Tag Archives: universities

ICTs for the SDGs: economic agendas


group-smallThe ITU is preparing a new book, provisionally to be entitled “ICT4SDGs: Economic Growth, Innovation and
Job Creation” in advance of the WTDC meeting in Buenos Aires in October 2017 http://www.itu.int/net/events/eventdetails.asp… . This has been explored in some detail over the last two days at a fascinating discussion convened in Geneva.

sdg-groupI have been invited to lead on a 6,000 word chapter, provisionally entitled “Sustainability in Development: Critical Elements” that has an initial summary as follows: “the chapter identifies how ICTs engage with the sustainability agenda and the various elements of the ecosystem (such as: education, finance/capital, infrastructure, policy, market, culture/environment, opportunities) and the stakeholders that are indispensable for ensuring resilient and sustainable development activities in developing countries in spite of some chronic shortages coupled with fast changing and fluid situations that can negatively hamper the efforts”.

I want this chapter very much to be a collective, bottom-up effort, and am exploring various collective ways of generating content – although this is hugely difficult given the tight word limit! At this stage, it would be great to receive suggestions as to (a) what content the chapter should focus on, and (b) examples of case studies of successes and failures with respect to the use of ICTs for sustainable development. Please share any thoughts with me – before the end of September!

For those who may be unfamiliar with my own critical comments on the linkages between ICTs and the SDG agenda do see https://unwin.wordpress.com/…/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-…/, and on the abuse of the term ecosystem https://unwin.wordpress.com/2014/03/16/icts-and-ecosystems/ . Rest assured, though, that the chapter for the ITU will reflect very different perspectives, and I hope that it will indeed represent the interests and concerns of the wider ICT4D community.

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Latest round of Commonwealth Scholarships for citizens of ‘developing’ Commonwealth countries announced


Pakistan smallThe Commonwealth Scholarship Commission has just announced its application process for scholars wishing to study in UK universities for Master’s and PhD degrees from the 2014-15 academic year .  Its Electronic Application System is now live, and will close on 3rd December 2013.  All applications need to be made through national nominating agencies – full details of which are available on the Commission’s website.  Summary details of the application process taken directly from the Commission’s site are given below:

Commonwealth Scholarships – developing Commonwealth country citizens

Commonwealth Scholarships for students from developing Commonwealth countries are offered for Master’s, PhD, and split-site (PhD) study in the UK. These scholarships are funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).

Nominations

There is a nominating agency for Commonwealth Scholarships in each Commonwealth country. In addition, universities and university bodies in a number of developing Commonwealth countries are invited to nominate candidates to the CSC.

Each year, the CSC invites each nominating agency/university/university body to forward a specific number of nominations. Each nominating agency/university/university body is responsible for its own selection process, and in most cases they will set their own closing date, which will be before the CSC’s deadline for nominations (17 December 2013).

Approximately 300 scholarships are awarded each year. The CSC invites around three times more nominations than scholarships available – therefore, nominated candidates are not guaranteed to get a scholarship. There are no quotas for scholarships for any individual country. Candidates nominated by national nominating agencies are in competition with those nominated by universities/university bodies, and the same standards will be applied to applications made through either channel.

Terms and conditions and eligibility

Applications are considered according to the following selection criteria:

  • Academic merit of the candidate
  • Quality of the proposal
  • Likely impact of the work on the development of the candidate’s home country

See Selection criteria – 2014 Commonwealth Scholarships for developing Commonwealth country citizens for further details.

Please note that the CSC does not impose any age limit on applicants for its awards, but national nominating agencies may do so in line with their own priorities.

Candidates may also find the Feedback for unsuccessful candidates in 2013 useful.

Levels of study

You can apply for a Commonwealth Scholarship for the following levels of study:

  • Master’s (one-year courses only)
  • PhD
  • Split-site, where the CSC supports one year’s study at a UK university as part of a PhD being undertaken in your home country

All subject areas are eligible, although the CSC’s selection criteria give priority to applications that demonstrate strong relevance to development.

You are requested to apply for a course of study at a UK university with which the CSC has a part funding agreement.

How to apply

All applications must be made through your nominating agency (or university/university body, if applicable) in your home country. You must check with them in the first instance for specific advice on how to make an application and for their own closing date. The CSC cannot accept any applications direct from candidates.

The CSC expects all Commonwealth Scholarship candidates to be nominated by an approved nominating agency/university/university body, and to have completed an application form using our Electronic Application System (EAS).

Full help on how to apply using the EAS is provided in our guides, which should be read in full before making any attempt to use the EAS.

The EAS will close to applicants on 3 December 2013 and no further applications can be made after that date. The CSC will not accept any applications which are not submitted via the EAS to the nominating agency/university/university body in the candidate’s home country.

How to access the EAS

Please note that all enquiries about these scholarships should be directed to the nominating agency/university/university body in your home country.

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On critical thinking…


thinker smallI overheard a strange and depressing conversation about critical thinking at last month’s otherwise excellent Online Educa conference in Berlin. Ever since then it has been nagging away at my mind.  So many of those involved in the conversation seemed to have a conceptualisation of critical thinking that is so totally at odds with my own!  For many of them, critical thinking seemed to be something destructive, a form of negative criticism of the works of others. Critical thinking, in their views, was all too often damaging, destroying the confidence of young academics, and a means through which supervisors impose and re-enforce power relations over their doctoral students.  This is so alarmingly different from my own perspective, that I feel I should share some of my thoughts here, not only to contribute to the debate, but also so that others may perhaps gain some insight into alternative views of critical thinking.  Here, then, are my list of the ten most important aspects of critical thinking.

  1. First, critical thinking is something hugely positive. It should be very far from the negative caricature summarised above.
  2. It is a way of creating new knowledges, rather than simply encouraging the regurgitation of accepted truths.  All too often, universities across the world today focus on teaching students accepted truths that they then learn and regurgitate in examinations, rather than liberating them to think for themselves.
  3. Critical thinking is therefore hugely creative, a way of encouraging people to craft new ideas that will hopefully better explain, or help us to understand, the world in which we live.
  4. It is fundamentally concerned with questioning and challenging accepted norms and arguments, weighing them up both through the power of reason and logic, but also through empirical experience to see which, for the moment, can continue to be accepted as approximations to some truth.
  5. My notions of critical thinking derive heavily from my engagement with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, and especially the writings of Jürgen Habermas (notably Theorie und Praxis. Sozialphilosophische Studien, Neuwied, 1963, and Erkenntnis und Interesse. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1968).  In particular, for me, Critical Theory provides two important underpinnings for critical thinking: its emphasis on the interests behind all knowledges, and its focus on emancipation.
    • There is no such thing as value free science.  All science or knowledge, is created by individuals, or groups of sentient people, for particular purposes.  We must therefore understand these interests, and indeed our own interests, if we are to reach agreement on the extent to which such ideas can be accepted as accounting for any particular observations of reality.  Critical thinking is in part about understanding the interests underlying any claim to knowledge.
    • The ultimate purpose of critical thinking is about emancipation, both for the individual thinker, but also perhaps more importantly for the wider community of which that thinker is a part.
  6. Critical thinking is self-reflective, requiring a conscious consideration of how and why a particular set of thoughts comes into being.  In this sense, it is an ancient tradition, going back at least to Socrates, but being developed by scholars such as Dewey (Moral Principles in Education, SIU Press, 1909), and more recently Glaser (An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Columbia University, 1941) and Ennis (Critical Thinking, Prentice Hall, 1996).
  7. Critical thinking is committed to action. This, again, derives in part from my own commitment to Critical Theory, but it emphasises that thinkers must also be actors.  Unless knowledge is shared, in a sense liberated from the confines of the thinker’s own body, then its creation is a purely selfish, indeed arrogant process.  If society permits some of its members to be set apart for thinking (most usually in universities), then it is incumbent on those thinkers to ensure that the outputs of their thinking are indeed used for the betterment of society.
  8. Critical thinking involves serendipitous rigour (about which I have written elsewhere).  We need both to be rigorous in ensuring that we create places for serendipity, and likewise be rigorous in how we respond to serendipitous occurrences.  Serendipity is essential to the creative aspect of critical thinking.
  9. Critical thinking requires clarity of method.  I do not want to be prescriptive in defining any single particular set of methods, not least because many such lists already exist (Glaser, 1941; Fisher, Critical Thinking: An Introduction, CUP, 2001), but most of these focus on the importance of reason, logic, judgement, argument, inference and analysis.
  10. Finally, for me critical thinking is fundamentally about those who are privileged enough to be thinkers, using their thinking skills to enhance society and not just selfishly for themselves; it is, in particular, to use such thinking to help and enable the poorest and most marginalised individuals to improve their lives.  This is not just about action (point 7 above), but about action committed to a particular social and political cause.

There are, of course, many other aspects of critical thinking, but reflecting on that conversation in Berlin, these seem to me to be the most pertinent responses. Let me conclude, though, with a quotation from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (Penguin, 1966, p.21), “‘Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is that not witty? Naturally, they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they wont think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown”.  I used this years ago as the introduction to one of my chapters in The Place of Geography and it still seems as pertinent now as it did then!

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Latest UK Higher Education Statistics


The UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency has just published its latest data on student enrolments and qualifications obtained for the academic year 2010/11.  Key findings include:

  • just over 2.5 million people are enroled in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs)
  • slightly more students are doing postgraduate courses (up 2% since 2009/10), with slightly fewer doing undergraduate ones
  • UK domiciled students account for 83% of all enrolments
  • there is some considerable volatility in subject areas: for undergraduates enrolments in agriculture and related subjects increased 11% between 2009/10, whereas for architecture, building and planning, they decreased 6%; for postgraduates the greatest increase was in mathematical sciences (8%), whereas computer science numbers declined 6%.
  • 64% of students gained an upper second or first class degree; more women than men achieved such degrees (65% of full-time students received such degrees; 51% of part-time students) (see Table 6 of HESA statistics).

One of the most striking of these findings is the continual grade inflation that is taking place in higher education.  In  2006/7 only 60% of all students gained upper second or first class degrees.  Going back in time, in 2000/01 only 54% of full-time students gained such degrees, and in 1994/95 it was 49% (HESA statistics).  Such inflation is hardly surprising, given that institutions are increasingly being judged externally by this measure.  I doubt that it is improvements in the quality of teaching that have led to such results.

Typical measures that universities use to inflate such results operate both at the institutional level through the mechanisms that are used to turn marks into overall grades, but also in the ways through which marks for courses are derived.  Institutionally, the following are typical mechanisms that have been used:

  • introducing systems that ignore the worst marks achieved
  • weighting the overall portfolio of marks in ways that lead to higher overall grades
  • introducing mechanistic processes for candidates just below a threshold that automatically elevate them to the higher grade
  • reducing the amount of unseen terminal examinations, and increasing the amount of easier types of assessment at which students perform better

At the more individual level, academics are also judged by the quality of results obtained by students doing their courses, and so it is quite common to find academics who:

  • give strong hints at the subject matter that will be coming up in unseen exams
  • give substantial amounts of help to students on assignments, such as dissertations, that are meant to be independent
  • decide to be that little bit more generous at the margins, choosing to emphasise the stronger points over the weaker ones
  • restructure their courses so that they contain elements that students find it easier to do well in

It could be argued that each of these is desirable, and that we should indeed be rewarding our good students for the efforts that they put in.  The fundamental point to be noted, though, is that getting a ‘good’ degree in 2011 means something very different from getting an upper second or first even a decade ago.

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Shadow Scholars, plagiarism and academic merceneries


Ages ago a friend, knowing of my interests in the extent of plagiarism in higher education, sent me a link to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled The Shadow Scholar: the man who writes your students’ papers tells his story.  In a nutshell, this tells ‘the story of how he makes a living writing papers for a custom-essay company and to describe the extent of student cheating he has observed’. Although it refers primarily to the US context, it provides a salutary tale for all those involved in helping university students to learn.  Above all, it should remind us that such practices are becoming increasingly commonplace.  In the month that followed its original publication, the report attracted 640 comments, and these are also well worth a read.

On re-reading it today, I am even more convinced that it should become required reading for academics and students alike!

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On ‘retirement’…


Around 18 months ago, Royal Holloway, University of London offered a severance/early retirement deal for staff, and after much reflection I decided to apply.  My application was accepted, and I will therefore be ‘leaving’ the College in the autumn after 30 years working there – although I am delighted that I have been appointed as an Emeritus Professor, and so I will still be retaining very close links involving both teaching and research!

Many friends have asked why I have chosen to leave, and so I thought I would share my reflections here.  They say much about the state of British higher education in the 21st century. I was appointed to Bedford College back in 1981, and have many great memories of my times both there and in the merged institution of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College.  It has been a wonderful place to teach and do research, and I have had some amazing colleagues.  However, UK universities have changed so much in this period that I no longer feel that I can really achieve what I want to do within the confines of this environment.  Let me try to explain why.  I guess there are five main reasons for my decision:

  • a decline in collegiality amongst academics within universities
  • changing student attitudes to being at university
  • institutional and individual approaches to learning and teaching
  • a failure to promote Geography as the important discipline that it is
  • institutional leadership

The decline in collegiality

One of the main reasons I am leaving is quite simply because the sense of collegiality that I participated in as a young academic has been eroded to such an extent that I no longer enjoy the spirit of shared intellectual adventure that lay at the heart of university life when I began my career. Many academics are now so absorbed in advancing their own careers that they have almost no time for their colleagues or their students.  Long gone, for example, are the mid-morning and late-afternoon coffee and tea breaks when administrative, technical and academic staff would all come together to share a few minutes of each other’s company.

At the time of the merger of Bedford and Royal Holloway Colleges in the mid-1980s, I explicitly chose to live near the campus so that I could participate fully in its life – and be collegial.  Rather few people now do so. Many ‘colleagues’ live far away and seem to spend more of their working lives off campus than they do on it. Colleagues who absent themselves are not there to support the students, are not there to attend seminars, are not there to answer the inevitable minor queries, are not there to share research ideas, and are not there to support each other. What has really saddened me is the way in which some young colleagues claim to be collegial and yet their actions seem to suggest that they have no idea what the word means.

Perhaps I was foolish not to be more careerist myself, but what I loved was my research and teaching, and all that mattered was that I should earn the respect of my colleagues and students for what I did.  When I returned to Holloway in 2004 after my secondment to DFID, I therefore specifically created a ‘Collective’, to try to rekindle that mutual support for colleagues and students that I had valued so much – and still believe in.  Ultimately this has not really succeeded in the way I had hoped, in part because it runs counter to the selfish arrogance that drives so many academics today.  It also saddens me that some young academics expect me – as a professor – to be hierarchical and cannot understand that I truly believe in the communal values that lie at the heart of sharing knowledge.

As for the causes of this changed mentality, it is clear that the fragmentation of unified pay scales, the introduction of the research assessment exercise, and increased competition between departments and institutions for the ‘best’ academics have all paid their part.  However, we as academics are also to blame, in that we have not stood up to these changes vehemently enough, and have insufficiently emphasised the critical importance of collegiality in our endeavours.  That having been said, I should also say without any hesitation that there are some brilliant young academics in our department, who are indeed collegial.  Their life is tough, very tough, and I wish them well in trying to retain their humanity and love for the discipline.

Student attitudes

Throughout my career, I have vacillated between being angry that many students do not work hard enough, and being sorry for them that our society has shaped them in this way.  More often than not, I have sympathised with them, and done my best to enthuse them with my love for Geography, and the crucial importance of rigorous academic enquiry. Perhaps I am retiring in part because I taught second year human geography techniques for too long!  Excessive alcoholic indulgence by some students after sports fixtures the previous day, often meant that half the class was absent for my techniques lectures on Thursday morning, and many of those that were there  seemed disinterested in participating. Small wonder that they had difficulties doing the practical classes; small wonder that many did poor dissertations.

The average number of hours that students study a week during term time in the UK is somewhere between 25 and 30. My expectation of a minimum 40 hours work a week is thus way beyond this, and I have not found a way of reconciling these figures.  I love teaching, but after 30 year of hitting my head against a brick wall, I now want to spend time teaching students who really seem to care about their learning.  Having taught at Peking University recently, where many students seem to spend more than 60 hours a week studying, I feel re-invigorated.  It is scarcely surprising that the Chinese economy is so much more vibrant than is ours in the UK.  All this having been said, we do indeed have some able, keen and enthusiastic students in our department – and I will miss them.  They are just too few in number!  It was brilliant, though, how some of them responded when I offered to teach an extra-curricula course entitled “Critical Practices: an exploration of ideas in Critical Theory and Revolutionary Practice” more than a year ago now.  This was learning and teaching how I wish I could have done it more often.  The course was completely outside the normal curriculum, counted for nothing towards their degree assessment, and was based around discussions between us all.  I enjoyed it hugely, and think that they too seemed to gain something from it.

Approaches to learning and teaching

I have always believed that universities should be about sharing ideas at the frontiers of knowledge, that such intellectual enquiry is therefore challenging, that standards of assessment should be maintained, and that it is essential to treat students as human beings if we are to encourage the critical enquiry that I value so much.  So many of these values have fallen by the wayside: in order to make courses popular they often take the form of learn and regurgitate; in some courses students are more or less told what questions to expect in the exams; students have to be treated as numbers in the name of fairness; we have to send them to ‘experts’ if they have personal issues, rather than first trying to help them ourselves; and we have devised mechanisms for ensuring that they get higher grades than they would have achieved in the past, so that out institutions climb up the various rankings in terms of results and added value! I am often seen as a harsh marker, but why should I change my expectations in a world that is moving towards mediocrity?

The amount of teaching that academics do has been vastly reduced in large part because hitting the research assessment criteria is seen as being more important.  I am probably the only member of staff in our department who gives non-assessed essays to the final year students doing my course.  Around two-thirds of the marks for most courses remain as being based on unseen exams at the end of the year, and yet we do not give students time to practise and have feedback.  My non-assessed/formative essays are seen by some students purely as being an extra burden of work, rather than as an opportunity for them to learn how to write better essays!  I believe that all undergraduates should have to write an essay a week (or produce a similar assignment in subjects where essay writing is not normal practice), and that we should mark them and provide feedback.  How else are they going to improve?

Likewise, I have always expected that undergraduate dissertations should be based on at least a month’s fieldwork.  Yet, many years ago I recall a younger colleague saying that given the pressures that students have to earn income during the vacations it was unrealistic for me to expect such high standards.  So it has increasingly become acceptable for dissertations to be based on a handful of interviews, rather than the detailed rigorous field research that I once expected.  This does not only apply at undergraduate level, but I have also recently been dismayed at the quality of several PhDs that I have examined.  Not only have I identified clear plagiarism in some, but also the amount of field research on which others have been based is totally paltry compared with what I expect from my own students.

In a different but related vein, I have always sought to entertain students for dinners and BBQs at our home, in part to get to know them better so that I can write honest references about them, but also to show that I am human, and care about them as individuals.  Yet, this behaviour is frowned upon by several of my colleagues.  I was therefore very deeply honoured that our students should nominate me successfully for an Apple for the Teacher award from our Students Union this year – this is the greatest complement that they could possibly have paid me, and is one of my most treasured achievements in my 30 year career.

The Place of Geography

I read this morning in an e-mail from our Head of Department that Geography has now dropped out of the top ten subjects in the UK in terms of the number of students studying  at A level; numbers have fallen from 32,063 to 31,226 from 2010 to 2011, a drop of 2.6% in a single year.  This is incredibly sad, and only reinforces the arguments that I made in a recent publication (The role of Geography and Geographers in policy and government departments, in Agnew, J. and Livingstone, D.N. (eds) (2011) The Sage Handbook of Geographical Knowledge, London: Sage, 271-284) about how academic geographers have largely failed to engage externally with the public, with politicians, and with schools.  I have always sought to champion the subject in schools and the wider political arena – as reflected in my early work for the Geographical Association – indeed, that was what my book The Place of Geography was explicitly intended to do!

I am also saddened at the way in which many geographers seem so unwilling to defend what to me lies at the core of our discipline: an engagement with the ways in which humans interact with the physical world, and an understanding of how we thereby construct particular places.  By building their careers increasingly on a few tiny areas of intellectual enquiry, geographers have all too often moved away from what I still see as the essence of our discipline.  I have always been fascinated by new ideas – often at the interface of disciplines – and enjoy being able to engage across many different intellectual areas.  So, having worked for 30 years, I now find myself increasingly at odds with the views being advocated by many, but by no means all, of our disciplinary leaders.  Rather than continuing to swim against the tide, I am ‘retiring’ to enable me to do the research, teaching and practical work that I believe in.  There is so much still to be done.

Institutional leadership

Finally, I decided to retire because I was disappointed in the specific institutional leadership in place at Royal Holloway at the time I took the decision.  University Vice Chancellors are a motley crew.  Some, but all too few, are outstanding.  I do not envy them the task – it is immense and complex – but Vice Chancellors and Principals have to show real leadership qualities, they must champion intellectual excellence above all else, they must be wise, they must be fair and transparent, and they must be collegial.  Quite simply, I was no longer convinced that I could achieve the things I wanted to do – especially for the ICT4D Centre – within the confines of the institution where I was.  I felt so much more valued by those outside the institution than I did within it!  At the time, I did not know that we were about to have a new and dynamic Principal, and I am certain that Holloway is on the way up again, having fallen dramatically in profile and achievement under the previous regime.

It is obviously with regrets that I am retiring from Royal Holloway, University of London. I have a huge number of very fond memories – of some amazing colleagues, and great students.   I am indeed therefore delighted to be continuing as an Emeritus Professor, and in this capacity will do all I can to support the institution that I have loved and sought to support for the past 30 years.

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The future of the UK’s universities – a radical scenario


Earlier in the year at the ACU’s Executive Heads meeting in Hong Kong, I caused real offence to at least one participant when I argued that it made no sense at all  for 50% of the UK’s young people to study at university.  A damp bank holiday Monday gives me the opportunity to try to clarify my arguments for him – and for any others who might be interested.

First, let me make clear what I did not say.  I never said that young people should not receive training after they leave school.  I never said that people should be prevented from life-long learning.  Far from it.  All people should receive opportunities to gain the training that they  can benefit from, and  this training should be relevant and of high quality.  What I do not believe is that such training is best done at universities.  My argument is built on four main foundations:

  • the role of the university
  • the relationship between universities and economic growth
  • the abilities and interests of young people in the UK, and
  • the need to provide outstanding technical and professional education for all young people who want to gain such skills in the UK.

What should universities be for?

I believe passionately that universities have a central place in any civilised society.  Free and independent universities, funded by the state, play a crucial role in shaping the meaning and identity of our societies.  They are the places where creativity and innovation  happen, where the boundaries of knowledge are constantly moved forward, where questions that were once unthought are now uttered and answered.  They are the places where many of our brightest and most articulate scholars and scientists should want to work, and where young people who want to commit themselves to crafting new knowledges should indeed be able to learn from them.  Universities are places funded by those who believe that it is good to support a group of people – academics – whose role it is to reflect on the society of which they are a part, to understand the reasons why it is not functioning as it might, and ultimately to make that society a better one in which everyone can live richer lives.

Over the last 20 years, though, successive governments have overseen the destruction of such a vision.  Increased regulation and control of research has helped to extinguish much innovative thinking, and the flame of learning has been quenched by an increasingly regulated teaching environment. All too often claims that universities are elitist have led to a destruction of excellence, caused by a focus on  lowest common denominators. What saddens me hugely is that so many academics have been complicit in this agenda, fearful over their own jobs and the future of the institutions in which they work.  Let me make one thing absolutely clear.  Universities should not be where large numbers of students are taught to accept and regurgitate accepted truths – be they about the nature of our economy, or about the skills needed to become better managers.  Instead, they should be places where those who want to study hard, to grapple with complex and difficult ideas, to dream as yet undreamt dreams, and to change the ways in which we understand the world in which we live, can indeed do so.  They are not places where students should necessarily be taught; rather, they are places where ‘students’ have the opportunity to learn from the most brilliant minds in our society. Incidentally, I also think that this process needs time, and that a three year degree is probably about right for ideas to develop and mature to a sufficient level for someone to be worthy of a university degree.

The fundamental problem is that not many people are actually able to do this, and even fewer want to do so.  Many students seem simply to want to gain skills that will enable them to get a reasonable job, earn a satisfactory income, and live a comfortable life.  The provision of skills training for such a life is something entirely different from gaining the critical stance to knowledge that I believe a university should be all about.

Universities and economic growth

A dangerous myth has grown up in recent years that claims that having large numbers of young people trained in universities is somehow good for economic growth.  Building on this myth, Tony Blair’s Labour Party conference statement in 2000 said that he expected 50% of people in the UK to have benefited from higher education by the time they are 30. However, note the blurring of vocabulary, and the fundamentally important difference between ‘universities’ and ‘higher education’.  With the end of the distinction in the UK between universities and polytechnics in 1992, all institutions became merged into a general higher education sector and most chose to use the word university to describe themselves.  Universities and higher education in the UK became synonymous.

The trouble is that there is actually rather little evidence that having 50% of 30 year olds with a degree is necessarily good for a country’s economic growth.  Likewise, despite claims that those with degrees will be able to earn more during their lifetimes than those without, there is likewise very little evidence that having a degree will necessarily mean that all students will gain high paying jobs.  As many students graduating this summer are finding out, there simply is not  enough graduate employment  around for them all to find the sort of jobs that they had been led to believe they should get. As the BBC reported earlier this year, “One in five UK university leavers who entered the labour market failed to find a job last year, as graduate unemployment reached its highest level since 1995, government figures show”.

There is indeed a broad correlation between GDP per capita and the percentage of people in a country who have studied at a university.  However, the mere existence of such a correlation does not impute causality.  Much more research is needed on the precise trajectories of the relationships between economic growth and participation in universities in different countries.  While it is intuitive to think that having a certain number of people trained in universities will indeed contribute to the well being of a country, there is absolutely nothing intuitive about saying that having 50% participation rates will necessarily increase economic growth.  Indeed, the evidence would seem to suggest instead that the surplus created by having a higher GDP per capita actually enables more people to go to university.  Thus, above a certain level, it is probably GDP per capita that influences university participation rather than the other way round.

Moreover, some of the most thriving economies are actually those that have a clear distinction between technical higher education and traditional universities. In Germany, for example, substantial numbers of young people on leaving school go to a Berufsschule where they combine further academic study with  apprenticeships, whilst many others choose to attend Technische Hochschulen where they are trained for specific careers rather than entering more traditional universities.  Is it surprising that Germany has much higher levels of technical professional expertise than does the UK?

Abilities and interests of young people in the UK

It is my contention that many students in the UK choose to go to university as a lifestyle choice rather than with any real intent to move the boundaries of knowledge forward.  It is the expected thing to do.  They have been told that they will earn more if they have a university degree.  There are very few jobs available for young people in any case, and so why not spend three years having fun at university?  Whether apologists for the health of UK universities like to claim otherwise, this is the harsh reality of UK student choice today.  About the only positive thing about the introduction of yet higher fees is that it is is likely to make many students who would be much better off  not  studying at universities think again about so doing.

In a recent study, the Higher Education Policy Institute ( Figure 8 ) thus notes that some 80,000 university entrants in 2010 had between 1 and 240 UCAS tariff points (240 is equivalent to three Cs at A level).  I contend that most students with below 3 Cs at A level have not proven that they have the intellectual apparatus to push the boundaries of knowledge forward, nor do many of them really have the inclination to do so. Of course there are exceptions to this, and we need to ensure that those who are truly able to contribute to and benefit from university, but do poorly at A levels or wish to enter through other routes, can indeed do so.  However, my fundamental point is that universities (as defined above) are not the right places for such students to gain post-secondary learning opportunities.  We need an alternative solution to give them the skills that they need, and we must stop pretending that universities are the place to do this.  For too long there has been an intellectual elitism that suggests somehow that an ‘academic’ degree is better than a ‘technical’ one.

It is therefore scarcely surprising that many students studying at UK universities are not really inspired by their courses, and choose to spend their time doing other things.  However, the extent of this is scandalous. There are many estimates for the average number of hours students in UK universities actually spend studying, but most lie within the range of 25-30 hours a week in term time.  One of the most reliable and recent surveys, by the Centre of Higher Education Research and Information at the Open University in 2009, thus concludes that “students in the UK spent an average of about 30 hours a week on studying, the least amount of time compared to their counterparts in other European countries”.  Interestingly a couple of years ago some of my students did a survey of the amount of time that their peers spent in the bars on campus, and the average came out at about 25 hours a week!  Perhaps their friends were exceptional, but I’m not so sure.

I expect students to study a minimum of 40 hours a week, and am seen by many colleagues as expecting too much.  Typical comments are “You cannot expect this – they have to spend time earning money to pay for their degrees”, or “But university is about far more than just studying”, or “Your expectations are old fashioned; get with the times”.  Sorry, this is simply not acceptable.  I have recently returned from an amazing and intellectually stimulating time at Peking University (Beida), and you should see how hard students there work!  The university day starts at 08.00 and finishes at 18.00, albeit with two hours ‘off’ for lunch.  Most students then spend several hours studying every night.  There is a thirst to learn, to explore ideas, to think afresh.  This is such a contrast to life on many British campuses.  It is hardly surprising that China is the vibrant economy that it is.  If we want to compete on a global stage, we need completely to rethink what students should be expected to do at university in the UK.

Providing a valuable technical and professional education

It is not easy to estimate how many students are really interested in pursuing knowledge critically in the sense discussed above.  However, to be generous, let me suggest that perhaps 25% of the school leaving population have the aptitude and an interest in so doing.  To cater for them we therefore need perhaps half of the universities that we currently have in the UK.  If pushed to an extreme, I would say that universities should actually only provide places for about 10% of school leavers!

This means that we need a complete reorganisation of post-secondary education, to provide people with the skills necessary to gain useful employment and contribute to the economic growth beloved of our political and industrial leaders.  Because we persist in wanting to maintain our universities, this is a subject that is almost never raised.  Somehow, it is believed that universities as they are currently structured will provide the skills necessary to revitalise our economy.  What nonsense.  Over and over again we hear from industrial leaders how poorly equipped graduates are for the workplace.  A recent survey by AP Business Contacts in March 2011 thus reports that employers found graduates lacking in five main areas:

  • Lack of business acumen, commercial understanding and preparation for the ‘leap’ from the academic to commercial environment
  • Lack of personal and interpersonal skills, including communication, emotional intelligence and organisational skill
  • Poor English language skills, ranging from a difficulty in making the transition from academic writing to business writing, to basic inadequacies in grammar and spelling
  • Attitudinal issues, including the unrealistic expectations of their role and inflated views of their capability early on
  • Specialist skills needed for specific jobs e.g. engineering, computer science

This is indeed a damning indictment, and those in higher education need to wake up and do something about it.

So, instead of universities, I have long believed that we need to introduce a completely new style of institution, perhaps called academies (although this term has been captured by those wishing to create a new kind of secondary institution), that are specifically designed to provide training for, and qualifications in, the skills required to gain the sorts of jobs that those with below 2 BBs at A level can realistically consider applying for.  Perhaps such entities could be distributed regionally, with one of each type in eight different regions of the country. Where there are particular regional specialisms, there could be concentrations of relevant ‘academies’.  Ideally, these institutions would be set up in partnership with employers, and have embedded within them apprenticeships or placements.  Typical of the sorts of institution I have in mind would be academies for multimedia design, for plumbing, for dance, for football, for horticulture, for engineering technicians, for photographers, for metal working production fitters, for line repairers and cable jointers, for chefs… (many of these, of course, fall within the government’s Tier 2 Shortage Occupation List).  These courses could be of variable duration, and most would not need to be longer than two years of full time study.  They would present a far cheaper solution than universities, and would provide learners with valuable skills in the employment market. Qualifications from these academies should be seen as being far more valuable than literally ‘use-less’ university degrees.  However, we still need the universities to serve as our places of critical reflection and innovation.  Much of what universities would do would indeed have little practical value – but that is in part what being civilised is all about.

There are probably far too many vested interests in the present system for such a radical scenario to be accepted.  Not least, too many Vice Chancellors and academics are overly eager to hold on to their precious elite institutions.  Isn’t it ironic that breaking the binary divide between polytechnics and universities was meant to do just that, and to get rid of elitism.  How sad that ultimately it has meant that so many of our universities have become so third-rate in terms of global competitiveness, and that they continue to fail our young people in terms of giving them either the vision or the skills to craft a new future that is better than the one we have left them.  Let us not be blinded by the debate over how to fund a moribund higher education system that is over-bloated and suffering from gout.  Instead, let us grasp this moment, and use it for a radical and visionary transformation of higher education in the interests of the next generation of people whose task it will be to sort out the mess we have left them!

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