There was a bonkers moment early in the election campaign when, faced with the ordeal of eating a hot dog in front of the cameras, David Cameron picked up a knife and fork. The absurdity of becoming the first person in history to eat a hot dog with cutlery mattered less, for a prime minister seeking re-election, than avoiding a repeat of Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich debacle.
But after weeks of hermetically sealed campaigning, with political leaders also kept as far as possible from the great unwashed, the final televised grilling had a whiff of blood sport about it.
An audience for BBC Question Time barked at Cameron, Miliband and Nick Clegg, with several people emboldened to the point of rudeness (“Are you looking forward to unemployment, Mr Clegg?”).
Ahelo has the potential not only to challenge traditional hierarchies but also to redraw the higher education map
No doubt this too was choreographed to an extent – there were complaints about the political affiliations of some of those involved – but at least it was lively, and there was nothing manufactured about the obvious lack of trust in the would-be leaders (if Jeremy Paxman’s default position on politicians is “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”, then the Question Time audience took much the same stance).
As the country goes to the polls, our cover story asks what is to be done about this cynicism and anger, unpicking topics such as electoral reform; the UK’s relationship with the European Union; the opportunities of “digital democracy”; coalition-building and more.
One of the recurring themes raised by our academic contributors is that it is not structural change but securing genuine participation that is the key to fixing the political system. As Emma Crewe, an anthropologist who researches British politics, puts it: “We all play a part in political failures when we refuse to engage.”
Elsewhere in this week’s issue, we take a look at a potentially game-changing development in the way university performance is measured globally.
The Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes project, brainchild of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, is an attempt to create a standardised measure of the educational “value added” by a university.
With current scrutiny of university performance heavily weighted towards research (which is much more easily measured than teaching and learning), Ahelo has the potential not only to challenge traditional hierarchies but also to redraw the higher education map.
Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills, has shown how powerful standardised measures of this sort can be with the schools-focused Programme for International Student Assessment. He says that the ball is now in the court of OECD member nations, including the UK, as to whether they want to take the idea forward. The risks to the established, high-ranking systems is plain, and Schleicher accepts that those with the most to gain – particularly in Asia – are also those with the most enthusiasm.
However, as the UK goes to the polls it is worth remembering that the Conservatives’ mooted idea of a teaching equivalent of the research excellence framework would rely on some measure of teaching quality, which is what Ahelo would aim to provide.
The OECD members have until the end of May to decide whether to play ball: to engage or not to engage – that is the question.