Chunks, hours, mirrors

Day Two of the HE Summit. Some moments of good dialogue, amidst periods when we seemed to be witnesses to a platform for posturing and platitudes. Not really a problem with the speakers, more the rather general topics and reliance on questions from the floor.

An afternoon on ‘Students as Aggressive Consumers’ provided some interest. Lots of focus on students as co-creators of knowledge, rather than consumers of the core HE experience, but an acknowledgement that they are increasingly demanding customers of services such as 24/7 libraries and IT, childcare and accommodation. I was particularly impressed with a point made by a V-C from Washington U, to the effect that any debate about the quantity of contact hours (as in, I’ve paid x for this course so why did I only get y hours in class) misses the point, as what university provides is opportunities to learn – which come from many activities, including for instance work with other students and engagement with the SU… so if we start dickering over ‘how many hours’ we’ve already lost the real argument.

Guardian online
picked up on some points made by Shadow Universities Secretary David Willetts, who seemed unaware that Unistats is offering much of the information he feels people need. Information clarity is obviously a good thing, though people’s selection processes may not be as rational as we think.

I ran a session with Philip Pothen from JISC, which seemed to go well (though as Iggy Pop once said, ‘It’s difficult to judge yourself in a mirror made of people.’) Philip gave an excellent overview of young people’s online behaviour, based on research which I’ll try and link to when I get home. I explored marketing aspects of digital technologies, in a presentation I can provide if anyone’s interested. One point I’d like to explore with colleagues at Edge Hill concerned the convergence of course delivery and marketing that will occur if the expansion of smaller-chunked lifelong learning develops as desired by the Government. In a scenario where we have large learner populations enrolled on modules, distributed across linked HE, FE and employer settings, ‘marketing’ will become as much a matter of encouraging progression as of recruitment to the start of a programme. Data and digital comms will become even more central to marketing in this scenario.

HE sector or HE system?

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…