June 20, 2013

Zero Marx for Gove’s time warp (again)

Michael Gove is stuck in a time warp (“Enemy of promise”, 13 June). Twenty-five years ago, the radical Right was publishing similar scare stories about Marxists in teacher education.

Margaret Thatcher, in The Downing Street Years, recalled how in 1988 she “could barely believe the contents of one of the BEd courses” at what was then known as Brighton Polytechnic. She was not referring to Marxism but to a course I taught that included considerations of gender and “race”, issues that are now mainstream and enshrined in British law.

Can we hope, in light of the obvious failings of the capitalist system, that 25 years hence a serious consideration of Marxism (not Stalinism, but 21st-century democratic socialism) will be on the mainstream agenda, too?

Mike Cole
Professor in education
University of East London

Martin McQuillan has a real go at Michael Gove, who has claimed that “academics who have helped run the university departments of education responsible for developing curricula and teacher training courses” are “Marxists”.

But surely if they really were Marxists, we would by now have an educational system based on the scientific rigours of dialectical and historical materialism, and from which a new elite ruling class would have arisen.

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

Much as I applaud the sentiments in the open letters to Gove from school of education lecturers, I’m afraid that writing letters to the education secretary is not enough. Indeed, a history of the activities of those in Gove’s own department suggests that personal emails and Twitter are the preferred means of communication.

Keith Flett

Hold the anglophone

The French for “les derivatives vendus par les hedge funds” is “les produits dérivés vendus par les fonds spéculatifs” (“Ce n’est plus la guerre: a global academy vs summarising Proust”, Opinion, 13 June).

As always in policymaking, the headlines tend to oversimplify the realities of legislative choices. While teaching in English is valid for Sciences Po, which as the article says trains young people who are likely to work globally and in English, it is a different matter for many others, and there is as much irrationality among those who favour English in French and German universities as there is among those who oppose it.

Consider the few prestigious centres that exist in France and attract an international crowd. Some, like Sciences Po, are in direct competition with English-speaking institutions. But given the choice between Sciences Po and the London School of Economics, to choose the former you would have to have reasons to be interested in France: would anyone choose to go there for its English education alone? Others offer a highly technical scientific education – there the language is immaterial, as it was for my mathematics courses as a student. And in some, such as the Museum of Man, a shift to English would disrupt a highly successful French-language model.

A key risk of the policy is that English becomes the only way to access the best higher education. While allowing the use of English in French higher education is in itself reasonable, the legislator has not reflected on the effect this will have on access and on the continued capability of the many to handle, in a language they understand fully, concepts that matter to their collective future. Democracy in a sense is in danger when voters do not remember the word in their language for “hedge fund” and fantasise on its possible meaning instead.

In many cases, to substitute high-quality speech in German, French and others with poor English by non-native speakers is not an improvement: the inclusion of English papers and the discussion of language as part of study is a better alternative. Allowing English does not forbid good judgement, of course, but too many non-English speakers (and English-only speakers) believe in the language’s quasi-magical effect on scholarship. The use of study in English as an alternative to improving tuition is inevitable – and disastrous.

I have no doubt that allowing two English speakers who visit a French institution with an international intake to teach in English is an improvement for all and a relief to them. However, the change is neither self-evident nor entirely positive.

As always, the devil is in the detail, and there are reasons to doubt the universal wisdom of that choice.

Charles Boisvert
Via timeshighereducation.co.uk

Informed investment

Graduate earnings by institution? Let’s break it down for you” (News, 6 June) shines much-needed light on the student fee and value debate. In 2012, the UK government estimated that the total outstanding debt of students in England would spiral to £80 billion by the start of 2017-18. In the current economic climate, it would be sensible to tackle increasing debt and question the value students get from their financial investment in higher education.

Could we perhaps learn something from the US? In 2012, outstanding student loan debt there exceeded $1 trillion. In an effort to address this Congress took action. Now universities in many US states are legally required to make earnings and labour market data accessible to students and parents. These data show student earnings post-graduation from individual universities and specific courses to help applicants make informed investment decisions.

Data on student earnings post-graduation are far from being “dangerous”: this is essential information that could be made available now if the government deemed it necessary. Furthermore, a European Commission comparison of student fees in 2011-12 showed that UK students (excluding Scotland) paid more than their peers in around 30 countries (and in many cases more than courses in the US).

With this in mind, should we be asking 17-year-olds to make one of the biggest investment decisions of their lives without information as to what kinds of salary they can expect after university? As responsible parents and taxpayers, shouldn’t we help our teenagers think about their job and earnings prospects when they face the possibility of being £60,000 in debt on graduation.

Andy Beale
Head of education

Left speechless

As a University of Salford student I want to express my opposition to the closure of its modern languages courses and explain why I think the university is making a grave mistake.

Salford says the cuts will help it improve, but how can closing some of its best departments achieve this aim? The university is part of the European Translation Network, one of the few UK institutions to have the privilege, and its modern languages courses are well respected and produce high-quality linguists. Such a reputation isn’t built overnight – but it can be discarded that quickly, it seems.

Salford claims that it wants to focus on courses with high graduate-employability rates, even though its own website states that employers “are increasingly looking for graduates who not only have high-level oral and written communication skills in more than one language, but who also have the analytical skills to deal with complex information and carry out mediation tasks in an international multilingual environment”. How does it square this circle?

Salford also fails to mention the other options it considered. Several strategic plans were put forward but all were rejected. What were these proposals and why were they shunned? If applicant numbers are falling, the university should be looking to bolster its marketing and use the good name of its modern languages provision to arrest the decline. Even if the department is losing money, other universities make it work: why can’t Salford?

Paul Hambling
University of Salford

Holistic education

Should “study skills” be taught? Graham Gibbs has his reservations, arguing that the best way to “improve” students is to do so through a better understanding of the nature of knowledge within specific disciplines (“Self-reflective improvement”, Teaching intelligence, 30 May).

We agree that a purely functional approach to study skills devoid of context is not enough. The term “learning development” has gained currency in recent years as a more holistic way to support students in mastering the literacies, discourse and practice of academic study.

The Association for Learning Development in Higher Education, through its annual conference, peer-reviewed journal, working groups and online forums, not only shares and evaluates models of good practice but also aims to conceptualise and professionalise the work of learning development.

In acknowledging the transformative power of education for individuals and society, learning developers are not dogmatic about the best approach to supporting students. We help to embed academic skills into the curriculum, articulate and model academic conventions, offer programmes of one-to-one support and peer mentoring, but also recognise that a timely, targeted “study skills” intervention delivered by an impartial and experienced outsider might on occasion be just the ticket to re-engage and energise a particular cohort of students.

Gibbs’ reflection on the nature of “study skills” adds to the debate already being held on a daily basis within the learning development community. Readers are invited to visit our website to find out more about our work, read our online journal, browse our LearnHigher resources, join as members and participate with more than 700 others in our growing online discussion list.

David Bowers
Secretary of the Association for Learning Development in Higher Education
University Campus Suffolk

Points: wrong direction

A friend’s daughter, who graduated with a first and is clearly a high-flyer, was recently rejected by a blue-chip company after passing all six stages of its taxing graduate-recruitment process. An offer was made but then withdrawn when the firm discovered that she did not have the Ucas points it required (to get to first base she had slightly exaggerated her A-level scores). Fair enough: you can’t employ someone who is prepared to lie on the application form.

However, what strikes me most about this cautionary tale is that the company’s policy on Ucas points is mistaken if it wishes to recruit the best of today’s graduates to produce the wealth of tomorrow.

It is at university that young people learn the techniques of independent learning, start to explore the options open to them in the workplace and develop the skills and attributes valued by employers. A-level students, however bright, are still dependent on their teachers and carefully shepherded through the curriculum. For most students it is only at university that they acquire the habits of self-motivation that will equip them for graduate employment.

So, when blue-chip companies ask graduates for a minimum of 340 Ucas points (equivalent to AAB), they are sending out the message that it doesn’t matter how much students learn at university and how well they do in their finals, they will never offer them a graduate job if they don’t have the right A levels.

Over the years I have seen many undergraduates transform themselves from naive freshers into professional workers, making the transition from insecure teenager to responsible and conscientious adult. Their degree classifications offer far better indications of their ability than the results achieved in the school classroom.

Ucas points are valid indicators of academic ability for university entry, but are an unnecessary and damaging hurdle when used by employers recruiting at the graduate level.

Michelle Kavan
Joint acting director
Placement and Careers Centre
Brunel University

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