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Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scotland's referendum - an education in politics

This is written at the end of the referendum day, when we don't know the outcome. So it's about the process, not the result.

I've had a political education over the past few weeks, deciding at the last minute that I had to be up here and do something with the Yes Campaign. Sat up all night on the night train. Not just because Scotland matters to me although it does (Scottish parents, childhood memories, businesses, frequent visits). More because something really big is happening here.

On the streets of the South Edinburgh ward I (and my son, 19) trudged, clipboard in hand, to ensure that the known likely "Yes" voters were on track, it was clear this was a class campaign.

A languid middle aged man in a dressing-gown clad  (it was midday...) sneeringly peered down from the high step to his plush stone villa. "You tried hard. But I'm not going for you chaps. Tough luck". Slam of a heavy door. These were the houses of people who had done well by the status quo.

On the roads, a different story. The big cars don't react, but the smaller, battered, cheaper vehicles, the vans, the buses, invariably toot a supporting horn at us when they see a saltire or a Yes rosette. If in traffic, the drivers wind down the window and yell, "yes, for a better Scotland, let's win it". The determination to change the entire basis of politics and government is lit up and won't be easy to quell if the "No" vote predominates.

Sentimental ? Maybe. But working the streets, in every conversation, the contrast with the world of England I'd left the day before is acute. The Scots simply are different. Their sense of community, their passion for justice,  their wish to bring something different to the world - not wars, weapons and neo-liberalism. They cannot bring this to the world if they are an eccentric variety within a nation that wants domination and profit at the top of its wish list.

The 16-17 year olds who had been on a TV debate I had seen last week also showed that through their superior education, the youth was able to rise to the responsibility of the vote. They had used the process to educate themselves. Sure, some ill-informed opinions or lunacies, but that's everywhere, and by and large these were thoughtful and considered views.

Each person you speak to about the vote and the issue shows deeply held personal private feeling.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

International Study - a chimera if you are an African applicant ?

I am currently attempting to procure some tertiary education for a young man from West Africa whom I have sponsored and adopted over the last 5 years, named Abdou. The process has involved me in going through the international student application machinery of several countries - interesting experience - from the perspective of an African. Perhaps worth sharing more widely ?

Through a set of long-running educational projects in The Gambia (see one example on video here) I am involved in several young peoples' plans and hopes in that country. I direct my efforts towards whole schools and communities rather than individuals, but one young man is an exception. He's the smart guy from a poor rural background who as a mere schoolboy in 2008 showed imagination, kindness and courage when he helped me and my son Remy out 5 years ago while we were travelling in Gambia. He became a friend to us both.

The classic education trap in Developing Economies

Abdou has since slogged his way through High School, passing out age 18 in 2011. With my support he has done a diploma in IT, a certificate in ICT, and CISCO CCNA at local private colleges, coming top of the class. At Gambia's top school,  MDI, working alongside the well-endowed scions of the local elite, Abdou has been working as his professor's assistant - presenting the calculations, supporting weaker students, and organising all the classwork, prepping the projects etc. His study in The Gambia since leaving school shows he is a natural engineer, and a capable student, hard working and talented. He basically needs to do an engineering degree, and I have said I will help. Through my work I see enough people of his age, to be sure that it's better for this guy to get abroad and do his degree internationally, rather be subject to the exclusion he'll face at home for being from the wrong side of the tracks in a socially hierarchised small country with a fairly dismal education system.

Among many challenges in this case are that I am not a rich man and cannot buy a solution with money: so the pricing is always going to limit the options. The other challenge is that his WASSCE A level results were poor (four passes at lowest grade) - this is a reflection of a bad secondary school with a crazy policy of entering its better students speculatively for 8 A levels to see if they pass any. The grades don't reflect his ability, but are clearly a problem for university admissions tutors who are told to use these grades as entry criteria. He's trapped in a system of low standards.

Looking around for options for such a student - and having the opportunity to go beyond the front page of the website and deep into the application process - has been very instructive. One good thing: it is clearly possible for a person with full internet access (and for many that's not available or affordable) and a lot of time and research skills to look around and apply globally for education offers. This might seem to be a step forward to a brave new future of globally mobile students.

The reality, however, is that barriers are everywhere, as I soon found out, if you are a talented young African who has not been served well by your schooling system. Here are three experiences. 

NMBU http://www.nmbu.no

I have been impressed by NMBU university in Norway (and the Norway offer of free higher education in English to developing-country students in general is good and humane, with clear processes especially around visa). Their flexible "free mover" offer is also really attractive. However, NMBU policy is to require a year of University before admitting African students. So we can't go further with them for the moment. But for anyone interested, it looks like a great institution with a good course in English for BSc students. 


Malaysia's bid to become an international study hub hasn't been backed up by efficient communication from admissions. There is a good centralised clearing process run by the Government for visas and formalities. But for the school applications, students are at the mercy of a lot of competing and confusing offers. Multimedia University is a private Malaysian establishment which had relevant degrees, low costs ($3500), clear visa regime, and an online application process. https://www.mmu.edu.my/. But they took the view that since maths was one of the speculative Alevels Abdou had taken and failed (having done no classes) - they couldn't admit him. I am trying to get them to engage on the other evidence of maths ability post-school, from the CISCO CCNA and the Diploma in ICT. But they aren't a bespoke service on admissions and basically one cannot discuss it.


Agency INTOHIGHERChina http://www.intohigher.com/china/en-gb/home.aspx has a well packaged offer at a couple of Chinese universities with English-language BSc degrees and an international profile. They have been impressive at processing my enquiry through the London office where they have a sharp China specialist. I am still looking for references on the quality of the school in Dongbei, and am checking the course they have Sept 2014 places for (International Business Management) which is not really the right subject for this student, but is available and the INTO office seem willing to do the legwork to work out if they can accept him. However, the price at £5000 ish (course and accommodation) may be a bit high for what it is - as well actually too high to fund; and his prospects for earning extra cash in China are probably poor. Also, it doesn't appear to join up with Confucius Institute, the gateway to facilitation and financial support. Government and official sites for study in China are a nightmare.

All these enquiry processes have completely changed my view of what educational agents do. The application processes are so messy, the criteria so different, and the offers so hard to measure against any standard, that one gladly would pay agencies their fee to sort it out and reach sensible judgements based on knowledge. The portals like http://www.studyportals.eu/ don't sift the information enough for you to be able to make informed choices. 

My probing of the UK offer gave a quick negative - they seemed inflexible as well as overpriced, and unwelcoming and risky in the visa procedure. I quickly ruled them out as an option.

Market Failure

The market failure this process has revealed for me is the lack of transparency and currency around non-traditional proofs of attainment. The CISCO CCNA, for example, demands and certifies study skills and knowledge that are easily at first year university level of a UK university. Indeed many UK universities use them as second year frameworks. However, they are not expressed in the language of the academic sector: so they can't be counted.

We need a bitcoin of learning, which will bring rigorous currency to the full range of educational experiences, expose those that are sham, and give value to the "school of life" kinds of experience that actually define so many of today's capable learners who are equipped (if given the chance) to bring progress and wealth to their communities. 

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Open Access challenge

Bronx Community College. Photo Ryan Brenizer

The shibboleth of broadening access to higher education was due for a backlash and it's now in full swing with this title from Juliet Lilledahl Scherer and Mirra Leigh Anson, Community Colleges and the Access Effect: Why Open Admissions Suppresses Achievement

The interview at Inside Higher Ed, the authors bring out two problems that have fed the tragedy of young people funnelled into debt and failure by this agenda. They are the obsession with "success" and "completion" as the criteria of educational performance.

For success, this extract is chilling:

In our book, we also relay the shocking anecdote of a junior, tenure-track math faculty member who disclosed that her department chair had explicitly instructed her and her colleagues to lower standards to achieve the student success rates needed at the institution to maintain or increase the current budget under the new performance funding formula.

On completion, the authors comment that institutions are

so fixated on improving completion rates that academic standards are threatened and alternative postsecondary pathways that would better serve some students and their unique abilities, interests and goals are not as seriously considered as they should be

Now these two criteria, which here are cast as the villains of the plot, are of course the main marketing points of most colleges, and of most tools supplied to colleges such as e-learning platforms. The entire industry needs to wake up and smell the coffee.

Dedicated teachers ("the killer app" as I heard them described at one conference) given time and resources to do their jobs well, are probably the best way of rebalancing a system that's starting to disfunction, and cause damage to society.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Open Knowledge Foundation and open education data in development. What chance of a change of business model ?

Today I was speaking at Making it Matter: Supporting education in the developing
world through open and linked data
part of the linkedup programme Slides are on slideshare here:

The discussion session around "what problems need solving" in development world education gave so wide a focus that we all had to think not about specific initiatives, but rather what single cross-cutting interventions might have impact across multiple fields.

Hope, meetings, and change of business model came up as the candidates. We sit on reams of courses, armies of teachers, desks full of policies from Governments - and they often hamper improvements.

The change of business model is worth a look.

It was the key to the single biggest change in the quality of womens' lives in Africa: the business model for getting water used to be the woman standing in the queue. The advent of the cheap chinese bucket changed it: put the container in the queue.

In classrooms, the current business model is waiting or sitting while an unpaid Government-appointed teacher does not arrive, or teaches a poor lesson when they do arrive. Getting the setting to provide something (book ? access to self-guided learning supported by peers or older cohorts ?) might be a candidate. Allowing families to invest to solve the problem might be another solution.

A colleague raised the possibility of Art. It's not a bad idea. It reminded me of the huge impact we got in Mbollet-ba from proposing creative activity in the nursery classes. When we arrived, they were simply sitting and banging bottles on the table. Given the permission to be creative, they thrived. The materials were debris from the school yard.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Thinktank adds to pressure to take students out of net migration figures | News | Times Higher Education

Thinktank adds to pressure to take students out of net migration figures | News | Times Higher Education David Willetts' Conservative think tank Bright Blue is pushing back against mainstream Tory anti-immigration policies, by arguing that immigration quotas should disregard overseas student arrivals in the UK.

One interpretation is that the Universities have got their act together to lobby, as any business would, for policy changes that are in their interests, and have spoken to their Minister. He's got his think tank to fly a kite where other members of the Government will have to see it. (Why didn't he just stand up and say it ? Ah, sorry, that would only work in a functional government.)

For several years the Unis have presented consistent and compelling evidence that their fee income, and international stature, are under threat. Their nemesis is the Theresa May tendency in the Tory party - which would classify overseas students along with every other kind of foreign threat - in deference to immigration anxieties on the Right Wing of the party, and in parties like UKIP beyond them.

Arguments and evidence on student immigration are well rehearsed. An independent consultancy has assembled the policy case for boosting overseas student visits for the NUS. Oxford's Migration Observatory has done the numbers. Applications and entries from overseas learners are entering free fall - which terrifies the universities.

The other (less flattering) interpretation is that the Coalition will need to be able to present a tough story on immigration numbers at the election. Since politicians consistently overstate the reductions they will achieve, and then fail to meet their targets, they are expediently looking around for a justifiable fudge on the numbers. Excluding students from the count does the job.

What's being left out of this argument is the impact of international student flows on the learners themselves. Global classrooms are placing stresses on home students, and visiting students. The value, and the costs, of this approach to education are not being scrutinised.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Has the student voice been tamed? | Features | Times Higher Education

Has the student voice been tamed? | Features | Times Higher Education

McQuillan, Dean at Kingston, makes an analysis from inside the academy, with a bold and unusual impartiality, pointing out the divergence between real student confusion, distress and anger, and the managerial massaging of confectioned student opinion through survey and feedback instruments. An unnamed academic in The Guardian made similar points - "Student feedback is a waste of time". Interesting that they felt unable to name their institution.

This can go two ways.

Either the Unis will get sophisticated at customer response. They will handle it with a mixture of concession, real measures, and PR, and get out of the corner they are in.

Or the Unis will go for repression, denial, and false data. If so, I think there could be some real anger out there waiting to boil over. Many students will pay £100,000 after interest for their three years at Uni and that will not make them a pushover.

What's clear is that the current reliance on opinion management is not going to be sustainable. I think McQuillan's diagnosis is spot on:

when students are in occupation, voluntarily distracting themselves from their primary purpose of study, something has gone badly wrong. If, since 2010, there has been a marked increase in occupation and protest this is because something is very wrong indeed in our universities. We live in a moment of crisis in higher education in which, under the guise of austerity measures, pedagogical interaction between students and their teachers is being redesigned as a consumer relationship and the student experience is giving way to graduate indenture. At the sharp end of the reform of higher education in England, critical student voices are aware of this and are astute enough to recognise it as the active disinvestment by the state in higher education, facilitating the intrusion of private finance into the post-Robbins dispensation of access-for-all within a public university system.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Open Educational Resources Conference

Checked into the OER14 meeting at Newcastle. Discussion MOOC dominated as you'd expect. Martin Weller's www.oermap.org is subjecting the "religion" of OER to proper evidence. JISC Legal is waking up to the copyright problems of MOOCs but not really considering them yet as learning contracts, only publishing contracts.

New data from Nottingham Trent and Desire2Learn - releasing this today