Archive for the ‘higher education’ category

The skills debate – an intervention from South-East Asia

June 26, 2018

In a recent post on this blog I looked at the developing discussion around skills, and how universities should respond. In the meantime, Singapore’s Education Minister, Ong Ye Kung, has suggested that the city state should have a multi-pathway model of post-secondary education and training. Part of this will be run through a new state agency called SkillsFuture, which is offering high-potential qualifications not involving a university degree.

There is an additional point to be observed in Singapore’s approach. The Minister wants schools to stream pupils ‘according to their inclinations’ regarding science, creative arts or IT. The idea behind the Minister’s approach is to stabilise careers. The general assumption is most developed countries is that those entering the labour force in future will not remain with one employer but will have a ‘portfolio’ of careers. The Minister does not want this for Singapore’s workforce.

All of this indicates again that the debate about skills, education and training has really only just begun, and governments, their agencies and educational institutions may not all be making the same assumptions and pursuing the same pedagogical goals. Indeed whether this matters is not yet clear either.

Call the doctor

June 18, 2018

In the circles in which I once moved when I was still an active law lecturer, one of the regular questions colleagues from the United States of America would ask is whether, with a J.D. degree (‘Juris Doctor‘), they were entitled to style themselves ‘Dr’. This often led to long discussions about how academic qualifications should be used by their holders to declare their status.

I was awarded my own Ph.D. in 1982, and to be honest I immediately had my university letterhead amended to include my new title. And when I had done that I felt slightly sheepish, and for the rest of my career tended to avoid reference to my doctorate except in necessary contexts (as on my curriculum vitae).

Anyway, over the past few days there has been something of a Twitterstorm about academic doctorates. It began with the historian Fern Riddell, who last week tweeted as follows:

‘My title is Dr Fern Riddell, not Ms or Miss Riddell. I have it because I am an expert, and my life and career consist of being that expert in as many different ways as possible. I worked hard to earn my authority, and I will not give it up to anyone.’

This earned her a number of critical responses, some saying that she was arrogant and was holding herself out to be better than others. But Dr Riddell was having none of that, and started the hashtag #ImmodestWomen. So before you could say ‘trending’ her tweet produced a tsunami of others, mostly women, proclaiming their entitlement to publish their academic status. Though somewhere in there we also had a man – a surgeon – proudly proclaiming his status as ‘Mr’, which as you know is the title of qualification and honour for that profession.

So there are two issues caught up in this. The first is to do with recognising and proclaiming expertise; the second is about recognising women as equally meriting such recognition.

Regarding the first of these, I guess that someone with long training and established expertise in some field outside of the academy might ask why academics merit titular recognition where others don’t. This might be less of an issue in other cultures, where titles more routinely display status in non-academic professions: ‘Herr Direktor’, ‘Frau Oberamtsrat’. But in British (or indeed Irish) society, should academic qualifications uniquely be attached to a name, where other qualifications are not?

On the other hand, in the context of gender it has taken a long time for women to secure easy recognition of expertise and leadership in universities; even now it is not unusual for heavily qualified women to be treated unequally and unfairly- sexism in the academy is far from dead, as a previous post by guest blogger Dr Anna Notaro also found.

So, on balance, I say to the #ImmodestWomen, go for it, claim what is your right.

Brexit and higher education – the Irish question resolved?

June 11, 2018

Intractable discussions about how to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland may be continuing, but one element of the relationship between Ireland and the UK post-Brexit appears to be capable of a positive resolution. At a recent meeting in London which I also attended, Sam Gyimah, the UK Minister of State for Universities, stated that the British government would continue to treat Irish students as domestic students for tuition fee purposes, provided that the Irish Government reciprocated and also classified British students as domestic students in Ireland.

Of course Mr Gyimah can in these discussions only speak for England, and we must wait and see what happens in the devolved jurisdictions.

The move is important not least because, since the Brexit vote, fewer Irish students have applied to study in the UK. There are significant opportunities for developing higher education partnerships between these islands, and relative frictionless student migration will help.

One small step in the Brexit complexity, but not an unimportant one.

The academy in politics?

May 29, 2018

I first developed a strong interest in politics in my mid-teens. At the time I was in a German secondary school, and the then West German Economics Minister was Professor Karl Schiller. Schiller was an academic economist of some distinction, and he became a key figure, first of the CDU-SPD ‘grand coalition’ under Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, and then of the SPD-FDP coalition government of Willy Brandt. He was known for policies that he summarised with the slogan ‘as much competition as possible, as much planning as necessary.’

Right now, as various professors are considered for the job of Prime Minister of Italy, it is maybe apposite to reflect on the role of academics in career politics. There have been a few politicians who, when their political careers looked to be over, easily settled into academic life: Larry Summers and Roy Jenkins are examples. Some have travelled in the opposite direction, but not many: apart from Karl Schiller, good examples would be Ireland’s last three Presidents: Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Is this because universities are seen as hothouses for theory rather than operational action? Or is it the case that, as one commentator has suggested, ‘many very clever people would make very bad politicians.’

The role of academics as political advisers is widely accepted, but not so much their capacity for political leadership. In a world that is becoming hugely complex in economic, social and technological contexts, would academic politicians have the capacity for a better, or worse, understanding of these complexities? Or should the academy stay away from this sort of thing altogether?

Who wants to be a billionaire?

May 22, 2018

An extraordinary proportion – nearly a quarter – of the world’s billionaires are graduates of ten American universities. In addition, a large proportion of these billionaires started off rich, went to universities endowed with huge resources and social cachet, and became even richer. This is a world in which generally perceived institutional excellence is locked into social advantage, where rich graduates donate large funds to their already well-funded universities and ensure the continuation of a particular cycle of elitism, which is reinforced by a widespread belief that these ‘elite’ universities represent the best and only viable model of excellence.

If our societies are really to be more meritocratic and egalitarian, it is vital that we should move away from this kind of institutional elitism. The universities listed are all great institutions, but they do not represent the only acceptable quality mark of excellence. It is therefore increasingly important for modern systems of higher education to run with a variety of models, and to fund these to level at which they can pursue genuine innovation – and to secure a more inclusive system fit for the future.

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.