One of the pleasures of my job is spending time in universities. As an outsider, I am still struck by the incredible things that go on as a matter of course.
Take one recent example. At Keele University last week, I met an entomologist working to stop the march of the fall armyworm, which has leapt from South America to Africa.
With few of the natural predators that keep it in check at home, this caterpillar is devastating staple crops such as maize in a continent forecast to have a third of the world’s population by the end of the century.
Back at Keele, the lab is busy, not devising expensive, polluting insecticides to sell to African farmers, but breaking down the chemical signals emitted and picked up by plants, the fall armyworm and its predators, with a view to re-engineering crops that can defend themselves in a sustainable way.
The research is being conducted using fantastical machines that attach tiny electrodes to insect antennae and track which chemical traces a wasp, for example, is detecting when it zeroes in on a maize plant that is being chomped to pieces by the moth larvae.
What’s even more extraordinary is that you could walk into any university with a serious research effort and find examples like this – work that really matters, and on which the world relies.
Universities, then, have much in common. But I am also constantly reminded of the diverse challenges that they face, and how inappropriate it is to view them as a homogeneous mass.
Another university I visited recently, for example, is doing brilliant work to widen participation, kick-start social mobility and transform the lives of students who also often hold down a couple of jobs and care for both children and ageing parents.
The cash machines on this particular campus issue only £5 notes because the students withdrawing money frequently do not have enough in the bank to cope with larger denominations.
In the context of a university such as this, which is doing the real heavy lifting on social mobility, the endless national obsession with Oxbridge admissions statistics must seem like a pretty narrow focus for the debate. As one member of staff put it: “That’s not about social mobility, it’s about outliers.”
It is, then, worth keeping these differing realities in mind when considering how and what universities are doing – a point that is made in our features pages this week.
Our analysis of learning gain – a holy grail for those who want to capture the value added by a university education – weighs the potential and pitfalls of such measurements.
It concludes that “attention needs to be directed away from test score improvements towards developing an understanding of the factors contributing to learning”. In particular, what universities are doing to “maximise [students’] social, cultural and political capital: especially important for first-generation students, as well as those from lower socio-economic backgrounds”.
The conclusion that standardised cognitive testing is not enough seems to have been reached by those trialling such an approach in England – a project that, we reveal in our news pages this week, has now been dropped by the Office for Students.
In our cover story, meanwhile, we explore the universal problem of contract cheating, a growing scourge of our marketised, globalised higher education systems.
Perhaps the most depressing thing about essay mills is that the market they supply suggests that there are a significant number of students who have forgotten – or perhaps never knew – the value that they would be adding to their lives through study. That the utilitarian narrative has become reality.
Our feature looks in detail at the debate about whether and how essay mills could be outlawed, and it is clear that doing so effectively is not as straightforward as one might assume (in our opinion pages, the suggestion is made that it might be easier to abolish the essay as a means of assessment).
But on this issue, the efficacy of a ban is only half the point. Even if such laws were imperfect, it would be right to introduce them – for crimes against humanity, if nothing else.