Credit where it’s due?

Posted June 7, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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A couple of years ago MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were all the rage – as we discussed a couple of times in this blog. I was, as readers may recall, a little sceptical; and then the noise around MOOCs abated, and we went on to other things. One of the key problems with MOOCs, as I would have argued then, was that they didn’t provide the student with what most students principally want: a formally recognised qualification, a degree.

Now we may be seeing this addressed: the Open University and the University of Leeds are reported to be about to recognise time spent on MOOCs as part of the time spent working towards a degree. I don’t know anything else – how much credit can be accumulated in this way, whether the courses will attract fees, and so forth.

I still take the view that MOOCs run as genuinely open and free courses cannot become a major part of higher education, as there is no conceivable business model that would work here. But there may be ways in which online courses can be developed to play a  more realistic (and effective) role in the development of a new model of higher education. It will be worth watching this experiment.

Butterfly and bee. And poet.

Posted June 5, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: society, sport

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I think that everything that can be said on the death of Muhammad Ali has been said by now. So I’ll just let him talk:

Muhammad Ali was, perhaps more than a boxer, a poet; a poet of words, rhyme and movement. That is worth celebrating, and his passing is worth mourning.

Cheap at any price?

Posted May 31, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , ,

In the United Kingdom at least there now appears to be a belief that assuring quality means measuring things. This, as we have noted previously in this blog, lies at the heart of the Research Excellence Framework (REF – previously the Research Assessment Exercise), and it appears increasingly likely it will also be at the heart of the proposed Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). In fact these exercises tend to consider an intriguing jumble of inputs and outputs and put a relative value on them. The result is seen as a kind of gold standard. The REF in particular is viewed not just as a table of research excellence, but also as some sort of indicator of wider institutional quality. Few seem to think, as perhaps they should, that such massive exercises will often prompt worthy mediocrity much more than intellectual creativity. And nobody much seems to want to ask why virtually no other country thinks this sort of thing is a good idea.

But maybe our fatalism that this is inevitably our destiny might be shaken a little if we thought more about the cost of it all. The journal Times Higher Education has recently referred to studies suggesting that the cost of the most recent REF may have been anything from £214 million to £1 billion. To put that into some sort of perspective, even the smaller of these figures is nearly as much as the entire annual funding of all of Ireland’s universities (including tuition fees paid by the state). For this kind of cost to be worthwhile it would have to guarantee an enormous explosion of research excellence producing massive educational and financial benefits to the institutions and to society. There is really no evidence to suggest this is the case. The history of the RAE and REF does show they prompted a much greater volume of publication, but there is no evidence at all that this generated a greater amount of innovative discovery or scholarly insight. In passing it can be said with some assurance that research funding does have such an impact, and competing for it produces benefits – but no such claims can be proven to be true for REF. And now we are apparently about to load another huge cost on to the system in TEF, almost certainly with similarly uncertain benefits.

We do need to secure high quality teaching and research. But we also need to display much more sophistication as to how this can be assured.

The rise of the illiberal university?

Posted May 23, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: society, university

Tags: , ,

In 1982 the German-American historian Konrad Jarausch published a fascinating book (Students, Society and Politics in Imperial Germany: the Rise of Academic Illiberalism) in which he charted the rush of Wilhelmine universities and academics into sentimental nationalism and xenophobic intolerance, a rush that later allowed Hitler to secure student support even before he had assumed political power. It was a trend to be found also in other European countries at the time. But in Germany it was remarkable that the stirrings of inward looking nationalism in academic and student circles came just as universities were becoming less elite, and in particular were less the property of the aristocracy. The new academic population gave its support to an uncritical nationalism and shut out contrary voices.

Today’s universities are not on the same trajectory, and yet they too are experiencing tremors of illiberalism.  A recent study published by the Higher Education Policy Institute has revealed that a significant majority of students in the UK (76 per cent) have some sympathy for so-called ‘no platform’ policies, under which certain speakers are banned from speaking on a campus because their views are deemed unpalatable. Curiously the same study revealed that 60 per cent of students think that universities should never limit free speech.

What do we make of that? Nick Hillman, the Director of the Institute, thinks that for some students ‘illiberalism appears to be a way of protecting liberalism.’ But a democratic and open society requires debate, and this requirement is not satisfied by the presentation solely of arguments that the majority approves of or likes. A liberal and tolerant society needs to be tested in robust argument or it will quickly become illiberal. Free speech is not ‘free’ at all if it excludes certain views.

Today’s university population will, much more still than in Wilhelmine Germany, supply the dominant leadership in all layers of society for the next generation, and its values will inform our future. A society that only ever wants to hear what it already believes is hugely vulnerable to something it may think it is warding off. It is time to recover the truly liberal university.

Higher education – is competition always the answer?

Posted May 16, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

Tags: ,

The United Kingdom government, acting in this case for England only (as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems), has just issued its White Paper on higher education, setting out its policy agenda. At the heart of this agenda is a simple diagnosis of the sector’s problems: that there is ‘insufficient competition and a lack of informed choice.’

To correct this, the British government is planning a new system that will make it easier for what it calls ‘challenger institutions’ – i.e. private sector for-profit colleges – to enter the market. They will have the opportunity to secure degree-awarding powers and to call themselves ‘universities’. The anticipated result of this (and related) reforms is summarised as follows:

‘With greater diversity in the sector, more high quality entrants, and increased choice for students, our primary goal is to raise the overall level of quality.’

The tone of the whole White Paper reinforces this point: that the existing system is a cartel, that new providers should be allowed to enter, that the strategic development of higher education should follow students’ ‘informed choices’, that the tendency to under-value teaching (when set against research) needs to stop. Student choices, according to the White Paper, are made effective through inter-institutional competition, and better information for student applicants. Meanwhile the pursuit of global recognition for ‘elite’ universities should prompt the further concentration of research in a smaller set of institutions.

Most stakeholders have reacted negatively or cautiously to the proposals in the White Paper. However, if they are implemented a major part of the higher education framework in the UK and beyond will start to look very different from what it once was. This involves not just organisational but intellectual and pedagogical  aspects, elements that have not received half as much attention as the debate around the institutional landscape.

As I have suggested before in this blog, we need to get a lucid and agreed statement on what higher eduction is actually about. Otherwise university reform is just a process of bureaucratic and institutional adjustment, focused strongly on inputs rather than results. There is an important place for competition in higher education, but primarily this should be a competition of ideas rather than of institutions.

Some of the objectives set out in the White Paper are reasonable, and they may spark an interesting debate in the global higher education community. But whether the English university system will become a better one as a result remains to be seen.

The value of student engagement

Posted May 9, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, students, university

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One of the questions the academic community should be asking itself more regularly is what exactly they think is the student’s stake in the higher education framework, beyond that of a learner. Some of this debate would probably these days focus on whether students are, or are not, consumers or customers, and therefore whether they have a right to insist on something like contractual performance from their institutions and teachers. Others might ask whether students have what we might describe as democratic rights of co-determination – a perspective we pursued a little in the review I chaired of Scottish higher education governance, and which has recently been explored in a very interesting Irish report.

One way or another, all this is tied up with how we can secure student engagement – a commitment to learning going beyond managing the curriculum in order to secure a degree. This is something universities do try to encourage in a general way, but perhaps not always in a principled manner, because we have not really settled what the principle is. Some recent studies have revealed one consequence of student disengagement: what could be a gradual death of the classroom experience, as technology gives students access to material independent of their teachers and the socialising effect of classes is no longer recognised or appreciated. So students simply no longer turn up, many of them opting to undertake what are in essence correspondence courses, with very little if any engagement with the corporate entity of their university.

In an age in which the concept of stakeholders in this and that and everything is ubiquitous, we need to do better in securing an understanding of the student’s stake in his or her learning process and the institution that offers it. We have not yet got very far in this, all appearances to the contrary.

Bookend?

Posted May 2, 2016 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, literature, society

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Let’s not personalise this, so no names. But a few years ago I read about a group of academics protesting at their university about some restructuring or other then taking place. Their ire was particularly directed at one of the university’s senior management team, an academic who, they claimed, didn’t have a single book in his office. More recently at another university, or so it is claimed, another member of the senior team stated openly that he didn’t see the need for a university library any more.

But it’s not just university heads and their teams. The Independent newspaper recently reported that at an English university some academics are finding it hard to persuade their students to read books. One professor suggested:

‘Students struggle with set texts, saying the language or concepts are too hard.’

Others have reported that Victorian literature is disappearing from the curricula of English degree courses because the novels are simply too long – nobody could be expected to read them cover to cover.

Of course it’s not just universities. A couple of years ago in America the Pew Research Center found that 23 per cent of adults had not read a single book (in whatever form, including digital and audio) in the preceding year. Some 35 years earlier that figure would have been 8 per cent.

So what is happening? Are books dead? I doubt that: in recent years there has been a drop in book sales in some countries, but more than off-set by significant increases in others. Nevertheless, people’s engagement with them is changing, and because you can read things in unusual ways and take them from unusual sources it is hard to gauge changes in reading patterns. And of course a ‘book’ is a more complex item now, as it is not necessarily something printed on paper between covers.

I would be more concerned if the choice of books we might read were all about volume and length. There is of course an important place in literature for the short story or the novella. But it is important that we take the time and make the effort to engage with ideas that occupy more than 60 pages. There may be all sorts of reasons for including or not including Charles Dickens on a university curriculum: but the fact that his books tend to be longer than 500 pages should not be one of them.


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