Fears for the Humanities in British Universities.


Interesting article in the Guardian this weekend – always lots to think about when we think about the purpose of the humanities and/or the way it is funded:

Currently fixed in the crosshairs are the disciplines of the humanities – arts, languages and social sciences – which have suffered swingeing funding cuts and been ignored by a government bent on promoting the modish, revenue-generating Stem (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects. The liberal education which seeks to provide students with more than mere professional qualifications appears to be dying a slow and painful death, overseen by a whole cadre of what cultural anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”: bureaucrats hired to manage the transformation of universities from centres of learning to profit centres. As one academic put it to me: “Every dean needs his vice-dean and sub-dean and each of them needs a management team, secretaries, admin staff; all of them only there to make it harder for us to teach, to research, to carry out the most basic functions of our jobs.” The humanities, whose products are necessarily less tangible and effable than their science and engineering peers (and less readily yoked to the needs of the corporate world) have been an easy target for this sprawling new management class.

Read full article.

Traditional Lecturers replaced by Online Mentors?

commercial-internet-database-1024773-mI’m not sure if the following is dystopian or utopian… I really hope that universities still value the skills of their staff and reward appropriately – and recognise what works online and what doesn’t:

Traditional lecturers may soon be replaced by networks of online mentors working for several universities, a new study predicts.

In the report, titled Horizon Scanning: What will higher education look like in 2020?, the Observatory on Borderless Education suggests that academic staff are likely to be employed part-time by several universities – often working remotely via the internet – rather than relying on a single employer.

“Changes in job structures may come with the embrace of the online revolution,” says the report, due to be published on 25 September, which is based on interviews with senior academics and university leaders.

Read full article.

Large Class Sizes Affecting NSS/Assessment Grades?

Lecture Theatre


Professor Graham Gibbs, who I worked with whilst working on the FASTECH project at Winchester – writing a series of pieces for Times Higher Education – this one on class sizes – worth reading:

Average school class sizes are used in international league tables as indicators of national commitment to education. And school classes of a similar size to those in UK higher education are rarely found outside developing countries.

The effects of class size are greatest for younger pupils and are least, but still substantial, for those aged 18 or over. Studies of what goes on in higher education discussion classes as they get bigger still reveal a predictable pattern of fewer students saying anything, and the little they do say being at a lower cognitive level (checking facts, for example, rather than discussing ideas).

Students in larger classes have been found to take a surface approach (attempting to memorise) to a greater extent and a deep approach (attempting to make sense) to a lesser extent. Higher education students judge teaching to be less good in large classes – even those led by teachers who gain good ratings when they teach smaller classes. So if managers hope to improve National Student Survey scores by rationalising course provision, they have their work cut out.

Read full article. Makes me think about the increased personalisation expected in education – and technology – often touted as enabling larger numbers, but actually allowing greater personalisation! I’m looking forward to reading more, as the situation is clearly not hopeless.

An academic and proud of it?

A real challenge to think back to why we are in the academic space, the values that we need to hold onto!

There was never a golden age in which academic values such as universalism and disinterestedness were not at risk, argues Bruce Macfarlane. But in an age of sponsorism and insecurity, all scholars must hold fast to the precepts that make our intellectual endeavours worthwhile

Which values define what it means to be an academic today? We live in an age in which universities take full advantage of their intellectual property. The divide between public and private institutions has blurred. Students have become customers and lecturers are treated as service providers and knowledge entrepreneurs. This brave new world threatens the values that are core to academic identity.

In an article published in the Journal of Legal and Political Sociology in 1942, the US sociologist Robert Merton identified what he regarded as the four norms of science: communism, universalism, disinterestedness and organised scepticism – or Cudos for short. Merton’s use of the word “science” included the social as well as hard sciences. The norms he identified might be thought of as academic values more broadly. The aphorism Cudos has since become widely used. It represents one of the most important and enduring expressions of academic values.

Read full story.

Social Media Recruitment

Interesting news on the use of social media in HE recruitment:

Social media generally reach a wider range of US-bound international students than recruiting agents, a report produced by US non-profit research agency World Education Services has found.

Among respondents to a survey of nearly 1,600 prospective students from 115 countries, 56 per cent follow social media accounts managed by US institutions before making application choices and 32 per cent use social media to source information. Just 16 per cent use agents.

The survey also found that social media are useful for targeting all kinds of student, whereas affluent but less academic ones are most likely to use third-party agents.

US social media do not penetrate all nations equally, however. Although 88 per cent of Indian social media users log on to US-based platforms such as Facebook and Twitter daily or weekly, only 22 per cent of Chinese users do the same, opting instead for local alternatives.

Read full story.

Should Universities be learning from Supermarkets?


Universities are encouraged to learn from Supermarket consumer-led strategies:

He recommended that institutions should embrace social media as a feedback tool and to enable “two-way communication” with students because traditional methods of complaining were out of date.

“If I am unhappy about something, I don’t write a nice letter and wait for a reply. I start broadcasting to my 8,500 followers. Everyone is their own broadcaster, with their own listeners,” he said.

Meanwhile, Peter Slee, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Huddersfield, told the conference in London that joining a gym was a good analogy when discussing student-institution relations.

Although gyms – and universities – could provide classes, facilities, staff and guidance at a certain cost, success and happiness with the price paid were ultimately down to the commitment of an individual, Professor Slee said.

“You get out of a service what you put into it. Motivation and commitment to study is the biggest factor in whether students are happy.”

Read full story. I’m wary about the idea of universities being ‘consumerised’, but I definitely think we should be listening to the students, and helping the students understand that they have a responsibility to put the effort in.

Unregulated KIS's?


I’ve always been keen to see data that engages more with ‘how did we develop this student from where they started from?’ rather than final grades, etc. so the new KIS are of concern – read more about them here:

I recently spent an enthralling Sunday morning renewing my car insurance via a price-comparison website. In the past, I’d always performed the insurance-renewal ritual via a series of telephone calls in which I’d asked patient and blameless call-centre workers whether the companies employing them were having a laugh. While this involved some cheery conversations and usually resulted in a decent outcome, it did take rather a long time.

The website I used allowed me to be precise in my search. But the process took as long as ever. I found myself having to compare seemingly similar products that were actually quite different. This was because, in the key information provided, critical data were missing. For instance, the website identified whether a product included legal cover and at what cost, but not the level of cover provided. In most cases the absent details could be obtained only by making a phone call …

Nonetheless, car insurance is fairly straightforward; and although we all wince at its cost, policies are far cheaper, simpler and easier to compare than the complexity of UK university courses. As we know, the idea that prospective undergraduates should be able to make informed comparisons between programmes and institutions is central to the government’s vision of market-orientated higher education. But its plans for the provision of vital data, via Key Information Sets, are inadequate and likely to be misleading and counterproductive.

Read full story, and read more on the HEFCE site. I also thought this story about ‘adding social value‘ was of related interest…  see, e.g.

Universities have long measured their financial value, for example the spending power of their staff or their total turnover, she explained. But the report recommends finding an economic price for all university “outputs”, including those not captured by financial analysis….

A “social weight” could then be applied to this economic value to reflect social priorities, for example by counting an activity as more valuable if it delivers to the poor rather than the rich.

Research collaboration?


As someone who’s keen on collaboration, working in unity, etc, this is a story of concern:

The concentration of research funding in a few elite universities has been described as a “policy trap” that fails to reflect the modern trend towards wider academic collaboration.

Sir David Watson, professor of higher education and principal of Green Templeton College, Oxford, said policymakers were ignoring the fact that researchers were increasingly working across institutions and national borders.

In a speech due to be delivered at the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education, of which he is honorary president, on 7 December, he said that there was already a “stark conclusion” that funding had been concentrated in the UK “to the point where it has become dysfunctional”.

But the issue was also reinforcing an obsession – among vice-chancellors, politicians and funding bodies – with institutional competition, rather than with the real world of partnerships.

Read full story.