impact

Research, Impact and the UK Parliament

This event took place in the Darwin Building at University College London on the 7th June 2017 and was organised by the Universities programme at UK Parliament Outreach and Engagement Service.  These are my personal notes which may be of interest to any researchers who wish to improve the profile of their work among policymakers.

 

An Introduction to the UK Parliament

The UK Parliament is made up of The House of Commons; The House of Lords; and The Monarch.  The Monarch’s role is mainly ceremonial and is not a focus for impact activities.  There are typically 650 MPs in The House of Commons.

The Commons is the democratically elected chamber of Parliament.  The party (or parties) who can command the confidence of the House of Commons form the UK government – typically the party with a majority of members.  If no party commands a majority then a a minority government or coalition government may be formed.

The House of Lords used to be largely filled with hereditary peers.  The 1958 and 1999 reforms did away with most of these and most current Lords are life peers.  It is possible to become a Lord through hereditary title; public nomination to the House of Lords Appointments Commission; or (most typically) Prime Ministerial prerogative.  Traditionally the 26 highest ranking bishops and archbishops of the Church of England sit in the Lords.  Life peers can choose to retire but they typically serve for life.  There are 92 places for hereditary peers.  Many peers have an allegiance to a political party, but there are also cross-benchers who retain independence. The House of Lords does not conventionally block bills that were in a government manifesto, and can only delay and request amendments of legislation, not block it.

What does Parliament do?  The main activities are:

  • Making new laws
  • Raising and debating issues
  • Scrutinizing the work of the UK government

Parliament is not the same thing as Government (the party or parties that command the confidence of the commons).  For the development of policy and legislation the focus should be on the Government.  If the focus is on applying pressure or criticising a piece of legislation then Parliament is likely to be a more appropriate place to start.

How does Parliament use academic research?

  • House of Lords/Commons Select Committees (groups of MPs/Lords involved in an inquiry into an area of government activity or spending)
  • Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST)
  • House of Commons Library
  • House of Lords Library
  • Public Bill Committees

How can you contribute to legislation?

  • Respond to consultations (before it goes to parliament, e.g. green & white papers)
  • Make sure the subject specialists at the House of Commons Library knows you and your area of expertise
  • Submit evidence to pre-legislative scrutiny committees and/or Public Bill Committees
  • Brief opposition/backbench MPs and Peers to assist them in legislative debates

You can send 250 word summaries of subject expertise to papers@parliament.uk for the attention of subject specialists.  This means you will be entered onto a register of experts.

 

Academics and the UK Parliament

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) supports and advances the use of research evidence in Parliament.  Core activities include:

  • Producing 4 page briefings for MPs and Lords on topics deemed to be of policy relevance. The process includes literature reviews, interviews with stakeholders, etc.
  • Supporting Select Committees and Libraries (providing contacts and bespoke briefings
  • Connecting Parliament with researchers through events, fellowship schemes, etc.
  • Capacity Building through providing training to Parliamentary staff about using research and research methods

 

There are four POST areas:

  • Biological sciences and health
  • Energy and environment
  • Physical sciences and ICT
  • Social sciences

 

As part of the social science strand some work has been done on Parliamentary engagement through analysis of REF2014 case studies.  20% of impact case studies (N=1282) referred to engagement with Parliament.  88% of UK universities are engaged with Parliament in this way (from all 36 subject areas).  The universities which engaged the most were UCL, Oxford, Cambridge, KCL, Manchester, Bristol and Edinburgh.  The areas of Parliament that were engaged with most commonly were Select Committees (35%); Individual MPs or peers (28%); legislation (11%); debate (11%); APPGs (10%); libraries (3%); parliamentary questions (3%) and POST (2%).

The most typical form of engagement is through citation or mention (37%).  The next common is to provide evidence (18%).  Other examples include giving evidence, consultation, speaking or presenting, or through direct correspondence.

The POST note process provides a way to engage:

  • Written by postgraduate fellows over a period of three months
  • Topics are approved by the POST board
  • You can propose a POST note, or contribute to notes that are presently being worked on
  • First drafts of POST notes are usually written by non-specialists
  • Finished drafts are sent to all MPs and peers and made available through the Parliamentary website
  • The website shows notes that have been approved for drafting as well as work currently in progress
  • There is a mailing list and a Twitter account (@post_uk)
  • It can also be useful to follow the social media accounts of Select Committees or Library Sections, etc.
  • Fellowships are available through research councils, learned societies and charities
  • Academic fellowships are available for academics at institutions which hold an ESRC or EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (currently being piloted, deadline 30th June 2017)
  • Fellows are increasingly offered the chance to work directly with a Select Committee or Library Section

 

Libraries are keen to work with academics but often too busy to seek them out.    The Commons Library is made up of specialists who produce briefing papers and debate packs; the Lords Library comprises generalists and is a smaller team who focus on answering enquiries.

The contact email address for Libraries is: papers@parliament.uk

 

Engaging with UK Parliamentarians

The first step is to contact your local MP, who can be found on the Parliament website (www.parliament.uk) or by calling the House of Commons Information Office on 020 7219 4272.  Many MPs have a constituency office where they can be contacted.

It may be appropriate to contact other MPs – one approach could be to ask which other MPs might share an interest.

Members of the House of Lords have no constituency, but neither do they have the staff support that MPs have.  Many Lords are busy and have jobs outside of Parliament.  It is important to identify peers who will support your campaign. The email address  contactholmember@parliament.uk can be used to contact any peer.  Don’t bulk send information – if more than six copies are received all are deleted.

Individual parliamentarians are free to evaluate your communication and act in whatever way they feel is appropriate. There is no formal quality assurance process, so finding a sympathetic ear can be useful.  Targeting communication is important; having some sense of the action that you wish Parliamentarians to take helps to structure and strategically focus the communication.

Ways to find out more about Parliamentary interests:

  • All-Party Parliamentary Groups
    • These informal groups function like clubs and have been demonstrated to be a good way for researchers to gain influence
    • APPGs typically focus on a particular issue (‘subject groups’) or country
    • They can operate in wildly different ways because they are not uniform in their organisation or structure and they are self-run
    • There is a register of APPGs on the parliament.uk website
    • It can also be useful to identify Parliamentarians who might be obstructive to your legislative agenda through searching APPGs
    • Granularity can be an issue: ‘health’ is quite a broad category but there can be groups for specific areas of medicine or even specific medical conditions. Find the right group for your particular agenda
    • Ask for a list of contact details for members of the relevant APPG
  • Hansard (records of debate)
    • These can be searched for key words
    • Useful for identifying Parliamentarians
  • Early Day Motions (suggestions for future debates)
  • Select Committees

Another inquiry point could be to identify clerks or co-ordinators and contact them directly.  They are likely to be organised and quick to respond.

If you’re going to contact an MP or peer, how should you present yourself?

  • Be polite
  • Have a clear purpose for contacting them
  • Try to stand out from the hundreds of other emails they have received that day
  • Be clear about the new knowledge that has been produced by your research
  • Communicate broad lines first and drill down into the details
  • Parliamentarians are ‘intelligent non-specialists’ who are used to taking in complex information – there is no need to dumb down research for them but it is good practice to minimise jargon and communicate the main points clearly

 

What is good Select Committee evidence?

Select Committees:

  • Are intended to hold the government (or relevant governmental department) to account
  • Are independent in terms of their focus
  • Examine expenditure, administration and policy of each Government department
  • Do not investigate individual complaints
  • Are cross-bench and reflect the makeup of the House of Commons – serving ministers are not part of Select Committees

 

How Select Committees work:

  1. Choose inquiry
  2. Announce Terms of Reference (narrowing areas of focus)
  3. Open the call for evidence (typically open about 6 weeks)
  4. Collect written evidence
  5. Commission research (this is infrequently done, but still happens)
  6. Visits (to relevant stakeholders)
  7. Take oral evidence (these sessions are open to the public and sometimes televised)
  8. Discuss conclusions & recommendations
  9. Draft and agree report
  10. Publish report
  11. Receive a response from the Government, who are obliged to respond to each of the specific recommendations

Recommendations may be accepted in full or in part, or rejected.

Why engage with Select Committees?

  • Evidence based policymaking
  • Publicise research
  • Impact

How should one engage with a Select Committee?

  • Submit written evidence
  • Oral evidence
  • Act as a specialist advisor
  • Highlight relevant research

What is good evidence?

  • Relevant to the inquiry
  • Accessible, not academic – minimise jargon
  • Provides context and assesses the significance of a piece of research
  • Gives clear recommendations to the Committee
  • Avoid political point-scoring since Select Committees are cross-bench
  • Bear in mind the original terms of reference (and possibly use this to structure the report)

One area of focus for Select Committees is to improve the diversity of those who are asked to provide evidence.

The best place to start when thinking about approaching a Select Committee is Twitter – every SC has a Twitter account where requests are made.

Things to think about:

  • How is your research relevant to public policy?
  • Which inquiries could you submit evidence to?
  • How will the REF influence your research?

On the subject of REF:  it is not entirely clear how one might use Parliamentary activity as a way of demonstrating impact.  Keeping records of engagement (e.g. a letter of thanks) is a good idea because this could potentially be used as part of a case study.

Select committees have no role in legislation, though they may be asked to provide scrutiny on bills that are in early stages.

Bill committees also take evidence on a particular subject and related legislation.   Bill committees are run by the Public Bill Office and chosen by party whips.  They are more political and controlled by political parties.

 

 

Advertisements

ROER4D Workshop, Banff 2015 – Day One

Today and tomorrow I’m in Banff ahead of the OE Global 2015 conference at the invitation of the ROER4D project to take part in their latest research workshop.  I’m interested to learn more about aspects of the project I’ve yet to encounter, and to meet more members of the wider ROER4D network.  (This blog present my impressions of events rather than a verbatim record of what was said.)

ROER4D is a big research project.  There are 18 sub projects and there are 86 researchers working across 26 countries and 16 time zones.  For a lot of the people who have travelled to Banff, Alberta in Canada this is the first time they have met face to face, and about half of them are new to me.

For such a diverse group to work together in the project, it has been necessary to develop a shared conceptual framework and collaborative working practices.  The ROER4D Bibliography of research into OER in the Global South is an important part of working towards such a framework. Here’s an infographic which shows the different strands of work across the project:

The range of data collected by the project is diverse, and to maximise the chances of combining data in useful ways will be increased by co-ordination of methodology and research practice where possible.  Some aspects will be highly contextual but where possible the project should strive to identify themes held in common.  Some research questions will be emphasised in some strands more than others but there is still value in pulling together all the relevant data for the key project clusters.  By mapping what is already known and sharing this throughout the project everyone should benefit from not having to tackle al the research in isolation. The different aspects of the project should complement each other.  This workshop provides an opportunity to create new connections and better coordinate across the project.  The workshop will focus on updating the collective understanding of progress made so far; sharing ideas for data analysis and data visualization; and discussing the  ROER4D final outputs and their anticipated formats.  There are several projects looking at specific areas of OER impact and opportunities for working together on similar issues and themes should be identified.

There was some interest in the OER Research Hub survey questions so I made these available to some of the group via http://tinyurl.com/OERRH-surveys.  Anyone is free to re-use our questions under a CC-BY licence – we only ask that attribution back to the OER Research Hub project is forthcoming in return.

After some brainstorming work the main objectives for the workshop were identified.  Most are keen to try and establish agreed methods for data curation and analysis which can be applied consistently across the project.  Another theme that emerged was the idea of making best use of any data collected through a consistent strategy for exploitation and evaluation.

Presentations

Sarah Goodier presented some work on the workpackage which looks at the role of public funding in supporting OER adoption and advocacy in South Africa.  This comprises desk research and interviews with policymakers and officials. A country report is expected early in 2016.  This presentation provoked some collective reflection around the difficulties of building up a holistic picture of change.

Amalia Toledo (Columbia) spoke about OER policy and advocacy in Chile, Columbia and Uruguay.  They are recording the current methods used by governments in the region to promote OER and Open Access.  Data was pulled from public databases as well as through desk research and interviews. Country reports are being produced (in Spanish) and there is a summary report that was written for UNESCO as well as a publication in Open Praxis.  The overall findings are:

  • A variety of funding sources for public education are identified
  • There is a lack of clear policy support in Columbia and Chile, but less so in Uruguay
  • Programmes in science, technology and innovation are being developed

There was also a series of ‘World Cafe‘ presentations from the impact study grantees to introduce the wider group to their ongoing studies.  I’ll summarise these very briefly here:

SP10.1 Freda Wolfenden (UK) – the OU team will work with teacher educators in West Africa to understand their engagement and response to OER, looking for changes in their understanding of their own practice; their understanding of their own subject; and social order changes within and beyond their institution.  The data will mostly be self-reported by teachers in training and will include attitudinal data as well as self-reported changes in practice.  Some baseline data will also come from more general surveys.

SP10.2 Atieno Adala (Kenya) – this study looks at the impact of OER adoption on expanding access to quality teacher education in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a lack of well trained teachers.  12 universities across 10 countries will comprise the locations for the study.  Some existing research (e.g. Diallo, 2013, Niang, 2013) suggests that access to an improved curriculum can strengthen institutional capacity.  Evidence will be sought to defend this claim.  The secondary hypothesis will examine whether OER has a positive effect on the quality of the curriculum.  A quantitative analysis of student performance and institutional reporting will be used as evidence.

SP10.3 Michael Glover (South Africa) – study of 3-5 MOOC at University of Cape Town, which is developing a wider MOOC strategy working with FutureLearn.  How do adoption of OER (in a MOOC format) impact upon educator practices? The study will focus on post-MOOC teaching and research practices.  The definition of open educational practices by Beetham et al (2012) which identifies six indicators for OEP will be used to measure changes in practice.  Generally, this seemed like a good approach to measuring impact of this sort.  Interviews and classroom observations will also be conducted, and analytics from the MOOC portal collected.  Activity theory will be used as a conceptual framework.

SP10.4 Lauryn Oates (Canada) – Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan is running the ‘Darakht-e Danesh‘ programme which makes educational materials available openly as an online library.  Once registered, users can search for OER by type of resource, subject, language, etc. The research will focus on whether access to OER improves teacher subject knowledge or pedagogical practice.  Analytics from the website will provide most of the data for the impact study, with surveys as a follow up.

SP10.5 Yasira Waqar (Pakistan) – investigating impact of OER on secondary and tertiary education in Pakistan.  OER is not popular in Pakistan and possibly associated with ‘devaluation’ of intellectual work (because it is ‘given away’).  Open access is less of an issue in Pakistan as copyright is not particularly well observed or respected.  (It might even be that ‘open’ in Pakistan just means ‘free and online’.)  The main research questions here try to evaluate impact by measuring adoption and identifying benefits to educators and learners, using Fullan’s theory of change as a framework.  Interviews, surveys and classroom observations will be used to collect data about changes in pedagogy, but it will be important to demonstrate the specific  efficacy of OER.

SP10.6 Shironica Karunanayaka (Sri Lanka) – the concept of OER is new to Sri Lanka, and this study will introduce teachers to the concept and ascertain whether or not this leads to some changes in teaching practice.  The hypotheses being investigated is whether integration of open materials into teaching leads to a change in perception of the practices of student teachers and improved quality of teaching and learning materials.  An action research approach will be taken following a professional development programme for student teachers.

The day concluded with discussion in groups according to the different workpackages across the ROER4D project. Because of the structure of the World Cafe session, it meant that the presenters did not see the presentations of others.  We had a discussion around ‘impact’ and the difficulty of establishing a causal relationship between adopting openness and the impacts that result.  It was felt that a general theory of impact as ‘change’ could be a practical way of proceeding and specificity can be brought out in the subsequent analysis.

image

The impact study leads wrote their main research hypotheses on post-it notes and then tried to categorise them into three or four main themes.  Out of this exercise can the following rubric of central themes:

  1. IMPACT ON TEACHING PRACTICES
  2. IMPACT ON PERCEPTIONS
  3. IMPACT ON STUDENT LEARNING/ACHIEVEMENT
  4. IMPACT ON QUALITY OF EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS
  5. INSTITUTIONAL IMPACT
  6. IMPACT ON SUBJECT KNOWLEDGE AND CONFIDENCE (OF EDUCATORS)

Of course, there are other possible ways to perform this categorisation (.g. 6 might be reducible to 1.), and it could be further broken down by subject and teaching level. Wordings of survey and interview questions should be as consistent as possible, and demographic questions should be absolutely consistent across both the impact studies and the ROER4D project as a whole.  The project leaders agreed to work together to harmonise their questions across the key hypothesis areas.

The OER Research Hub question bank might provide some inspiration for the wording of questions asked across the impact studies.

#oerrhub on the LSE Impact of Social Science blog

This is a duplicate of my article from the LSE Impact of Social Science blog which was published today.  You can find the original here.

rob farrowMuch sharing and use of open educational resources (OER) is relatively informal, difficult to observe, and part of a wider pattern of open activity. What the open education movement needs is a way to draw together disparate fragments of evidence into a coherent analytic framework. Rob Farrow provides background on a project devoted to consolidating efforts of OER practitioners by inviting the open community to contribute directly and submit impact narratives. Through the mapping of these contributions, the data can continue to grow iteratively and support the decisions made by educators, students, policymakers and advocates.

The Open Education movement is now around ten or twelve years old and has started to make a significant difference to education practices around the world. Open educational resources (OER) are resources (article, textbook, lesson plan, video, test, etc.) that might be used in teaching or learning. They are considered ‘open’ when they are openly licensed in ways that [permit] no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions or, more simply their free use and re-purposing by others.

This distinction might seem rather subtle and legalistic at first. But the whole of the open education movement is predicated on the idea that open licensing leads to far reaching and beneficial change. By providing an alternative to traditional copyright, open licenses make it possible to share and repurpose materials at marginal cost. It is often stated, for instance, that OER have the potential to increase access to education through lowering the prohibitive cost of textbooks or journal subscriptions. Some claim that OER allows for more innovative teaching and closer bonds between students and learners as a result of a more reflexive syllabus. Others hold the view that open licensing will align existing pedagogies along more collaborative and networked lines.

Image credit: opensource.com via Flickr (CC BY-SA)

When open licensing in conjunction with digital technology can enable duplication and adaptation of materials almost anywhere in the world at next to no cost, it’s easy to see how the implications may be manifold for educational institutions. Perhaps the strongest evidence for this thus far comes from the open access movement, which continues to leverage academic publishers for better value.

Unsurprisingly, much research has gone into ascertaining the evidence that exists in support of these claims. A good portion of earlier OER research focused on establishing the relative quality of open materials and found that they are generally at least as good as equivalent commercial materials (though there are of course variations in quality). But there are reasons why establishing a clear picture of the wider impact of OER adoption is more complex.

Let’s leave aside for now issues around the much discussed and yet nebulous term “impact”. OER adoption is taking place within a world of education undergoing radical change. Where OER does change practices there are often multiple interventions taking place at the same time and so it is hard to isolate the particular influence of openness. Use contexts can vary wildly between countries and education levels, and cultural differences can come into play. Furthermore, much sharing and use of open educational materials (such as Wikipedia) is relatively informal, difficult to observe, and part of a wider pattern of activity. This is not to say that there isn’t good quality OER research out there, but the typical dependence on softer data might sometimes be thought unconvincing. Further complications can arise from inconsistencies in understanding what ‘open’ means to different groups.

Nonetheless, there remains a need for evidence that would support (or discount) from the key claims expressed in the rhetoric around OER, as well as an overall picture of global activity. What the open education movement needs is a way to draw together disparate fragments of evidence into a coherent analytic framework that can support judgments about OER impact for a range of use cases.

OER Research Hub (OERRH) is a research project in IET at The Open University which approaches these issues through an open and collaborative approach. Our project aspires to be open in both its focus and the methods we use to gather and share data. We’ve taken a mixed-methods approach to research depending on the context, and we’ve also undertaken some of the largest surveys about OER use and attitudes from a range of stakeholders. By using a survey template that is consistent across the different samples it becomes possible to see patterns across countries and sectors. Our research instruments and data are released on open licenses and we have an open access publication policy. By encouraging a culture of open sharing we have been able to consolidate the efforts of OER practitioners and help to build a shared understanding.

We work openly with a range of collaborators around the world to gather data and share practical experience and also have a fellowship scheme that helps to foster a worldwide network of experts. By focusing on collecting data around ‘impact’ in situ we are able to build up an evolving picture of changing practices.

The analytic framework for pulling together the data includes a set of research hypotheses which reflect some of the main claims that are made about OER. These help to provide focus but a further structuring is provided by the use of geospatial coordinates (which are of course universal) and map disparate data types on a map across a shared geographical base.

oer impact map1Image credit: OER Impact Map (OER Research Hub)

Mapping has become popular within the OER world, and there is a lot of interest in maps for strengthening communities and as tools for building a shared understanding of the world. Accordingly, OERRH’s OER Impact Map acts as both research tool and dissemination channel. By using a simple metadata structure for different data types it becomes possible to visualize (as well as simply ‘map’) information. For instance, real-time reporting of the evidence gathered across each hypothesis or visualising the sum of evidence gathered help us to understand the data. Soon it will be possible to browse the project survey data directly as well as interact with more detailed, structured narratives about OER impact. The map itself will continue to help us to see patterns in the data and cross-reference evidence gathered.

oer impact map2Image credit: OER Impact Map (OER Research Hub)

By no means is OER Impact Map complete; by its nature the data set continues to evolve. But openness is the key to the sustainability of a service like this: by inviting the open community to contribute directly and submit their impact narratives to OERRH the data can continue to grow iteratively and support the decisions made by educators, students, policymakers and advocates. Furthermore, open licensing of evidence records allows us to close citation loops and archive data more easily, and the relative ease with which open access research can be found helps it find it way into the evidence base.

It is worth noting that the combination of mapping and curation can be flexibly applied to other research questions in educational and social science. The code for OER Impact Map is available openly on GitHub, meaning others can use it build their own impact maps: or adapt this code to their own needs. The impact map is based on a JSON information architecture which supports multiple programming languages and flexible use of the data (like combining it with other datasets).

What our project illustrates is that the use of openness to solve challenges in the project can lead to innovation in approaches in understanding impact. The combination of mixed-methods research into hypotheses with mapping and data visualization techniques can be flexibly applied in support of traditional research activity.

OER Research Hub is funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Rob Farrow is a philosopher and educational technologist who researches open education at The Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University (UK). He blogs at openmind.ed and tweets as @philosopher1978.

My ORO report

I’ve just a quick look at my author report from the ORO repository of research published by members of The Open University.  I’m quite surprised to learn that I’ve accrued almost 1,300 downloads of materials I have archived here!

An up to date account of my ORO analytics can be found at http://oro.open.ac.uk/cgi/stats/report/authors/31087069bed3e4363443db857ead0546/. I suppose a 50% strike rate for open access publication ain’t bad… but there is probably room for improvement…

Debating Digital Scholarship

I’ve just finished my public debate with Martin Weller on Digital Scholarship. The motion was as follows:

“This house believes that, in the next decade, digital scholarship (in open journals, blogs, and social media) will achieve the same status in academic settings as traditional scholarship.”

Martin argued for the motion and I argued against it. There was certainly a fair amount of playing devil’s advocate here as I’m obviously personally invested in the proliferation of digital technologies in educational contexts, but I really didn’t think that the motion was clear enough to be passed.

I simply don’t know as much as Martin about this – after all, he’s the prof. and this is his research specialisation – so my strategy was just to criticise the coherence and plausibility of the motion. You can see my presentation here.

Doug Clow has very helpfully live-blogged the presentations and the ensuing discussion.

In any case, I ‘won’ the (straw poll) vote after the debate by a margin of one! Although the online poll is still open at http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/SPVTQ7K if you want to make your feelings known…

At the time of writing, this is the state of play…

Provisional Results @ 16.45pm

You can follow the discussion on Twitter through #digschol

<div class=”prezi-player”><style type=”text/css” media=”screen”>.prezi-player { width: 550px; } .prezi-player-links { text-align: center; }</style><div class=”prezi-player-links”><p><a title=”The Case Against” href=”http://prezi.com/c1zqo-zwkxfh/digital-scholarship/”>Digital Scholarship</a> on <a href=”http://prezi.com”>Prezi</a></p></div></div&gt;

Because you’re worth it: the New College of the Humanities

There’s been a lot of debate over the last week about a new private undergraduate college with the power to award degrees (conferred by the University of London) for two reasons.  The ‘New College of the Humanities‘ (NCH) is roughly based on the American liberal arts college model in terms of its method and syllabus as well as the idea that it stands entirely apart from state education.  At £18,000 per annum in tuition, it certainly doesn’t come cheap.  This is supposed to be sweetened by the possibility of ‘celebrity’ tuition from the likes of philosopher AC Grayling, evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins and cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker.

This says a lot about the state of higher education in the UK.  These aren’t necessarily among the highest calibre of research academics, but they are certainly among those who have the greatest reach into popular media. I don’t remember anyone ever suggesting to me that I read Grayling’s work, but I know who he is because he is in the papers and on TV working as a philosophical talking head.  (Another way of putting this is to say that his work has impact.)

It’s easy to arrive at the impression that the creeping privatization of higher education- and, in particular, the abolition of the teaching grant for non-STEM subjects – is being used as a cover for introducing what is essentially designed to be a lucrative business venture (even though NCH is putatively not-for-profit, their salary scales are higher than state-sector universities).

It didn’t take long for the announcement to provoke a storm of criticism.  Terry Eagleton was first in, suggesting that NCH would be a kind of meta-Oxbridge which would only be available to the very rich and slightly stupid at a time when the real Oxbridge universities are doing their best to modernise.  Those opposed to the swingeing cuts in higher education seem almost to have taken an oppositional stance as soon as they heard the phrase ‘private sector’.  As Simon Jenkins writes in The Guardian, “Britain’s professors, lecturers and student trade unionists appear to be united in arms against what they most hate and fear: academic celebrity, student fees, profit and loss, one-to-one tutorials and America.”

Inevitably Facebook groups of ‘resistance’ like this one started to pop up… (from the sounds of it, they are bombarding the NCH website with fake applications)

Anti Grayling Facebook page

Grayling wants to punch education in the face... or something

Now, if there’s one thing I would say you can be fairly certain of in all this, it’s that A.C. Grayling does not hate education!  The charge might stick a little better if Grayling was obviously an ivory-tower researcher but someone with his public profile can hardly be thought to fall into this category.  As a full professor with a public profile and a stackload of credentials, Grayling’s job is safe:  he simply has no need to enrich himself in this way.  A two-minute hate gets us nowhere.

My view is that we need to bear in mind that this is a symptom rather than a cause of higher education reform.  Naturally, I’m worried about the emergence of a two-tier education system where access to learning is fundamentally a matter of ability to pay.  But with £27,000 now being the standard cost of degree tuition in the UK, I would say that we have this already.  (I myself have taught many students – often international students who pay greater fees – who didn’t seem to me to be of degree calibre and I’m sure others have too.)  We seem to have been moving towards it for as long as I can remember.

The fees certainly are eye-watering, but it’s somewhat reassuring to know that quite a significant part of it will be used to subsidize poorer students for 100% of the tuition.  These are some other things that I find encouraging about NCH (or at least aspects of it):

  • An improved student/staff ratio
  • Smaller, more collegiate institutions that foster personal relationships with students and alumni
  • (Sort-of) Interdisciplinary curricula
  • Promotion of the humanities (not sure how Dawkins fits in here)

This last one is the one that interests me the most in all of this.  The cessation of the teaching grant for non-STEM subjects represents the final denigration of the humanities as a valid form of academic research, and I would say that there has been a tendency for ‘soft’ subjects to be treated as increasingly irrelevant.  Why pay £27,000 for a humanities degree?  It won’t get you a job… but hang on, NCH is upping the ante to £54,000!

The implicit judgement seems to be that their tuition is worth so much more because they are famous.  But the perverse thing about all this is that making something exclusive and charging a lot of money for it increases demand. In my view, if it raises the cultural value of the humanities it can’t be all bad.

When I first heard about NCH my thoughts were that we were seeing the return of a classical education for the offspring of the elite.  Perhaps what we are really seeing is that some universities are being slowly turned toward fulfilling the role of the old polytechnics (churning out skilled workers) while others (i.e. Oxbridge, etc. and NCH) are to produce leaders, schooled in the classics and and to think for themselves.  Maybe Grayling et al are trying to breed a generation of atheistic world leaders.  But more likely NCH will just hoover up those who cannot get a place in a humanities department when half of them shut.

I’ve written more than I intended to, but if you’re still interested Sarah Churchwell has a good blog post on the subject and Doug Clow’s imaginatively-titled-blog has an equally well-researched piece.

Badiou, Art, Philosophy

I recently attended Alain Badiou’s mini-course on The Relationship Between Art and Philosophy in the Philosophy Department at The University of Essex.

I did something I wouldn’t normally do afterwards; making my notes publicly available.  They’re available on academia.edu and I publicised this fact with Facebook and Twitter.  So far I’m getting 2-3 hits a day on them and they’re ranking high on Google.

When I was a graduate student, we weren’t encouraged to share materials in this way.  Philosophers in general are uncomfortable with sharing their ideas through unofficial channels, though there are some exceptions.  This is beccause a philosopher’s ideas are pretty much the only intellectual property that they have:  there’s no data as such to ensure the validity of philosophical research.  The entire culture of research dissemination in philosophy has developed around this.

We were always told to publish only the best material and only in the best journals.  That’s certainly the only way to get tenure in a philosophy department, but I’m disinclined to think that it’s the best way to ferment ideas and exchange viewpoints.  I’m pretty confident that more people will ultimately see my online notes than would have seen any journal paper I might have written.  (Caveat: it is highly unlikely that I will ever write a research paper about Badiou!)

Alain Badiou, The Sun, and a Bird

Should we just set our research free?

I feel like I have added some value to the event by acting as scribe and making my account of what happened public.  It’s also heartening to see that someone else has made their own notes available in a similar way, though we seem to have arrived at quite different interpretations of what was being said.

I don’t believe Badiou’s thesis – in brief; that the role of art is to interrupt the (abstract form of the) law and so interrupt the repetitious nature of the general order of things – was ultimately successful.  I haven’t read a great deal of Badiou’s work, so perhaps that would help… but I’m not optimistic.  Then again, the greater part of the learning experience in philosophy is often (i) working out what’s actually being said (this is often much harder than it sounds!) (ii) working out why it’s wrong and how it could be improved.