Posted tagged ‘Oxford University’

Putting your university on Facebook

April 22, 2011

The online phenomenon of recent years has been, as we all know, the story of Facebook. Celebrated in a Hollywood movie and, equally significantly, on Wall Street, the social networking site has not just become the platform of choice for young people’s online experience, it has redefined what for many it actually means to be online. It has become so fashionable that some young people now have Facebook as their sole online location – they never access any other part of the internet.

One big question raised by this trend is what higher education institutions should be doing about this. So far, while most universities have a presence on Facebook and many are probably wondering whether they should expand their visibility on it, the majority use it unimaginatively. Some – and Stanford University is an example – treat it as they would Twitter (which they will also use unimaginatively), putting on news items that the typical Facebook user will simply ignore. Another example is Oxford University, whose Facebook site is worthy – and that would not be a compliment in the eyes of typical readers there. Just occasionally you get a university trying something different: an example is Texas A&M University, who have made an effort to give their Facebook page a different look and feel.

Overall, however, universities are too often building a social networking presence without apparently having any idea what social networking actually is. Much of the material uploads tend to be automated, and no attempt is made to catch the typical Facebook mood.

Universities may not want to adopt social networking sites as the platform on which to conduct education or provide educational tools, but at least in networking and marketing terms they should take a much more professional approach. If they want to engage students, then at least when advertising their wares they need to do it on the students’ terms. And so far there is very little sign of that.

Oxbridge inequality

December 7, 2010

Somewhere amongst my possessions is a group photo taken when I began my postgraduate research in Cambridge University in 1978, of all new students in my then college. There were young people in the photo from all around the world There were Russians, Poles, Germans, French, South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Australians. It was a cosmopolitan lot, then? Yes, but with a twist: virtually everyone was white. I don’t now have the photo in front of me, but I believe there was one black face, and one Asian face.

I was reminded of this today when the Guardian newspaper reported that 20 colleges in Oxford and Cambridge did not offer a single place to any black student last year. But it gets worse:  not a single member of the academic staff of Cambridge University is black.

It is, to be honest, uninteresting to me whether this is the result of racism. At the very least, it is the result of indifference to the racial composition of the university and a tendency to be comfortable with a very white image.

Oxford and Cambridge Universities ask for and get more funding per student than is available to other UK universities, based in part on the idea that the taxpayer should support their more expensive infrastructure and buildings and allow them to play a leading role amongst the world’s top universities. Even if that is a correct is a correct approach (and it is a highly arguable one), the additional funding should compel the two universities to play a particularly visible role in attracting and integrating students from minorities and from lower socio-economic groups. The two universities fail spectacularly to do this.

No doubt the global role played by Oxford and Cambridge is significant. But the time has come to force the two universities to become much more inclusive. The failure to do this should be punished financially, not rewarded. But while we should rightly criticise Oxbridge, we should also remember that few universities have managed to get this completely right. It is time to focus strongly on ensuring that all have appropriate access to higher education, once they have the qualifications and talents.

Paying for tutorials

October 31, 2010

As English universities face up to what looks like a very challenging funding environment, Oxford University has disclosed that it has raised £1 billion from alumni and supporters and that it will use some of  this money to fund its traditional one-on-one tutorial system. While the university has not (as far as I know) disclosed what these tutorials cost on an annual basis, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Andrew Hamilton, has indicated that the sum raised in its philanthropic campaign (while a European record) is not enough and more will have to be found to keep its traditional teaching methods alive.

While small group teaching has been at the heart of the British (and Irish) higher education system, most universities have long had to abandon it or restrict it for resourcing reasons, and realistically it will prove more and more difficult to sustain it as an idea in the light of very different funding principles now affecting the sector. While I have believed that small group teaching is highly desirable where it is affordable, I have long had doubts about Oxford’s one-on-one tutorials. For me the benefit of small groups is that they are small enough to encourage participation, but also large enough (i.e. more than one) to allow for student interaction with each other, which I believe to be a hugely important part of the learning process. I have moreover heard many times from Oxford graduates about the limitations of their tutorials, particularly where the tutor was struggling with an excessive sense of ego.

In any case, before any politician takes from this the lesson that philanthropy is the answer to under-funding, let me say that I also believe Oxford to be wrong is suggesting that donations can subsidise the recurrent costs of teaching; apart from being an unlikely prospect for most universities, I also think it is wrong in principle; philanthropy should be for capital programmes and start-up projects.

Of course I would congratulate Oxford on the success of its fundraising campaign. But I might just suggest to its donors, if any of them are listening, that there may be better value for money in some other institutions. £1 billion is a hell of a lot of money to need for tutorials.