Should educational research be irrelevant?

Recently I received the further particulars for a post in a Swedish university who want to recruit a professor of higher education. The university has a strong scholarly tradition, and likes to mention in a quiet Swedish way that it ranks rather well in European league tables.  As you might expect, the FPs duly emphasised research proficiency and documented teaching excellence. And they also stated that ‘strong emphasis’ was placed on the candidate’s ability to ‘collaborate with the surrounding society and to inform about the work of research and development’.

By coincidence, I had just been reading the outraged responses of social scientists to Aditya Chakrabortty’s report from the 2012 conference of the British Sociological Association. Chakrabortty had suggested that British social scientists had become a bit too complacent, a tad too inward-looking, even a spot too self-referential – or perhaps he meant self-reverential. Why, he asked, were social scientists failing to leap into the gap left behind by the collapse of mainstream economics? Why were sociologists or political scientists worrying about trivia, “through a Foucauldian lens”, rather than tackling international finance or the collapse of social support? Foucault, let me add, often seems to speak through his lens.

These criticisms might also be made of much educational research. If we take the 2011 SCUTREA conference as a case study, then research into the current economic crisis was remarkable only for its absence. Not a single presenter used the words ‘recession’, ‘riot’, ‘poverty’, ‘inequality’, ‘unemployment’ or ‘unemployed’ in the titles of their papers; the economic crisis did not feature in any of the presentations.

I do not for a minute think that this indicates that none of the conference participants were interested in these issues, or saw them as having no connection with adult learning. And I acknowledge that there is excellent educational research which goes engage with wider public and policy concerns. I’ve just been reading two such studies – a thrilling and challenging inquiry into white middle class families who send their children to local state schools in London, and a penetrating analysis of the ways that education and other factors help shape social cohesion in different types of society.

Nor am I opposed to researching trivia. I heard the other day that one of my former colleagues is now studying spitting, and why not? Researchers can only help us understand everyday life, and the meaning we attach to it, if they investigate everyday practices and beliefs. If the work is well designed and the topic carefully chosen, then analyses of trivia can become microcosms of our social world.

All the same, I fear that Chakrabortty has a point. Many academic researchers in education now view their work, and increasingly so, as separate from the major political and cultural debates that go on ‘out there’. Two recent trends seem to me to be associated with this rejection of wider political and cultural debate. The first is the technical preoccupation with figuring out “what works”, and packaging it in handy tool-kits. I like a reliable tool-kit as much as the next teacher, but a bit of experience teaches us that “best practice” works well in one context and not so well in another. And there’s more to life than best practice.

Second is the theoretical turn in educational studies. This approach scorns “what works” research, and sometimes it scorns any empirical work whatsoever. Working with theory has a number of advantages; it doesn’t cost much, it doesn’t involve talking to strangers, and it doesn’t involve the risk of inconvenient encounters with the messy world of practice.

At its best, theoretical insights can completely refashion how you understand the world. At worst, and too often for comfort, you end up sitting in a conference listening to a rather pedestrian and formulaic reworking of Theoretician X in relation to Educational Issue Y. To quote my colleague Gert Biesta, it’s like asking “What would Foucault say”?

Again, I like a good theory as much as the next reader of Kurt Lewin (in case you’ve forgotten, he once said there was nothing as practical as a good theory), but I fear that those take the theoretical turn have sometimes lost sight of good theory. Rather, they are mesmerised by new theory, though invariably each new theory soon becomes old hat. In time, the latest and greatest theory will be as modish as a kipper tie – a warning that should be issued to all newly-fledged academics at the start of their career.

Perhaps you can hear the distant rasping sound of an old fart, and it is true – my undergraduate experience in sociology began with Gramsci, who was then dumped in favour of Althusser, who in turn was overthrown by Foucault – all to be followed by the pleasure of reading, as a doctoral student, Edward Thompson’s enjoyable and destructive, but now largely unreadable The Poverty of Theory.

Research with a wider social purpose seems to me to have fallen in popularity, at least inside the academy. There’s some much more impressive work these days going on in some of the think tanks, as well as in the networked groups of scholars and others who come together often online in forums such as Uneconomics. The problem with the think tanks is that they depend on some fairly soft funding, and the problem with the online groupings is that they are rather disparate and fragmented; they also let the established academics off the hook.

So I rather welcome the idea that professors of education should be required to explain their research to the local community, and indeed listen in turn to what they think about it. I’m not all that familiar with Scandinavian societies, but I found this requirement admirable. Sweden is a relatively small country, but it funds its universities generously, and also provides comparatively high levels of student support.  The idea that universities are morally obliged to give something in return was, I need hardly add, the founding notion behind extra-mural education, and it’s good to see any sign that it is being renewed.

Aditya Chakrabortty, Economics has failed us: but where are the fresh voices?, Guardian, 16 April 2012 –

Andy Green and Germ Janmaat, Regimes of social cohesion: cocieties and the crisis of globalisation. Palgrave

Diane Reay, Gill Crozier and David James, White middle-class identities and urban schooling, Palgrave Macmillan

Ethics and the new educational governance

Educational governance has changed radically in recent decades. Many of the changes form part of what is sometimes called ‘the new public management’, in which governments try to step away from direct intervention in provision, while setting broad strategic directions which are then monitored through target-setting. This approach is broadly shared by left and right of centre governments, with right-of-centre policy makers tending to favour privatisation, and left-of-centre governments tending to prefer semi-state bodies.

Either way, we end up with an awful lot of quangos and service markets. Actually, I think both concepts are examples of Newspeak. As Rajesh Tandon once said, most quangos are gongos, as they are not ‘quasi-autonomous’ but ‘government-organised non-governmental organisations’. And the markets aren’t really markets, because the state is effectively the consumer of the service, and it also appoints those who manage the serice.

The Student Loans Company is one of these gongos, and it recently let many of its ‘customers’ down. As part of a mass email distribution, it released 8,000 student email addresses. In fairness, I should add that SLC promptly apologised for this ‘administrative error’. So far as I am aware, though, it has not promised to reiew its policy on electronic data storage of personal details. And you won’t need a long memory to recall that David Willetts, the minister for higher education, tore into the SLC less than two years ago for failing to act on two reports, one by Prof Deian Hopkin and one by the NAO, into what Hopkin called the ‘conspicuous failure’ of its chaotic system for dealing with applications.

After the Minister’s intervention, SLC appointed a new chief executive, Ed Lester. Under a deal approved by Danny Alexander and Mr Willetts, Lester originally had himself paid through a company, whose address happened to be at his home. Such arrangements are not uncommon among senior public servants who wish to avoid paying income tax, and in Lester’s case it came to an end only when it was publicised by the Daily Telegraph.

And this is not someone who can plead poverty. According to SLC, Lester’s pay in the period between late May 2010 and the end of March 2011 came to £250,000, including £41,000 in performanc e bonus and an allowance to cover travel costs from his home to his office. His senior team includes a deputy chief executive who was also paid well over £200,000 in 2010-11, and four others paid over £100,000.

Does all of this matter? I think it does, because it tells us something about the new public management, and not just about the characters and values of the men and women who lead the new types of public body. And even if we think morality and virtue are marginal luxuries, surely no one thinks that it is possible over the long term to persuade tax payers that they money should go to people who don’t want to pay taxes?

In principle, I take the view that a large state, directly controlling a wide range of services, is a recipe for bureaucracy and vested interest, and given this view it is no bad thing if we try to find different ways of securing the services that our community needs. But are gongos the answer? And if they are, how can they be led in ways that serve public interests most effectively and sustainably – and even more ethically?

Lifelong learning and corruption: why we need a new ethics of public service

Recently, a number of education and training providers have found themselves in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Fraud allegations are hitting a growing number of providers, from private training companies to universities. Of course, most of us manage to do our jobs without taking bribes, cooking the books, or pilfering more than the odd paper clip. Yet if we are not on the edge of a crisis, we soon will be; it is only a matter of time before the sheer scale and extent of the allegations start to undermine the foundations of public confidence in the education and training system.

One response to the allegations is to blame reporters and the media. Twenty years ago, perhaps such stories would have been quietly strangled at birth. Now, competition for readers’ and viewers’ attention is so ferocious that only the most gory scandal-mongering and controversy can hope to maintain audience figures. Still, you wouldn’t have thought so if you had been following the apprenticeships story – the Sheffield press, as well as the BBC and other Yorkshire media, were notably behind the game in asking tough questions of the city’s fourth largest company.

But I cannot believe that it is only the media who are responsible for bringing tales of corruption into the light of day. It seems to me that something has changed in the behaviour and values of those who lead the provider organisations. Let’s not blame journalists for reporting the nasty smell that is coming from the shadier corners of our lifelong learning system. Instead, we should try to identify the background causes of the stink, and then decide how to get rid of it.

Much of the problem lies with the paradoxical processes of deregulation and marketisation of education and training. These are paradoxical because they involve both an attempt by government to apply the disciplines of the market to lifelong learning, and the imposition of mechanisms that seek to maintain a degree of public accountability. Hence the paradox: these are at best managed markets. And the more complex the arrangements for accountability are, and the more stable doors they try to close, the less it is possible to exercise simple and transparent oversight, and the more there are unplanned loopholes and cracks in the system.

The shift towards output-based funding, and the opening up of learning programmes to private and voluntary providers, illustrate this process. Some recent examples:

  • A4e, a large recruitment agency and welfare-to-work provider, is under investigation by the police for allegedly claiming funding for placing people in non-existent jobs.
  • Eight staff from training providers in Nottingham were jailed in January after forging documents to falsely claim students at two colleges had completed courses.
  • Reporters for the BBC’s Panorama programme claimed that that paperwork has been forged to claim funding for apprenticeship training.
  • A community college in Liverpool was told to repay £80,000 after bogus employer references were provided for students to gain funding from the European Social Fund.
  • London Metropolitan University had to refund £36.5m paid to it on flawed completion figures – flawed, of course, in the institution’s favour.

Ironically, in September 2011, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced with great fanfares that it was launching an ‘action plan for cutting red tape for employers’ who were taking on apprentices. This was after Geoff Russell, chief executive of the skills funding agency, wrote to John Hayes, the FE and Skills Minister, warning that sub-contracting was already responsible for well over half the misuse and abuse of public training funds.

These problems are greater in the private sector (which includes a number of voluntary sector providers). In its report on Adult Apprenticeships, the National Audit Office calculated that the value of flawed funding claims across the entire Apprenticeship Programme was 0.8 per cent. This was lower than the 1.1 per cent on Train to Gain, but above the 0.6 per cent for adult further education.

Yet we should not ignore signs of unethical behaviour in the public sector as well. Several college principals have got into hot water for employing their spouses and children in senior positions. One Welsh university has been negotiating with discredited recruitment company A4e over validation of its awards. The University of Wales got into repeated trouble over the quality of its accredited courses, as well as allegations of visa-rigging at some of its partner institutions. And the director of adult learning and marketing co-ordinator at Shropshire Learning and Skills Council were jailed in 2010 for their part in a bribery scam.

League tables are often associated with changing behaviour, and higher education is no exception. There have been allegations that staff try to influence responses in the National Student Survey. And the British Medical Journal announced in January that as many as one in eight scientists responding to its survey had witnessed a colleague fabricating or altering research data prior to publication in peer-reviewed journals.

And, just like the main political parties, universities are increasingly dependent on donors. The incoming director of the London School of Economics has to overcome the damage done by the scandal of Saif al-Islam Gaddhafi’s doctoral thesis, as well as the institution’s track record of securing contracts and donations from a range of unsavoury businessmen and dictators. Elsewhere, the Serious Fraud Office is investigating claims that a businessman helped arrange a prestigious university place for a Vietnamese student in order to land a contract.

Even in the most honest of institutions, the honorary degree system increasingly resembles a peerage system administered by David Lloyd George. Why on earth would anyone – let alone a small university in Scotland – think of awarding an honorary doctorate to Donald Trump? That this question more or less answers itself is itself a telling indicator of changing values at the top of higher education.

There are, then, good reasons why unethical behaviour of various kinds has become more common. Of course, none of these factors can excuse corruption, although they may help to explain why it has become more prevalent. Ultimately, though, this has to come back to purpose and values. We could simply let the lifelong learning system move over to the market place, and leave malpractice and corruption to the law. And we could include fraud awareness classes in our national school curriculum.

Or we can act on the belief that education and training can be good public services. These are services which help build public value, and which embrace the civil society that has nurtured and cherished them. We need to celebrate the idea of public service, and cheer on those who exemplify it, rather than treating it as something shameful. Meanwhile, hats off to the small magazine FE Week for its tenacity and courage in keeping investigative journalism alive.