Higher education

Fast and slow

by reestheskin on 18/09/2019

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Chambers Street is closed for the filming of Fast and Furious 9, or so my regular barista at Bobby’s tells me. I was only was there a minute or two before it was shutting up shop time for this scene anyway. But even on this hurried snap you can see all the infrastructure necessary for a second or two of film — or an unused reel.

Last week, on a beach, I read The Pigeon Tunnel, reminisces by John let Carré,  one of my favorite authors. One of the themes is the solitary nature of much of his creation: the silent scribbling outwith this world, looking in. Another is the complexity and interconnectness of film making.

Which all makes my wonder about teaching, learning and education. Where do we belong?

Wellbeing

by reestheskin on 29/08/2019

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 Size matters

Pace my earlier post, The Economist writes about the increase in student numbers at many UK universities (and falls at others).

There is lots of variation, but in general elite institutions have been the biggest growers. Some, including Oxford and Cambridge, have chosen not to expand. But most prestigious universities have sucked up students, grateful for their fees, which subsidise research. The intake of British students at members of the Russell Group of older, research-focused universities has grown by 16% since restrictions were lifted. Some have ballooned. Bristol’s intake has shot up by 62%, Exeter’s by 61% and Newcastle’s by 43%.

Increases in intake do not automatically mean a worsening of what is on offer, but the difference between Oxbridge and the Russell group shout out at you: some are more equal than others.

The winners and losers of England’s great university free-for-all – Searching for students

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Education is an experience understood in tranquillity

Nice few words about Charles Handy in the Economist who has been recovering from a stroke. He has had to relearn walking, talking and swallowing.

As far as Mr Handy was concerned, the point of his hospital stay was to allow him to recover as fully as possible. That meant he needed to be up and about. In the view of the nurses, that was a potential problem; he might fall and hurt himself. Their priority was to keep him safe. In practice, that required him to stay in bed and keep out of trouble.

He mused on some themes all too familiar, namely how the organisational obsession with efficiency often results in organisations not being effective.

The purpose of education is to prepare children for later life, but all too often the focus is on getting the children to pass exams.

He saves some special words for Human Remains Resources:

As it is, there is a temptation to try to turn people into things by calling them “human resources”. Call someone a resource, and it is a small step to assuming that they can be treated like a thing, subject to being controlled and, ultimately, dispensed with when surplus to requirements.

(The most egregious example of the above is how NHS management refer to preregistration doctors as ‘ward resources’ rather than doctors who are apprenticed to other doctors.)

Sadly his knowledge of the type of modern corporation we call ‘universities’ is out of date.

Indeed, Mr Handy argues that most organisations whose principal assets are skilled people, such as universities or law firms, tend not to use the term “manager”. Those in charge of them are called deans, directors or partners. Their real job is best described as leadership rather than management. And one of the primary functions of leadership is setting the right purpose for an organisation.

If only.

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“I have wasted a lot of time living”

John Gray on Michael Oakeshott

He would have found the industrial-style intellectual labour that has entrenched itself in much of academic life over the past twenty-odd years impossible to take seriously. He wrote for himself and anyone else who might be interested; it is unlikely that anyone working in a university today could find the freedom or leisure that are needed to produce a volume such as this. Writing in 1967, Oakeshott laments, ‘I have wasted a lot of time living.’ Perhaps so, but as this absorbing selection demonstrates, he still managed to fit in a great deal of thinking.

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Shorting the truth.

by reestheskin on 21/08/2019

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Awhile back I was sat in a cafe close to the university campus. I couldn’t help but listen in on the conversation of a few students who were discussing various aspect of university life, and their own involvement in student politics. I couldn’t warm to them: they were boorish and reminded me of a certain Prime Minister. But I did find myself in agreement on one point: many UK universities are too big and if you are really serious about undergraduate education, you need smaller institutions than is the norm in the Russell group. You can have large institutions and teach well — the Open University is the classic example historically — but Russell group universities are not designed for the same purpose.

A few months back there was an interview in the Guardian with Michael Arthur, the Vice Chancellor of University College, London (UCL). In it he said some extraordinary things. Not extraordinary in the sense that you have might not have heard them before, or that they were difficult to grasp. Just extraordinary in their banality of purpose.

UCL like many universities in the UK has and will continue to rapidly expand undergraduate student numbers. The interviewer asked him whether or not UCL was not already too big. Arthur replied:

“We want to be a global player,” says Arthur. “Round the world, you’re seeing universities of 90,000, 100,000 students. If you have critical mass, you can create outstanding cross-disciplinary research on things like climate change. You can do research that makes a difference.” He mentions a treatment recently developed at UCL that makes HIV, the virus that causes Aids, untransmittable. If UCL didn’t increase student numbers, thus maximising fee revenue, such research would have to be cut back. “To me,” Arthur says, “that is unthinkable.”

The tropes are familiar to those who have given up serious thinking and have short attention spans: ‘global player’, ‘critical mass’, ‘cross disciplinary’, ‘make a difference’, and so on. Then there is the ‘maximising fee revenue’ so that research is not cut back — “that is unthinkable”

Within the sector it is widely recognised that universities lose money on research. In the US in the Ivy League, endowments buffer research and in some institutions, teaching. In the UK, endowments outwith Oxbridge are modest, and student fees fund much research. As research volume and intensity increases, the need for cross subsidy becomes ever greater. This is of course not just within subjects, but across the university and faculties.

That universities lose money on research is a real problem. For instance, in medicine much research is funded by charities who do not pay the full costs of that research. Governments pretend they fill this gap, but I doubt that is now the case. Gaps in research funding are therefore being made up out of the funds that are allocated to educate doctors, or students in other subjects. And anybody who has been around UK universities for a while knows that a lot of the research — especially in medicine — would have at one time being classed as the D of R&D. This sort of work is not what universities are about: it is just that the numbers are so large that they flatter the ‘research figures’ for the REF (research excellence framework).

Pace the students in the cafe, few can mount any argument that once you have grown beyond several thousand students that the student experience and student learning worsen. Phrases such as ‘research-led teaching’ and ‘exposure to cutting edge research’ are common, but the reality is that there is little evidence to support them in the modern university. They are intended as fig leaves to mask some deeper stirrings. Arthur states that it ‘would be unthinkable’ to cut back on research. He may believe that, but I doubt if his self-righteousness is shared by the majority of students who spend much of their lives paying off student debts.

A few years ago, whilst on a flight to Amsterdam, I chatted with a physicist from a Dutch university. We talked about teaching and research. He was keen on the idea of situating institutions that resembled US liberal arts colleges (as in small colleges) within bigger and more devolved institutions. I doubt that would be practical in the UK — the temptation for the centre to steal the funds is something VCs (Vice Chancellors not Venture Capitalists, that is) would not be able to resist. The late Roger Needham, a distinguished Professor of Computing at Cambridge, and former head of Microsoft Research in Cambridge, pointed out that most IP generated by universities was trivial and that the most important IP we produced were educated and smart students. He was perhaps talking about PhDs and within certain domains of knowledge, but I will push beyond that. Educating students matters.

And contrary to what Arthur thinks many of the world’s best universities have far fewer students than UCL even before its recent metastatic spread.

It’s the economy stupid!

The main story is about an ‘anti-vaxxer’ who had informed the university that he/she was opposed to receiving any vaccinations, but the university had not noticed or acted upon this advice till after the student had started univeristy. Cardiff university were ordered to pay £9K to the anti-vaxxer healthcare student.

Cardiff ordered to pay £9K to anti-vaxxer healthcare student | Times Higher Education (THE)

But this caught my eye even more.

In a separate case summary, also published on 1 July, the OIA said that it had told Wrexham Glyndwr University to compensate eight students who had complained about the quality of a healthcare-related course.

The watchdog said that the students had complained that a key part of the course had not been taught as promised, meaning that they were not given the necessary skills to practise safely. Some teaching hours were cancelled for some modules, and the group also complained about the behaviour of a staff member, who they said was “unapproachable and aggressive”.

The OIA, which ruled that the complaint was partly justified, said that Glyndwr should refund tuition fees of £2,140 to each student, and pay an additional £1,500 compensation to each of them for the inconvenience caused.

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Did you enjoy Uni?

“The job prospects outweigh three years of misery.”

The Economist | The glum ones

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The pleasures of tenure

Mr Sammallahti is not a recluse, nor lacking in ambition. He travels the world taking photographs; a book, “Here Far Away”, was published in 2012; another, of bird pictures, comes out later this year. But he shuns the art scene, believing that commercial pressures undermine quality. He does not lecture and rarely gives interviews. In 1991 he received an unprecedented 20-year grant from the Finnish government. Its sole condition was that he should concentrate on photography, so he gave up teaching. “I want to work in peace,” he explains, “to be free to fail.”

Economist

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TEF or REF?

Smith was supported by earnings from his professorship at Glasgow, where a university teacher’s earnings depended on fees collected directly from students in the class. This contrasted with Oxford, where Smith had spent six unhappy years, and where, he observed, the dons had mostly given up even the pretence of teaching.

But Smith relinquished his professorship in 1763, and the writing of ‘Wealth…’ and the remainder of his career was financed by the Duke of Buccleuch, who as a young man employed Smith as a tutor.

Is there more to Adam Smith than free markets? | Financial Times

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Transfer

A not wildly unsurprising comment to anybody in the ‘modern’ university.  A comment Russ Roberts made in an interview with David Epstein.

I want to share my favourite course evaluation when I used to teach in the classroom. So, I got a 1 from this student, on a scale of 1 to 5 (where 5 is good and 1 is bad)…. a 1 is really demoralising. So, I look at it:

What does the student say? “This course was very unfair. Professor Roberts expected us to apply the material to things we had never seen before.”

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Manchester is the clearest portrait of this new educational-industrial complex.

The Manchester model: universities lead urban revival | Financial Times

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[University] teaching awards seemed to have been added like sticking plasters to organisations whose values lay elsewhere.

Graham Gibbs, Item Number 41, 2016, SEDA

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What universities are about

by reestheskin on 08/04/2019

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James Williams worked at Google in a senior role for ten years, but has moved into philosophy at Oxford (for the money obviously….). He has written a wonderful short book, with the title “Stand out of our Light”. The name comes from a humorous account of a meeting between Diogenes and Alexander the Great (no spoilers, here).

His book is a critique of much digital technology that — to use his analogy — does not act as an honest GPS, but instead entices you along paths that make your journay longer. All in the name of capturing your attention, such that you are deflected from your intentions.

He starts chapter 3, with something comical and at the same time profound.

When I told my mother I was moving to the other side of the planet to study technology ethics at a school that’s almost three times as old as my country, she asked, “Why would you go somewhere so old to study something so new? In a way the question contained its own answer.

For me that is the power of the academic ideal.

Turn-it-around

by reestheskin on 02/04/2019

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A couple of articles from the two different domains of my professional life made me riff on some old memes. The first, was an article in (I think) the Times Higher about the fraud detection software Turnitin. I do not have any firsthand experience with Turnitin (‘turn-it-in’), as most of our exams use either clinical assessments or MCQs. My understanding is that submitted summative work is uploaded to Turnitin and the text compared with the corpus of text already collected. If strong similarities are present, the the work might be fraudulent. A numerical score is provided, but some interpretation is necessary, because in many domains there will be a lot of ‘stock phrases’ that are part of domain expertise, rather than evidence of cheating. How was the ‘corpus’ of text collected? Well, of course, from earlier student texts that had been uploaded.

Universities need to pay for this service, because in the age of massification, lecturers do not recognise the writing style of the students they teach. (BTW, as Graham Gibbs has pointed out, the move from formal supervised exams to course work has been a key driver of grade inflation in UK universities).

I do not know who owns the rights to the texts students submit, nor whether they are able to assert any property rights. There may be other companies out there apart from Turnitin, but you can see easily see that the more data they collect, the more powerful their software becomes. If the substrate is free, then the costs relate to how powerful their algorithms are. It is easy to imagine how this becomes a monopoly. However, if copies of all the submitted texts are kept by universities then collectively it would make it easier for a challenger to enter the field. But network effects will still operate.

The other example comes from medicine rather than education. The FT ran a story about the use of ‘machine learning’ to diagnose retinal scans. Many groups are working on this, but this report was about Moorfields in London. I think I read that as the work was being commercialised, then the hospital would have access to the commercial software free of charge. There are several issues, here.

Although, I have no expert knowledge in this particular domain, I know a little about skin cancer diagnosis using automated methods. First, the clinical material and annotation of clinical material is absolutely rate limiting. Second, once the system is commercialised, the more any subsequent images can be uploaded the better you would imagine the system will become. This of course requires further image annotation, but if we are interesting in improving diagnosis, we should keep enlarging the database if the costs of annotation are acceptable. As in the Turnitin example, the danger is that the monopoly provider becomes ever more powerful. Again, if the image use remains non-exclusive, then it means there are lower barriers to entry.

All in the stars

The story is about the ‘approval’ by the Norwegian higher education regulator of courses in astrology. The justification is interesting, relying on the fact that “astrologers had good employment prospects”. So that is alright then. To be fare the regulators argue that the can only enforce the ‘law’, as is. You can find similar such goings on close to the homes of many of us in the UK. (Time Higher Education, 28th March, 2019).

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Our backpacks contained some clothes, but they were mainly stuffed with dreams.

In July 1972, my wife Maureen and I jumped in a Mini Traveller and left England heading east. I’d just graduated from London Business School with an MBA, and the plan was we’d travel as far as that £65 car would carry us. Times change; these days MBA graduates emerge with a backpack full of debts and need to start earning fast to pay them off. Our backpacks contained some clothes, but they were mainly stuffed with dreams. That dirt-cheap car carried us all the way to Afghanistan.

The long journey of Lonely Planet

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The learned professions

by reestheskin on 19/02/2019

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Quoted in Carel Stolker, ‘Rethinking the Law School’ 

According to a British survey among first‐year law students, the word that best reflects the students’ general attitude is ‘disengaged’. This disengagement is caused particularly by the lack of human connection in almost every educational practice, from teaching methods to our formal assessments. There is extraordinarily little formal human interaction in our first year.

This is a business model. Just not one you would want to emulate. At least Stolker’s home institution, Leiden, has an excuse.

You have to see this stuff…

by reestheskin on 13/02/2019

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This is from an article in the THE. Catherine Heymans is a physicist at the University of Edinburgh, who works on “dark energy”. She is planning to leave the UK to work in Germany (yes, Brexit). But what caught my eye was this quote describing one of those lightbulb moments (pun intended)

QuestionAs a physics undergraduate, how did you feel when the theory of dark energy first emerged?

Heymans: ‘It was 9am, and I was sat in a lecture theatre waiting for our lecturer to turn up – he was late. Eventually he ran into the room and said: “We’re not going to be studying high-energy astrophysics today, because the most amazing paper has just been published – you have to see this stuff.” It was new data that showed that the expansion of the universe was getting faster and faster, which could only be explained by extra, unseen “dark energy” in the universe.

It is an interesting test for whether you believe in the ‘research led teaching’ trope. Or is it: will this be in the exam?

The abusive debt

by reestheskin on 09/01/2019

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A beginner’s guide to student loans in the public accounts | Wonkhe | Analysis 

Bluntly, the main motive for replacing the teaching grant by loans is an accounting trick. There is an apparent decline in public spending, but at the cost of distorting higher education policy … Thus the changes look like a dodgy [Private] Finance Initiative” – Barr, 2012

Well written piece on the loan scandal in Wonkhe by Nicholas Barr. In the language of the laymen, the government is fiddling the books, and dumping the costs on future taxpayers. It fiddles because it wants to mislead, for gain.

He goes on:

higher education finance has elements of a bubble. If I were a Vice-Chancellor, this aspect would give me sleepless nights.

Guarded language — fair enough — but it is not just a financial bubble. Let us just see how this year pans out.

Talk with the students:whatever next?

by reestheskin on 04/01/2019

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Mary Midgley a Newcastle based philosopher died a fews ago. An obituary in the FT is here. I remember once attending a debate between her and Sam Shuster on the use of animals in medical research. I thought her both strange, and awe inspiring. I am probably now more sympathetic to her views expressed then, than I was at the time,

I then found a “Lunch with the FT” with her, which referred to her husband academic philosopher, Geoffrey Midgley.

While at Oxford, she met her husband Geoffrey, who also lectured in philosophy, and she followed him to Newcastle in 1950. She has lived there since. (Geoffrey Midgley died in 1997.) “I know academics are supposed to be buzzing off to America and all that sort of thing but Geoffrey wasn’t at all interested in that. He just wanted to sit in the common room and talk to his students. It’s so important to do that, colossally educational.”

As one Oxford university scholar and administrator courted by the Gulf, who is against satellite campuses, puts it: “We have open doors, but they are our doors.”

[Link]

Gresham’s law redux

by reestheskin on 19/12/2018

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UK regulator warns on degree grade inflation | Financial Times

The OFS report on degree class awards at UK English unviersities has attracted lots of press attention today. Rightly so. But the report looks back only a decade. One commentator (bd d’Avranche)  in the FT urges us to delve a little deeper:

Please take the research back to 1980 and then prepare to be astounded.

Alison Wolff has written somewhere that the quality of what constituted a particular award was, not so long ago, fairly consistent across UK universities. No longer. Academics should hold their heads in shame, as they have shorted what many of us hold most dear about higher education.

Maxim 2 of 2

by reestheskin on 11/12/2018

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If you can reliably assess knowledge and capabilities within a standardised and regulated framework it is not education.

Maxim 1 of 2

by reestheskin on 08/12/2018

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Any real education is incapable of robust widely accepted psychometric assessment that will satisfy a professional regulator.

The academy and asymmetric information.

by reestheskin on 06/12/2018

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Paul Romer on the Unrivaled Joy of Scholarship (Ep. 55)

Great interview with Paul Romer over at Conversations with Tyler. Romer won the Nobel prize for economics this year, and has had a wonderfully varied career (academic; founder of a software company that produces computer assisted learning material (Aplia); and time at the World bank. There are some earlier statements by him about education  on my web page.

What caught my eye in this interview was:

“We should always remember that the education business is one of the ones that has the biggest problems with asymmetric information. A young person who pays somebody to educate them is very dependent on the decisions that the educator makes about “Study this, go in this direction.”

……

“I think that the problem in higher ed is that the institutional incentives don’t provide the kind of training that would maximize the opportunities for the students or, for that matter, maximize outcomes for the nation.”

Indeed:  in many ways, the situation is even worse than in medicine.

Not so much compatible scholarship as built to order

by reestheskin on 05/12/2018

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Well, no surprises here.

DfE study of English universities’ costs seen as path to fee cut | Times Higher Education (THE)

The UK Department for Education has commissioned accountants KPMG to conduct a study of how much it costs universities to teach their students, in a move seen by some as a potential mechanism to lower the tuition fee cap in England.

The world is full of ‘compatible scholarship’ (Noam Chomsky’s phrase I think). But if you want to be 100% certain that the results are built to order, then you need professional service firms — just look at their track record! Academics come cheap, so only use them when you are not too worried about the results.

What drives graduate student numbers?

by reestheskin on 05/12/2018

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Interesting to sees the levers of scale. This is a piece about expansion at Harvard (the Allston expansion), drives by the shift to science and engineering (the proportion of students choosing applied math, computer science or engineering has gone from 6 to 20% (of the total annual intake of 2000 students)

Harvard’s Allston expansion ‘the next great innovation centre’ | Times Higher Education (THE)

The shift in student preferences towards science and engineering is creating a far greater net need for space than would be created by growth in other fields. More science and engineering students means more academics and classes, which in turn means more graduate students to help teach those undergraduates, which in turn means more lab space to house the graduate students [emphasis mine].

On being a para-academic, and the tyranny of counting

by reestheskin on 04/12/2018

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From an article in the THE, talking about Katherine Randell.

Scholars who write children’s literature | Times Higher Education (THE)

Rundell, whose books have already won several prizes, is a fellow of All Souls College in Oxford and describes herself as a “para-academic”. She is not required to submit work to the research excellence framework but is researching a book about the poet John Donne as well as preparing an edition of his works.

I return to something Larry Lessig said:

I would push hard to resist the tyranny of counting. There is no necessary connection between ease of counting and the production of education. [as in ‘likes’ etc after leaving lecture hall etc]. And so it will be easy for the institution to say this is what we should be doing but we need to resist that to the extent that that kind of counting isn’t actually contributing to education. The best example of this, I am sure many of you know are familiar with this, is the tyranny of counting in the British educational system for academics, where everything is a function of how many pages you produce that get published by journals. So your whole scholarship is around this metric which is about counting something which is relatively easy to count. All of us have the sense that this cant be right. That can’t be the way to think about what is contributing to good scholarship.

Well, much — but not all — of UK Higher Ed is little concerned with scholarship.

Sinking not swimming.

by reestheskin on 30/11/2018

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At my old university, we were encouraged to explore our subjects and to love what we were studying. Now, at medical school, the emphasis seems to be don’t burnout, focus on not making mistakes, and understand that life is going to be hard, so develop the resilience to cope.

The above is from a letter to this month’s Academic Medicine [83(12) 1745-1884, 2018] written by a graduate student at Warwick medical school (TC Shortland). The title is what caught my eye: “Enjoying, and Not Just Surviving, Medical School”

He goes on:

At Warwick Medical School, staff and students are trying to build a more positive environment. Staff and students have organized art classes, interstaff/ student sports events, and several baking competitions; the last winner featured cupcakes that could be injected with either a salted caramel or raspberry filling. As positive health care workplaces and positive cultures are associated with better patient outcomes,why shouldn’t medical schools try and create such environments for future medical professionals?

I am not against the various suggestions (…well, I am actually), but what I and others are in despair about is how much (?most) medical education has become so dull, tedious, and brutal, rather than humane. When I have spoken to others, some hold similar views: the students put up with it, because they want to be doctors, but they no not enjoy most of it. If they are obliged to attend, they do; but out of choice, many would skip much of what we offer.

Now this is not a new thought or phenomenon. I didn’t enjoy — in fact I actively hated — the preclinical years (aka: the prescientific years) — but I did get a big kick out of the clinical years, and loved my intercalated degree. What made the clinical years work, was that the opportunity for some kind of personal  bond with some teaching staff made up for all the despots and dull souls who should have been destined to be gravediggers. And unless somebody has recently discovered something I have missed, scale and intimacy rarely go together.

Of course, what makes matters worse, is that the ennui and anomie will get worse: for many junior doctors, after the initial high of being qualified, their working jobs are miserable. If they get to higher training, things may improve, but not for all.

George Steiner’s comments in a slightly different context are apposite:

“Bad teaching is, almost literally, murderous and, metaphorically, a sin. It diminishes the student, it reduces to gray inanity the subject being presented. It drips into the child’s or the adult’s sensibility that most corrosive of acids, boredom, the marsh gas of ennui.”

The NHS (for this is the fault of the NHS rather thant the universities) is accumulating a massive moral debt, borrowing on the very market it has rigged (because it can!), forgetting that this is like PFI on steroids. It assumes it is too big to fail: I think otherwise.

Hemingway:

How did you go bankrupt: slowly and then suddenly.