Teaching Apples and Oranges

Introduction to Monstering

Introduction to Monstering

There’s an inter­est­ing story on the BBC News web­site: Teaching ‘bet­ter at school than uni­ver­sity’ — survey

When asked to com­pare teach­ing at school and uni­ver­sity, less than one-in-five privately edu­cated pupils favoured their uni­ver­sity tutor­ing. Almost two-thirds declared that the teach­ing they had at school had been better.

The res­ults are not a sur­prise. I took A-levels (pre-university exams) twice. The first time I was taught maths, chem­istry and phys­ics and I learned about chem­istry and physics.

The second time was a few years later for Economics and Law even­ing classes. Here I was taught what I needed to know to pass the exams. In the case of Law, there were always four ques­tions in Paper II, Homicide, Tort, Contract and Constitutional law. You needed to answer two of four, so the even­ing class only covered Homicide and Tort. I do not have a roun­ded legal edu­ca­tion, but the col­lege was not graded on my edu­ca­tion it was graded on the res­ults I got. Behind trained for the exam was a huge suc­cess and I scored more UCAS points on my one year even­ing class courses than in my two year stand­ard courses.

Every year for over twenty years the num­ber and qual­ity of A-level passes has gone up. The argu­ments are usu­ally over whether or not the exams are get­ting easier, or the pupils bet­ter. What is less often noted is that schools are graded and com­pared against their neigh­bours on their pass rate. Unsurprisingly they’ve become more and more ruth­less about train pupils to pass an exam because that’s what mat­ters, not whether or not they under­stand why they’re doing what they’re doing.
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It’s easy to knock the Lib Dems on tuition fees, but what’s the solution?


Another December post that got delayed till now, but now if I blog on the New College of the Humanities you have some idea of where I might be com­ing from.

If I were a Lib Dem intent on break­ing a pledge, or a Conservative who genu­inely believed the policy I were sup­port­ing, there’s one simple change I would make to the bill.

David Cameron has stated that when it comes to the fin­an­cial crisis, we’re all in it together. Here is his oppor­tun­ity to prove it. I would add a clause to the Education bill that any MP vot­ing in favour of fees will be be expec­ted to pay back a ‘loan’ at the equal to the highest value of ‘loan’ paid by a stu­dent. If the nation is not bene­fit­ing from a stu­dent gradu­at­ing from a course Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford in 2015, then nor can it have bene­fit­ted from someone gradu­at­ing from the same course in 1988. If the MPs are sin­cere that the free ride at the tax payer’s expense has to stop then they should be the first to get off.

There are some reas­ons why such a clause could not hap­pen, but they don’t hold water.

  1. You can’t just drop a massive bill on to someone with little or no warn­ing.
    Actually you can, and this is exactly what Parliament intends to do to sev­en­teen year olds in England from 2012.
  2. You’re elim­in­at­ing choice, some MPs would not have taken a degree if they were aware of its cost.
    Incorrect, if the gov­ern­ment it to be believed. They are very clear that the pro­spect of start­ing work­ing life £50,000 in debt to the state is in no way a dis­in­cent­ive to education.
  3. The MPs already have fin­an­cial com­mit­ments, they could not afford to pay such fees.
    Students pay­ing off these ‘loans’ will still be pay­ing off these ‘loans’ when their own chil­dren start uni­ver­sity. Further, fees will only be paid by people who can afford to pay them. Any MPs earn­ing under £21,000 will not pay a penny.

This isn’t going to solve everything. There’s still the small mat­ter that thou­sands of people feel the Liberal Democrats have stolen their vote. Still, at the moment the pub­lished plan is to force chil­dren who have had no oppor­tun­ity to vote to pay for an edu­ca­tion that MPs got for free. It’s the polit­ical equi­val­ent to hanging around the school gates and bul­ly­ing the small kids out of their lunch money. Paying the fees won’t magic­ally make everything alright but it will make a dif­fer­ence. It will at least allow MPs to estab­lish their sin­cer­ity rather than leave them with the odour of pig­gies who want to keep their noses in the trough.

We might all be in it together, but at the moment some of us are def­in­itely more in it than others.

The UK government’s attack on the Humanities is an attack on democratic accountability

Nick Clegg shows us his election face

This was writ­ten in December 2010. It’s going up now because I was extremely busy in December 2010 and it’ll be handy to have it pub­lished as a ref­er­ence for one or two other posts.

Not every­one will know what’s hap­pen­ing in the UK, so if you’re from over­seas or a Lib Dem MP here’s the state of what’s hap­pen­ing to Higher Education in the UK.

The UK used to have free edu­ca­tion at the point of deliv­ery. In fact even into the 1990s stu­dents used to get grants to attend uni­ver­sity. Students who went through this sys­tem are now in par­lia­ment. For some, their place in par­lia­ment is due to this government-subsidised education.

Grants were removed and replaced with loans dur­ing the 1990s. In the late 1990s the Blair gov­ern­ment added this “top-up fees” of “up to £3000 pa”. This turned out to be a blanket fee of £3000 pa at every uni­ver­sity. In the later days of the Gordon Brown gov­ern­ment the Prime Minister appoin­ted Lord Browne, the man who made BP a shin­ing example of cor­por­ate suc­cess, to pro­duce a report on fund­ing the universities.

This report declared:

A degree is of bene­fit both to the holder, through higher levels of social con­tri­bu­tion and higher life­time earn­ings, and to the nation, through higher eco­nomic growth rates and the improved health of soci­ety. Getting the bal­ance of fund­ing appro­pri­ate to reflect these bene­fits is essen­tial if fund­ing is to be sustainable.

This bal­ance will be import­ant because not all courses will get the same funding.

A UK BA/BSc is in one sub­ject. If you take a BA in English, you have many mod­ules, but all of these will be based on English lit­er­at­ure. There is no need for a set num­ber of sci­ence cred­its to gradu­ate. But the spe­cial­isa­tion starts much earlier. To get on a course you will need to have taken three Advanced-Level (A-Level) courses (except Scotland which has its own sys­tem). To get on to Physics for example you will need A-Levels in Physics, Maths and one more sub­ject. A-levels are taken between ages 16–18, so stu­dents are already locked into a nar­row set of options without know­ing there would be fin­an­cial con­sequences. To get onto a set of A-level courses you could, in the­ory, need a cer­tain set of GCSEs so spe­cial­isa­tion could start at 14 in the UK. In real­ity pupils cover such a broad range of GCSEs that it’s not usu­ally a prob­lem. But cer­tainly, you have a couple of years of stu­dents pretty much locked into their course choices and now the Government as switched the costs.

So this is where we are with fund­ing: “Getting the bal­ance of fund­ing appro­pri­ate to reflect these bene­fits is essen­tial…” Under the new sys­tem non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) sub­jects will get £0 fund­ing. Funding will be entirely through ‘fees’. The man­tra for all parties is that it’s the stu­dent who bene­fits, there­fore the stu­dent should pay. When they remem­ber they’ll actu­ally say the gradu­ate will pay and hope that gradu­ates with degrees aren’t con­nec­ted in any sig­ni­fic­ant way with stu­dents doing degree courses.

If you view edu­ca­tion purely as a per­sonal bene­fit, this makes sense. Does the coun­try need large num­bers of clas­si­cists who under­stand how the Athenian Empire fell? Possibly not. On the other hand if you have a demo­cratic elec­tion in a coun­try that’s invaded another coun­try to impose régime change, then an elect­or­ate that has ana­lysed sim­ilar events in ancient his­tory might have a per­spect­ive on whether or not that was a good idea. The gov­ern­ment dis­agrees, and that’s why Classics is not being funded.

Perhaps we don’t need thou­sands of people spe­cific­ally trained to exam­ine how the details of the Marshall Plan also pro­tec­ted American eco­nomic suprem­acy in the post-war years, but an elect­or­ate trained in basic tech­niques of ana­lys­ing evid­ence to see how the past influ­ences today would be a national asset wouldn’t it? No accord­ing to the gov­ern­ment, which has with­drawn all History funding.

You might think this is a bit dodgy and that a soci­ety requires a cer­tain degree of edu­ca­tion. But is under­stand­ing the mech­an­ics of soci­ety really that use­ful? The gov­ern­ment says no, and Sociology is get­ting £0 under the new sys­tem. Want to ask how the gov­ern­ment can be sure that it knows the right answer? That kind of thought­ful cri­tique is not an asset to the nation accord­ing the gov­ern­ment, so Philosophy is cut. This might be eco­nomic mad­ness, but the gov­ern­ment sees no value in help­ing people judge if it is or isn’t. Economics fund­ing is cut. Want to com­pare our sys­tem with oth­ers. The gov­ern­ment won’t be fund­ing any­one who wants to learn the lan­guage neces­sary to find out. As for any­one that wants to study Politics…

Philosophy, Archaeology, Law etc… will sur­vive due in part to the pat­ron­age of the rich and those stub­born enough to seek an edu­ca­tion that the gov­ern­ment doesn’t value. Education has been reduced to a purely eco­nomic com­mod­ity, and so the man­tra is that it must be eco­nom­ic­ally jus­ti­fied. There is no recog­ni­tion that an edu­cated elect­or­ate is neces­sary for a func­tion­ing demo­cracy. I bene­fit from large num­bers of people being edu­cated and able to spot when a policy is a fantasy, because it has con­sequences at the bal­lot box. This is a func­tion of edu­ca­tion that isn’t an eco­nomic asset because demo­cracy isn’t inher­ently an eco­nomic asset. If it were inher­ently an asset then we wouldn’t be spend­ing bil­lions sup­port­ing dic­tat­ors around the world, and over­seas tycoons wouldn’t be spend­ing large amounts of money on elect­oral cam­paigns to block equal access to the elect­or­ate. David Cameron is firmly estab­lish­ing that edu­ca­tion is not some­thing he admires in an elect­or­ate, and that’s why it’s neces­sary to tax it.

Nick Clegg shows us his election face

Nick Clegg shows us his elec­tion face

Conservative sup­port­ers will under­stand­ably balk at the idea that their fees are an edu­ca­tion tax, they’re called fees. However the fees are gov­ern­ment redis­tri­bu­tion of wealth. The idea that once politi­cians have this tax they won’t dip into it for other pro­jects is simply not cred­ible. I was rap­idly over­taken by real­ity. Government cuts to uni­ver­sit­ies’ budgets will hap­pen a year before they get fund­ing from the new fees régime. So the first year of the Education Tax will be used to pay for defi­cit reduc­tion not edu­ca­tion. The BBC Licence fee now funds more than the BBC. Currently there’s a slice off it to pay for Broadband upgrades for busi­ness to bene­fit from on the jus­ti­fic­a­tion the BBC has a web­site. There’s no reason to believe the Education Tax will be used purely to pay for Higher Education, nor that it will be lim­ited to uni­ver­sity degrees. Nick Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats are provid­ing the key votes to pass the tax could pledge that this is not going to hap­pen, but there’s a prob­lem with that. The gov­ern­ment is rely­ing to broken prom­ises to pass the tax. It seems reas­on­able to assume that broken prom­ises will also be a fea­ture of run­ning it.

What makes the situ­ation dire is there is no oppos­i­tion. The Labour Party was the party that gave us a Higher Education min­is­ter that declared edu­ca­tion for education’s sake was “a bit dodgy”. They are also com­mit­ted to tax­ing the edu­cated, and if they were in power still it’s reas­on­able to assume that they would agree the bal­ance between nation and stu­dent fell entirely on the stu­dent. The Liberal Democrats were the only party to stand on a pro-education plat­form in the 2010 elec­tions. Yet des­pite prom­ising to abol­ish tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats have voted to triple fees. Students will leave with £50,000 debt (£100,000 per couple if the Conservative party is still ser­i­ous about encour­aging young couples to marry). This is a debt that will grow and grow des­pite pay­ments under this scheme unless you earn more than £40,000. At the moment the gov­ern­ment has placed a 30 year limit on tax con­tri­bu­tions. When it’s clear that the edu­ca­tion sys­tem is still under­fun­ded, and politi­cians want to raise more tax money, can they really be trus­ted to hold to that?

See also:

Browne’s Gamble

The English Intifada and the Humanities Last Stand

This month I’ve mainly been working on Project SOAR


Project SOAR is a rethink of what stu­dent read­ing lists mean. My con­tri­bu­tion to has been fid­dling with the code. Some of it has been adapt­ing the lay­out and some o it is behind the scenes like tying entries on books to other sites and plug­ging in the review sys­tem. It’s been a good pro­ject to work on. Partly because Alan Cann has inter­est­ing ideas about what can be done with read­ing lists. More prac­tic­ally he’s also been very clear on what he wants done with the site, so I’ve never felt like I’ve been aim­ing at a mov­ing target.

It’s also been very fast. My role was sched­uled to start November 1. I actu­ally star­ted as soon as I heard fund­ing had been approved, but even so it’s been a short pro­ject with a clear goal. Because it’s his pro­ject, you can read more about it at his site.

Yesterday I celebrated having no money


It was a big day for me yes­ter­day. My bank account finally reached £0. That’s no over­draft, no VISA bill and no stu­dent loan. Next month the bank will have to use black ink to print my balance.

This is an achieve­ment given I self-funded an MPhil and a PhD after my BA. If I’d paid what the gov­ern­ment said I should pay on my stu­dent loan then I’d still have most of it to pay off. Fortunately I’ve found the Student Loan Company extraordin­ar­ily hard to talk to, hence the VISA and over­draft. It’s a worse rate of interest and it meant the bank phoning up every so often ask­ing “Where’s our money?”, but at least I felt they were tak­ing an interest. It’s been a big incent­ive to get it paid off.

Typical Students?

Students in the days when David Cameron was at university.

In future years this will seem quaint. The UK gov­ern­ment is set to impose fees of up to £9000 per year on stu­dents. To put this in con­text, around a dec­ade ago there were no fees, and the people impos­ing these fees had their uni­ver­sity edu­ca­tion paid for them by the state, along with a gen­er­ous grant for attend­ing uni­ver­sity as well as vari­ous bene­fits. There’s simply no way the aver­age par­ent of a child at school can pre­pare for these fees. If you can’t pay the fees up front you can pay them after. You’ll be charged above infla­tion for the loan, and if you pay off the loan early you’ll be hit with pen­alty charges, because the gov­ern­ment is using these extra pay­ments over the cost of the course to fund Higher Education. Vince Cable hasn’t dwelled much on the import­ance of pen­al­ising people who pay off their debts, other than to say on BBC News, “It’s like a tax”. Actually, with these pen­alty clauses, it’s gov­ern­ment redis­tri­bu­tion of wealth. It is a tax, at least for those who can’t afford to pay the huge fees.

It’ll also be a massive bur­den. Paying these fees off will be the equi­val­ent of mak­ing the final pay­ment on your mortgage.

There’s lot to dis­like about the cuts, but the com­mon factor that really gets me down is that they’re presen­ted as mor­ally jus­ti­fied, as though these are exactly the sort of thing we should be doing any­way. The jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the cuts isn’t “Baby Boomers don’t want to pay tax at the same rate as their par­ents did”. It’s “The per­son who bene­fits should pay”. It’s hugely depress­ing that politi­cians on all sides of the house don’t believe that an edu­cated and informed elect­or­ate is an asset to the nation.

Distract yourself with free materials from the Open University


Via @skepticbarista I’ve found a col­lec­tion of Open Educational Resources from the Open University. They’re lis­ted at their Open Learn site, and there are stack of inter­est­ing courses to browse from Introductory to Master’s level. There’s all sorts of things that make this inter­est­ing. There’s the vari­ety of the mater­ial from Aberdulais Falls (a case study in Welsh her­it­age) to Zoology. There’s the qual­ity of the mater­ial. There’s also the extra ele­ment. It might not be a taught course, but there’s still thought in how you can use the material.

There’s fora, learn­ing groups and a tool called FlashVlog for record­ing video diar­ies. That seems above and bey­ond the call of duty for OER mater­ial. The whole thing is CC licenced, so I had been think­ing about work­ing through a mod­ule here. The dif­fi­culty is that if you see the full list of courses, it’s a bit like being let loose in a sweet-shop.

Introducing Archaeopix Search


I’ve been quiet recently as I’ve been work­ing on vari­ous things. One of them is now pub­lic and may be help­ful to edu­cat­ors and blog­gers. Tom Goskar and I have put together the site Archaeopix. The front of the site is a clear rip-off homage to Astronomy Picture of the Day. I like that. It’s an excuse to say “Hey look at this thing!” and gen­er­ally be positive.

The clever bit is the search page.

Searching Flickr can be hit ‘n’ miss. Generally if you want to use a photo for a blog or edu­ca­tional handout and you need it quickly, it needs to be licensed under a cre­at­ive com­mons licence. You can search on Flickr for cc-licensed pho­tos, but a search for “Rome” will bring up everything with Rome in it. Groups are handy because they’re themed. So you could search the Archaeology group for Rome. The prob­lem then is that you’ll find a lot of ©opy­right pho­tos. You really need a group which is all cc-licensed. Chiron is a good example of that. However Chiron’s strength is that it focuses on the clas­sical world, which means you won’t find pre­his­toric Europe in it, or any­thing Mayan. This is where Archaeopix search comes in.

Using this you can define what you want to use the photo for. You can spe­cify if you want to use the photo on a com­mer­cial site or if you want to be able to mess around with the image for a poster. You can then spe­cify which group you want to search in. The default is Archaeology, but there’s oth­ers like Chiron, or Southwestern Archaeology. The search looks at the Flickr API, so that only pho­tos match­ing a suit­able licence turn up in the results.

It won’t turn all Flickr groups into Chiron clones, but it makes them more use­ful. If you’ve any sug­ges­tions on improv­ing the search leave me a com­ment below. Or you could just look at the Taj Mahal’s Evil Twin — which is today’s photo.