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April 17, 2013

The future of UK universities on the global stage: Louis Coiffait, The Pearson Think Tank

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Photograph: A moment captured in the British Museum: man stands next to a Tennyson quote engraved in the floor
Forward thinking: Image c/o Lewisham Dreamer

Alex Miles(University of Warwick) speaks to Louis Coiffait, Head of Research for The Pearson Think Tank

AM: Based on this issue of universities in 2025, do you see things being radically different from how they are now in terms of the structure and the demarcation between the experiential side of things, going onto a physical campus, and the virtual, which is the MOOCs trend so to speak?

LC: I always struggle with this question. My editorial for the last Blue Skies, had the title Revolution or Evolution? and I struggle to know actually how fast change will happen. I think that in 12 years time some institutions and some aspects of higher education (HE) will have seen a revolution but some will be exactly the same. You will still walk into Magdalene College quad; it’ll still have the nice, green grass which you’re not allowed to stand on, and there will still be a lovely old professor who you can spend time with and that’s not going to change. But it’s beyond that kind of stereotypical university experience that I think things will start to get really interesting and you will see some quite different experiences. I think that the blurring of the boundaries with employers is where that potentially could be particularly innovative.

AM: Late last year there was a report from McKinsey, which said that there’s going to be a deficit of skilled jobs to the tune of 85 million in tertiary education – so let’s say that’s undergraduates leading all the way up to a second degree; that’s in the next five years. Taking the global perspective, and most of these graduate-level jobs are going to be in developing BRIC countries, do you think that the UK sector is prepared to respond to this demand and do you think that the UK graduates are going to have to have a complete evaluation to their attitudes towards travel?

LC: I think that in terms of the skills deficit or the gap, I don’t see that getting solved any time soon. A lot of traditional provision doesn’t equip people with what they need to respond in this ever-faster, ever more dynamic kind of workplace and that’s kind of my earlier point about why employers and education providers at university level or otherwise, when they start to interact, that’s when you actually get really good solutions to some of those skills deficits.

In terms of the kind of competitive global picture, I think that the UK is actually very well placed; perhaps we beat ourselves up a little too much; although the volumes coming out of bits of the developing world are amazing, I don’t think that the quality is always there yet. I think they will get there, I think that the British institutions and British students are going to be involved in helping them get there.

It’s certainly not the case that we are the knowledge economy and the thinkers and the rest of world is going to be the workshop “do-ers” but I think that there is a case that Britain and its graduates are going to have to respond and they are going to be involved in that kind of global change, but it might not necessarily mean travel; I think we need to be better global citizens but technologies these days mean you don’t need to leave your house.

AM: The G8 Summit in June is focusing on free trade. From the point of view of higher education, let's say you can give only one recommendation; what would you like them to commit to?

LC: I think the free movement of people, particularly, is pretty key, and I think higher education (HE) has got a big part to play in that. I think the immigration policy that we’re seeing in this country is pretty despicable, it’s very short-term, it’s very parochial, and I think it’s very political. Countries such as Australia and Canada have been much more strategic in terms of their international recruitment of students. I think that yes, we need to regulate to some extent to make sure we have legitimate students coming for legitimate courses but the message we’re sending out at the moment is a very negative one. And increasingly, those students from international locations are choosing not only to not come here or to go to somewhere else, but to actually not to leave their region. We’re going to see a massive growth in, for example, people from China studying in Malaysia – that kind of thing – so we really need to sort out our free trade – our free movement of people – and our immigration policies, particularly around higher education.

This blog is part of a regular series on the Knowledge Centre looking at issues in higher education ahead of the Global University Summit (May 28-30 2013), hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London. As part of the GUS, a declaration of commitment and policy recommendations will be drawn up for the G8 summit of world leaders, taking place in Northern Ireland in June.

April 09, 2013

The future of the student experience: NUS President–elect Toni Pearce

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Photography of Toni Pearce NUS President elect 2013/2014

Humbled and excited: Toni Pearce at NUS Conference 2013. Her first tweet as President-elect read "Incredibly humbled and excited to have been elected the next @nusuk national president. Thank you! #nusnc13."

Alex Miles (University of Warwick) speaks to the Toni Pearce, President-elect of the National Union of Students (NUS). Toni is the first NUS president to be elected from an FE (further education) background.

AM: Will MOOCs (massive open online courses) transform student representation for the better or for the worse?

TP: It’s a complicated issue. I think it’ll be a challenge for all student organisations, including the NUS – as we’ll have to start making more of our activities online. That’s about saying, actually, what do these people want – do these people want formal debates, do they want nights out, do they want a masculine model of democracy, where you stand up and have 'for' and 'against' arguments or do they want forums and discussions online? Do they just want somewhere where they can raise issues with the academic quality on their course? If you’re a mature student who’s studying in the evenings then you probably don’t want the wine and cheese evening that’s traditionally laid on for you but you might just want somebody who will campaign for child-care on your campus, and I think that’s the really important thing: identifying things that our students need and delivering on those.

AM: And if your student population is scattered around the globe and watching online, how do you ensure that quality and student rights are maintained? Indeed, how would you (completely hypothetically) ensure that the sense of community and student solidarity is maintained, despite the disparate nature of that education model?

TP: I think that we have to be really clear that solidarity doesn’t just mean solidarity when something goes wrong. It doesn’t just mean protests or occupations or placards - and all of those things are absolutely key to lots of the student movements, to activism – but it can be about so much more than that. We have the technology and the capability now to engage with thousands of students online and, actually, if we put our minds to it, could absolutely engage with them and create a sense of community and make sure that those people feel engaged. It’s not like we have only one student studying in Dubai, for instance, where students' unions are outlawed; we have to look at how we work around that model because, when they’re enrolled with institutions in the UK, it’s really important that they have the same rights to access student voice structures and democratic structures as our students studying within the UK have. That’s a really difficult one to navigate. Maybe that’s about bringing those students together on their campuses internationally, maybe it’s about creating students’ unions internationally that aren’t just based on institutions but are based purely on the nature of being a student, so being able to organise between institutions rather than just within your own institution. I think that will be really important in the future.

AM: And so, would you create a students' union for each online course provider?

TP: I suppose the example that I’d use is the way that we’ve begun to set up the National Society of Apprentices in the UK. Usually our constituent members are students' unions of each institution, but what we’ve actually done (because apprentices are so spread out in the UK, and you could have maybe one studying with one private training provider) is given them the opportunity to have individual membership to something called the National Society of Apprentices which is, in itself, affiliated to NUS, so they can have a democratic voice through that structure. And I suppose that’s how we might think about doing it internationally. I know that there’s obviously a lot of thought that would need to go into that but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of a better link between the students' union movement and the trade union movement because a lot of people who are studying online or are studying part-time are doing so because their own life commitments prevent them from being full-time (possibly because they’re working full-time). Making sure that we have a much stronger commitment between the trade union movement and the students' union movement will allow them to work together and ensure that those people who are working have the opportunity to access, not just education but also quality education.

AM: The University of Warwick is hosting the 2013 Global University Summit later this summer, which will issue a formal declaration on higher education to the G8. Let’s say that, for some reason Bono has decided that higher education is his new raison d’etre and he is going to lobby the G8 Summit of World Leaders to make one commitment on this matter - bearing in mind that this year’s summit is going to be focusing on free trade – what would you like that commitment to be?

TP: I think that it’s impossible, and perhaps unhelpful, to single out higher education as something that you can change within itself because it’s so subject to the changes in society around it, and not just within the UK but internationally. If I wanted Bono to campaign on one issue that would have an impact on the higher education system, and a positive impact on students in higher education, it would be to change the whole way that our higher education system works, and the way that it allows students from different backgrounds and different classes to access all types of education, (whether that’s young people from the poorest backgrounds accessing the most prestigious higher education institutions or people from the most privileged backgrounds accessing some kind of more vocational opportunities) but also making sure that that’s freely available throughout the world.

Some of the issues coming up, particularly around the Scottish independence referendum, really give us a glimpse into the future of how students will be prevented from moving around, not just around the EU but nationally, and actually I think that’s really important as we move into a much more technological age. I think it’s only right that more information is shared freely throughout the world because our education system should be about just that - educating people and not about the marketization of knowledge and information. I think that’s a really big concern for me, the fact that you wouldn’t be able to freely access knowledge, and I think with the opportunities that are given to us through technology, the internet and even MOOCs, I think people should have absolutely the opportunity to access knowledge and information freely. That’s one of the really exciting things that the Open University does. So I suppose that it’s very difficult to ask one thing from Bono, but I suppose it would be a massive overhaul of the whole of the university system in the UK.

Image c/o the National Union of Students.

This blog is part of a regular series on the Knowledge Centre looking at issues in higher education ahead of the Global University Summit (May 28-30 2013), hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London. As part of the GUS, a declaration of commitment and policy recommendations will be drawn up for the G8 summit of world leaders, taking place in Northern Ireland in June.

April 04, 2013

The Future of Universities – 3 Questions to Professor John Holmwood

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John HolmwoodAlex Miles (University of Warwick) interviews Professor John Holmwood of the University of Nottingham and the Campaign for the Public University on what the purpose of universities is today and in the future.

AM: You wrote a recent piece on MOOCs, saying that people should follow the money. I just wondered whether you thought that, despite that, MOOCs are actually a viable revenue stream for higher education institutions moving forwards?

JH: I think they’re a viable revenue stream for some institutions, but what they will do is put the revenue stream of other institutions at peril. I think there are two developments going on with MOOCs. One is of universities that think of themselves as high status – they can provide course content. The second is that there will potentially be a separate supplier of tutorial support and then a credentialing process. It’s unlikely that the institutions of a high status will deliver the tutorial support and the credentialing – they will be done separately, and I think that will be done on a for-profit basis. What that will offer is a low-cost system of education that will compete with other public institutions outside the more elite high status institutions. Essentially, this is the model I think that Pearson intend to follow, delivering suppocredential final degree. They own Edexcel, so they’re used to this model and Edexcel operates through further education colleges, so I think they will see that that will be the model for delivering higher education through further education. If we think of the competition for student applicants which we’ve had in Britain – and the instability that’s created for the Russell Group and 1994 Group universities – we haven’t yet seen the instability that will come with universities outside of these groups which will come when the quorum margin opens up to for-profit providers.

AM: The theme of the Warwick University Summit (March 2013) was 'Universities in 2025' - what do you think an academic in 2025 is going to be worrying about?

JH: Some of the same things that they have always been worrying about, but I think that what there will be will be a much more highly stratified and polarised system – so , concentration and selectivity is the mantra of the government facing all aspects of university activities, whether research, teaching and so on. So I think, from the point of view of The Robbins Reportambition that all universities would be associated with teaching and research – what we’ll have is a sharper separation between universities in which research takes place, and those which are teaching only, and I think the research-based institutions will be surprisingly few. The various editions of Clark Kerr’s The Uses of the University started to identify the problems of the modern university – he was the great architect of public further and higher education in California. For him, the modern university is a multiversity where some of its functions would prove difficult to maintain: for example, the problem of maintaining the humanities, the problem of maintaining good quality teaching at research-intensive universities and so on.His argument becomes increasingly bleak across the various editions. He starts to talk about the “pathology” of the university and the irony is that, what he identifies as pathological, is now what is being promoted as policy.

AM: Finally, the G8 this year is going to be focused on the issue of Free Trade - thinking about that topic, and also thinking about what the G8 traditionally does, if you could get one commitment from the summit of world leaders related to HE that would benefit our education, what would that be?

JH: I genuinely cannot see the G8 as the advocates of positive change because the one thing that universities need to do is deliver for local populations – that’s what a public university does. But many universities now have international campuses and then if you think that the idea of an international campus carries the image of the university of the future, setting up an international campus in Countries without democratic institutions indicates that you don’t hold the democratic functions of the university central to your definition of the university, and that’s the same position as G8 on Free Trade. So free trade in universities is actually no longer about universities serving democracy, but serving commercial interests and global elites, who are themselves divorced from local populations. For universities to serve democracy, they have to serve local populations. When the world economic forum identifies inequality as one of the major issues confronting us then I have to say that G8 should recognise that neo-liberalism is the problem and that this is so whether it is applied to economic development or to higher education. We are being taken along a path that is no longer sustainable.

This blog is part of a regular series on the Knowledge Centre looking at issues in higher education ahead of the Global University Summit (May 28-30 2013), hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London. As part of the GUS, a declaration of commitment and policy recommendations will be drawn up for the G8 summit of world leaders, taking place in Northern Ireland in June.

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