Qualification vs unlimited education

In “Adrift in Caledonia“, Nick Thorpe is in the Shetland Isles speaking to Stuart Hill (aka ‘Captain Calamity’).  Stuart says:

“What does qualification mean? … Grammatically, a qualification limits the meaning of a sentence. And that’s what qualifications seem to do to people. When you become a lawyer it becomes impossible to think of yourself outside that definition. The whole of the education system is designed to fit people into employment, into the system. It’s not designed to realise their full creativity.”

Now Stuart may be being slightly cynical and maybe the ‘whole of education system’ is not like that, but sadly the general thrust often seems so.

Indeed I recently tweeted a link to @fmeawad‘s post “Don’t be Shy to #fail” as it echoed my own long standing worries (see “abject failures“) that we have a system that encourages students to make early, virtually unchangeable, choices about academic or career choices, and then systematically tell them how badly they do at it. Instead the whole purpose of education should be to enable people to discover their strengths and their purposes and help them to excel in those things, which are close to their heart and build on their abilities.  And this may involve ‘failures’ along the way and may mean shifting areas and directions.

At a university level the very idea behind the name ‘university’ was the bringing together of disparate scholars.  In “The Rise and Progress of  Universities” (Chapter 2. What is a University?, 1854) John Henry Newman (Cardinal Newman, recently beatified) wrote:

“IF I were asked to describe as briefly and popularly as I could, what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Studium Generale, or “School of Universal Learning.” This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot;—from all parts; else, how will you find professors and students for every department of knowledge? and in one spot; else, how can there be any school at all? Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. Many things are requisite to complete and satisfy the idea embodied in this description; but such as this a University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country.”

Note the emphasis on having representatives of many fields of knowledge ‘in one spot’: the meeting and exchange, the flow across disciplines, and yet is this the experience of many students?  In the Scottish university system, students are encouraged to study a range of subjects early on, and then specialise later; however, this is as part of a four year undergraduate programme that starts at 17.  At Lancaster there is an element of this with students studying three subjects in their first year, but the three year degree programmes (normally starting at 18) means that for computing courses we now encourage students to take 2/3 of that first year in computing in order to lay sufficient ground to cover material in the rest of their course.  In most UK Universities there is less choice.

However, to be fair, the fault here is not simply that of university teaching and curricula; students seem less and less willing to take a wider view of their studies, indeed unwilling to consider anything that is not going to be marked for final assessment.  A five year old is not like this, and I assume this student resistance is the result of so many years in school, assessed and assessed since they are tiny; one of the reasons Fiona and I opted to home educate our own children (a right that seems often under threat, see “home education – let parents alone!“).  In fact, in the past there was greater degree of cross-curricula activity in British schools, but this was made far more difficult by the combination of the National Curriculum prescribing content,  SATs used for ‘ranking’ schools, and increasingly intrusive ‘quality’ and targets bureaucracy introduced from the 1980s onwards.

Paradoxically, once a student has chosen a particular discipline, we often then force a particular form of breadth within it.  Sometimes this is driven by external bodies, such as the BPA, which largely determines the curriculum in psychology courses across the UK.  However, we also do it within university departments as we determine what for us is considered a suitable spread of studies, and then forcing students into it no matter what their leanings and inclinations, and despite the fact that similar institutions may have completely different curricula.  So, when a student ‘fails’ a module they must retake the topic on which they are clearly struggling in order to scrape a pass or else ‘fail’ the entire course.  Instead surely we should use this this as an indication of aptitude and maybe instead allow students to take alternative modules in areas of strength.

Several colleagues at Talis are very interested in the Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), which is attempting to create a much more student-led experience. I would guess that Stuart Hill might have greater sympathy with this endeavour, than with the traditional education system.  Personally, I have my doubts as to whether being virtually / digitally ‘in one spot‘ is the same as actually being co-present (but the OU manage), and whether being totally student-led looses the essence of scholarship, teaching1 and mentoring, which seems the essence of what a university should be. However, P2PU and similar forms of open education (such as the Khan Academy)  pose a serious intellectual challenge to the current academic system: Can we switch the balance back from assessment to education?  Can we enable students to find their true potential wherever it lies?

  1. Although ‘teaching’ is almost a dirty word now-a-days, perhaps I should write ‘facilitating learning’![back]

and they said they would protect front line services

Just been at a public meeting about imminent cuts in the school here on Tiree. In a small school like this (120 pupils) losing several posts isn’t just a matter of shrinking slightly, but means that whole subjects, such as French, drop off the curriculum.

There are two issues here.  One is for the island and other small communities, as the funding formulae assume class sizes that are untenable in a small school; that is making sure the cuts that come, and we know they must, are applied fairly.

The second is  wider, remembering that all parties in the election promised to protect ‘front line services’; this is part of  a cut across all education provision in the region – everywhere there are less teachers … and this is before the harshest budget cuts begin.

an end to tinkering? are iPhones the problem

Thanks to @aquigley for tweeting about the silicon.com article “Why the iPhone could be bad news for computer science“.  The article quotes Robert Harle from the Computer Laboratory at Cambridge worrying that the iPhone (and other closed platforms) are eroding the ability to ‘tinker’ with computers and so destroying the will amongst the young to understand the underlying technology.

I too have worried about the demise of interest not just in computers, but in science and technology in general.  Also, the way Apple exercise almost draconian control over the platform is well documented (even rejecting an eBook application for fear it could be used to read the Karma Sutra!).

However, is the problem the closedness of the platform?  On the iPhone and other smartphones, it is the apps that catch imagination and these are ‘open’ in the sense that it is possible to programme your own.  Sure Apple charge for the privilege (why – the income surely can’t be major!), but it is free in education.  So what matters, app development, is open … but boy is it hard to get started on the iPhone and many platforms.

It is not the coding itself, but the hoops you need to go through to get anything running, with multiple levels of ritual incantations.  First you need to create a Certificate signing request to get Development certificate and a Provisioning profile based on your Device ID … sorry did I lose you, surely not you haven’t even written a line of code yet, for that you really need to understand the nib file … ooops I’ve lost the web page where I read how to do that, wait while I search the Apple Developer site …

Whatever happened to:

10 print "hello world"

This is not just the iPhone, try building your first Facebook app, … or if you are into open standards X Windows!

Nigel Davies said his 7 year old is just starting to code using Scratch. I recall Harold Thimbleby‘s son, now an award winning Mac developer similarly starting  using Hypercard.

If we would like a generation of children enthused by Facebook and the iPhone, to become the next generation of computer scientists, then we need to give them tools to get started as painless and fun as these.

understanding others and understanding ourselves: intention, emotion and incarnation

One of the wonders of the human mind is the way we can get inside one another’s skin; understand what each other is thinking, wanting, feeling. I’m thinking about this now because I’m reading The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition by Michael Tomasello, which is about the way understanding intentions enables cultural development. However, this also connects a hypotheses of my own from many years back, that our idea of self is a sort of ‘accident’ of being social beings. Also at the heart of Christmas is empathy, feeling for and with people, and the very notion of incarnation.

Continue reading

On the edge: universities bureacratised to death?

Just took a quick peek at the new JISC report “Edgeless University: why higher education must embrace technology” prompted by a blog about it by Sarah Bartlett at Talis.

The report is set in the context of both an increasing number of overseas students, attracted by the UK’s educational reputation, and also the desire for widening access to universities.  I am not convinced by the idea that technology is necessarily the way to go for either of these goals as it is just so much harder and more expensive to produce good quality learning materials without massive economies of scale (as the OU has).  Also the report seems to mix up open access to research outputs and open access to learning.

However, it was not these issues, that caught my eye, but a quote by Thomas Kealey vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham,  the UKs only private university.  For three years Buckingham has come top of UK student satisfaction surveys, and Kealey says:

This is the third year that we’ve come top because we are the only university in Britain that focuses on the student rather than on government or regulatory targets. (Edgeless University, p. 21)

Of course, those in the relevant departments of government would say that the regulations and targets are inteded to deliver education quality, but as so often this centralising of control, (started paradoxically in the UK during the Thatcher years), serves instead to constrain real quality that comes from people not rules.

In 1992 we saw the merging of the polytechnic and university sectors in the UK.  As well as diffferences in level of education, the former were tradtionally under the auspices of local goverment, whereas the latter were independent educational isntitutions. Those in the ex-polytechnic sector hoped to emulate the levels of attaiment and ethos of the older universities.  Instead, in recent years the whole sector seems to have been dragged down into a bureacratic mire where paper trails take precidence over students and scholarship.

Obviously private institutions, as  Kealey suggests, can escape this, but I hope that current and future government can have the foresight and humility to let go some of this centralised control, or risk destroying the very system it wishes to grow.

bullying – training for life?

Although I have heard and read similar ideas before, it was still appalling to hear cyber-bullying being described as ‘distressing’ in the tone of voice one would use for spilt tea, and tales of beatings and broken teeth being brushed aside.

I was driving back up country and listening to Tuesday’s Woman’s Hour1.  The guest was Helene Guldberg from the Open University, who had recently published views that anti-bullying initiatives were undermining children’s ability to acquire conflict management skills for later life.

While I share her concerns that we tend towards a nanny society, I cannot imagine that she would feel that being mugged in the streets was helping her to learn how to live in a world where bad things happen,  yet she, and I know she voices a common prejudice in educational theory, feels that violence that would be criminal against an adult is somehow acceptable for a child.  Evidently it is all childhood innocence and any sense of cruelty is simply our adult projections.

In her own moment of exquisite cruelty, Guldberg responded to an email from a woman in her 50s, who felt her life permanently scarred by school bullying.  The woman found it hard to trust anyone, because the instigator of the bullying had been someone whom she thought to be her best friend.  In the classic ‘blame the victim’ fashion, Guldberg explained that this was simply the fact that if we tell children that bullying will scar them for life, then it will.  The woman’s pain was not anything to do with the bullying when she was at school, but effectively self-inflicted … this despite the fact the 35 years ago no-one was telling children that bullying would do harm, as the universal view then was exactly what Guldberg now expounds.

Hearing all this, I recall my own school days and in particular infant school where most of the boys belonged to a class ‘gang’.  Now I would have been perfectly happy if our class gang had fought other classes – I was never one of life’s pacifists.  However, the purpose of the class gang was not to fight other gangs, but to pick on some member of the class, often one of the peripheral members of the gang if there was no-one else.  Now I should explain I was not of a particularly high moral frame; however, I was a romantic and had been brought up with tales of King Arthur and watching Robin Hood on television; so the idea of picking on the weak was against everything I believed in2.  I refused to join in and so became, disproportionately, the one picked on.

my first school

What is particularly striking in retrospect is that those at the heart of the gang leadership, and so of course never picked on by the gang, were the more ‘respectable’ members of the class, the ones the teacher would ask to look after the class if they had to leave.   As far as I can gather, this was not out of some misguided attempt to reform the bullies through responsibility, but purely ignorance.  The teachers were aware of the ‘naughty’ children and those that the gang leaders egged into fighting and hurting others, but not those who seemed on the surface to be the good ones.

This blindness seems odd, but appears to be common.  I recall when our children were small (and home educated), someone telling us about the school their son was at, how good it was and the excellent social environment, but seemed oblivious to the fact that each day he came back with items from his school bag missing or broken and that he kept asking to be picked up from school rather than walk the short distance home.

Later in high school I recall the dynamics were different; there the bullies tended to be the more obvious candidates: big, tough and often less advantaged.  For different reasons I often found myself at the rough end of things; I would try to talk myself out of trouble (those conflict management skills!), but in the end would never back down, no matter the odds.  One of my front teeth is still a little black from a head butt, but today, with knives everywhere, I wonder whether I would have acted the same, or if I had what the consequence would be.

In some sense, in both earlier and later school, I ‘chose’ to be one of the victims, and perhaps as it had an, albeit over romanticised, ethical aspect one could say that it may have strengthened me.  However, most of the victims were not in that position: the less clever children, the first Asian boy in school, the brothers who always had snuffles and so were labelled ‘snotty’, and when my father had died I still recall the taunts of ‘old grey hairs’.  Those who were weaker or simply cannier learnt to appease and submit, but were consequently far more likely to be repeat victims than someone who, even if hurt, would not be cowed.  I am sure the boy I knew in high school, who was learning these important life skills of appeasement and giving in to intimidation, would have developed a rounded and resilient attitude in his later life if he had not committed suicide first.

The presenter, Jane Garvey, and another guest Claude Knights from anti-bullying charity ‘Kidscape‘ did an excellent job in challenging Guldberg’s views, but she seemed completely immune to any evidence.  However, I don’t recall anyone questioning the life skills learnt by the bullies themselves.  The tough but ‘respectable’ boys, who were at the centre of the gangs in early school, are just those who are likely to have become policemen or soldiers.  What did they learn?  Might is right?

And the same attitudes are prevalent in more professional settings; some years ago a team at KPMG were helping us in our search for continued funding for aQtive, our dot.com company.  All the people there were wonderful to us, but looking at their dealings with one another I was often physically sickened by the combination of fawning to superiors and bullying of juniors that I saw.  All good lessons learnt in public school.

For that matter the circle completes and even some teachers repeat the lessons they learnt at school.  I still recall the grin on our lower-school headmaster’s face during school assemblies, when  he would take some child who had committed a misdemeanour, grab him or her by the shoulders and then, in front of everyone, violently shake them in synchrony with his words.

It is not only the victims of school bullying that are the victims; the bullies themselves are victims of those like Guldberg who tell them it is alright to misuse power – and in the deeper weight of things it is perhaps more terrible to learn to be cruel than to learn to be afraid.

  1. Oddly there isn’t a “Man’s Hour” as I guess that would be sexist? … In fact thinking about men’s magazines, perhaps I can see the point.[back]
  2. Although, I didn’t take part in the systematic bullying of the class gang, I am sure there were times during my own childhood, when I hurt others. I am not writing from a moral high ground, I just want us to take all the pains and joys of childhood seriously.[back]

home education – let parents alone!

It is now some years since our two daughters finished their home education, and we had few problems.  However, we  know that some home educating in other parts of the country had great problems with their LEAs (local education authorities) many of whom did not understand the laws on compulsory education and often thought that it was impossible to educate without a timetable!

We chose to home educate based partly on our own experiences of school and partly by meeting the children of other home educating families and being amazed at their maturity and balance compared to other children of their age.  While we made an explicit decision, others are forced into home education, sometimes through learning difficulties or dyslexia, sometimes through school phobia.

One woman I knew eventually decide to home educate her son when he was 14.  At 10 he became school phobic due to a teacher, who was notorious for making his children unhappy; for four years she cooperated with the local authority as they tried to get him back into school, including being sent into short periods of residential care.  It was only when it was clear that he was going to get to 16 with no GCSEs and no future that she reluctantly took him out of the school system and he eventually obtained several exams studying at home with her help.

My wife and I were fortunate in our dealings with authorities as we were obviously well educated, could write fluently and persuasively, and knew the law and our own rights inside out (and were helped enormously by the support group Education Otherwise).  However, not all home educating parents have our advantages, and the difficulties and costs of home education are exacerbated by sometimes intimidating demands from education welfare officers or LEAs.

My impression was that, during the period of our daughters’ education, things improved and LEAs better understood home education.  However, I recently heard (due to a petition on the Downing Street web site) that, I guess as part of the interminable re-hashing of all sectors of education, things are being made more difficult again by repeated reviews of the legal status of home education.

There are numerous examples of public figures from artists to US presidents1 who have been home educated and all the home educated children that I have known, although having all the pressures and problems of any child growing up, are in their various ways successfully following their chosen paths.  When so many aspects of our education system are under threat, I wonder why on earth government feels the need to meddle with things that have and continue to work well.

The petition:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to to remind his government that parents must remain responsible in law for ensuring the welfare and education of their children and that the state should not seek to appropriate these responsibilities.
http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/Homeedreview/

  1. another support group home-education.org.uk have  a list of famous home-educated people[back]

The Cult of Ignorance

Throughout society, media, and academia, it seems that ignorance is no longer a void to be filled, but a virtue to be lauded.  Ignorance is certainly not a ‘problem’, not something to be ashamed of, but is either an opportunity to learn or a signal that you need to seek external expertise.  However, when ignorance is seen as something not just good in itself, but almost a sign of superiority over those who do have knowledge or expertise, then surely this is a sign of a world in decadence.

Although it is something of which I’ve been aware for a long time, two things prompt to think again about this: a mailing list discussion about science in schools and a recent paper review.

The CPHC mailing list discussion was prompted by a report by the BBC on a recent EU survey on attitudes to science amongst 15-25 year olds.  The survey found that around 1/2 of Irish and British respondents felt they “lacked the skills to pursue a career in science” compared with only 10% in several eastern European countries.  The discussion was prompted not so much by the result itself but by the official government response that the UK science community needed to do more “to understand what excites and enthuses young people and will switch them on to a science future.”  While no-one disagrees with the sentiment, regarding it as ‘the problem’ disregards the fact that those countries where scientific and mathematical education is not a problem are precisely those where the educational systems are more traditional, less focused on motivation and fun!

I have blogged before about my concerns regarding basic numeracy, but that was about ‘honest ignorance’, people who should know not knowing.  However, there is a common attitude to technical subjects that makes it a matter of pride for otherwise educated people to say “I could never do maths” or “I was never good at science”, in a way that would be incongruous if it were said about reading or writing (although as we shall see below technologists do do precisely that), and often with the implication that to have been otherwise would have been somehow ‘nerdy’ and made them less well-balanced people.

Sadly this cult of ignorance extends also to academia.

A colleague of mine recently had reviews back on a paper.  One reviewer criticised the use of the term ‘capitalisation’ (which was in context referring to ‘social capital’) as to the reviewer word meant making letters upper case.  The reviewer suggested that this might be a word in the author’s native language.

At a time when the recapitalisation of banks is a major global issue, this surely feels like culpable ignorance.  Obviously the word was being used in a technical sense, but the reviewer was suggesting it was not standard English.  Of course, ‘capital’ in the financial sense dates back certainly 300 years, the verb ‘capitalise’ is part of everyday speech “let’s capitalise on our success”, and my 30 year old Oxford English Dictionary includes the following:

Capitalize 1850. …. 2. The project of capitalizing incomes 1856. Hence Capitalization.

Now I should emphasise it is not the ignorance of the reviewer I object to; I know I am ignorant of many things and ready to admit it.  The problem is that the reviewer feels confident enough in that ignorance to criticise the author for the use of the word … apparently without either (a) consulting a dictionary, or (b) while filling out the online review form bothering to Google it!

This reminded me of a review of a paper I once received that criticised my statistical language, suggesting I should use the proper statistical term ‘significance’ rather than the informal language ‘confidence’.  Now many people do not really understand the difference between significance testing (evidence of whether things are different) and confidence intervals (evidence of how different or how similar they are) – and so rarely use the latter, even though confidence intervals are a more powerful statistical tool.  However the problem here is not so much the ignorance of the reviewer (albeit that a basic awareness of statistical vocabulary would seem reasonable in a discipline with a substantial experimental side), but the fact that the reviewer felt confident enough in his/her ignorance to criticise without either consulting an elementary statistical text book or Googling “statistics confidence”.

So, let’s be proud of our skills and our knowledge, humble in accepting the limits of what we know, and confident enough in ourselves, so that we do not need to denegrate others for doing what we cannot.  Then ignorance becomes a spring board to learn more and a launching point for collaboration

Basic Numeracy

When the delayed SATS results eventually arrive, I’m sure there will be the regular navel gazing at the state of basic numeracy and literacy in UK schools. But what about those who were in primary schools 30 years ago?

This morning on BBC News Channel an interviewer was talking to an economist from the City. They were discussing the reduction in bank lending (a fall of 3% during June, with 32% year-on-year drop ) and its implications for the housing market and the economy in general. The interviewer asked if it was accelerating and the economist agreed, mentioning how the year-on-year drop had gone from 10% in one quarter to 20% in the next and now over 30%.

Of course these figures are all based on a year-on-year average that includes the period before the credit crunch began last autumn and in fact are consistent with a steady linear fall of around 3% per month for the 9 months since the Northern Rock collapse. That is an alarming rate of fall, but not evidence of an accelerating fall.

This apparent lack of basic numeracy reminds me of a discussion some years ago with senior financial executives who dismissed any attempt to quantify projected company income as ‘just numbers’. Having lost money in the Northern Rock collapse I wonder whether the executives in Northern Rock and other banks had a similar attitude!

I know it is easy for me as a trained mathematician to hold up my hands in horror, but still these are people who are playing not only with their own livelihoods, but also the lives of their investors, ordinary people and even the state of the entire economy.

We do have a peculiar attitude in the UK where it is acceptable for highly educated people (including many computer scientists) to just ‘not do math’, and furthermore say so with a level of pride, whereas to say the same about reading would be unconscionable. Other European countries seem far more numerate, so this seems to be a cultural phenomena not an intellectual problem.

I have heard that one of the best predictors of educational success is if a child is willing to put off a treat for another day. Mathematics does require doing work at one stage to see benefit maybe many years later, but this to some extent runs counter to the increasingly common expectation of students to want to know fully and completely how something is useful to them now.

Maybe the answer is for schools to have lessons in leaving sweeties until tomorrow … and perhaps remedial lessons for City economists who matured during the Thatcher years.

in the news – second chances for killers and students

As well as Hurricane Dean which has been dominating much of the news, two items have caught my attention over recent days. One is the debate surrounding the court decision preventing the deportation of Learco Chindamo, the killer of school teacher Philip Lawrence 12 years ago. The other is the release of statistics showing drop-out rates from UK Universities.

Learco Chindamo came to the UK when he was 5, killed Philip Lawrence when he was 15 and has been in prison since. His life sentence carried a minimum term of 12 years and next year he will be eligible for parole. He is also a Filipino by birth and has an Italian passport, so the Home Office intended to deport him on his release, but were prevented by the courts.

Philip Lawrence was a Head Master who died protecting one of his pupils. His wife and family have had to live with that ever since. Furthermore, she had been promised by officials that he would be deported.

The case is distressing and traumatic, but in the end clear. The mark of a civilised society is surely how we treat the undeserving. This is not a man who came to the UK to work and then murdered, but someone who has spent all his childhood here, albeit under the influence of London youth gang culture, and who knows no other country. Deportation would not be sending back but throwing away, like those sent to Australia in the past.

If this has not been such a public case, we might have never have heard of this decision. And because it is public we have some inkling of the anguish we might feel if it were our family not some other. But the purpose of law is precisely to protect us from the retribution we would want if we know the victim and balance that with the mercy we would seek if we knew the criminal.

We might ask questions about our criminal justice system. Is twelve years enough for a cold blooded killing, even if the killer is 15 years old? Is 15 a child or a man? Do we trust the parole system to only release him if it is safe to do so? These questions seem valid no matter the passport a man carries, and it is right to debate them. But to deport a man, who has served half his life in jail, to a country he has never known would have been simply wrong.

It seems frivolous to move from this to university drop out rates, but they are not so far distant.

In some universities the rate is nearly 20% compared to near 2% for the ‘best’. In the TV report other figures were quoted … and certainly the 20% figure at one point sounded as if it were the national average rather than the average at the ‘worst’ institution.

The TV report also noted that those with worst drop out rates were largely ‘new universities’1 and the Vice-Chancellor of Liverpool Hope was interviewed and staunchly defended his own institutions policies to inform students about the nature of courses.

What was left unsaid was that these institutions mainly take those with the lowest academic achievement at entry.2 In other words these serve the ‘lowest’ in society and, as I am sure in other countries also, this is as much determined by social situation as academic ability.

There is often debate about the university system and whether these are ‘real universities’. I have written about this before when I was education columnist for SIGCHI Bulletin: I had recently returned from a visit to South Africa and read on my return a particularly scathing attack in The Times on new university courses. 3 Recently this has been in the media again when “The Taxpayers Alliance’ (I assume representing everyone except children, the elderly and the poor) issued a “non-courses report“, damning degrees such as “Equestrian Psychology” and “Golf Management”.

Now we might debate the academic merit of particular courses (although strangely the ones cited by the TPA sound more academic than many … perhaps reflecting their own understanding of academic content?) … and I stand on shaky ground as my own discipline of computer science, would have been in a similar position 40 years ago. Also it is certainly true, although it is politically incorrect to say, that academic degree classifications at different institutions are not worth the same and indeed, although even more politically incorrect, classifications now at the ‘old universities’ are not the same as they were 15 years ago. We can also ask whether the move to push more and more post-18 education into universities, or whether the changes in that education are in the right directions.

However, notwithstanding all this, it is the new universities that have borne the brunt of the expansion of higher education in the UK and not surprisingly have the most difficult job to do. They take students who at 18 have the lowest A Level grades and, even taking into account the different meaning of classifications, take many of those students to a high level of academic achievement.

These are students who would not have had that chance when I was 18.

Not surprisingly some find that it is not for them, but the 20% drop out rate at the ‘worst’ institutions should be seen against the 80% of students at these institutions who are succeeding, but would never have been given the chance in the past.

Whether even the 20% of drop outs can be seen as a sign of failure, depends on whether they see themselves as having ‘failed’ or having learnt where their true abilities and interests lie. My guess is that for many it will be the former and this is the issue to tackle: how we can have an education system that is about allowing people to develop and learn their strengths not simply learn what they cannot do?4

And what of those 80% who have been given a chance they might not have had. Is it right to say that a person has no more to learn and be judged for life by what they achieve at 18 years old? And is it right to say that a man cannot change and be judged for life by what he did or was at 15 years old, 26 or even 47?

  1. In the UK the former polytechnics become universities in 1992 and since then various other educational institutions have been given university status. It is these that are the ‘new universities’ as opposed to the pre-1992 ‘old universities’ [back]
  2. I am carefully choosing words here as achievement at 18 years may not be a good measure of initial promise, current ability or future potential. [back]
  3. opportunities for change, SIGCHI Bulletin, January/February 2002, written in response to “Professor scoffs at ‘useless’ degrees”. Reported by John O’Leary, Education Editor, The Times, Wednesday October 3rd 2001, page 13. [back]
  4. see also my SIGCHI Bulletin columns “abject failures” and “on the level” [back]