Archive Page 2

The Future: Horse-Meat Lasagne Education



So, my home department had its pants pulled down by the Daily Mail this weekend, which was obviously really nice. There are lots of things that made me really angry about the article (which I’m not going to link to) about contact hours; for example, the fact that the Mail ignored the main thrust and substance of the response they were given during the writing of the article, in favour of a couple of words about office hours that made us look like idiots, and the fact that the article was poorly researched and therefore presented an inaccurate picture of things. There’s also the annoying, misleading idea that fees only pay for contact time with academics. And then there’s the cherry on top of the cake: being lectured about the amount of time we give to our students by Anthony Seldon, master of an elitist public school (and I don’t mean elitist in the sense of selecting for ability), which charges fees for a single term that, give or take a few quid, are more than we are legally allowed to charge for a three terms. 


All those things are specific issues for another time and for people who will no doubt craft an official response. What concerns me is what this article and the responses we’re getting to it tell us about the future of university education in this country. Basically, the Daily Mail‘s main claim was that you could measure the value for money you get for your tuition fees by the number of contact hours you get. The Daily Mail is hardly at the forefront of original thinking here: they’re merely following the breadcrumb trail left by New Labour and the coalition government. As part of the new fees regime, universities have to make certain stats available. These are put on department’s websites and made available in forms that encourage comparison between institutions. It’s all part of the neoliberal agenda to embed competition in every conceivable place because competition will make things better. 


This is hugely problematic when it comes to something like contact hours because the raw number doesn’t tell you the things that you might and probably would want to know. A one- hour lecture with 300 students sat in a lecture theatre in front of 1 academic, for instance, is one contact hour; a one hour seminar with 12 students in conversation with an academic is also a contact hour. The distinction between the two experiences is hardly trivial. Putting aside questions about the pedagogic merits of either mode of teaching, students (and their parents, who play an increasingly important and vocal part in all this these days) would probably agree that they get more out of the latter experience, not least because they get to cultivate personal relationships with their tutors. In the small-group model, for instance, lecturers will get to know students’ names and about them personally. You can’t not do that when you spend 18 hours in a room with someone across 9 weeks. 


The problem is that while you can deliver a whole stack of contact hours through lecturing (for obvious economy of scale reasons), you can’t do the same with small-group teaching, which is incredibly intensive. Small-group teaching requires students to do a certain amount of preparation per seminar (a rough, back of a fag packet calculation is 4.5 hours reading per seminar hour) because it’s a dynamic, discussion based form of teaching and learning. Lecturing is just the transmission of data from one person to another, which is fine for a limited number of things but completely unsuitable for most things in the arts and humanities.


The problem, of course, is that all of this has been condensed into a single number: contact hours. The way that prospective students are being encouraged to see the number is as a measure of quality: the more hours an institution gives you, the better it is. You don’t have to think for very long about this to see the flaws but it has serious implications. The idea is that the market will force institutions with apparently low contact hours to up them because students won’t go there. So, it’s a race to up the number of contact hours. How do you do that? More lectures is the most likely root. Other options include skills sessions in the library. And we all know how much arts and humanities students like skills sessions in the library.


This is serious and frustrating for all kinds of reasons. One is the impossible circle academics are in when, one week, newspapers are citing them as authorities on the decline of education because students are apparently getting to university without the skills to do the things academics want them to do, then the next week academics’ professional judgement about what students need to become educated while they’re at university is being ridiculed. Another issue is the potential for obliterating a whole mode of teaching that is incredibly valuable. Yet another is that shifting to billions of lectures will eliminate the potential for students to develop the research skills that come out of the seminar model. Those skills are highly valued by employers, amongst others. If you emerge with a 2.i or 1st arts and humanities degree, it’s currently a strong statement not just about what you know but a particular skills set you’ve developed. And I just can’t wait to see a Daily Mail story in 10 years time about how graduates no longer have the skills employers want and it’s all the fault of universities for dumbing down. 


Anyway, my point: if this carries on, universities will simply stack up the lectures, cut out the seminars, and students will basically be sold what amounts to an educational horse meat lasagne. It will look a lot like the thing people got before, and people might think they’re enjoying the thing that people before them got, but it isn’t. Like the horse meat lasagne, the new university education will be produced in ways that people don’t want to know about. Also like the horse meat lasagne, it will be worse for the people lower down the social ladder because those at the top will have the capital to avoid the worst.  


I’m not claiming here that academics possess an expertise that can’t be evaluated, only that education is an unequal partnership and that important nuances are being ignored by a pretty crude set of measures (incidentally, I’m hearing that the people who matter are actually starting to realise they’ve made a mistake here). There are all kinds of ways that this could resolved. One, of course, would be allowing universities to charge Wellington College type fees so that they can provide an traditional university experience to an increasingly large number of students, but I somehow doubt many people would like that solution. Another and far easier way would be to allow students to compare what they’re being offered in an actual meaningful way and for people who should and do know better to make a much more energetic effort when it comes to informing students and their parents about what they might actually be getting for £9k a year.   



The Olympics

So, I return with some thoughts on the Olympics, which have managed leave me in an incredibly confused state. On the one hand, I’m a massive critic of the whole Olympics thing. I didn’t want London to be awarded the games in the first place because the whole thing seems like a massive expense and inconvenience for the city hosting them with no obvious pay off. To be sure, the IOC and every city that hosts the games like to talk up regeneration and legacy issues but there isn’t much evidence to suggest that that ever really happens. Plus, if we’re going to be talking up regeneration and legacy then I can think of other places in the UK that are more in need of that than one of the richest cities in the world.

Of course, I get the idea that the Olympics is a tremendous sporting spectacle and that’s great thing if you’re a sports person but I don’t think that is reason enough to be chucking money at the games, letting corporations dictate to people and government, etc, etc. My misgivings on that score were summed up by the empty seats at events on the first couple of days. If the money was being spent to enable people to witness a great sporting spectacle then great but it seems to be more about enabling already quite privileged people have a jolly up in the west end, get special lanes to take them to the events and then not bother to use them.

Anyway, the confusion kicked in last week in a couple of ways. The first was when tax-dodging political-opinion void Mitt Romney went off on one about how London might balls the whole thing up. My first reaction was basically “fuck you, Romney”. It was a bit like when you have a close relative you think is a bit of a dick — you’re allowed to say they’re a bit if a dick but you’re not going to have a Republican turn up and say it for you. So, in a moment, I suddenly wanted the whole thing to work. It also confused me because David Cameron actually said something I agreed with when he had a swipe at Romney’s role in the Salt Lake Olympics. Weird.

I then got even more confused by the opening ceremony. I wasn’t planning on watching it because it cost £27 million and I was convinced it was going to make me angry on that basis alone. My wife insisted on watching it, though, so I ended up doing so too (incidentally, I’m only writing this because my wife is insisting on watching the gymnastics — a sport I don’t understand and dislike because it’s settled by judges). As far as these things go, I thought the opening ceremony was good. Where I got confused was I suddenly started liking it whole lot more because Toby Young, conservative MP and Nazi-themed stag do attendee Aiden Burley, and the Daily Mail all hated it because they thought it was left-wing, multi-cultural bull-shit. Basically, all the reasons I thought it was quite good (celebrating stuff like the NHS, it didn’t bang in about WWII, etc) are the reasons they hated it and I like it when Tories get the opportunity to show that a lot of them are elitist, racist idiots, rather than the progressive stuff (eg gay marriage) the PR guys would like to emphasise.

So, basically, I’ve ended up in the situation where I’m not sure what I think about the whole thing. Luckily, I can forget about it for a while because the sport bit has started and it’s not really fair to detract from the fact that a lot of people who have made immense sacrifices are now getting their moment to do the thing they’ve spent donkeys years training for. Plus, I don’t really care about any of the Olympic sports so I can safely ignore most of it. The bit where I can switch back on is at the end when the sport has gone and we start to see what the legacy is. My suspicion is that there won’t be a particularly great legacy and the I can start hating the whole thing again.

The jubilee and all that

So, things are looking pretty good so far for my great hope that it would rain all weekend and ruin the jubilee, though I’m sure hardened royalists will turn that into a positive — a triumph of the patriotic spirit in the face of adversity; something that’s symbolised by the Queen’s admirable ability to wave in all weather conditions. I have a number of reasons for wanting it to rain. The first is my opposition to the monarchy and celebrations of institutionalised inequality, inherited wealth, and all that kind of stuff. The second is that people who live on my street are having a street party. There are few things that make me nostalgic about living in London and the society side of the community/society equation but this is definitely one of them. 


Anyway, all this jubilee stuff has got me thinking about where we stand in the UK and I think it’s an interesting, if undesirable, period of time. Part of what got me thinking was catching a glimpse of Julian Temple’s film “The Filth and the Fury“, which is about the Sex Pistols (it’s a very good film and Temple made one about Dr. Feelgood, which is also very good. You should watch them both). I first saw “The Filth and the Fury” when I was an undergraduate; around 2000/2001, I think. One of the things that I found fascinating about the film was the archive footage of Britain during the silver jubilee of 1977. The reason I found it fascinating was that I simply didn’t recognise the Britain that came across in the footage: bunting, street parties, union flags all over the place, that kind of thing. It looked very much like a foreign country and in a good way, from my perspective. It seemed to be part and parcel of understanding why punk happened, was a worrying big deal in popular culture at the time, and why there seemed no great possibility of it happening again.


c.2000, I couldn’t imagine anything like that silver jubilee happening again. Sure, there’d been the Diana thing. I certainly wasn’t down with that but it didn’t feel like a genuinely monarchical thing: more like a celebrity thing and it carried obvious anti-House of Windsor sentiment, which came on the back off several years of bad publicity for them. I remember thinking that the monarchy was on the way out, not in the sense that I thought it was every going to be abolished but because I thought we’d be heading towards something that was stripped down because people simply didn’t carry the kind of feelings that were necessary to sustain it as the kind of institution it was and still is. I kind of imagined it being a “Easy-Monarchy” a bit like the public services that will probably emerge from the ongoing cuts.


Anyway, that obviously didn’t happen and the direction things have gone in since c.2000 has really confused me. The monarchy has enjoyed a massive turn around in terms of its popularity and I’m just at a loss to make sense of people’s attitudes towards them — something that first became apparent during last year’s Royal Wedding. Indifference that enables an institution to persist is something I understand; thinking that William and Kate are normal down to earth people who do something valuable with their lives and we should all feel really positive about it is not. It’s just really strange and seems totally at odds with the kind of Britain that I thought was supposed to be emerging during the 1990s, though maybe my perception is too heavily influenced by being part of the generation that grew up under the Tories and was carried along with the hope Blair represented in 1997.


Anyway, all this Royal stuff is interesting because it seems, to me at least, to be related in some way to other things that have become popular in British culture during the last ten years. I’m thinking here of things like shops like Jack Wills and Cath Kidston and fashion items like Barbour jackets. All these things represent, in one way or another, a nostalgia for a Britain of the past, while also embedding the fashion choices of the upper classes into popular culture. This is really interesting because it seems to signal the reintroduction and celebration of, among other things, inequality in British culture. Inequality, on the one hand, because there’s this bizarre embracing of a “woman’s place is in the home” chic that is embedded into the Cath Kidston thing and, on the other, a celebration of upper class stylings in things like Barbour jackets. It seems like a a cultural and fashion accompaniment of Britain’s failings on things like social mobility and gender politics. It also feels like it’s related in some way to general perceptions of the people who rise to the top in politics these days: they really aren’t a lot like everybody else and can’t really find it easy to identify with most people but they’ve done a great job of making the public think the gap between them isn’t that great. David Cameron in particular is someone who I think has done a really impressive PR job on his socioeconomic status.  


It seems no coincidence that there’d be a resurgence of interest in the monarchy in this kind of environment. The reason I think it’s interesting is because I simply didn’t see it coming ten years ago and I think it poses really interesting questions about where we’re going. This country faces serious questions about its identity in the 21st century and, at the moment at least, the answer seems to be a kind of nostalgia for a Britain that felt like it had disappeared. I find this profoundly weird and I certainly don’t like it but I wonder why it’s happening.          

Service stations

My Saturday was a day that has been widely recognised as one of the worst days in human history. Fact. I was driving a car to London with the intention of dropping it off and getting a lift back to York. However the car broke down half way and I spent three hours in a motorway lay by waiting for the recovery firm to pick me up (apparently I was in the Bermuda Triangle. Thanks Green Flag call centre), followed by almost five hours in a service station, where I promptly lost the cash I had on me and couldn’t get any more because there wasn’t a cash machine, before my lift arrived.


Anyway, that’s enough about my day. The thing was that being sat in a service station for five hours (and it was a really bad service station, by the way) led me to think about how interesting service stations are. They’re fascinating in two interrelated ways. The first as places: they are total products of the motor age. Service stations weren’t there before, like the vast majority of villages, towns and cities that motorways connect, and they contain things that someone decided the motorist wants. The second way is the people: people from all walks of life are there, brought together by one thing — the car.


The point is that what you get is an interesting environment governed by interesting sets of rules that bring about a fascinatingly constant and well-regulated social world, which is interesting because the turnover of people is incredibly rapid. People seem to stay for around 30 minutes, with the exception of those who seem to be staying at the hotel, who are probably staying over night at most, but even then seem to spend no longer than an hour actually awake in the place.


It just strikes me that service stations would be a really great subject for historical and sociological analysis. A quick search this morning reveals nothing particularly obvious to read on them (yes, I’ve found the Service Station Facts website and that’s not quite what I’m looking for). I sense an unsuccessful funding application coming on…

Student expectations and the new fees regime

Here’s a non-controversial topic for discussion: student expectations and the new fees regime. The spur for me thinking about this was reading an article in one of the student newspapers at the university I teach at (there are many reasons I like reading the student newspapers: making sure I’m still down with kids; ensuring that something I’ve said in a seminar hasn’t been turned into a “history lecturer in eugenics shame” story; seeing what my students think about things; etc). The article was reporting on a recent survey of students that asked them whether they thought their degrees were value for money.

Before setting out some thoughts on what students said in response to that question (or at least what the newspaper chose to say about what they said), it’s worth stressing two things. The first is that I’d prefer it if higher education was free in the UK. It’s a great shame that students are now being lumbered with debts of the kind that they will be from November onwards. The second is that I don’t many of the arguments about free higher education are very good. Social mobility certainly has little to do with it (and many of those arguing for free higher education love the social mobility argument) because universities do little in that department (look at the demographics relating to university entry) and if you wanted to promote social mobility you’d put all your money into nursery education anyway. In essence, I’m pro-free higher education because I think it’s a symbol of the aspirations of the post war settlement (a bit like universal child benefit) where you don’t reduce every argument to a slanging match in which everyone asks “why should I pay for that?” Hence the reason I find the NUS’s simultaneous objection to fees and embrace of consumer culture in universities pretty frustrating.

However, to paraphrase Erving Goffman,  I don’t mind being treated like a commodity, as long as it’s an expensive one…

There were a few things that stood out in the article about whether students thought their degrees were value for money. The first was the stuff they seemed to be right about and they deserve to be listened to about: library provision seems to me to be a good example here. It’s clearly not good if you’ve not got access to the basic materials you need to complete your degree. What counts as basic materials is something to be debated another time but the point still stands. I can certainly say that’s something I and my department have made big efforts at addressing.

The second, however, is the pretty narrow view many students seemed to have of what they’re paying for. One of the headline quotes was “each lecture costs me £25. I’m essentially paying for a library card.” I’m not keen on that. Here’s why. On the one hand, £25 a lecture doesn’t strike me as bad value for money compared to what you might pay for other things, especially given I don’t mind students audio taping my lectures. It took me the best part of ten years to learn about some of things I lecture on and, in some cases, I’m the person who knows the most in the entire world about it (you can multiple all that out for colleagues of mine who have been in the game for considerably longer). Academics aren’t like secondary school history teachers, I’m afraid. We frame and produce the material we teach and have to put all together. I will now avoid ranting about how long it takes to put together a VLE site.

On the other hand, a library is kind of what you are paying for as a humanities student. Independent learning is what it’s all about and libraries cost serious amounts of money to run. That’s why local councils choose to close them down when there are budget cuts: because they cost a fortune and they aren’t legally obliged to keep them open. People work in the libraries and they have to be paid, then you’ve got to heat them, then you’ve got to actually have books in them (and to relate that back to the previous point, you’ve got to have someone who knows what books to buy) and those books cost a fortune, then you’ve got to have access to the journals that aren’t bought in paper form any more and, if you think academic books are expensive, you want to try getting a subscription to an academic journal.

What’s probably important to keep in perspective here is that even when students are paying £9k a year, universities won’t be better funded. Students will merely be making up the shortfall left by the government (and not just this one — there’s a general but unspoken agreement here that all parties want higher education off the books). There’s no actual reason for students to expect that things should be significantly better than they were when I was an undergraduate. However, there are fairly inexpensive ways in which things can be better and I do those things.

The third point I noticed is that none of the students thought about the money they are paying for their degree as being in any way related to benefits they might accrue further down the line. The cost should be literally what it costs to provide things right now and that’s all they should pay. The most obvious thing to think about here is the “value added” aspect of the extra cash you’ll earn from having a degree when you get a job and then when your career progresses. One of the interesting things about the debate about higher education is the assumption some people have about only paying what it costs, not what it’s worth, which isn’t an attitude people have about other goods. You might say it’s a moot point given projections suggest less than 50% of students will ever pay the money back. Then again, if you’re not paying the money back, you might say you’re getting great value for money.

The final point was what I’m going to call the Howard Hotson point. Hotson wrote a really quite excellent article in the London Review of Books some months ago now in which he asked why we all think the American system of higher education is so great, given that’s the road we’re clearly being taken down. The point he made was that if you look at what’s happened to the American system, people pay big money, often in the region of £20,000 a year, often more than that. What do they get for it and want for it, though? Well, the evidence, judging by American campuses, appears to be swanky sports facilities and palatial accommodation. In other words, the money doesn’t all go into educational facilities; most of it ends up going into football stadiums and ensuite bathrooms. The point here is that goes into a “student experience”. I was reminded of this by the student who was complaining about the expense of university sports facilities, then another complaining about the accommodation application process. This, my friends, is a sign of the future.

Anyway, the point of these thoughts? I think there needs to be a sensible discussion about what students should expect in the new system. Stefan Collini is right when he argues that one major problem with the new consumer model is that it assumes there’s a linear relationship between students and those educating them. There isn’t because in a number of important cases the people doing the educating know more than those they are educating, especially when it comes to the question of what those being educated need to do to get educated. This is most problematic in the humanities when it comes to things like contact hours but that’s a question for another day.

In this respect, universities and academics more generally need to be more open in the discussions they have with students about these subjects and not assume a default position of thinking that because students demand something it must be a reasonable demand, though this is problematic because the new fee regime kind of assumes that that’s the case. There needs to be an honest dialogue about this and I invite any student who wants to have that dialogue with me to open it up.

Video content

It’s probably worth noting that should you want to see me “in action” there are two videos available online. The first is a recent conversation with Steve Fuller about the biological challenge to the social sciences. The conversation was part of an ESRC funded doctoral training session. It was a lot of fun. The second is a lecture about counterfactual history and the history of British sociology, which was part of an AHRC funded doctoral event.


Buy my book…

It’s available here, here, and from all good book shops selling academic monographs on an incredibly important but largely unappreciated moment in the history of British sociology. Thanks to my friend James Griffin, the book features a cover that would look good on coffee tables everywhere.