with a real intention to be objective and fair. But that may not always be enough. Research in the United States has looked at some common criteria used in recruitment and assessed whether they are as helpful as people often believe; and has suggested that at least the early stages of selection (like shortlisting) might be conducted ‘blind’ – i.e. without knowledge of the candidate’s’ names, background and previous educational or institutional affiliations.

For those (like me, as I must admit) who have not tried this approach it may be worth a go. Selection for a university (or any other) job will never be a perfect process in all circumstances, but it should be as fair, transparent and objective as possible.

A degree of brevity

September 5, 2017

When, as a school leaver in Germany in 1972, I contemplated  becoming a student at a German university, one of the key considerations was the likely duration of my studies. The brother of a school friend of mine was at the time studying economics at a well-known German institution. Actually, I don’t really know whether he was studying or whether he was just hanging around, for he had been registered with the university for a cool seven years on the one programme.

In the event I didn’t at the time go to university, and instead became a banking apprentice. Later I moved to Ireland and studied law in Trinity College Dublin. Even there you could at the time find some students who had been able, probably with the support of wealthy parents, to extend their studies considerably, but on the whole your degree course was going to take four years to complete (as is the case to this day in Scotland). Other Irish universities had mostly three-year programmes.

But what is the most appropriate length for an undergraduate university course? What time is needed to acquire information and knowledge, learn to apply critical assessment and become sufficiently skilled to succeed in examinations and assessments? Should this be determined by pedagogy (but how?) or are other considerations also appropriate?

In this context, two former British cabinet ministers (one Labour, one Conservative) have backed suggestions that in order to avoid excessive student debt and financial opportunism by universities degree courses should be reduced in length to two years.  This would ‘accelerate learning’ and bring forward the students’ capacity to earn money.

I do not myself doubt that two-year courses can be done satisfactorily, but not in all cases and circumstances, and not if work experience is to form any part of the design. The worry is not that such ideas are being floated, but rather that we are being invited to consider them solely on material grounds, rather than through an assessment of pedagogy and scholarship and of the most effective way to acquire judgement and skills.  The question is a legitimate one, but there has to be a better debate about the arguments for and against, rather than just about money.

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 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.

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.