Monthly Archives: January 2011

What will happen in higher education this year?

So far I’ve managed to avoid the new years list idea.  The new years resolution and/or predictions phenomena just don’t work for me. Anyhow, with all the political happenings taking place at the moment in the country. the implications of associated “cost-savings” methods that some people seem certain will be implemented, along with some interesting websites I’ve come across, I’ve changed my mind.

Adrian Wreckler (he of the SBP) isn’t very complementary in this piece. One first reading, this type of content produces a whirl of annoyance. On reflection, I have to admit that it has some truth. Quote: “It’s sad. There is little or no debate about quality in third-level education. It’s all about access and free fees”. That’s a true statement.

The piece ends with some interesting questions for whoever might be the new Minister of Education.  He also gives the public-pressure “politician” answers.  Thinking and planning ahead into 2011, what should the answers really be.

  1. How are colleges to improve standards (recruit top people, attract best students, create the best research) without the reintroduction of student fees or additional exchequer funding?
  2. At a more general level, Irish third level institutions currently trail their counterparts in leading European and US cities in innovation and achievement. Is this of concern and, if so, how can it be reversed?
  3. Eircom wants the state to help fund a new fibre network. Do you intend to do that? (Note: that’s a spending commitment.) If not, do you have a plan (or any thoughts whatsoever) on how high speed broadband should be rolled out nationally outside urban centres?
  4. If elected, what kind of industry development would you prioritise, and how?

These are important questions and require constructive intelligent answers and subsequent action.  The problem is that we may have a weak incoming Government what will not have funding or the belief that answers and actions are required. We will likely end 2011 trundling along as we are now. with our existing problems getting worse, and a few more added along with way. Standards will continue to deteriorate, Irish colleges and universities will fall further behind their European / US counterparts, and Eircom’s fibre will remain dark.

On a more positive note. the guy behind Speed OF Creativity has launched an interesting project.  He wants people to outline their perspective of “vision for educational leadership in 2011” in a 30-second videoclip.  Upload your contribution to youtube with the tag “digitalvision2011”.  There’s an associated wiki here. This is an interesting opportunity to see what priorities educators in different international locations are setting for 2011. I wonder how many will address Adrian’s questions.

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What are educating them for?

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a talk enabled “Universities in Crisis” at the RIA.  Read the speaker’s (Michael Burawoy) blog here.   Apparently, universities across many parts of the world are in trouble.  We are not alone.

It seems the universities are more in conflict than in crisis.  Conflict arises from change that is unwanted, unwelcome and seen to be for the worse. We can’t ignore the political / economic context the higher education finds itself in.  They have come in the door, we can’t kick them back out but neither should we let them control what we do.

The “privatisation” of higher education changes the essence of the university producing the horror of  commoditisation of knowledge, and bureaucratic regulation is creeping in.  We know that we need to counter this but money is getting in the way.  The costs of higher education have skyrocketed in recent times.  Staff costs have gone up, but this is dominated by the costs of non-academic staff whose numbers are on the rise.   Surely the domain experts in the different faculties are the prime staff.  Apparently not any more.  The support staff are increasing the prime staff.  Something is very wrong about this.

What is being done.  Increase student fees (or introduce student fees if you are in Ireland), bring in more foreign students and charge them even higher fees, get to work on the alumni for corporate donations, increase collaborations with industry, etc.   None of these solutions are without their problems.

Yes these solutions are a way of handling the crisis  but consider the conflict they bring.  Universities begin to look like corporate for-business organisations.  Then, the problems really happen. Output result: degradation of education quality, increase in temporary staff numbers (they cost less) who do the bulk of the teaching and learning, increase in distance learning (its cheaper), shorter degrees, some disciplines under threat (this has already happened here in the NCI).  We end up with very hierarchical corporate structures that have layers of management.  The plebs at the bottom are hit the most and it is these plebs that do the actual work.  Ridiculous competition emerges within and between universities as they compete for students and for research funding.

In the middle of all this it is easy to lose track of what universities actually do.  Universities are knowledge producers.  Who do we produce knowledge for? Ourselves and / or non-academics.  And what do we produce knowledge for?  The speaker talked about “reflexive” knowledge i.e. knowledge for its own sake to further our own critical thinking.  Problematically we are in danger of  having too much of what he calls “instrumental” knowledge i.e. knowledge for policy-making and commercialisation outside the boundaries of the institute.  We need to reclaim a balance of instrumental and reflexive knowledge and knowledge for ourselves and outsiders. This is a challenge, particularly when funding as a problem simply will not go away.

A member of the audience raised a good point.  We are vastly increasing the numbers going to college, yet it’s unreasonble to assume that we can make critical thinkers out of all of them.  What then are we educating them for?   What does their graduation parchment signify?  What a controversial question.  It brings up all sorts of theories, many of which involve the continuing debate around falling standards and dumbing-down.  The speaker answered in terms of lived experience, dialogue, variety of student backgrounds, etc.  There isn’t an acceptable answer to the question.  Universities in crisis to be sure!

How to cheat on a perfectly good puzzle

Don’t you just cringe at party-killers who just have to go and spoil all the fun.  Examples include the idiot who reads thrillers with the sole purpose of solving the whodunnit before the author reveals all and then tells you before you’ve read the book yourself, or the git who loudly ponders the plot of the movie and ruins it on everyone else.  Why can’t such people enjoy the suspense, the thrill, the edge-of-the-seat factor without having to ruin things on themselves and anyone around them.

Today we are told that some kill-joy has written an app that can solve the Soduko puzzle – http://www.independent.ie/business/technology/google-solves-sudoku-2491466.html  It is absolutely beyond me why anyone would waste perfectly good app-writing skills doing this.  It completely misses the point of the Soduko.  Where is the sense of satisfaction of completing the “hard” version, the wonderful cranking of brain cells working out placement possibilities when the computer can do it for you? It ruins the fun – killjoy!

Yes, I know. No-one is forcing me to use the app.  Yes, I can ask the plot-leaks person to be quiet.  But this doesn’t explain their behaviour,  I just don’t understand the kill-joy factor.

And that’s enough complaining for one day….  off to read the Hunt Report now!