Doctor Who and my own little social media bubble 

Preparing the latest edition of my textbook on social capital, I became particularly interested in the way that social media are shaping our social connections. Judging by the research available, social media play a complex role in which they sometimes complement and sometimes compete with face to face relationships. And sometimes they mirror each other.

One way in which social media mirror face to face interaction is a tendency towards homophily. Most people like to follow others on social media who are broadly similar to themselves – just as they do in other social interactions. Yet the main benefit of social media is the opportunity they provide for interacting with those who are very different from yourself. And if you think that being challenged by different perspectives is beneficial, as I do, then you try to build social media networks that are broad and diverse.

And I thought that was what I had done. During the Scottish referendum I managed to get attacked by Tweeps from both sides; I follow UKIPPERs, Corbynistas, Remainers, Welsh Nats, Lib Dems, some Tories and a Cornish independence campaigner; I follow people from different countries and speakers of four European languages. Some even follow golf and motor racing, which I hate with a vengeance. I don’t think I follow any racists, and certainly none who are overt, but I do follow some people who think all whites are at best deeply inclined towards racism. So it’s hardly an echo chamber – but clearly I’ve been too smug by half.

The new Doctor Who

Today I woke up to aTwitter storm over the new Doctor Who. The long running BBC series will now be led by a woman, played by the wonderful Jodie Whittaker, and my timeline was full of people protesting vociferously against others who had complained about the role going to a woman. But not a single tweet appeared from the protesters, not a single one. 

UNow it is possible that actually hardly anyone is really upset by a female Doctor. This is hardly radical casting: we’ve had feminist sci-fi for decades – why would one more female lead bother anyone? I can imagine that one or two of the usual rent-a-pen journalists might perform anger in order to generate a bit of click bait for their employer (I’m not going to name them, because that is what they want). But perhaps they are on their own this time.

Or perhaps I’ve stumbled across the boundaries of my own social media bubble. And even this bubble reflects face-to-face bonds, because I realise that I don’t actually know anyone who watches or even cares a fart about Doctor Who. On reflection, though, I am inclined to return to my smug default setting: what Twitter has done is connect me with a community that was previously unknown to me. How diverse is that? 

Is a university education really a public good? 

Following our inconclusive general election last month, the issue of higher education funding has again come to the fore. Both the main parties came in for criticism, with the Tory minister Jo Johnson defending the current tuition fees in the Guardian, and Labour’s shadow education minister Angela Rayner admitting that wiping out student debt, as trailed by her Party leader, might not be realistic. And along came Andrew Adonis, former Labour minister, pointing out that vice chancellors had taken the £9,000 yearly tuition fee as a baseline rather than a cap, and had used the income not to create grants and bursaries for poorer students but to award themselves generous salary hikes (a view generally thought by vice chancellors to be massively unfair) and hire research “stars”.
My Twitter feed quickly filled up with people proclaiming that Johnson was wrong to depict higher education as purely a private investment. Rather, they suggested, it was a public good – a point usually illustrated by short lists of the nice people who graduate, such as doctors and teachers and . . . Well, that was usually it.

Doctors and teachers are of course Good Things (though some of them skip off, after their publicly funded training, to work for private hospitals and schools). But universities also educate accountants, estate agents, hedge fund managers, investment bankers, management consultants, and those people in university admin who draft regulations requiring external examiners to produce a passport. In short, we can draw up our own list of nice and less nice graduate professions to suit our beliefs. 

The case for higher education as a public good has to run a lot deeper, and it probably can’t easily be made on Twitter. It cannot be selective but has to cover the entire teaching function. It has to take in the research side of our work (quite a bit of which – let’s be honest about it – is funded from tuition income). It has to examine our role in our communities. And it has to be based on evidence.

Where I stand on this debate is straightforward: I think higher education has a mix of private and public good outcomes. And I think these are skewed, with the majority of benefits accruing to those who are already relatively advantaged by parentage and by circumstances. For me it follows that free tuition is socially regressive as it mainly benefits the middle and upper social strata, and also implies a cap on student numbers; while high fees damage society and economy alike by building up massive debt. 

My preference is for some kind of graduate endowment, as proposed by the Cubie Committee in Scotland in 1999, payable after graduation once the graduate’s earnings reach a defined point above the national average earnings. And I’d accompany it with means-tested living grants for disadvantaged students. In today’s polarised debate this might seem a long way off, but it is clear that neither free tuition nor the current fee level are sustainable, so change is going to come. And while we are at it, we might also look for a student funding system that promotes part-time higher education for people in work.

Checking the health of adult learning research

I’ve just spent an enjoyable and stimulating day at the 2017 SCUTREA conference.  The acronym represents a rather unwieldy title, the Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults, and it is best understood as the main UK gathering for researchers in adult learning.

For many years SCUTREA drew its audience from academics working in specialist adult education departments. There are fewer of these than in the past, but SCUTREA has held up rather well, and it coninues to be a lively, congenial and stimulating event. What does this tell us about the state of our field?

First, it continues to attract a decent level of participation. Eightynine people registered for this year’s event, which is about the same level as for other SCUTREA conferences in recent years, and the sessions I attended provoked a healthy level of debate. Almost all the participants also offered papers, many looking at adult learning through perspectives influenced by postcolonialism, intersectionality, and queer theory.

Just by way of contrast, I pulled out a copy of the SCUTREA papers from 1982, when there were 11 presentations and 61 delegates, plus 5 ‘observers’ (I wonder whether the observers were allowed to speak). You can see from the titles that the contents were largely empirical with a focus on practice.


SCUTREA has always attracted overseas researchers, and I was interested to see that this year they outnumbered the 39 UK delegates. Though I haven’t checked, I don’t remember this happening in previous years. What was more familiar was the source of the overseas participants: most came from Anglophone nations, with 14 from Canada, 12 from the USA, 4 from Ireland and 2 from Australia. Only 11 came from continental Europe, with the largest contingents coming from Sweden (4) and Germany (3).

The UK delegates came from 18 different HEIs and one residential college. The largest group from any one institution came from Huddersfield, whose Centre for Research in Education and Society is clearly thriving. In 1982, the largest contingent (7) were from Nottingham. My sense is that the centre of gravity in our field is shifting toward the post-92 HEIs, whose role in further education teacher education gives them a critical mass of academics.

I’ve taken SCUTREA conferences before as a health check for research in our field; so what can we conclude from the 2017 event? I think my own conclusions are firstly that adult learning continues to provide an important focus for research, and that SCUTREA continues to provide asignificant forum for parts of that research. I also think that SCUTREA has a job on its hands to attract a larger share of the UK research community in our field. Taking the long view, though, it is clearly doing fine!