Thursday, 2 July 2015

On the speech by Universities Minister Jo Johnson - not all bad?

Just a wee detour - a small coffee-break from my current obsession with marking, moderating and doing endless piles of paperwork - to flag up Jo Johnson's speech in which he outlined his plans for the future of higher education.

I don't think this necessarily contained many surprises - except a personal one for me, in that I am struggling to find anything that I particularly disagree with.  Perhaps I am just not informed enough, but from what I can see these are the highlights:

  • Disadvantaged Students.  Puzzlingly given this governments seeming intent to target disadvantaged citizens and blame them for everything from the economy to ISIS, Johnson seemed to have a lot of good news here.  From the outset he highlights the importance of access for disadvantaged students - although he does specify "young" students, which perhaps suggests he is less concerned with mature or part-time students. His statement, though, that "anyone with potential to benefit from university should not be prevented from going because of their background or ability to pay" is certainly good to hear, especially in the context of "the value of learning for its own sake", perhaps suggesting a deliberate step away from the idea that disadvantaged students should only be allowed to do 'vocational' subjects, while more traditionally academic subjects are reserved for the more privileged.

  • Informing Student Choices.  No change here in the continuing commitment to making student recruitment more market-driven.  Johnson focuses on information that creates links with the labour market - on providing students with more information about which courses will link to what jobs, and valuing HEIs on the basis of its "positive labour market outcomes" (a terrifying phrase, I'm sure you'll agree).  I've never been fond of this idea, because the 'labour market' shifts and changes so quickly that we run the risk of HE qualifications being like laptop computers: Practical for a few years but quickly out-dated.  Fine for those who can afford to just do another qualification, but not for those who have already used up their financial support.   If, as Johnson says, businesses will be more involved in course and curriculum design, I do hope there are mechanisms to ensure that the the more short-term self interests of businesses (i.e. training student to do the job I want them to do right now), does not overwhelm the long-term interests of students (i.e. equipping them to do any job at any time), or obliterate entirely any broader academic value (i.e. the ability to question the effectiveness and value of a labour market).  Apart from this though, it is again hard to disagree with the idea that HEIs should provide more transparent and binding information to students about what, exactly, they are getting for their money.

QAA: Nice day for a sulk

  • Teaching excellence.  Johnson seems to put a lot of emphasis on the need for HEIs to place a greater focus on teaching.  He quotes Willett's statement that "teaching has been by far the weakest aspect of English higher education", and the idea that teaching standards in HE is so terrible is something that UCU and QAA have already disputed in polite terms, with UCU claiming "our lecturers have a world-beating reputation" and QAA rather sulkily pointing out that "The higher education sector already does much to encourage excellent teaching" (not, it must be said, that QAA reviews spend much (if any) time on teaching and learning).  Of course there is a little bit of politics going on here, with the QAA needing to defend its own record in the face of rumours that its role in Quality Assurance for HE may be scaled down.  No surprise that HEFCE have come in full support given that they are presumably in line for a major role in monitoring any 'Teaching Excellent Framework'.  Once again, it is hard to find much to grumble about in the idea that HEIs should be places that recognise good teaching as having as much value as good research.  I have never been entirely convinced by the argument that good HE teaching is built on a foundation of effective practising research.  After all, doesn't this imply that it is all about the teacher, rather than about the student experience?  And doesn't this imply that research-active HE lecturers are somehow pedagogical experts while primary school teachers are mere amateurs?  Quite clearly it is the other way round.  Primary school teachers are full-time experts in how to enable learning, and too often I feel HEIs use the notion of 'independent learning' to justify an attitude that the learning process is all the responsibility of the students alone.  A 'Teaching Excellence Framework' could be a good idea.  It could give greater value to pedagogical expertise.  The only worry is that it would become the basis of an Ofted-style inspection system, creating additional pressures and workloads on lecturers already under strain.  It is difficult to think that any 'TEF' is not, somewhere down the line, going to involve everyone doing a lot more paperwork unless the focus is on mechanisms like the NSS, through which teaching excellence can be evaluated by student experience primarily.

So, overall then it seems rather positive.  Or am I just being absurdly optimistic?