April 4, 2013

Irish teacher failed to foresee his fate

I was amused to read recent Nobel prizewinner Sir John Gurdon’s account of his “crippling school report”, which included the statement: “I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous…[a] sheer waste of time” (“I wouldn’t be where I am today…”, 21 March). It put me in mind of another well-known Nobel laureate whose school report described his performance thus: “Only fair. Perhaps better in Latin than in any other subject. Very poor in spelling.” Like Gurdon, thankfully William Butler Yeats did not pay much heed, becoming one of only four Irish writers to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Interestingly, Yeats, like Gurdon, had a fascination with nature, biology and zoology in his early years, perhaps reflected in one of his most famous poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,/And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

In relation to these two colossi of their respective fields, the phrase “giant oaks from little acorns grow” was never more apt.

Mark Lawler
Queen’s University Belfast

“I wouldn’t be where I am today…” prompted me to reflect on my own experiences of school. In so doing, I realised that the greatest impact on my own education (a lifelong process that never ends but is abandoned only at death) occurred neither at school nor university.

True, my grammar school had enabled me to pass A levels, but much of the learning was by rote. At university, my experience was never wholly satisfactory: for example, I recall in a third-year politics tutorial being told by my tutor (later a vice-chancellor): “Somerton, why don’t you go down a coal mine?” The comment was presumably “inspired” by the fact that my background was working class.

Having graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in economics and politics, from 1964 I worked for 11 years for the Workers’ Educational Association. It was only at the onset of my teaching career that my real education began.

A memorable example of this process occurred in a trade union evening class I was teaching in the late 1960s. We were discussing the impact of inflation on wages and I had referred to the movement of the retail prices index. Someone in the class asked me, what was the RPI? I said it measured the movement in prices. “Yes,” I was told, “but what exactly is it?”

Despite my economics and politics degree, despite the fact that the RPI had featured in my study of statistics, I realised I had no idea how it was constructed. I came clean and said: “I don’t know but I’ll find out for next week.” I duly researched its construction and limitations as an expression of the inflation experience. A further result was that I developed a discovery exercise to help students work through the reading I had needed to do to expand my knowledge.

I continued to teach trade unionists and other adult students when I moved to a lectureship at the University of Hull in 1975, retiring as a senior lecturer in 2000 and then teaching part-time for another 11 years. On many occasions, responding to students’ challenges was crucial for deepening my knowledge of a particular area of my subject.

In short, students have been far more influential in developing my academic knowledge and understanding than my teachers at school and university.

Michael Somerton

Scholars, not experts

It is academics who will have ultimate responsibility for ensuring that students get a “higher” - not merely a “further” or a “secondary” - education in the new-style English higher education sector. Will the existing protections be strong enough to safeguard standards?

Among the requirements set by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for providers seeking degree-awarding powers is that they should be able to demonstrate that they have “a well-founded, cohesive and self- critical academic community that can demonstrate firm guardianship of its standards”.

Not long ago, it was fairly straightforward to show that such a community was present. In universities there would normally be a body of career academics, mostly required to do both teaching and research, in jobs that would last until retirement age and where they could hope to be promoted up the academic hierarchy. They were owners of their scholarly choices about the direction of their research and writing.

Academics were identifiable as experts in their specialist area of knowledge and because only their peers could challenge them, they enjoyed academic freedom; it fell to them to decide what to teach and how to do the teaching, for only they had the relevant expertise. They were professionally engaged in peer review of other scholars’ work and so had their fingers on the national and international comparability of standards.

The ending of academic tenure in 1988, subsequent further moves towards short- term contracts and “teaching-only” higher education providers have all shifted these expectations. And a redefinition of “scholarship”, which has gone largely unremarked, could be more important than it looks.

According to the Quality Assurance Agency’s most recent guidance, academic staff in providers with taught degree-awarding powers are required to have relevant “knowledge and understanding of current research and advanced scholarship in their discipline area”. Such an academic is an observer of the work of others, not a contributor to the advancement of knowledge. Academic staff may now in practice be delivering courses designed in detail by others.

The expansion of vocational courses and the multiplication of alternative (including for-profit) providers will exacerbate the trend away from the traditional expectation that the “scholar academic” will be an expert in his or her own right, not merely one who keeps up with the latest reading.

There are manifest dangers here to the reputation and international attractiveness of “UK HE”. It is disturbing to note that among all the other urgent preoccupations about the sustainability of the new-style sector, this seems to be an area where analysis of the consequences has barely begun.

G.R. Evans

Employability agenda

In regards to Steve Sarson’s recent article on the “employability agenda” (“Students are sent to the rat race maze: syllabus is history”, Opinion, 21 March): let’s start by considering what employability is - and what it isn’t.

Employability is not just about getting a job: it is a continuing process that applies to us all. It does not help that the sector is judged according to the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) statistics, which indicate how many graduates have “graduate-level” jobs six months post-graduation. This is employment, not employability - there is a difference. Indeed, there are so many variables that affect the figures that institutions which insist that departments increase their DLHE percentages year on year are setting themselves up for a potential fall.

Another issue is “employability skills”. What is the difference between employability, transferable and generic skills? The answer is nothing: so why describe employability in these terms? Skills may be considered a component of employability, but they are not the only one. The danger is that programmes designed to develop skills in this area can often be reduced to meaningless box-ticking exercises.

You will never get everyone to agree on a single theory of employability, but some models help articulate the areas that are worth considering, and all go beyond skills, CV writing and work experience. It really doesn’t matter if you agree with the models or not: they are a starting point - adapt them for your own needs.

We have to agree what employability is in our subject areas, inform students and then map our provision accordingly, including recognising what we are already doing - and what we are not doing. Where are the gaps and how can we address them in terms of content, learning, teaching and assessment?

Employability isn’t an exact science and there is no numerical measurement: our alumni are the measure, where they are in 5, 10 or 15 years. If we start speaking a common language, not only would our students benefit but the employability agenda would also have a fighting chance.

Doug Cole
Employability project manager
Bucks New University

Regarding “Students are sent to the rat race maze: syllabus is history”: Swansea University Students’ Union makes no apology for pushing employability to the heart of the student experience. While we are committed to fighting for the best in learning and teaching, I believe that this now includes equipping students with the skills they need to compete in the global marketplace.

It is not enough to leave university knowing your subject matter. Students want and need jobs at the end of their degrees and employers want students to be productive members of their organisations. If our graduates are going to be successful in the world of work, universities need to get a grip on the employability agenda to equip students with the tools they need to succeed.

Swansea’s employability initiatives have been developed in partnership with the students’ union, and we are proud of working with the institution to provide the best opportunities we can for our students in the workforce. Our success is measured by the fact that 91 per cent of our graduates are in employment and/or further study within six months of graduating, and of those in work, 78 per cent are in graduate-level employment.

Despite these successes we will not rest on our laurels: we are determined to improve the figures by continuing to bridge the gap between the academy and the workplace.

However, there is room for debate about whether our approach is right or wrong: challenging the status quo can coexist with getting the job done. Earlier this year, the students’ union hosted a panel debate that included Steph Lloyd, president of NUS Wales, and Sir Terry Matthews, the billionaire business magnate and Swansea alumnus, about what the employability agenda should look like in Wales. I would now like to invite Steve Sarson to a debate this June during our Summer Employability Week about whether or not universities can and should teach employability.

Zahid Raja (@SwanseaRaja)
Education officer
Swansea University Students’ Union

Just cause, unjust method

One looks to the humanities and the social sciences for rational analysis of human affairs. How astonishing, then, that a dean of arts and social sciences cannot distinguish between the justice of a cause and the criminality of resorting to violence in the course of that protest (“Courage and convictions”, 21 March).

The police officer who allegedly inflicted life-threatening injuries on Alfie Meadows may have grossly overreacted, but the same cannot be said of the judges who imposed exemplary sentences on Edward Woollard and others for dangerous acts of violence.

Martin McQuillan seems unable to distinguish between violent protest in a democracy and peaceful protest against dictatorships.

Julian Newman

Harm’s way

My, that was a smug little piece by Felipe Fernández-Armesto (“Dens of inequity”, Opinion, 21 March). Apparently in his youth there was “no shame and no attested harm in a priest pinching a choirboy’s bottom, or in a boss squeezing a secretary’s knee”. What he actually means, of course, is no shame or harm to the perpetrator. Women and children were made to feel shame all the time: “What did you do? How were you dressed?” Some were incarcerated in prisons and mental hospitals for promiscuity if they dared to object.

Farah Mendlesohn
Anglia Ruskin University

Chilled to the marrow

Lisa Downing’s mantelpiece is truly terrifying (“‘Monsters, never mirrors’”, Culture, 21 March). Perhaps she has a bone to pick with her interior designer.

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