八月 8, 2013

Guiding the clever to wisdom’s shores

I was fascinated by the quote from Tony Blair in 1999 promoting 50 per cent entry in UK higher education: “In today’s world there is no such thing as too clever. The more you know, the further you will go.” (“Now we are fifty”, 25 July.) That Blair confused cleverness with knowledge seems typical of the shaky basis of his policy.

Libraries contain knowledge, but are not clever. People are born clever: it is apparent in four-year-olds. Clever people do not need to be told twice. The job of cultural transmission and education is to give clever people the knowledge they lack and the training in analysis and thinking they need to become wise. Clever people gain most from higher education. From my experience, veterinary undergraduates with 4As at A level can learn four times as much in a lecture as ABB science undergraduates.

Take George Baldry, who was clever and wise: you can read his story in The Rabbit Skin Cap: A Tale of a Norfolk Countryman’s Youth. Born in November 1864, Baldry could have been another Brunel had he been educated.

Soon after entering primary school and under the age of 7, he got a holiday job minding pigs after the harvest. While watching them feed, he taught himself rush-braiding and made his own frail (basket). Indeed, Baldry taught himself anything he needed, becoming a local builder, carpenter, metalworker and fixer of all things, and gained a productive position on merit.

While still a child, Baldry heard a story about someone who had made a perpetual motion machine but had to destroy it before it shook his house down. Bitten by the idea, he made himself a portable forge, a lathe and a drilling machine, and cast metal weights for 13 machines, but they never worked. One lesson in thermodynamics could have informed him about friction, which made his task impossible (and will eventually stop the world spinning). He would have understood instantly.

Baldry, without education, was as clever as any politician or university administrator in the country today. Most people are not very clever at all.

Hugh Fletcher

The young man walking across the bridge in King’s College, Cambridge on the opening pages of “Now we are fifty” seems to have travelled through space as well as time: he is unmistakably dressed in the subfusc of a University of Oxford undergraduate. (The prominent stripe in his suit, as well as the carnation, would incur a fine of a bottle of port for his college’s praelector if that were Cambridge academical dress.)

R. J. E. Thompson
University orator (Cantab)

Unexpected value

Your report on assigning a monetary value to blue-skies research is cause for both celebration and concern (“Priceless, but still worth pricing”, News, 11 July): celebration because of the increasing debate about the tracking and measuring of research accountability, and concern over the need for continued innovation in this area.

In the age of austerity, we are all too aware of the budget restrictions facing many research funding organisations, and we also recognise that the move towards monetising research is important in making the strongest case possible for its continued support. 

But we must not allow this to mean we lose sight of the purpose of curiosity-driven research and the innovative thinking that surrounds it. For all the success stories that push the boundaries of our knowledge, there must also be value placed on the results that generate unexpected outcomes: after all, they can still contribute to furthering our understanding. 

The primary concern should not be whether a value should be placed on research. We need to ensure instead that its outcomes (including the effects that may only be felt years later) are measured, tracked and reported so that we can make the case for continued support even more effectively.

Frances Buck
Director, Researchfish

Stop digging

I am grateful to Times Higher Education for raising the issues I have with the University of Leicester (“Historian gets the hump over Richard III remains”, News, 1 August). However, I was surprised by the institution’s published response.

Its statement publicly acknowledges for the first time my key role in the discovery of Richard III’s remains, so its claim that it has always fully recognised my work is intriguing. I imagine editors of national papers and other media who had not previously heard of me or mentioned me in their reporting of the discovery of the remains are now scratching their heads and wondering how they missed out.

As for my appearance in the Channel 4 documentary Richard III: The King in the Car Park: my involvement with Darlow Smithson Productions’ plans for the programme predated Leicester’s involvement in the search for the last Plantagenet.

The allegation that the Richard III Society was behind my exclusion from the announcement of the DNA findings confirming the nature of the remains is also mystifying. Philippa Langley, secretary of its Scottish branch, and Darlow Smithson had arranged for me – as the discoverer of the living DNA link with Richard III – to attend the private revelation of the DNA results on 3 February. But on 1 February, I was informed by the TV company that Leicester would not allow me to attend.

Leicester’s conduct raises serious questions, not only about its treatment of me but also about whether it sees itself primarily as an academic institution or a business. In a current publicity campaign aimed at attracting students, it proclaims baldly: “We led the search for Richard III…what could you discover?” This is arrogant. Richard was buried in 1485. Since the university was founded in 19, why didn’t it uncover the remains until 2012? The answer is that only then did Langley, leader of the Looking for Richard team (inspired to a significant degree by my research), employ Leicester’s archaeological service to dig in the car park!

John Ashdown-Hill

Model response

Warren Bebbington gives a refreshing account of delivering engaging and relevant undergraduate education in an environment of static resources and rising student numbers (“Enlightened response to the limits of growth, budgets and time”, Opinion, 25 July). At Manchester Business School, the idea of lectures at either end of courses interspersed with small-group workshops has already been adopted for a first-year marketing course.

Our model involves dividing a cohort of around 400 students into workshop groups of 20 to 25 people. The course starts and concludes with large-scale lectures, but in each of the intervening eight weeks students participate in two-hour workshops delivered by one member of a 17-strong teaching team (made up of academics, not PhD students). The workshops use slides incorporating embedded online content, followed by an interactive exercise. The teaching material is collaboratively developed by the academic team as shared resources, so all students receive the same basic content with each tutor’s unique delivery style. A key benefit is that students actively participate and form strong connections with their tutors.

Getting 17 academics to buy into this teaching approach was challenging, but early scepticism in some quarters has given way to enthusiasm as the course has progressed. As for the students, their evaluations have been overwhelmingly positive, irrespective of their tutor, and attendance levels have remained consistently above 90 per cent.

The key differentiator here is direct contact between academics and students rather than overreliance on e-learning platforms. Bebbington talks about tutors finding time to teach larger numbers of smaller groups, but in areas such as the humanities, where student fees typically account for the majority of higher education income, perhaps it is simply a case of reprioritising what universities do (ie, more time spent on better teaching, and less but better research).

Dominic Medway and Anna Goatman
Course leaders, Marketing Foundations
Manchester Business School

Criminalising protest

I take issue with a number of the points made by Geraldine Van Bueren in “Making waves” (Opinion, 11 July).

It is inaccurate to say that Trenton Oldfield, the Boat Race protester, did not act peacefully. If his protest had been deemed violent he would have been charged accordingly. Instead he was charged with public nuisance, an offence that in 2010 the Law Commission recommended should be abolished for being vague, outdated and often in conflict with the European Convention on Human Rights. The body warned that public nuisance could be used to criminalise any undesirable behaviour, including protests.

Oldfield was initially charged under Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which is punishable by a fine. However, after Michael Ellis, Conservative MP for Northampton North, challenged Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, about this during a Home Affairs select committee meeting, it was changed to public nuisance, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Oldfield has always maintained that he was exercising his democratic right to protest. He argues that his decision to disrupt the Boat Race stemmed from three developments that took place in the days beforehand: the coalition signed the draft communications and data bill, which if passed into law would have legalised the surveillance of all UK citizens’ digital communications; the Health and Social Care Act 2012 (which effectively privatises the NHS) received Royal Assent; and finally, a Cabinet minister, Hugh Robertson, called on the public to report their neighbours to the police if they suspected them of planning a protest at the London 2012 Olympics.

Van Bueren says it is unlikely that Oldfield will base his legal arguments against deportation on the basis of the disproportionality of the state’s reaction to his actions. But arguably this has been very disproportionate indeed: he was charged with an offence that carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment when nobody including himself was injured in the course of the protest. Ultimately he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.

Finally, the last paragraph of the article is disingenuous: it conflates the fact that someone would prefer to live with his family, friends and in a place he has made his home with a smug Union Jack-waving nationalism.

Nadine El-Enany
Lecturer in law
Birkbeck, University of London

Song remains the same

It was useful to know that “language learners who sing phrases in a foreign tongue can recall them better than those who simply speak them” (“Lyrical linguists”, Campus round-up, 1 August). The only problem with this method is when the words change but the stirring tune remains.

Having learned the words to the first version of the State Anthem of the USSR, which praised Stalin and the Red Army, and then the second version modified after his death, and finally attempted the State Anthem of the Russian Federation introduced by Putin in 2000, I find a consistent emotional response to the melody remains but the various Russian verses interfere with each other, leading to total confusion.

R. E. Rawles
Honorary research fellow in psychology
University College London

Lucky for some

So, life has been good to those studying the humanities at the University of Oxford between 1960 and 1989, a survey shows (“Quids pro quo: see, the humanities pay”, News, 11 July). Now there’s a surprise. It is harder to believe that their good fortune is replicated across all UK humanities graduates.

The survey is also intended to convince the government that the humanities are as worthy as science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. Surely David Cameron’s Cabinet already values the opinions of a few middle-aged humanities graduates from Oxford.

Stuart Macdonald
School of Business
Aalto University



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