Adult learning and the Lions

I am a bit of a rugby fan. Well, okay, I love the game, for all its flaws. And I love it in spite of the dramatic changes brought about by professionalisation. So far – touch wood – the game still has its roots in the community, and top flight internationals still acknowledge a connection to the minis, the age grades, and the women’s teams, as well as to the volunteers who nurture the world-beaters of the future.

And what, you ask, does this have to do with adult learning? Unlike soccer stars, rugby’s top professionals know that, unless they are remarkably lucky, their earnings from the sport will not be enough to live on afterwards. If they are unlucky, their career will end prematurely. So they need to think about what comes next.

And that’s why adult learning matters for elite rugby players. I’m aware of two current Lions players – the very best that the Northern hemisphere has to offer – who are taking part-time degrees as mature students. Alex Corbiseiro, the prop forward who is soon to join Northampton Saints, is studying history at Birkbeck, University of London. Ryan Grant, former soldier and Glasgow prop, is studying environmental science with the Open University.

There may be other Lions players who are studying while playing professional rugby – if so, I’d be interested to know about them. Meanwhile, Corbiseiro and Grant should remind us, if we need reminding, of why it is so important to have a thriving part-time system that allows adults to return to higher education without abandoning their career. At a time when part-time study is at greater risk than for generations, this is a critical message.

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Join the army? Life chances and social class among young men

I’ve been reflecting on education, class, young men, and the army. Fiona Aldridge, research officer with NIACE, triggered this off when she remarked that her study of rank and file soldiers had shown a population with the same educational characteristics of prisoners. This in turn made me brood on what we, as a society, expect from the lives of our young men.

Faced with Iraq or Afghanistan, or Iraq, it is all too easy to see military service as a high risk activity. And so it is – but is it any more risky than growing up male and working class in cities like Middlesbrough, Portsmouth, or Glasgow?

To be able to answer that question accurately, we’d need to produce age-standardised mortality rates for young males, broken down by class and educational background – and then compare civilians with soldiers. I am afraid that the results would be horrifying, and would suggest that serving on the front line is a lot safer than entering adult life at home.

This is a very uncomfortable thought. And it gets worse. Our society tends to blame lifestyle and family background for poor health; yet death rates among the young from such factors as smoking have fallen steadily in the last thirty years. But as Sir Harry Burns has pointed out, death rates from socially-related factors among young males in Scotland have risen in the last thirty years.

In general, higher death rates among young men result from violence, self-harm, alcohol and drugs. Suicide is the main cause of premature death amoung young men (who are about four times as likely to die by their own hand as young women). To these we can add driving a car, which for young men is far more likely to kill you than riding a bike. And of course there are suicides and substance abuse among soldiers as well, but apparently these are much less common than among the comparable population in civilian life.

So the bottom line seems to be that the army offers young working class males a much better future than does civilian life, at least in the short term, even in a time of conflict. We shouldn’t find this too surprising in a society like ours. After all, as Jay Winter has shown, life expectancy rose in Britain during both world wars; even for young men, the Great War was less lethal than peacetime.

I’m not advocating war rather than peace. What I am suggesting is that we need to see our supposedly peaceful civilian lives in a rather different way. Ordinary, everyday life is extremely harmful to a large and important part of our population, yet we seem to fetishise deaths in military service, and comfortably ignore the far higher toll of those who die while simply growing up.

Changing that will mean giving young men far more control over their own lives, and giving those lives some positive meaning. That will require a massive improvement in their educational outcomes, as well as realistic prospects of meaningful work in adult life.

An unusual approach to higher education: Civilian students in Germany’s military universities

Germany has two military universities, one in Hamburg and one in Munich. Like most other developed nationals, the armed forces are declining in size (if not necessarily in capacity), so there are fewer service personnel to be educated in the universities.

I was interested to read recently that the slack is being taken up by civilians.  It turns out that the military universities are pretty attractive to what we might call “young mature students”. Because there is a fee for civilian students, most are being funded by their employer, and combine study with workplace experience.

What’s in it for these students and their employers? According to those interviewed in Suddeutsche Zeitung, the main advantage was a much shorter period to graduation, partly because the military universities don’t take the lengthy vacations found elsewhere. They also appreciate the personal relationship with their professors, which is in turn the result of high staff ratios. And finally, they mentioned the benefits of military discipline, in that fellow students didn’t spend their time messing about (or, as I think of it,being students).

it sounds like good news all round – especially for conventional universities, who come under less pressure to change as a result. And I think there may be disadvantages as well. But it is an interesting development.

Tackling plagiarism in doctoral research

Universities in Germany have an unenviable task ahead of them. Despite a proud tradition of doctoral research, they have in recent years faced a mounting barrage of accusations of plagiarism. Most of the complaints have centred on politicians, who are in the public limelight. But if prominent politicians have plagiarised large parts of their doctoral theses, then of course the reputation of the whole system is at stake. And other cases are now coming to light, thanks to online plagiarism detection forums like VroniPlag.

So a lot rides on the question of how plagiarism accusations are dealt with. At its latest meeting, the conference of university rectors decided to advise its members that all cases of misconduct in doctoral research – plagiarism, data falsification,  unethical conduct – should in future be dealt with in private hearings, led by the university’s Ombudsperson.

At first, this sounds reasonable. Public debate over allegations is likely to taint the reputation and career of the accused, even if it ends by finding no misconduct. But there is a problem. All the cases detected so far have been investigated solely because the complainant decided to go public. Efforts to tackle the problem inside the system came to nothing. Inevitably, then, plenty of people are asking whether the university rectors are simply trying to sweep the problem under the carpet.

It’s tempting to see this as a specifically German problem, and nothing to do with the rest of us. Except that several other cases have come to light in other countries – and we can presumably expect more now that digitised doctoral theses are routinely published in institutional repositories.

Even one proven case of misconduct is enough to do incalculable reputational damage – to the individual, the university and the sector. Somehow, institutions need to develop procedures that combine protection of the innocent with enough transparency to assure the research community – and wider public – that malpractice is not being tolerated.