The first day of the Guardian HE Summit had its moments. There have been some interesting insights, and some lengthy periods that have led me to wonder if modern manners would allow me to get away with listening to an iPod as well as discreetly answering emails and texts (or else whether I could slip next door and join ‘Fire Retardants 2008’, to see what their burning issues are.)
One thing that happens at conferences is the subtle evolution of the language used in a particular professional group. I can see this happening here, in the cavernous air-conditioned spaces of the QEII Conference Centre, as the overcaffeinated hours tick by. Does ‘knowledge development’ sound less patronising than ‘knowledge transfer’? What should we call ‘widening participation’? Does ‘persistence’ locate the agency of people staying on courses better than ‘retention’? How many meanings does ‘research’ have in different universities?
And then there’s the C word.Those uncomfortable with the idea of students as customers would have been heartened to hear Bill Rammell (Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education) saying that he ‘rejects the view that the student is just a consumer’, as education is a two-way process, placing demands on learners as well as those teaching them. Although I’ve never heard anyone suggest that students are ‘just’ consumers, it’s good to hear this reinforced.
A reported opinion from an official in Rammell’s own department might be less popular. Apparently this un-named individual insisted, in conversation with a Vice-Chancellor, that the UK needs a higher education system, as opposed to a sector. This may sound like a minor semantic issue, but there are crucial differences in the concepts. A sector comprises autonomous organisations working in the same field – for instance, in the tourism sector there are all sorts of businesses and organisations competing and collaborating. A system comprises mutually linked functions in an overarching managed structure. (In the tourism example, this would be a nationalised tourism system such as the Soviet Union used to have. An HE example would be the state systems that operate in the US.) I can’t see the idea being embraced with enthusiasm outside Government circles…