About thelearningprofessor

I'm an academic, interested in lifelong learning. Right now I am learning Brazilian Portuguese, more slowly than I'd like; and writing two books, one on British work camps 1880-1939 and one on intergenerational learning.

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!

Skills and hostility to migration

Today saw publication of the results from the 34th British Social Attitudes Survey. Every year, a team of social researchers asks a sample of around 3,000 people about their views on current social issues. You can find the results on the NatCen website: http://www.natcen.ac.uk, and I always find them well worth reading.

The 2014 Survey included some revealing questions on people’s attitudes to immigration. We already know from previous research that the most highly educated individuals tend to be the most welcoming towards immigrants. Because the Survey belongs to an international consortium of similar studies, we can compare this pattern across countries. The results show that when analysed by level of education, attitudes in Britain are more polarised than in other European countries.

I’d be interested to know why this is so. My guess is that it might have something to do with our polarised education system, which in turn creates considerable social and economic distance between people from different socio-economic classes. It may also have to do with the strength of the low skills economy here, as well as the strong cultural stigma attached to low skills in Britain. These are (informed) guesses, and it’d be great to see some serious research on the issue.

The 2014 Survey also allowed for comparison of attitudes over time. For me, the most interesting finding here concerns the decline of race/ethnicity and religion as the basis for accepting immigrants, and the rise of skills and qualifications (along with command of the language). This suggests greater tolerance on one level, as well as a shift towards selection of immigrants on the basis of the capabilities that they bring. 

Is this connected with the educational polarisation that the Survey also reported? It could be that there is a degree of self-interest at work: the highly skilled and educated are the most mobile, and therefore can be expected to favour migration in general; the least skilled and educated are most vulnerable to competition from unskilled migrants, and therefore favour selection by skill. Or perhaps skills and qualifications now serve as a socially acceptable basis for discrimination (not only against foreigners, of course). But again, it would be worth going further into these figures to see what lies behind them.

Finally, the Survey also reports a small rise in those who think immigrants need to be committed to the British way of life. Exactly what this means is of course rather fuzzy, as the report makes clear. And we should remember that the Survey took place before the Brexit vote and before this year’s wave of terror attacks, whose effects on social attitudes are still unknown. 

What is ‘holistic evaluation’?

I’ve been thinking recently about the idea of ‘holistic evaluation’, which you occasionally hear mentioned in lifelong learning. In assessment circles the term is used much more frequently, and appears to be used to describe an approach to assessing writing. The more general use of it to describe an approach to organisational or programme evaulation seems out to be quite rare, and e been my attempts to get to grips with it havrather unrevealing.

Quite a few authors seem happy to use the term in their titles and keywords without explaining what they mean by it. One author simply used the term in his title, with no further elaboration. So I was relieved to find one clear definition at least.

Scott Nicholson, in the context of library and information studies, defined it as follows:

In the context of measurement and evaluation, it means that a more thorough knowledge and understanding of a system can be gained from combining different measures than can be derived than taking those measures separately.

The implication is that this approach will ‘guide evaluators to the consideration of the entire system and not just the problem areas’. I’d be interested to know if there are other, possibly more ambitious statements and explorations of an idea that sounds initially promising, but is rather hard to pin down.

Adult learning and the election (5): the Democratic Unionist Party

Judging by my Twitter feed, everyone in Britain is suddenly an expert on the Democratic Unionist Party. Theresa May’s decision to invite the DUP to support a minority Conservative government has got everyone interested in Northern Ireland politics – or at least in finding out enough to pour scorn on May’s new partners. But beyond the parody and fluff of social media, what does the DUP stand for?

New Pict

I’m going to focus on one area and one area only: its policies for adult learning. I know all about the DUP’s social conservatism, its links with the Orange Order, and its support for Brexit. None of these concerns me in this post.

The DUP manifesto outlines plans for what it calls ‘An Industrial Renaissance for Northern Ireland’, which includes an industrial strategy aligned to the wider UK strategy.  One of the five core pillars of the DUP industrial strategy is given as ‘Enhancing Educattion, Skills and Employability’. This section of the manifesto offers quite a lot of detail about growth of tourism (unlikely to be a high skills sector) and maximising trade exports.

On skills, the manifesto outlines continued funding for the Assured Skills and Future Skills programmes, continuity for the apprenticeship system, a focus on digital skills in further and higher education, a closer alignment of degree courses with ‘the strong and emerging sectors of our economy’, and ‘increased involvement of industry in shaping the skills agenda’. What the latter means is unclear, but otherwise the focus is largely on tweaking existing activities.

The manifesto also includes the DUP’s proposals for education, but these are almost entirely concerned with schools and teaching. The most controversial is likely to be the  ‘removal of discrimination in teacher employment’, or in other words reshaping recruitment policy in Catholic schools. There is nothing more about adult learning, which is unsurprising given than the Northern Ireland Assembly Government has worked hard to dismantle the public adult education system.

Then the manifesto sets out 30 DUP demands for the Brexit settlement. These include a relaxed border with the Irish Republic, a renewed system of agricultural subsidies, and a ‘successful, outward-looking, knowledge-based economy for Northern Ireland’.

There are also three proposals for continued partnerships with the EU that are relevant to further and higher education:

New Picture (2)

It is pretty obvious that the first of these is vague in the extreme; the second is vague and qualified; and the only example offered of the third is participation in the EC research programmes, which are almost certain to be uncontroversial in the final Brexit settlement. Oddly, and in contrast to the Conservatives, there appears to be no mention of the EU Structural Funds.

So Conservative ministers are unlikely to find themselves inspired by the DUP’s radical thinking on adult learning. On the other hand, the DUP are highly unlikely to find anything objectionable in the Conservative plans for adult learning, of which I take a reasonably positive view.


Adult learning and the election (4): a cheap and dirty poll

In the last fortnight I’ve posted my summary analyses of the three main parties’ plans for adult learning. All three have had plenty to say, so for election day I’ve had a quick look at how many people took a look at each.

New Pict

My chart shows the share of total readership for each party. Dear readers, you placed Labour ahead of the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats coming a clear third.  What do I read into this outcome? Not a lot, but I do find it mildly interesting.

In particular, I think you’ve been a bit tough on the Lib Dems, whose manifesto had some really interesting ideas about adult learning, including some positive proposals for family learning. I suspect the Lib Dems’ fate is to have good ideas without most people paying much attention.  But given the near certainty of a Conservative victory today, wouldn’t you expect them to have topped the list?