September 18, 2014

We will pay too high a price for independence

The results of your survey show that a majority of Scottish academics will vote “no” in the referendum on 18 September and that an even larger proportion believe that separation will be damaging for Scottish universities (“Scottish academics set to reject call to break up UK”, News, 11 September). This reinforces the recent published concerns – in an open letter released by the Better Together campaign – of the 65 leading professors in clinical and biomedical research, the concerns of senior figures such as Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, the concerns of former Scottish university principals and the published concerns of many other experts over the past year.

In an independent Scotland, Scottish universities would not be able to remain part of the UK research system. They would be hit by the loss of tuition fees from the rest of the UK, a loss of income from UK charities, increased difficulties in cross-border collaboration with the rest of the UK, a loss of access to the research infrastructure shared with the rest of the UK and probably a reduction in the number of overseas postgraduates. They would no longer benefit from the long-established worldwide links set up by UK agencies such as the British Council.

Devastating though this would be for our universities, it is of course equally damaging for the Scottish economy as a whole. We will all lose if our great universities suffer. Scottish universities contribute £6.7 billion annually to the Scottish economy and employ 142,000 people. They are important sources of innovation, attracting high-technology industry to Scotland, and they deeply enrich every aspect of our cultural life. What our universities are doing and will continue to do as part of the UK is to build on this heritage. I will vote “no” because I do not wish to put all this at risk.

Susan Shaw
Emeritus professor, University of Strathclyde

Reading music

The interview with Stuart Dunlop, the director of music at the University of East Anglia (HE & Me, 4 September), contained the very encouraging suggestion from Dunlop that “it [the university] has made a substantial commitment to music”. Many of the thousands of students reading for degrees in music in the UK, as well as the hundreds who teach them, will be surprised at this claim, however, since the UEA took the decision to close its School of Music within the past few years. They may be doubly surprised when they are made aware of the fact that UEA’s director of music moved there from the University of Reading, where he had held a similar post, again just after the university had closed its department of music.

None of this would be cause for comment were it not for the very clear statements to the effect that music “is for listening to, not reading about” in the article. Dunlop makes this point by quoting David Bedford’s programme note to his 1973 A Horse, His Name was Hunry Fencewaver Walkins, for guitar and ensemble. He then goes on to suggest (perhaps inadvertently) that those who do however think that music is for reading about – as well as listening to and performing – “are lost”. Music has been read about as well as listened to since antiquity, and has formed a central plank of scholarship in all ages and cultures. At a stage where music is now key to so much work in science and medicine, as well as the humanities and social sciences, to deny that place seems illogical at best, and runs counter to the experience of everyone involved.

“Music should have a place in the heart of every university,” Dunlop says, and who could disagree? But almost all universities in the country do exactly that by building on a 700-year-old tradition of studying music in departments of music. Here composition, performance and technology are integrated with historical, critical and analytical understanding in ways that educate and enrich the cultural life of students and staff and open up opportunities for new musical experiences across campus. This is the most surefooted, vibrant means of nurturing musical creativity in universities, a rich environment that ought to underpin the work of directors of music.

Mark Everist, president, The Royal Musical Association
Matt Brennan, chair, International Association for the Study of Popular Music-UK
Rachel Cowgill, chair, National Association for Music in Higher Education
plus seven other learned societies in music and 61 other individuals

Tap here to view the full list of signatories

Hanging on your every word

Getting students to listen is the perennial problem of teaching, matched by the problem of getting them to read (“Your attention please: we must learn to listen”, Features, 11 September).

Today there are chronic disincentives to listen and read with full attention, including the defensive habits formed by years of exposure to a massive daily deluge of rhetoric via the internet and media, and a weary sense emanating from the cognoscenti that the cupboard of genuinely new ideas is all but bare. University students are supposed to acquire critical skills and life-changing worldviews, but although critical skills are in the ascendant, all the main, once “life-changing” perspectives have long since been rubbished to near extinction. What seems to be needed is a felicitous informal procedure for checking that students have actually listened to the lectures and read the texts on which a course is based. An envelope containing a different question for each student randomly shuffled at the end of the lecture might be the way to do it: with the requirement that each student must speak about his/her question in a follow-up session.

Chris Ormell
Editor, Prospero

Last year I offered an afternoon course in listening skills to members of my department in response to requests. I found a listening skills facilitator by contacting the local Quaker meeting as Quakers have three centuries of “listening skills” to draw on. I would recommend this source of support to anyone else wishing to strengthen their listening skills.

Farah Mendlesohn
Head of English, communication, film and media
Anglia Ruskin University

Solving the literacy puzzle

It is strange that the article “The puzzle of UK graduates and their low-level literacy” (News, 11 September) didn’t consider the issue of measurement performance indicators as themselves a possible explanation for the puzzle. We have known in the adult literacy field for some time that the international measurement indices, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), don’t tell us about the actual uses of reading and writing in everyday life – the tests may rank and list people in ways that lead to the “puzzle” reported here, while in their daily lives people engage with literacy practices perfectly adequately. Perhaps it is the test and not the adults who are the puzzle.

A forthcoming study by Gemma Moss – “Taking numbers to task: understanding PISA data from a qualitative perspective” – argues that tests such as Pisa lose “the caveats, qualifications and uncertainties that characterise statistical thinking…In the current policy environment readers tend to abstract what they want to see from statistical reports, using the data as authoritative confirmation of assumptions they already hold”; a possible explanation for the continuing anxieties about a supposed “low-level literacy”.

An ethnographic perspective on literacy practices allows us to address these issues, by studying and analysing the uses of literacy practices in people’s everyday lives, within and across countries, without falling into the measurement and ranking puzzle evident in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PIAAC. So, in the UK context and applying these debates to students arriving at university, the question may not be the “low-level of literacy”, but rather the more complex issues associated with how students learn to deal with the different genres and writing requirements of further and higher education. Researchers are currently applying ethnographic rather than statistical perspectives to such processes, and it turns out that addressing the “academic literacies” of students may be a more fruitful direction than puzzling over supposed “low levels of literacy”.

Brian V. Street
Professor emeritus of language in education
King’s College London

How odd that the OECD should be puzzled by UK graduates’ “low-level literacy” when the standards of literacy required at A level have become risible. With the long-standing rejection of grammar and punctuation combined with the impact of the internet, it’s surely entirely unsurprising that universities no longer require a reasonable standard of literacy of their graduates. In fact, they don’t demand it even of themselves: on the page opposite the article on literacy levels in last week’s edition of THE there is this gem from the University of Essex: “…we are committed to delivering a transformational educational experience” (“Attempts to ‘gag and silence’ are commonplace”, News, 11 September). What on earth could this mean?

Bob Brecher
Professor of moral philosophy, University of Brighton

IP ‘surrendered’ at outset

Requiring students to grant rights over their intellectual property to a university has become usual since the 1990s when one or two higher education institutions began it, the University of Leeds among the first I believe. Leeds still makes the claim in its intellectual property rights policy that although “students are not normally employees…the effect of the contract between the University and its students is, in this connection, to place students in the same position as staff”.

Recognising that seizing student intellectual property rights is likely to be deemed an unfair contract term if it forms part of a student contract, many institutions have moved the requirement into their statutes and regulations or ordinances. But a student contract routinely incorporates the institution’s domestic legislation.

There is wide variation in the extent of the claim and level of the domestic legislation at which it is made. From 2002, the University of Oxford has claimed ownership in its statutes of “all intellectual property” (comprehensively defined) as created “by student members in the course of or incidentally to their studies”. From 2005, the University of Cambridge has laid claim to student intellectual property in limited circumstances only, and mainly for research students.

The Ucas offer letter has long been requiring an applicant to consent to be bound by the statutes and other domestic legislation of the provider as a condition of accepting the offer. I believe Ucas has been taking legal advice on this practice after I raised a concern last year. Perhaps it may like to take the opportunity of responding to this letter so that the sector may be brought up to date on Ucas policy.

G. R. Evans

Languages pushed to brink

It was interesting to read that modern foreign languages are being marginalised in some of our post-92 universities in the wake of the fees hike (“Seeking commitment”, Opinion, 4 September). I fear that the problem is also spreading to some Russell Group institutions.

Our recent Higher Education Academy report, Evaluating the Impact of Student Number Controls, Choice and Competition: An Analysis of the Student Profile and the Student Learning Environment in the new Higher Education Landscape, found that as the high-grades margin policy moved from AAB and above to ABB and above in the second year of the controls (2013-14), pre-92s often had such a reduced core number allocation that subjects not requiring ABB+ were being squeezed, and those included modern foreign languages. While we have found no evidence yet of closing departments in these universities, there was much reported consternation at the trend in applications as well as the restricting nature of the high-grades policy driver.

At least one enterprising institution had begun offering languages such as Japanese and Russian as a combination option alongside the staples of medicine and the sciences, in order to maintain languages provision as a viable business unit. Reasons for this were thought to include parental pressure on GCSE and A-level options, leading to fewer applicants presenting with the higher grades for language degrees. Perhaps this example of how institutions’ priorities have been distorted by the student number controls regime helps to explain its unexpected abandonment (unexpected at least by those senior managers we interviewed in the weeks beforehand) on the occasion of the Autumn Statement last December?

Colin McCaig and Carol Taylor
Sheffield Hallam University

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