Adult Learning hits Private Eye

The University of Leicester hasn’t had a great time trying to justify its plan to shut its Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning. Bluntly, it has created a PR shitstorm, which you may think is well deserved given that the University seems to have been rather economical with the truth.

So says Private Eye anyway – and you’d think that keeping out of Britain’s leading satirical news magazine should be high on the KPIs of every Vice Chancellor. Especially if you’ve just pushed through a new strategic plan that claims to prioritise ‘Making a real difference to our city and our region’.

Vaughan College started life in 1862, and was one of the institutions that came together to found the University in 1925. You can read more about its history here and if you are so minded you can join me and thousands of others in signing the Save Vaughan petition here.

Meanwhile, enjoy the Eye article, which I have copied from a Tweet by Chris Williams, who Tweets as @Chris_A_W. vaughaneye

Advertisements

World class UK universities that are better than Leicester and offer adult education

continuing-education

From the continuing education pages of Oxford’s website

The Times Higher has released its latest world university rankings, placing the University of Leicester in 172nd place. I’m making the informed guess that the University management is anxious about its position in international league tables, and that this might have something to do with its ill-judged decision to close down its centre for adult education.

So in the interests of open comparison, I thought I’d identify the eight UK universities that come above Leicester in the rankings, and have adult education centres:

Oxford (1st)

Cambridge (4th)

Edinburgh (27th)

Warwick (82)

Glasgow (88)

Sheffield (109)

York (129)

Leeds (133)

In addition, of course, adult education of various kinds is common in north American universities (especially the older, land grant institutions) and several European systems. I was particularly pleased to see that my colleagues at the University of Cologne – which has a terrific programme for older adults, as well as a plethora of seminars and lectures for the local community, and is recognised by the German government’s Excellence initiative – came in two places above Leicester.

So many quite distinguished universities manage to combine scholarly excellence with serious community engagement. Of course, we should take these league tables with a pinch of salt. All of them are flawed to a greater or lesser extent, based as they are on highly selective data, and only a fool would take them seriously. I bet that the Vice Chancellor at Leicester is using them as one of his own key performanc indicators.

 

Brexit and the closure of Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning

new-picture

Provide your own caption!

The University of Leicester’s Council has decided to continue with the planned closure of its Lifelong Learning Centre. This has been an unedifying process for the University, which found itself on the receiving edge of criticism from its own staff, as well as from the local councils and MPs.In the process, the University got itself some extremely unfavourable media coverage, particularly after Private Eye exposed its rationale as being less than truthful.

As a governing body which exists to hold the University’s management to account, you’d have thought Council might have asked the Vice Chancellor why he thought it was a good idea to get into Private Eye. If other members of staff had generated such negative publicity, they would have been accused of bringing the University into disrepute. And the Eye exposed flaws in the University’s case that lay members in particular should have found disturbing. But Council showed no such backbone.

The Centre’s supporters, meanwhile, ran a magnificent #savevaughan campaign. Former students, part-time staff and local people all spoke about what lifelong learning had meant to them, and how it had changed learners’ lives. The campaigners made wise use of Freedom of Information legislation to pinpoint inaccuracies in the University management’s case. Following an embarrassing few months, presumably Leicester’s Vice Chancellor will shortly be asking his colleagues in Universities UK to renew their self-interested attack on the Freedom of Information Act.

Now that the dust is starting to settle, I thought I’d check what Leicester University’s management had to say about Brexit. Generally, the higher education sector in Britain is strongly Europhile, and several universities abandoned their usual non-political stance to argue publicly for a Remain vote. Paul Boyle, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, was one of those who signed an ‘open letter to British voters‘ calling for them to vote Remain. After the result was declared Boyle described it as: “a shocking result for the nation and its universities and a dark day for UK science”.

No doubt Professor Boyle, like many other senior academics, now blames ‘British voters’ for their failure to understand the complexities of the EU, and thinks they should never have been asked for their view on its future. But an informed and tolerant citizenry is exactly what the Vaughan Centre existed to support. Closing it is a slap in the face to the city and its people, and it weakens the University’s contribution to and place within the local and national lifelong learning system.

new-picture2

Self-congratulation – eight years after the event

None of this stops the University management from boasting in their agreement with the Office for Fair Access about their success in attracting and retainng adult learners, and claiming – rather ambiguously – that they will in future ‘work to better understand the student experience for young and mature students’. Nor does it prevent them from inserting the usual guff about local communities into their corporate strategy.

Finally, I suspect that the minor – maybe non-existent – savings from closing Vaughan will do virtually nothing to help Boyle in his proclaimed aim “to pioneer a distinctive elite of research-intensive institutions”. It will simply further detach the University from the community that brought the University into being.

 

 

Ignorant citizens and the European referendum

mr__gumby

If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, quite a few people seemed appalled to discover from a survey for the Independent that most British adults are remarkably ill-informed about the European Union. Personally, I wouldn’t be too critical of the 95% who couldn’t name their local Member of the European Parliament. That’s mainly because I am among them (one name springs to mind, David Coburn, who is an oaf), and anyway the elected Parliament has hardly any powers, and the constituencies are huge.

Some of the other misconceptions were rather more significant, though most were rather less dramatic than the Independent‘s headline suggested. Shortly afterwards Michael Gove, a leading figure in the Leave campaign, triggered another Twitter storm by telling an interviewer that ‘I think the people of this country have had enough of experts’. Or did he?

Certainly that is how he was quoted by many commentators, including the academic and university leader Ferdinand von Prondzynski (you can read his blog here). I’ve read the interview transcript, though, so here is a longer quotation. You decide whether the quotation is so selective that it was misleading:

GOVE: The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal.  I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …

Faisal Islam: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?

GOVE:  … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?

My own judgement is that a lot of people think it is fair to twist and invent stuff in referendums, and that the selective quotation was produced in order to discredit Gove (something he usually seems perfectly capable of doing for himself). It’s not something I expect to see academics doing, but I don’t want to make a meal of it. And anyway quite a few people mistrust at least some experts for some of the time.

More interesting by far is the narrative that this “quote” helped to create. Like the widespread misinformation uncovered by the Independent, it feeds a story of the Leave voter as not only ignorant, but as wilfully ignorant. Usually, this ignorance is blamed on a biassed media, whose blatant mistruths are swallowed wholesale by those too stupid to ask questions.

This narrative is based on pretty naked class contempt, of course, as well as the sense of superiority felt by the well-educated over the less-educated. I also think it reeks of rank hypocrisy. Universities across Britain have set about demolishing their contribution to an educated citizenry, closing adult education departments and rushing to recruit ‘world class researchers’. The University of Leicester recently told its local newspaper that it was shutting its adult education programme because it was “committed to focusing on its world-class strengths”, which sounds laughable in terms of logic, and short-sighted in the extreme.

If we want to know why we have ignorant citizens, Rupert Murdoch is the least of our problems. We should start by looking at the failure of nerve that led our universities to walk away from the role of educating local citizens. If some of those citizens now reject the academy, then I can’t resist the temptation to say: Schadenfreude. We are reaping what we have sown.

 

Polishing off my MOOC

I’m feeling a bit smug. If we academics know one thing about MOOCs, it is that only a tiny proportion of those who start the course actually make it through to the end. And I’ve polished off my MOOC with four days to go.

Having decided that I wanted to actually take a MOOC before pontificating about them, I set myself three criteria: practicality, ignorance and irrelevance. This one – on England in the Time of Richard III – met all three. It was planned to take up two hours a week, and would run for six weeks, so it was manageable. I don’t know much about pre-modern history (I tend to think of anything before the Reformation as having to do with either Normans, Vikings or Romans). And it was nothing to do with my day job.

I’ve found it a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I learned a lot, much of it unexpected (by me at least), about society, culture and the economy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; the changes wrought by the Black Death were far more extensive than I’d supposed. I was interested particularly by the revolution in publishing, fuelled partly by technology, but also by new demands from what was clearly a more literate society than I’d supposed. I didn’t learn as much as I’d expected about the political conflicts that erupted periodically into armed conflict; for me, they;re still vague palace intrigues and dynastic rivalries (or “those naughty Normans at it again”). And the final unit, on the archeological and forensic work in Leicester, was predictably fascinating.

For the purposes of dietary restrictions, the church defined beavers (and ducks) as fish.

For the purposes of dietary restrictions, the medieval church defined beavers (and ducks) as fish.

Do I think MOOCs will revolutionise education in our lifetime? Like a lot of people, I don’t think they are game-changers just yet. Partly this is down to economics. My MOOC was provided by the University of Leicester, working with the Open University and other partners through FutureLearn. It provided a mixture of resources – audio clips, video clips, downloads, an app, a student forum – and, of course, text. These are costly, and participation is free. Then there are equally important questions about equity and access, pedagogic support, quality assurance, and learner assessment.

We need to treat MOOCs less as a uniquely thrilling or appalling game changer, and more as part of a long term process in which teaching and learning are redefined. It includes the foundation of the OU (highly successful) and the founding of e-university collaborations in England and Scotland (both expensive failures). Digitisation has transformed publishing (including academic publishing), broadcasting, the recording of music, and the processing of massive volumes of information; of course it will affect education, in ways that are still evolving rapidly.

We can probably see MOOCs as exciting, worthy but slightly peripheral ventures at present – a sort of contemporary form of extra-mural education. Yet something has changed with their introduction. The ‘game’ may not have changed, but the way we play it has been shifting steadily for some decades, and it will continue to do so.