Posts Tagged ‘higher education’

The Business of Knowledge

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

Hot on the trail of the Browne Report, Philip Dodd hosted a wide-ranging debate with a group of educational policy makers as part of the BBC’s Free Thinking series, in association with the University of Sunderland. The Business of Knowledge: What do we really want from universities and graduates in the 21st century? was held at the National Glass Centre and broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Night Waves on 28 October. Here’s a summary of the key arguments:

HE Funding

James Tooley (Professor of Education Policy, Newcastle University)

  • State funding is stifling innovation
  • Liberate universities from the state – let them be independent and autonomous
  • Many universities were founded from private initiatives
  • Welfare state model ‘crowds out’ philanthropy
  • Promote a mix of learner-, private- and business-driven investment

Bahram Bekhradnia (Director, Higher Education Policy Institute)

  • State withdrawal of funding is unacceptable
  • US public investment (based on GDP) is 50% greater than UK

Nicola Dandridge (Chief Executive, Universities UK)

  • Public funding for public good
  • Underfunding (whether private or public) is the key concern

Paul Callaghan (University of Sunderland Board of Governors)

  • Cannot let the market decide – develop strategies based on balanced funding between public and private sector
  • Recognise the role of the university in the region and society as a whole
  • Traditional philanthropic contributions in the UK have concentrated on university infrastructure not scholarship

Learning Practices

Nicola Dandridge

  • Liberal arts education – challenge the increasing polarity of arts and sciences
  • Promote the criticality of humanities education

Bahram Bekhradnia

  • Changes in learning practices difficult in a pressurised 3-year degree model

Paul Callaghan

  • Promote skillsets primarily related to employment

James Tooley

  • Exposure to a university environment leads to voluntary learning in a wide range of contexts

Learning Equality

Nicola Dandridge

  • Universities are committed to equality – the key problem is a poverty of aspiration in schools
  • Social division – 3-year traditional course will become the privileged route of the elite

Paul Callaghan

  • Withdrawal of public funding will lead to 2-tier system

Nature of Knowledge

Nicola Dandridge

  • Knowledge will be everywhere and fragmented
  • Universities need to become less the purveyors of knowledge – more the facilitators enabling critical learning
  • Greater reliance on IT / e-learning
  • But students still require the physical learning community of a campus environment

Bahram Bekhradnia

  • Investment in training skilled staff to facilitate new knowledge appropriation

James Tooley

  • Liberate the learner from the teacher

Educational Systems

James Tooley

  • Maintaining the status quo will leave UK universities behind overseas universities

Paul Callaghan

  • Shift way from the 3-year model towards more part time and modular education
  • University reputation based on curriculum and accreditation
  • Greater numbers of students at universities are required to compete on a global scale

Bahram Bekhradnia

  • Part time students suffer greater failure rates

Nicola Dandridge

  • We are a knowledge economy – expansion in HE is critical

International Students

Nicola Dandridge

  • Greater investment in universities overseas will lead to less international students physically moving to UK

Paul Callaghan

  • Develop more collaborative partnerships

James Tooley

  • Increased investment overseas will diminish UK universities reputation and ability to attract international students

(More on) Education and Training in HE

Sunday, October 31st, 2010

Further to my previous post on the role of vocational training in Higher Education, I was struck by this refreshingly measured perspective on education and training by A C Grayling – Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London – writing in the New Statesmen.

In response to impending spending cuts in the humanities, Grayling asks us to question the fundamental role of Higher Education. Addressing the current ‘hybrid’ nature of universities, he argues for a balance between training and what he calls ‘proper’ education:

“Engineers and biochemists can benefit from thinking about ethics and politics (they might find themselves working in the oil industry in developing countries where already vulnerable lives might be adversely affected by what they do). In the other direction, literary scholars can benefit from training in logic and the social sciences… both training and education are necessary. To fail to explain to someone the point of being trained in a skill is to halve its value, while to invite people to reflect and discuss if they know little and cannot reason is futile. But are engineers taught ethics? Are students of literature schooled in logic?”

This, argues Grayling, requires a “proper mixture of training and education that advanced study should deliver.” Yet a Higher Education that is increasingly driven by models of economic efficiency and scientific bias can only lead to restrictions in both time and resources, squeezing out opportunities for critical and reflective learning.

In a comment on my previous post, Virginia Yonkers expressed concern over prevailing business-orientated approaches to education in the US, at the expense of “the development of future members of our society… new solutions to problems, fairness in the distribution of resources, and an engaged civil society.”

In a similar vein, Grayling concludes by suggesting:

“Society certainly needs engineers, physicists, doctors, computer specialists, biochemists and geologists. But it also needs its lawyers, journalists, politicians, civil servants, writers, artists and teachers – and it needs everyone on both sides of the science-humanities divide to be a thoughtful voter, good neighbour, loving parent, responsible citizen. In short, society needs to have a civilised conversation with itself about its values and about what is to be learned from the experience of mankind.”

The Role of Vocational Training in Higher Education

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

The massification of Higher Education has effected a huge and seemingly irreversible shift in the custodianship of many former vocational training programmes. Recounting the pivotal moment polytechnics were given reign to assume university status and award degrees, Ilana Bet-El, writing in The Guardian, makes an impassioned plea for the sanctity of traditional university scholarship:

“The true and unchanging purpose of universities is to study, think and research: to be removed from the immediate demands and overwhelming directives of everyday life, in the so-called ivory tower, in order to better understand its logic, needs and possibilities. In this way it both enriches society and benefits state and economy.”

I studied Technical Illustration for my first degree; a highly specialised subject, requiring equally specialised studio-based and ICT-based training. At the time, Blackpool and the Fylde College was the only institution in the UK to offer it as a degree (amongst a smattering of purely vocational two-year higher diplomas elsewhere). Admittedly, the academic element of the degree was highly modular; sort of ‘tagged on’ rather than integrated into the formal programme, not least in the form of Contextual Studies, where Converse trainers-wearing John Donaldson taught us Berger, Fiske and Barthes.

I left Blackpool as a highly competent technical illustrator with computer software expertise that would be largely obsolete within a year. I also came away with an A+ dissertation on football fanzines (yes, really) and an appetite for academic study, which I was delighted to resume four years later. Whenever I’m asked what is the best thing about my experiences in Higher Education, I always refer to the opportunities I’ve had to study alongside people from other countries and cultures, and engage with people from different disciplines and with different perspectives. Whilst these conditions are not exclusive to a university environment, they form an important and integral part of the learning process and academic experience.

I appreciate not everyone is interested in academia, and that its inherent cultural inertia often inhibits attempts to justify its relevance to vocational training. But this does not mean it should, as Bet-El suggests, remain the exclusive pursuit of an elite. Regardless of whether our learning institutions are called universities, polytechnics or whatever, we should be ensuring that the increasingly wide berth of Higher Education provides flexible, transferable and inspirational pedagogies engaged in serving both academic and vocational learning needs, and attuned to inclusion and lifelong and life-wide learning contexts. I would like to think, for example, that today’s nursing students will become as technically competent and knowledgeable as their predecessors, in performing the vital medical procedures expected of them. If the more rounded education provided by an academic degree also affords them the skills and confidence to develop as independent, critical and reflective professionals, all the better.

Unfortunately, whilst I share many of Ilana Bet-El’s concerns about universities becoming ‘degree factories’, she totally misses the key point – that the migration of traditionally vocational courses to the Higher Education domain has not coincided with appropriate student funding provision. Instead she seems to be hankering for a return to the days when the top 15% are left alone to wallow in academic navel-gazing, while the rest of us get on with preparing for the real world through narrow-minded training regimes that do not allow us to think beyond the defined roles that society has deemed fit for us to pursue.

Visual Learning in HE

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

A special issue of on visual learning in Higher Education has just been published online, featuring a number of contributions from researchers at the Visual Learning Lab (VLL) in the University of Nottingham. Well worth a look.

It’s the first time I’ve come across this open-access online journal, in which contributors are encouraged to record a short video to introduce their papers (several of my fellow student interns filmed the videos for the VLL). Whilst providing a useful summary of each paper (a sort of visual abstract), the videos offer a more informal and personal engagement with the authors. A nice touch.

Student Voice – The Movie

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

My role as a student intern with the Visual Learning Lab is drawing to a close in the next couple of months. Last year we conducted a series of focus groups in a number of Schools across the University asking undergraduate students about their learning experiences. In an aim to create a visual and innovative dissemination tool, we decided to summarise key findings in the form of a video, which has now been released on the University of Nottingham YouTube channel.

The video has subsequently been central to a number of interactive workshops we have delivered to teaching staff in participating Schools, and a symposium presentation we gave at the SRHE Postgraduate and Newer Researchers Conference in December.

You read it here first…

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

Making future predictions is great fun, especially in a New Year. So when I was challenged by Virginia Yonkers to predict a new decade, I couldn’t resist. If I get anywhere near with even one of these I’ll be amazed…

  • There will be a tipping point where video blogging – we may not call it video blogging, vlogging, or whatever by then – will become mainstream; probably initiated by the introduction of a killer platform coinciding with the emergence of a cultural or social trend that lends itself to visual commentary.
  • Search engine lists will be replaced by visual mapping formats. These will, by necessity, remain hierarchical, but will incorporate dynamic and semantic forms of navigation.
  • The development and eventual affordability of e-book readers and the increase in social text annotation (see an earlier post) will influence an unexpected shift in emphasis back to formal key texts; serving as a basis for streams of discourse (formal and informal) contextualised around key works. These streams will be increasingly multimodal.
  • The widespread adoption of Personal Learning Environments (PLE) will be realised, in sorts, but only through the reification of tools into competing single platforms as social media become consumed by a handful of companies (Google, Microsoft, the usual suspects).
  • Universities will continue to engage with social media platforms at a ‘just enough’ level; more as commercial branding exercises within the global marketplace than providing Open Education Resources (OER) or Open Access.

Image: Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1958

The Edgeless University

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

My thanks to Odessa, my colleague at the VLL, for sending me The Edgeless University; a new report by University of Nottingham alumnus Peter Bradwell for Demos.

He argues increasingly diverse student demographics and socio-economic changes brought about by Web technologies, social media and open content require more learner-directed, modular and technologically facilitated approaches to Higher Education:

“At its most radical, edgelessness can lead to institutions exploring new ways of accrediting learning, of providing recognition of research and learning and of offering affiliation. Those in informal learning can be offered help in finding routes to formal qualification, connecting with alternative providers or alternative open learning resources and of finding new forms of course provision” (p.10).

Universities retain (many would say appropriately) a near-monopoly on formal accreditation, which Weller and Dalziel (2007) identify as one of their key functions – and reasons for continued survival. The others are:

  • the provision of formal or structured learning frameworks (i.e. curricula)
  • the convenience to students in providing access to resources and educators
  • the sociability of the student cohort – learning the same things at the same time in the same place

Social media and open access are increasingly demonstrating the potential to accommodate each of these, yet the significance of the last function to the physicality of Universities is frequently overlooked.

No matter how effectively structured and sociable learning networks outside institutional frameworks may become, the deeply embedded socio-cultural practice (in the West anyway) of going to university – which most middle class, and increasingly lower class, students see as a rite of passage – cannot be ignored.


Bradwell, P. (2009). The Edgeless University: Why Higher Education must embrace technology. London: Demos.

Weller, M. J. & Dalziel, J. (2007). On-line Teaching: Suggestions for Instructors. In L. Cameron & J. Dalziel (Eds.), 2nd International LAMS Conference 2007: Practical Benefits of Learning Design, 26 November. Sydney: LAMS Foundation (76-82).

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

I have finally got round to adding my name (and dodgy photo) to, a global directory of academics which uses a tree-mapping display categorised by university and department. Whilst this merely replicates aggregated HE administrative structures, its real effectiveness may lie in the potential inter-institutional and inter-disciplinary connections made through its user-generated research interests.

However a recent e-mail from the developers reveals a growing concern over the proliferation of these interests, suggesting users become actively involved in merging and re-appropriating them according to hiearchical values. This apparent messiness is indicative of user-generated classification systems not constrained by predetermined structures. I was intrigued to see someone had put skateboarding down as one of their research interests! I can appreciate the value of standardising terms to facilitate searching for like-minded colleagues, but by imposing a structured taxonomy, are the developers enforcing traditional disciplinary and theoretical hierarchies and classifications which might otherwise be challenged? It will be interesting to see how things develop.

My page is here.

Citation Mapping

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

In a paper published earlier this year, Malcolm Tight explores the theoretical ideas around commonalities in the approaches of communities of practice and Becher’s academic tribes and territories. He conducts a co-citation analysis of Higher Education research journals; focusing on author identities and locations, themes, theories and analyses, methods and methodologies, presenting a rudimentary diagrammatical representation of his analytical modelling.

Similar notions of ‘citation mapping’ have been explored elsewhere, particularly in the natural sciences, and a version has recently been introduced to the citation and journal database ISI Web of Science. And Interactive Designer W. Bradford Paley’s visualization of 800,000 scientific papers uses author citations to explore the interconnections between science paradigms.



Tight, M. (2008). Higher education research as tribe, territory and/or community: a co-citation analysis. Higher Education. 55, 593-605.