Rethinking HE?

Something has been making me uneasy recently in the thinking I am seeing around HE in "the current climate" (2 points for that phrase, right?). Obviously I only see a tiny corner of the debate and I don't read every blog post, but many in my twitter echochamber (5 points?) will recognise the issues below.

Who am I to talk?

I don't teach, but I have trained people. I'm not an academic, but I work in HE. I'm not a researcher but I know bad research when I see it. So I have a stake in this rethink in HE, not as an academic myself but as someone working in HE for 12 years. I should probably add that I myself did a Joint Hons in Philosophy and Literature (UEA), chaired the debating society, and set up a philosophy society. I love universities, right? Lets be clear about that. I care about HE.

But in a rather unacademic and unstructured order … here's some of what I think I think (I think) …

"Learning for learning's sake"

Ok, so you know Maslow's heirarchy? Well learning for learning's sake is right at the top of that. It's great. But it can only happen if all the other stages have been gone through, if the learner has some knowledge and skills to build on. This is probably Bloom's taxonomy or something, right? The buzz at the top is immense, I love it too. We should aim for it, it should be available to anyone with the lust to reach it. Children should be encouraged to keep that lust. Poorer students should be heavily subsidised and supported to reach the top. The top is important. But you can't built an education system around it.

The crisis is real (of course it's man-made)

There *is* a funding crisis. It's human-created, as all economic crises are. Nothing inevitable about the measures being taken: the UK government has decided that public expenditure must be cut (or appear to be cut), and that marketisation (aka privatisation) is the answer to … what? costs? quality? choice? flexibility? All of them at once, wham bam thankyou mam, know why didn't those stupid public sector drones think of that? (see a previous post).

This government is not going to wake up and change its mind about its fundamental perspective on publicly funded services: its agenda is very clear. We could be ostriches about it, we could provide as much marxist critique as we like, we can protest for sure, but we can't ignore that this is happening. We have to engage in decisions about priorities. Which brings me on to …

Education is social

An education system, as opposed to private tutors or charity-run schools of previous centuries, an education *system* is a social choice, funded by taxes, to invest in education. What does society need the system to do? Make children into adult citizens, workers (specialists and generalists), parents and carers. These are social priorities, not just those of businesses. Hospitals, GP surgeries, law courts, social work departments etc need specialist workers too. They are employers too. To equate "employer" with "souless capitalist" as some comments I've seen have implied, is to ignore that public services are huge employers themselves.

HE and employment

When universities educate doctors and civil engineers and broadcast journalists, they are not just teaching them facts, or just encouraging their lust for learning, they are teaching them how to do skilled jobs requiring specialist knowledge and practices.

The fact that I graduated without any suitable skills to get me a job is NOT ok. Why should society support me doing three years following my lust, for me to fail the office angels test and have to lie my way into an admin job? I only managed to step onto the ladder of meaningful employment because I was lucky enough to get a job as a university research administrator working for a very forgiving staff development expert who tactfully registered me on an MS Office course on my second day.

Seriously, that is NOT ok. I was an engaged student, I worked in the bookshop and as an admin temp all through university. I should have been forced to do modules on common software, presentation skills, meetings, copyediting: the sorts of thing english graduates needed to know in the 90s when I graduated. Employability matters. It doesn't matter for the people at the top of the pile who's parents will arrange them internships. But it mattered to me.

We should value FE more

I went to FE college and a school sixth form at the same time, and ended up with 2 A levels from each. They were on the same campus but they were worlds apart. I wouldn't say the sixth form was any more academically rigorous than the FE college. College was a much better preparation for life, work and study than sixth form ever was. I can well imagine doing A levels then a degree at college, and providing the college was allowed to pay enough for good staff, I could have emerged with the same employability prospects as I did from university. The value of my degree only started to emerge 5-10 years into my working life. And I have been doing very thought-intensive jobs.

Decisions today

The financial situation today makes things different. What would I say to younger Amber if I met her today (in a feat of time travel)? Go to college. Work. Try to meet someone and have babies when you're young. (I'd also say: rent, don't buy, but that's another unwritten blog post). Then, when you'll really enjoy it, maybe when the kids are at school, go to university. Change path then. Strangely this is what my own mum did, she works for a university now and and she really does operate in the top of the triangle.


The learning technologist field is full of exciting new ways of teaching and learning. A disproportionate amount of examples of this brave new world come from masters-level cohorts, experimental settings, very well funded projects, very self-motivated learners, very motivated teachers/academics. These projects show how high up the triangle you can go with the right people in the right circumstances. Before they start trumpeting their success and calling for everyone to adopt their approaches they should be asking: is it scaleable? is it affordable? is it a priority? . Someone will have to make that decision. To flip the bird at the establishment for not taking on their innovations is to ignore that education system is social. In schools and colleges, and until recently in FE, it is about public expenditure and someone has to assess whether the innovation can be adopted on a wider scale.

Progress is often slower and more evolutionary than the thought leaders would like it to be, but progress is a long game. MOOCs, for example, are cool. Great.  But do they meet the public expenditure test? I don't think so. Sorry for being a killjoy. Perhaps they will in 5 years. So carry on, go for it, enjoy it, develop the models. And yes, get special funding to do it. But (as I said in my post on why open education is dangerous) don't equate "good" with "priority" – there are doctors to be trained out of these budgets too.

I think thats what I think (I think). I might have to lay low on twitter for a bit now, while I shield myself from the response.

My food for thought: Most recently I was prompted to write this post by this post from Mark Johnson which caught my attention. See this David Wiley post and comments an illustration of these sorts of debates, and my sparring partner David Kernohan's blog for the other side, along with Richard Hall's blog . And in the background, the wonderful Purpose/ed campaign which I have spectacularly failed to contribute to (until now, perhaps)


3 thoughts on “Rethinking HE?

  1. Hi Amber,
    Thanks for this post. I agree with a lot of what you have said, disagree with a couple of points, and have what I suspect is one major difference in terms of priorities.
    I noticed the list of employers you chose who aren’t of the soulless capitalist variety. Perhaps not soulless, but not public sector either – GPs own and run surgeries, and they are self employed, and although lawyers don’t own the law courts, their involvement in that system makes me think that neither of these, to my mind over paid (on average), examples fit your argument particularly well. Increasingly few organisations, in fact, do. There used to be water authorities, the electricity and gas industries – organisations which needed skilled workers, but these days, the public sector has fewer and fewer (and soon to be fewer still!).
    Public services employ a disproportionately high number of the graduates we produce. To be honest, I am not quite sure why. Partly, I think, because of a regime of academic inflation which has been going on for a couple for decades. But the chances of them continuing to recruit a high number of graduates appears low, for the time being at least.
    But anyway, when a university teaches (or, I would say in general, trains) people to be doctors, civil engineers or broadcast journalists it is, pretty much, training them for private sector work. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course, except that personally I feel that it is wrong for society to be footing the bill to swell the profit margins of the private sector. I don’t think that is what people do actually want to spend their taxes on, in general. Similarly with research funding – the current emphasis is on using tax payers money to fund research which will have a commercial application. To my mind, that is precisely what the the tax payers money should not be spent on.
    But that is really an aside. I think the biggest difference between our concepts of what HE should provide is that I would say it should be *higher*. Many of the ‘transferable’ skills (preparing and delivering presentations, writing a CV, using Word and the web) are things which I would say are essentially mundane skills which should be taught in compulsory education. If someone comes to a Uni without them, sure, make sure there are facilities for enabling them to learn these skills, but please don’t make them part of a curriculum.
    The ‘current climate’ is an opportunity for change. I think it is an opportunity for changing the view of the education system, so that the basic skills get taught first (so, literacy, numeracy, ‘digital literacy’, social literacy, how to learn etc). People should be entering HE with these skills where it is at all feasible. HE *should* be there to enable people to think across boundaries, to take their depth of knowledge (whatever that is!) a step further and to develop a level of self-appraisal and self-development which can enable them to be thought leaders and continue their own education throughout their lives.
    The in-depth technical courses are not really the same sort of ‘thing’, to my mind. Vocational training is not the same as education, and it seems reasonable to me for them to be separated and delivered by different institutions, with different funding models. Maybe that’s just me; but if the opportunity were to be grasped, I think an education system which focussed on these principles would fairly quickly lead to it being Society’s preference too.
    As for MOOCs I have no idea what they cost. In theory, they should be very cheap to run – I guess if they aren’t seen as meeting the public expenditure test then that implies they don’t deliver anything of value to the public.

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