Should freedom of information apply to higher education policy?

What should we be told about educational policy? I ask only because I’ve just been looking at the papers of the Scottish Funding Council’s Access and Inclusion Committee. At its meeting on 13 September, the Committee’s agenda listed four items for discussion, with papers attached. But only one paper is available for the public to read.

Three papers were withheld.  One was a report on students with additional and complex needs; one was an overview of the 2012-13 outcome agreements, which link institutional funding to national priorities; and one had the glorious title of Strategic priorities for access funding looking ahead.

The Freedom of Information Act works on the presumption that the public has a general right to know how it is governed, and that exceptions would be rare. So why is SFC refusing to publish these particular reports?

In all three cases, SFC deemed that publication would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs. This is a rather general claim, and not one that it is easy to test – at least, not without quite a deal of trouble. But it does make me wonder how many other SFC documents are deemed too sensitive for the public to read.

This is only one set of committee papers, so I’ll resist the temptation to go off on one.  Yet it is not altogether clear to me why the conduct of public affairs would be harmed by the publication of these three reports.

My guess, for what it is worth, is that by publishing these documents, SFC is worried that college and university principals would try to manoeuvre their own institution into the best position to benefit when the policies are implemented. But won’t that happen anyway – in fact, isn’t that the point of having outcome agreements and identifying strategic funding priorities?

And what about the one item among the papers of the Access and Inclusion Committee that we can read? Why, it is a published report by the National Union of Students. I’m not objecting: it’s an important piece of work looking at fairer access to higher education. But it strikes me as odd that SFC has bothered to make public a report that – well, it’s already been published.


Education for older adults: where now?

I’m just back from a European conference on education for older adults. It was a stimulating and impressive showcase for recent research in the area, interspersed with reports from professionals running programmes with older people. There was a lot to digest and it was also fabulously well organised.

Marvin Formosa, a gerontologist from Malta, caused a bit of mild controversy with a critique of European Union lifelong learning programmes. He pointed out that the EU was slow on the uptake, failing to mention older adults at all in the first decade of its discussions on lifelong learning, and then later on referring mainly to ‘older workers’.

Formosa also noted that the EU’s Year of Active Ageing has focussed above all on promoting a particular vision of older people. Essentially, the active older adult is someone who is healthy enough and lively enough and responsible enough to look after themselves. They will make few demands on the welfare state, either for personal and health case, or presumably for publicly funded education.

This reminded me of some of the discussions I joined during the Government Office for Science’s foresight project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing. Our review of research showed that participating in learning, exercise and social activity were all good mechanisms for protecting against cognitive decline and promoting resilience. The problem was that these benefits were all in the bailiwick of the government departments responsible for health and social services, but the spending mostly fell in other departments such as education.

Formosa went on to argue that two key groups are excluded both from the EU’s thinking and from most provision. The first are the elderly old – those who are in what Peter Laslett classically called the ‘fourth age’. Formosa argued that this group are typically neglected by policy because they represent low value as human capital.

This claim prompted a fruitful discussion about programmes for people whose mobility may be limited, especially those living in residential accommodation, or who are socially isolated with little access to transport.

The second missing group, Formosa pointed out, are men. In all those countries for which we have figures, men rarely comprise more than a quarter of members of the U3A or similar bodies, and in some countries they account for far less than that.

This prompted debate about the role of men’s sheds and similar organisations, but I hope my colleagues will forgive me for saying that I found it a bit shapeless. Looking ahead, if we are to move beyond the anecdotal, we need a much firmer gender perspective on learning in the third and fourth ages. At the moment, we don’t really know how to explain men’s non-participation, or whether it much matters to them.

The conference papers are available through the programme web page:

Agism and lifelong learning

OECD has just published its regular round-up of educational statistics. This issue of Education at a Glance shows that 40% of OECD citizens have taken some sort of formal or informal adult education in a given year. Broken down by age, the data show that 50% of 25-35 year olds have taken some kind of education, compared with only 27% of 55-64 year olds. The lowest participation is among the least well educated older people.

How about the UK? Well, on overall participation levels, we do quite well. The gap between the two age groups is about 12% – half the OECD average. But when we come to the time spent in learning, we fall to the bottom half of the table. While the average younger citizen in the OECD spends twice as much time in non-formal on-the-job learning as older workers, in the UK the younger group receives four times as much time as the older group.  

This kind of imbalance is very familiar to most of us, and probably won’t surprise you. A simple human capital calculation will tell us that investing in younger workers has a higher payback than the same investment in older workers. This is so simply because, all other things being equal, the younger worker will live and work longer. Even so, the difference in training hours is striking, and suggests to me that there might also be a large quality gap.

Because employers and individuals base their decisions on a simple rate of return analysis, it falls to the government to intervene. Government can either incentivise participation for individuals and organisations; or it can support the provision of opportunities and secure its quality. That is, if we believe that older adults should receive the kind of training and education that will support active aging. Sitting on your hands waiting for the market to decide is, in my view, a recipe for serious trouble down the line.

OECD, Education at a Glance 2012, is available at

Why academics love each other

I came across an interesting figure this morning. In her recent study of academic time use and gender inequalit, Rosalind Pritchard found that almost half of her study sample were partnered with other academics. Now, this was a relatively small group of 87 women in four subject areas in Britain and Germany. Nonetheless, it struck me as something worth thinking about.

Sociologists are very familiar with the principle of homophily – or, in common parlance, the tendency of birds of a feather to flock together. This is very obvious in our friendship circles, where our closest friends will usually share our cultural tastes. But not only do we have common interests in – say – French movies, Australian soaps and Chicago blues.  Our closest friends are usually of the same ethnic group, generational cohort, social class, political outlook and so on. And this in-group membership often leads on to homogamy – that is, marrying people of similar background and values to ourselves.

All the same, if anything approaching half of academics live with another academic, that really would be exceptionally high. And I suppose another group of academics will find partners elsewhere in the university, probably mainly among their administrative colleagues. This makes for a pretty dense network of interlocking partnerships (especially as, if my own acquaintances are anything to go by, the average university department includes an ex-partner or two, plus the occasional affair).

Does this matter? You could argue that these tight bonds help to generate high levels of social and cultural understanding and support, and reinforce a strong occupational identity that in turn is good for everyone’s morale and security. But the social capital literature suggests that over-reliance on ‘bonding social capital’ can make a community inward-looking, conservative and risk-averse.

In order to innovate and develop, you need to encounter people who will challenge your assumptions and encourage you to explore new approaches and ideas. So if Professor Pritchard’s sample is anything to go by, academics need to get out more. Perhaps the research councils’ programmes for placing doctoral students with government departments, voluntary organisations and the private sector will, over time, have some interesting unintended intimate consequences.

Rosalind Pritchard, Neoliberal developments in higher education, Peter Lang, 2011

Living education – changing the generations

Almost everyone entering university or college this year was born later than the World Wide Web. In itself this is a piece of trivia, but it provoked me to think more widely about the ways that different generations view education, and about the way that changing education systems help in turn to form generations.

Access to mass higher education is one example. In his book on the purpose of universities, Stefan Collini ponders the way in which the clichés of elite higher education are still used. Think of such terms as ‘ivory tower’ or ‘port-swilling dons’, for example. Although these terms were born when one person in twenty entered higher education, you don’t have to wait long to hear them in media discussions of higher education today.

You can imagine how these terms sound to a typical student of the twenty-first century. For today’s young people, higher education is the normal route between school and the labour market. Around one third of young Britons, and over half of young Irish people, go on higher education – far more than go into training, apprenticeships, jobs or further education. This isn’t an exciting induction into tomorrow’s elite, it is just what everyone else around you is doing.

The ‘higher education experience’ too has changed. It is far more diverse, encompassing courses offered in colleges, as well as a growing number of private institutions. The subject mix has changed, most notably in favour of business and accountancy. And while many students still take degrees, large numbers in Britain take other qualifications such as Foundation Degrees or Higher Nationals.

Then there is that WWW factoid. Of course, generations are complex formations, and their experiences of communications technologies are only a small part of what makes each generation more or less distinctive. Here’s another factoid: until they were in their fifth year, this summer’s school-leavers went through all their education under New Labour. Some will have gone through New Labour parenting interventions like Sure Start.

So why do the old clichés linger on, well past their use-by date? It is always tempting to blame lazy journalism, but that won’t do. One reason, quite simply, is that most journalists who write about higher education went to university themselves some years ago. And most university readers had their ideas about further and higher education shaped by their own experiences – which, given the age profile of news consumers, was also some years ago. In popular culture, these clichés were reinforced by costume dramas such as Brideshead Revisited and Willy Russell’s rom-com, Educating Rita, while ideas about further education were burnished by the scabrous novels of Tom Sharpe.

Generational differences of these kinds matter a great deal. Some years ago I was involved in a study of adult returners in further education. We found that many people were very badly informed about colleges, believing that they catered mainly for young people undertaking apprenticeships – because this had been what colleges did when they left school.

And we can, to some extent, project these generational differences forward. For anyone born after 1991, ubiquitous access to the WWW is pretty much a given. We have already seen how the internet has changed our students’ approach to their studies – ranging from their ability to find information to the possibilities of cheating. We have also seen how many professors and lecturers, coming from an older generation with less internet exposure, have struggled to keep up.

Without a major investment in upskilling by universities, this generational gap will now accelerate. And universities’ ability to engage the new generation of students and nurture their love of learning will critically depend on their capacity for connecting with their cultural expectations and norms, including a view of the internet and digital media as nothing special.

How we encourage the media to understand today’s higher education system in all its complexity is another matter. Assuming, that is, that we aren’t better off keeping them in a state of ignorance.

If you want to read more on this topic, try my paper on biography and generation in educational and social research: