Higher Ambitions for whom?

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 4 November 2009

Having just listened to David Lammy’s interview about the new HE Framework, Higher Ambitions, set out by Lord Mandelson yesterday I’m left wondering how I feel, given that I work in a teaching-focused, research active, employer-engaged HEI that is mid-table, but where the focus is on enhancing learning, empowering teaching and framing social and economic opportunities for all. I felt happier when musing on the revised HEFCE strategic plan back in June but then the impact of the economic crisis on the public sector was possibly less well understood. Now I’m more anxious about the impact of those cuts on the visions and blueprints of our HEIs.

Lammy’s interview with the JISC mentioned “vision” for HE, but was very strong on “public sector cuts” and the impact on the public sector as a whole. “Scarcity” was closely tied to a prioritisation of STEM research, scientific research, a need for private investment, and the demand to demonstrate “effectiveness”. Lammy was clear that “a diverse set of funding streams is important if the quality of higher education is to be maintained and improved” as the public funding climate worsens.

Sadly, this focus on the private, on the scientific and on research doesn’t quite connect into the Edgeless University report that Lammy launched back in the summer. In particular, that report focused on affiliations between HEIs and the private, public and voluntary sectors that in-turn might open-up spaces for conversations around social enterprise. These types of affiliations beyond the private sector are missing from the rhetoric around Higher Ambitions, and in the swell of an apparent Governmental, economic agenda [ideology?] for HE.

Lammy focused upon student [not learners – see below] as consumers of information about Universities and programmes, but this demands that they, and other end-users, are able to “read” that information in context. The very real risk is that the consumer-model elides into all institutional services like technology-enhanced learning, without a proper appreciation of what this means for both the offer and actuality of what students get? Would a systems-based approach that focused on the human be more valid and reliable in socio-economic growth than one that is targets-based?

Mary Beard in the TimesOnline highlighted some of the problems with the fact that “The model for this is apparently the new ‘food-labelling system’” She notes the tension between prioritising information about contact hours that suggests a specific pedagogic approach, and the role of independent learning and thinking in HE, which may realise many different and co-existing approaches. Moreover, learners need to transition into and understand these learning cultures over time.

Whilst Lammy does argue that the “challenge… is to develop pedagogy” he doesn’t develop this and nor does the Framework document, so I am left wondering how it then connects into the raft of recent reports and policies. These include: DEMOS Edgeless University Report; Digital Britain; the JISC Report: Thriving in the 21st century: Learning Literacies for the Digital Age; the Report of an independent Committee of Inquiry into the impact on higher education of students’ widespread use of Web 2.0 technologies; and the Revised HEFCE Strategy. How and where do these all converge? How is any of this joined up? I guess the answer is at University-level, and maybe the key is a clear, autonomous and grounded vision within HEIs. In that case surely support and academic staff are central? Yet they are the main HE stakeholder missing throughout the reports of the last 24 hours and beyond. Overcoming their neglect is critical.

Lammy prioritises the challenge “to lead in the marketplace, to grow what has begun with the Open University and extend that out there to the world”. Note the mention again of the Open University – he focused on this at the Edgeless University launch, and as he mentioned his work with Microsoft in Seattle I also note that Martin Bean, the VC of the OU is a former Microsoft employee. With the cloud, outsourcing, big business and efficiencies being front-and-centre in HE TEL discourses, this is important.

So the focus is international; it is private and not social enterprise; it is on employers being “more involved in course design and funding of the degrees they want”. Mandelson reiterated a focus on linking science to research in his statement to the Lords: “We have a disproportionate share of the world’s leading research universities. With just 1 per cent of the world’s population, we achieve 12 per cent of the world’s scientific citations.” For others in the sector the key apparently is on training rather than education: “The challenge for the next decade is to offer a wider range of new study opportunities – part-time, work-based, foundation degrees and studying whilst at home – to a greater range of people.”

Whilst Mandelson focused primarily on his perception of the elite universities, it seems apparent that all HEIs are to be asked to help bail out the economy, whilst as Mary Beard notes facing a “bottom line in all this [that] is budget cutting.” Mandelson’s duality of an elite focus and public sector cut is seen throughout: “public expenditure inevitably more constrained. Attracting the best students and researchers will become more competitive. Above all it will be a decade when our top priority is to restore economic growth and our universities need to make an even stronger contribution to this goal” [my emphasis].

So what of social inclusion? What of social enterprise? What of new social and economic ideas rather than restoring those that have failed? Some essence of this shows up in Mandelson’s speech to the Lords as his 5th and last objective: “Universities provide employment, enhance cultural life and offer many amenities to their surrounding communities. They shape and communicate our shared values, including tolerance, freedom of expression and civic engagement. We will support universities in safeguarding these values.”

The only time that the terms “learn” or “learning” or “learner” were mentioned was in terms of “e-learning”. The mentions of “students” was generally [although not in every case] in an economic or consumer-related context. The wordle cloud of Mandelson’s oral statement to the Lords demonstrates his focus: Learning and teaching and teachers are noticeably small or missing. In the word-cloud of the full paper research, students, skills, business, education, funding, skills, Government are my stand-out terms.

So what of technology-enhanced learning? Lammy argued that digital technologies are vital, and then framed that by mention of the cloud, empowering communities and giving global scope. But that was it. The clear focus was on the economy, scarcity and value-for-money. What this means for the provision of institutional resources for technologies, for TEL teams, for pedagogic development, for moving beyond transmissive pedagogies needs addressing. So does the impact of energy costs that are likely to rise and our commitment to green ICT. This work has to be done locally, within HEIs and with partners, but also within the EdTech community.

The full Framework paper mentions “e-learning” four times. On p. 20 it argues that “We will empower our universities to be world leaders in the growing market in transnational education based on e-learning” and the link is to the private sector, “Through HEFCE, we will be prepared to provide seedcorn funding on a competitive basis for university-private sector partnerships”, that may include “The potential to develop international education through partnerships with broadcasters and internet service providers”. Is this for content? For communication? What of pedagogy? What of services that surround learning and teaching? What of work with voluntary organisations or the public sector? Where will the power lie?

On p. 80, “Continuing to strengthen the UK’s reputation as one of the world’s best providers of e-learning, both for those who study here and students based outside the UK” is seen to be a priority. This is picked up on p. 92 in “The continuing development of e-learning is a vital element in supporting improvement of teaching and the student experience and in enabling the personalisation and flexibility that students and employers expect.” So again we see a focus on the global and the private sector, with a limited mention of public sector and none of social enterprise.

On p. 100, Recommendation 31 is that “The Government, working with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, should prioritise investment in e-learning infrastructure to extend the possibilities of remote and online learning.” So I’m left wondering, as someone who works in a teaching-focused, research active, employer-engaged HEI that is mid-table, where the focus is here on enhancing learning, empowering teaching and framing social and economic opportunities for all. Perhaps this is a time for clear leadership within the EdTech community, within institutions, and within communities.

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