The QAA is hitting the right notes
Your leader of 16 May (“Nul points for agency standard”) may have got it right in relation to the UK’s dismal Eurovision performance, but it is wide of the mark concerning the Quality Assurance Agency, both in relation to the Higher Education Policy Institute report on study hours (“Wanted: new yardstick for student workloads (the old one doesn’t cut it)”, 16 May) and the outcome of the University of Southampton’s appeal against its institutional review (“Southampton shows teeth and watchdog backs down”, 16 May).
The 2013 Hepi student experience report certainly raises important issues about study hours, the comparability of workload expectations and accurate information for students - which is why the QAA has been in discussion with Hepi about the implications of the findings, is about to consult on the expectations about the setting of standards (including the use of credit frameworks), and has introduced a formal judgment on the use that institutions make of information as part of quality review.
It is unsurprising to see Roger Brown and Geoffrey Alderman asserting again that the only way to change anything in the quality of UK higher education is to underpin external quality assurance with the threat of legal sanctions (Letters, 16 May). However, it is disappointing to see Times Higher Education advocating the same remedy of central control without any consideration of its impact on the strength that UK higher education gains through its independence - and the independence of the QAA - in safeguarding quality and standards through external peer review.
Far from illustrating a “lack of authority”, or the assertion by Brown that “the QAA is only willing to take on the little people” (one wonders who he has in mind), the introduction of an appeals process on the outcomes of institutional review shows the agency’s determination to safeguard the integrity of peer review and to follow best practice in all its procedures. The point of an independent appeals process is to accept its outcome, whether for or against.
Meaningful reform of quality assurance, far from being a “pipe dream”, has, since 2009, resulted in the introduction of the student voice in all aspects of our work and student members into all review teams; published judgments on the quality of institutions’ information and commendations of good practice in a much wider framework of judgments; effective direct investigation of concerns brought to us by staff and students; the extension of QAA review to private providers and to all college-based higher education, and the complete revision and replacement of the framework of reference points for supporting quality and standards.
Alongside this, we are - unlike our Eurovision entries - competing effectively internationally, with contracts and consultancies delivered in Hong Kong, Macau, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates in the past year alone.
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education
The article “Disinfectant, disdain and disrespect” (16 May) paints a very narrow and negative picture of student employment at universities.
At Birmingham City University, we have in the past year offered more than 1,100 student employment posts that have provided enriching and worthwhile opportunities, many of which required students to work alongside academic staff in very creative roles. In addition, when students are engaged in professional service roles, their insights are valued and often result in improved services.
The value of these posts to students is great, as many tell us how useful these experiences have been in interviews. For a university, such posts lead to improved curricula and services and give students a greater sense of belonging.
The notion of “academics looking down their noses” at student employees is not something we recognise at Birmingham City or from the other universities with whom we have shared our experiences.
Head of learning partnerships
Professor Stuart Brand
Director of learning experience
Birmingham City University
Respect union democracy
The article “UCU Left’s call to go for growth decried as ‘gamble’ by opponents” (16 May) is correct to say that it will be delegates at the University and College Union’s congress who will determine the union’s financial strategy.
So it is disappointing that, after failing to persuade the majority of the national executive committee to adopt the UCU Left’s so-called alternative strategy during extensive debate within the committee over the past year, Tom Hickey, a member of the NEC, should choose to continue that debate in the media and outside the union’s democratic process.
Under the coalition government’s appalling programme of cuts, the UCU, like almost every other union, has seen its membership fall.
Our members depend on the union to be their voice and their defender. That is why the NEC has agreed a recovery plan that, by reducing costs while prioritising members’ services and recruitment, will ensure the UCU’s survival.
The stakes are high - too high for Hickey’s grandstanding. While the union strives to avoid compulsory redundancies, he seems determined to frighten our staff at this difficult time and to use them as a political football.
The only solution offered by the “alternative strategy” is to increase subscriptions by up to per cent for members who have not had a real- terms pay increase for four years and to suggest recruitment targets that Hickey himself must know are utterly impossible to meet.
We want our union to survive - not just for current members but for those who come afterwards. Despite what some seem to think, this is real life, not a political game, and our members and excellent staff deserve better.
Kathy Taylor (national president)
Alan Carr (honorary treasurer)
Simon Renton (president-elect, chair of higher education committee)
John McCormack (vice-president, chair of further education committee)
Terry Hoad (past president)
Neurons don’t a man make
Annette Karmiloff-Smith’s cautionary remarks on the limitations of neuroscience in the field of psychology are to be welcomed (“Brain scans go deep, but you need intuition for light-bulb moments”, 16 May); but the critique arguably needs to go much further. Neuroscience is typically reductionistic, materialistic and deterministic, and thus fundamentally contrary to the existential-phenomenological worldview to which many humanistic and transpersonal psychologists subscribe. A thorough-going eliminative materialism has nothing to say about the kinds of existential meaning-making experiences that many psychologists see as being key to the work of a true psychology.
Karmiloff-Smith is right in implying that many academics drop their critical faculties in the face of the seductions of neuroscience, as if something that is new and “scientific” necessarily contains something of value for psychology. Yet at the very least, serious psychologists have a deep ethical responsibility to tease out, and make explicit, the metaphysical assumptions that are entailed in a neuroscientific worldview before we uncritically apply them to the work of the psychological sciences.
In The Reluctant Adult, Jill Hall argues that in late modernity we have embraced a quasi-deterministic view that human beings are all essentially “caused” by, and are therefore victims of, our personal histories and/or our brain chemistries. This worldview has all kinds of implications, most especially in terms of blaming the world/the other/our parents/our genetics for our discomfort or suffering. Psychology is crying out for a reinstatement of “the soul” and the “imagination” in its cosmology as a counterweight to these one-sided developments.
Exactly 40 years ago, in a seminal address to the American Psychological Society, the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers said that until we develop an authentic human science, one that takes account of the “exploration of inner, personal emotionalized meanings…based on understanding the phenomenological world of man…,we are but developing a technology for the use of planners and dictators, not a true understanding of the human condition”.
Amen to all that - and not a brain cell in sight.
Senior lecturer in early childhood studies
Department of education studies and liberal arts
University of Winchester
An immersive art
One can only support the broad thrust of John Furlong’s piece on the dangers facing educational academia (“In pursuit of the truth”, 2 May). Probably the main difficulty facing this field is that many onlookers in politics and the media assume that its problems are fairly shallow. They regard good teaching as a practical knack, and organising it as a piece of cake.
Such views are mistaken. If education is to be effective in the 21st century, it needs to take into account profound changes in human cognition produced by digital technology, the disintegration of previous norms of culture (the work ethic, the virtue of patience) and a level of linguistic, social and attitudinal diversity among school cohorts unlike anything known in the past.
But first, educational academia needs to get its act together and recognise the size of the task it faces. A change of gear is required, up to the level of intellectual rigour needed. There has been far too much pussyfooting about managerialism in education, a howler of equivalent proportions to Lysenkoism in biology.
Too much credibility has been given to the simplistic nonsense that so- called evidence-based education is the answer. The underlying assumption here is that good teaching is a technique that anyone can acquire if they learn from the “right evidence”.
The trouble is that in its main essentials teaching is not a technique. It is much more a whole-psyche art form (as mime is a whole-body art form). Factors of the greatest potency are involved here - the clarity of society’s values, the clarity of an institution’s values, the clarity of a teacher’s values, the implied inclusivity needed to win over today’s diverse student groups.
I cannot be the only academic whose in-box is suddenly full of a new kind of invitation. I am urged to join the editorial board of an engineering journal in view of my “outstanding contributions in this area”. I am similarly invited to sit on the editorial boards of journals dealing in subjects from intellectual property rights to branches of the sciences and philosophy. It is gratifying to know that one’s reputation is so extensive.
Other journals want me to send them an article now or, at the latest, by the end of this week. Those tend to come with tempting offers of waivers of the submission or article processing fee. Today I am urged to write (urgently) for a special issue on “How quantification can enhance life quality”. (Over the past week it was pharmacological and biomedical analysis, disease diagnosis, and chemical imaging.) My article may be “peer-reviewed” by a member of a new-style editorial board.
I am also getting “exclusive” offers from a “journal” promising to record citations of my publications.
This was surely all foreseeable in the rush to implement open access. Here is a new marketplace, and market forces are operating to create a racket. How can plain old-fashioned scholarship hope to protect its position?
Your suggestion that the Daily Mail might consider launching a regular series of articles on academics and their footwear (The week in higher education, 16 May) may not be entirely frivolous. Over my 30-year career in higher education (across four mission groups), I have conducted informal research into colleagues’ footwear - especially men’s. As Danny DeVito vouchsafed in the film The War of the Roses: “My father used to say there are four things that tell the world who a man is: his house, his car, his wife and his shoes.”
I have always been comfortable dealing with men who wear leather-soled brogues (mainly medics and management types) and rubber-soled lace-ups (generally engineers). Instinctively, however, I have been less certain of those male colleagues who wear slip-ons, ankle boots and any black shoe/white sock combination.
(Russell & Bromley, a poor girl’s Salvatore Ferragamo)