Higher education

“De Correspondent is ambitious in its ideals, yet modest in its claims”.

by reestheskin on 18/12/2017

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Seems a nice term of phrase for what the academy might once have been (and still should be). But I guess the the definition of the Fourth Estate in a networked world is broad.

“De Correspondent” and the blueprint for a successful membership model

Too much awareness

by reestheskin on 15/12/2017

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Recent years have seen a major drive by government, the NHS, and mental health charities to change attitudes towards mental health and to raise its profile in line with physical health. In a crescendo of media coverage, royals and celebrities have opened up about their own struggles.

Despite having welcomed Prince Harry’s interview about his mental health in April, Wessely believes we can have too much of a good thing: too much awareness. He particularly questions surveys in which most students report mental health problems. “We should stop the awareness now. In fact, if anything we might be getting too aware. One wonders what’s happening when you have 78% of students telling their union they have mental health problems-you have to think, ‘Well, this seems unlikely.'”

Simon Wessely quoted in the BMJ 23 September 2017 p433

Just waive the tuition fees

by reestheskin on 13/12/2017

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For example, graduate stipends at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) are capped at $23,844 and are not adjusted for cost of living. To help out, universities often waive tuition fees, which can sometimes be more than a student’s income.

Editorial in Nature.

Five years

by reestheskin on 07/12/2017

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This is from John Naughton, although I haven’t the URL to hand. I read it five years ago.

Like democracy, public universities are also ‘inefficient’ — often, in my experience, woefully so. And only some of that inefficiency can be defended in terms of academic freedoms; much of it is down to the way university culture has evolved, the expectations of academic staff, poor management (rather than enlightened administration), and so on — things that could be fixed without undermining the really important values embodied by the idea of a university. The advent of serious tuition fees in English universities will have the effect of highlighting some of the more egregious deficiencies — poor (or at best uneven) teaching quality, little pastoral care, archaic pedagogical methods, etc. But any attempt to remedy these problems is likely to be seen as interference with cherished academic freedoms, and resisted accordingly. Already, however, students are beginning to ask questions: why, for example, should they pay £9,000 a year for crowded lectures, ‘tutorial groups’ of 50 or more, zero pastoral care and — in some cases — lousy social facilities? Why should complaints about the crass incompetence of a particular lecturer be ignored by the Head of his department? (These are gripes I’ve heard from students recently, though not at my university.)

Universities engage in different activities, with different norms and timeframes. You have to ’ship’ teaching, at least the ‘low-level’ teaching that makes up most of the bums on seats. Advanced teaching and research should march to a different pace, and the last thing you should be doing is ‘shipping product’. But John’s comments are spot on.

 

Multiple births and close birthdates, and university costs

by reestheskin on 06/12/2017

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This is from the FT, pointing out that the means testing of parental contribution to students maintenance, has some perverse side effects.

The UK’s hidden one-child-per-family university policy. Supporting two children studying at university could cost much more than you think.

And even when parents do cough up the parental contribution, that doesn’t mean the full maintenance loan amount is enough. For a good chunk, it doesn’t cover basic costs. Students on courses with long hours who can’t secure a part-time job are in trouble, but most won’t hear about this until they get to university as the debate is so skewed towards focusing on the ‘debt’.

I am still shocked at how many of our medical students work part time. That may say as much as about me, as them.

Compound interest, USS and all that

by reestheskin on 29/11/2017

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Take salary: as Mrs. Neal told us during her crash course, you’ll carry your whole life the compound price of an un-negotiated first salary.

From Frederic Filloux in the Monday Note. A great article which, whilst focussed on the topic of journalism schools, has bags of relevance to future and therefore present day medical schools. The professional schools have a lot in common.

 

Multiple births and close birthdates, and university costs

by reestheskin on 28/11/2017

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This is from the FT, pointing out that means testing of parental contribution to student maintenance, has some perverse side effects.

“The UK’s hidden one-child-per-family university policy. Supporting two children studying at university could cost much more than you think.

And even when parents do cough up the parental contribution, that doesn’t mean the full maintenance loan amount is enough. For a good chunk, it doesn’t cover basic costs. Students on courses with long hours who can’t secure a part-time job are in trouble, but most won’t hear about this until they get to university as the debate is so skewed towards focusing on the ‘debt’.”

I am still shocked by how many of our medical students work part time. That says as much about me, as them.

Seeing things differently

by reestheskin on 24/11/2017

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This is from a review of Jaron Lanier’s new book, in Nature. I think these comments give a flavour of one arm of the pincer movement that will hit higher education over the next decade.

What struck me most was the originality of Lanier’s trajectory as a research pioneer. His technological trailblazing and vision have led to him sitting on the faculties and boards of big universities. But the book shows that a conventional academic career might have hindered him considerably. As he reveals with tales of his development of VR programming languages and the VPL experience, he carved out the freedom to follow his scientific curiosity, unlike many a postdoc or tenure-track faculty member. That is a useful insight at a time when technology research is thriving outside academia, as Google’s DeepMind and other technology companies lead the way in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and, of course, VR.

Nature

Childhood lost?

by reestheskin on 06/11/2017

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Childhood, which is supposed to be the province of spontaneous play, has become highly administered, with parents and schools priming their human capital investments — children — for a merciless jobs market: “Between 1981 and 1997, elementary schoolers . . . recorded a whopping 146 per cent gain in time spent studying.”

FT link here

Rearranging the deckchairs

by reestheskin on 06/11/2017

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Woodrow Wilson once remarked that it is easier to change the location of a cemetery than it is to change a curriculum.

Via Jon Talbot, commenting on an article on the ?failures of online learning. I would only add the comment made by Henry Miller, in the context of medicine: curriculum reform, a disease of Deans.

Old university towns

by reestheskin on 27/10/2017

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I always find there is something appealing about old university towns. I am in Uppsala, a city I have visited for work on many occasions. Seems so small, and yet in reality it is Sweden’s fourth largest city. I was speaking at a mini-symposium on academic publishing, and how tech fits into the world of teaching clinical medicine.  But there is always some time to enjoy the sights— even as the days draw in. 

REF, TEF and now DEF

by reestheskin on 25/10/2017

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Yes, the Digestive Excellence Framework (DEF) fro PhD students. And as sensible, too.

Power

by reestheskin on 23/10/2017

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I came across these images from the late Antony Sampson’s series of books on “Who runs this place”. They were part of a fascinating presentation by Tom Loosemore on tech in government and inter alia the design of Universal Credit. A lot I didn’t know, and well worth a listen — even to somebody who used to make me rage with anger. But I write this, having just read the story over the weekend about how if you are on or below the poverty line, you have to pay 50p a minute for telephone advice**, whereas if you want to report ‘cheaters’ (other than bankers)  the phone line is free. Even inspirational thinking and coding cannot escape this sort of evil. In the context of politics, Nye Bevan knew what to call such people.

Check out the universities, academia and scientists in Sampson’s perceptual maps of power and influence over 40 years in the UK . The designs reflect the dates (top to bottom: 1962, 1980, 2004).

** telephone advice: an interesting example of how a technology allows you to charge for what once was free and a right of any citizen.


No HR solution available

by reestheskin on 19/10/2017

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This was a comment on on the political question of our time by Janesh Ganash in the FT, but to me it has a wider relevance, including how we think about higher education. Of course, people will keep perseverating, believing the contrary.

There is no human resources solution to an ideological problem.

Most lawyers don’t make anything except hours.

by reestheskin on 17/10/2017

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This was a quote from an article by an ex-lawyer who got into tech and writing about tech. Now some of by best friends are lawyers, but this chimed with something I came across by Benedict Evans on ‘why you must pay sales people commissions’. The article is here (the video no longer plays for me).

The opening quote poses a question:

I felt a little odd writing that title [ why you must pay sales people commissions]. It’s a little like asking “Why should you give engineers big monitors?” If you have to ask the question, then you probably won’t understand the answer. The short answer is: don’t, if you don’t want good engineers to work for you; and if they still do, they’ll be less productive. The same is true for sales people and commissions.

The argument is as follows:

Imagine that you are a great sales person who knows you can sell $10M worth of product in a year. Company A pays commissions and, if you do what you know you can do, you will earn $1M/year. Company B refuses to pay commissions for “cultural reasons” and offers $200K/year. Which job would you take? Now imagine that you are a horrible sales person who would be lucky to sell anything and will get fired in a performance-based commission culture, but may survive in a low-pressure, non-commission culture. Which job would you take?

But the key message for me is:

Speaking of culture, why should the sales culture be different from the engineering culture? To understand that, ask yourself the following: Do your engineers like programming? Might they even do a little programming on the side sometimes for fun? Great. I guarantee your sales people never sell enterprise software for fun. [emphasis mine].

Now why does all this matter? Well personally, it still matters a bit, but it matters less and less. I am towards the end of my career, and for the most part I have loved what I have done. Sure, the NHS is increasingly a nightmare place to work, but it has been in decline most of my life:  I would not recommend it unreservedly to anybody. But I have loved my work in a university. Research was so much fun for so long, and the ability to think about how we teach and how we should teach still gives me enormous pleasure: it is, to use the cliche, still what I think about in the shower. The very idea of work-life balance was — when I was young and middle-aged at least — anathema. I viewed my job as a creative one, and building things and making things brought great pleasure. This did not mean that you had to work all the hours God made, although I often did. But it did mean that work brought so much pleasure that the boundary between my inner life and what I got paid to do was more apparent to others than to me. And in large part that is still true.

Now in one sense, this whole question matters less and less to me personally. In the clinical area, many if not most clinicians I know now feel that they resemble those on commission more than the engineers. Only they don’t get commission. Most of my med school year who became GPs will have bailed out. And I do not envy the working lives of those who follow me in many other medical specialties in hospital. Similarly, universities were once full of academics who you almost didn’t need to pay, such was their love for the job. But modern universities have become more closed and centrally managed, and less tolerant of independence of mind.

In one sense, this might go with the turf — I was 60 last week. Some introspection, perhaps. But I think there really is more going on. I think we will see more and more people bailing out as early as possible (no personal plans, here), and we will need to think and plan for the fact that many of our students will bail out of the front line of medical practice earlier than we are used to. I think you see the early stirrings of this all over: people want to work less than full-time; people limit their NHS work vis a vis private work; some seek administrative roles in order to minimise their face-to-face practice; and even young medics soon after graduation are looking for portfolio careers. And we need to think about how to educate our graduates for this: our obligations are to our students first and foremost.

I do not think any of these responses are necessarily bad. But working primarily in higher education, has one advantage: there are lost of different institutions, and whilst in the UK there is a large degree of groupthink, there is still some diversity of approach. And if you are smart and you fall outwith the clinical guilds / extortion rackets, there is no reason to stay in the UK. For medics, recent graduates, need to think more strategically. The central dilemma is that depending on your specialty, your only choice might appear to be to work for a monopolist, one which seeks to control not so much the patients cradle-to-grave, but those staff who fall under its spell, cradle-to-grave. But there are those making other choices — just not enough, so far.

An aside. Of course, even those who have achieved the most in research do not alway want to work for nothing, post retirement. I heard the following account first hand from one of Fred Sanger’s previous post-docs. The onetime post-doc was now a senior Professor, charged with opening and celebrating a new research institution. Sanger — a double Laureate — would be a great catch as a speaker. All seemed will until the man who personally created much of modern biology realised the date chosen was a couple of days after he was due to retire from the LMB. He could not oblige: the [garden] roses need me more!

Left and right: where is the difference?

by reestheskin on 16/10/2017

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There are now more demands and requirements placed on higher education institutions than ever before. It’s an unlikely truism, but Conservative governments generally tend to seek to centralise and control universities – in Michael Barber’s language of how policy is made: It’s the difference between “Trust and Altruism” and “Choice and Competition” drifting into “Command and Control.”

Wonke newsletter 16 October 2017

Surpluses from teaching

by reestheskin on 12/10/2017

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Phil McNaull, director of finance at the University of Edinburgh and chair of the British Universities Finance Directors Group, says that “it has been clear for some time” that direct income for research “does not cover the full economic cost of conducting it, and the net deficit is subsidised by other sources”, such as surpluses from teaching.

Quoted in THE, (emphasis mine). Factually, this is true. It is a mistake to believe that the price of things, equates to how much they cost to produce. Look at the differential pricing of home and non-EU students, for instance. Or the gap between the component parts of an iPhone and the retail price. Or why most successful drugs only cost a fraction of what pharma claims is the cost of development. But the possibilities for some sort of arbitrage are there. And in an area in which agents make up their own standards (i.e. higher education), I think a lot more scrutiny is required.

Patents or graduates? I guess the latter are worth more.

Textbooks and curriculums

by reestheskin on 06/10/2017

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Students pay $300 or more for textbooks explaining that in competitive markets the price of a good should fall to the cost of producing an additional unit, and unsurprisingly regurgitate the expected answers. A study of 170 economics modules taught at seven universities found that marks in exams favoured the ability to “operate a model” over proofs of independent judgment.

The teaching of economics gets an overdue overhaul

So-called norms of so-called reality.

by reestheskin on 05/10/2017

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Just last week, when faced with a report that its advertising numbers promised an American audience that, in certain demographics, well exceeded the number of such humans in existence, judging by U.S. Census Bureau numbers, Facebook told the Wall Street Journal that its numbers “are not designed to match population or census estimates. We are always working to improve our estimates.” Facebook’s intercourse with the public need not adhere to the so-called norms of so-called reality.

Make Mark Zuckerberg Testify

LMS, and what the monks got right.

by reestheskin on 02/10/2017

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KellsFol200rGeneolgyOfChrist.jpg
Public Domain, Link

I dislike LMS (learning management systems). There are lots of reasons for this, but chief is that the ones I have seen are ugly and don’t entice. Universities are increasingly employee facing, rather than student facing (they claim the opposite). LMS are ‘management’ tools, not tools to help you learn. Fit for widgets, not humans. When you go back and look at Gutenberg’s bible or the great illuminated manuscripts you feel the power and pleasure of what the authors intended transmitted via the scribe. The monks understood this — they shared the passion. The web and nascent industry of informal learning for autodidacts is also full of great design (here is an example from Highbrow), even if it usually designed as part of a ‘pop culture’. But not the dismal corporate LMS.

Two cultures revisited

by reestheskin on 28/09/2017

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I now add the phrase “learning outcomes” to the list of words and phrases that should never be used, along with “stakeholders,” “imbricate,” “aporia” and “performative.”)

Here.

Its housing, but not as we know it.

by reestheskin on 13/09/2017

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The developers can get away with such things, because student housing doesn’t officially classify as housing. It falls into the murky category of “sui generis” (Latin for “of its own kind”). As it falls outside a specific use class, it doesn’t have to adhere to the usual standards associated with dwellings (class C3). Local authorities differ in the their approaches, but student accommodation is usually either treated as a hotel (C1) or residential institution (C2), the same category as care homes, hospitals and boarding schools. Due to their limited occupation, these building types are immune from many of the codes that govern residential dwellings – from space standards to daylight and acoustics. At the same time, crucially, the developer is exempt from providing any contribution towards affordable housing.

Guardian

The vandals in the cathedrals

by reestheskin on 08/09/2017

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“It’s not that the undergraduate education is better at Ivies than at other private universities. (In fact, Ivies almost certainly provide a worse education than many obscure liberal arts colleges that may have loose admissions standards but provide very intensive and personal instruction.) It does mean that, in the current budget situation, pretty much any private college will provide a much, much better education in the liberal arts and social sciences than any public university — except the rare ones that operate like liberal arts colleges, like William & Mary or SUNY-New Paltz.

This wasn’t always true. (In 1970, Berkeley spent 70 percent as much per student, from all funding sources, as Stanford. As of a few years ago the figure was 30 percent and now I bet it’s more like 20 percent. With those numbers, there’s no way that the private-public distinction is a matter of fancy gyms and climbing walls.) I wish it weren’t true now. And none of this necessarily means you’re wrong about how to fund higher education: subsidizing students to attend the Ivies in some ways may widen the gap I’ve just mentioned.”

Public vs. Private Universities: A Reply From the Trenches – Mother Jones

Boutique experience

by reestheskin on 29/08/2017

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So, you are interested in medical education? Discuss.

Profit over prophet

by reestheskin on 24/08/2017

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I actually found this quite witty. But it is more than that. It playfully raises some of those issues about education, assessment, and certification. I would love to say medical education has got this right, but I do not believe that. It is easy to list the problems, but hard to solve them. Numbers and formal systems will always be used by those who understand them least, to exile judgement.

  1. Foundational knowledge does exist, it is just not as common as many believe. Teachers, accreditors and other institutions always want to exaggerate the importance of foundational learning because they rent seek on it: the more there is, the more money they make. They will create a world which suits them. It is not just the world some of use live in.
  2. Assessment may drive learning, but assessment frequently wrecks the learning that is education. I post this on the day that the ‘O’ level results come out: education as a proxy war for  politicians seeking reelection.
  3. Demands for better ‘metrics’ will often come at the cost of what many consider most important. Defending exam procedures, may lead to a quasi- legalistic obsession with reliability at the expense of education. This is not a new problem, and is far broader than psychometrics and indeed permeates much science (see Cornfield, J., & Tukey, J. W. (1956). Average values of mean squares in factorials. The Annals of Mathematical Statistics, 27, 907–949). The danger is people think that metrics are ‘theory free’ and forget that in education (and many other domains) metrics causally alter subject behaviour.
  4. Education is about the future. Any designer or educator has to live in the future. And since most of have enough difficulty understanding the present, we can only see it using metaphor. Blake said it well: every honest man is a prophet. Universities increasingly like to spell that sound with different letters.

Dons no more

by reestheskin on 23/08/2017

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For British academics, and probably students too, the heyday of university life came straight after the Second World War. British universities, tiny and cosy by today’s standards, enjoyed enormous autonomy over degree content, expenditure and admissions. Wealthy Oxford and Cambridge enjoyed the highest prestige, but there was no fixed hierarchy, and the standards for a first-class degree seem genuinely to have been quite uniform across the sector.

None of this could survive rapid expansion.

Alison Wolf as ever talking sense. Terrific article.

Conspicuous education

by reestheskin on 11/08/2017

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Veblen’s conspicuous consumption rides on:

Rather than filling garages with flashy cars, the data show, today’s rich devote their budgets to less visible but more valuable ends. Chief among them is education for their children: the top 10% now allocate almost four times as much of their spending to school and university as they did in 1996, whereas for other groups the figure has hardly budged.

Book review in the Economist: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class. By Elizabeth Currid-Halkett

Chips, chips, chips. And more chips, please.

by reestheskin on 04/08/2017

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“Children say they prefer IT in their lessons and courses? Do schools listen when kids say they prefer chips for lunch every day?”

An understatement follows:

Education policy is particularly vulnerable to political whims, fads and untested assumptions. From swapping evolution for creationism to the idea that multiple types of intelligence demand multiple approaches, generations of children are schooled according to dogma, not evidence.

Amen to all that. And not just school children, but university students. The Nature article is referring to: original paper here (The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Paul A. Kirschnera, Pedro De Bruyckerec. DOI)

Undergraduate medical teaching

by reestheskin on 02/08/2017

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The survey found that UK medical schools employed 3041 full time equivalent clinical academic staff employed by UK medical schools, with a headcount of 3361. This is a 2.1% decline since 2015 and a 4.2% decline since 2010. By comparison, since 2010 the number of NHS consultants has risen by 20.6%.

(link here, from report here)

Reform of, and improving how we educate medical students requires a rethink of medical school staffing, and how clinical academics work. There are plenty of heads in the sand. I think you can improve education and drastically cut costs at the same time. Just stop accelerating into the rose tinted image in the rear view mirror.

First again!

by reestheskin on 27/07/2017

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“One-third of UK universities and colleges are awarding firsts to at least 25% of their students, four times as many as five years ago, figures show.”

Surprised this figure is not an input into the TEF……..