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HE Conference: No More University, teaching or Degrees

This week saw the annual Higher Education Conference and Exhibition at the QEII Conference Centre in London. The excellent conference series  provides an observer with a lens with which to observe how universities are reacting to the changing times. It also 'takes the temperature' of the HE patient who is looking to the future treatment with a degree of apprehension. Most of the delegates appeared to be professionals from HE with largely administrative roles. They are of course likely to bear the brunt of government changes and are highly important. This was reflected in interest in, academic integrity, student welfare and how data can be managed to identify students possibly at risk. 

Amidst the alarming jargon that infected the HE patient, there were very serious points made about student welfare and identifying them more readily. It made the trip well worthwhile.

A new lexicon and liberal use of novel jargon.

It became clear at an early stage that the traditional words  associated with Higher Education had been scrubbed from the lexicon. This set a tone that made the alarm bells ring for a professional lecturer of thirty seven years experience. The most notable of those scrubbed were 'university, teaching and degrees' that were replaced by 'provider, student experience and outcomes'.  The effect on a relative outsider, not fully expecting this, was profound. The word 'provider' was used so often that I lost count after about 40 or so times. Yet the hundreds of  the professionals present seemed oblivious to the revolution before them that had unfolded through the use of words. They are not mere terms or words. They all have resonance and meaning and set the tone for the environment that now exists. It is alarming to see the tone sound more like  that of a company selling a taxi service.  

The jargon at times strayed into the bizarre.  Sometimes used in  a derogatory context, the "sage on the stage" term appeared often with no apparent regard for the irony attached. Apparently students were now part of a "digital disruption" to business. Things were happening in a "changing landscape" where students have a "digital life". The term "ex libris" was slipped in twice as some concession to classical education or perhaps the eponymous company, but I lost the context in the flurry. Noting students at "customers" happened a few times but was met with an apology each time.

Other terms used were "clicks in the classrooms, digital insight, learning takeaways, learning analytics, outcomes, outliers and conversations".   In the context of monitoring student "engagement" using online data, the prize for the most innovative jargon must go for every student producing a "digital exhaust".  The metaphor could be stretched further to consider student Ferraris, SUVs or trucks racing down learning motorways with some amusement as the mind boggles.

No more Mr Nice Guy - no more guy?

Most delegates were there to hear directly from the 'horse's mouth' and report back to their universities. The leading keynote speaker was billed as the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah. Disappointingly, he did not turn up. In the chair was veteran observer Sir Robert Worcester, the founder of MORI,  who made the announcement in an impressively stoical and laconic style. He  made no excuses for Gyimah but instead indicated that a statement had been promised.  As the day rolled on he later informed the room that as yet "no such statement has been received" but he fell short of declaring war. 

Labour in the wings.

The political input was left to Labour MP, Roberta Blackman-Woods in her capacity as Chair of the All-Party Pariamentary University Group. Her impressive speech laid out some serious and valid criticisms of the current government and seemed to assume that these would be delivered as significant debating thumps immediately after Sam Gyimah.   Alas, that was not the case and she was not able to hand out a redundancy notice personally. She slammed the loans system and the escalating RAB charge associated with loan repayments as well as the collapse in numbers of mature and part-time students. Her case was important and somewhat of a breakthrough in one important respect. After a year of going to meetings and meeting a wide variety of people associated with Higher Education, it was the first time that I heard acknowledged in public that the pressure on many students from poorer backgrounds is exerted by part-time jobs.  Finally it seems someone is listening.

The serious points about managing student welfare: The data revolution and intrusion.

Recognising students that might be at risk, by gathering and using rich data on student behaviour and engagement, was a key theme. The idea that a tutor can get to know students and simply ask them how they are seems to be a thing of the past when hundreds of students are involved. It is now simply hit or miss. The use of advanced data technology provides some possibilities and several private providers are making inroads into the institutions (sorry providers) to enable this.  However, this will entail a degree of intrusion on individuals through the use of "micro-location technologies". The question is now about if this is a price that has to be paid.  In contrast to the keynote contribution from the OfS earlier, that was mostly a reiteration of their www site and a good example of how not engage or teach students, a later session from KPMG emphasised the importance of the student as an 'individual' . The session 'Harnessing data to support your students' emphasised that the student cohort were not an "amorphous blob" and that it was a "conversation about the individual". More importantly, supporting students was not about "retention for income".  There were three 'data points'  stressed as the most important. The student's background, their engagement and the academic outcome. Simply put, but very effective points. 

A presentation from HESA was there to stress how important their work was and seemed somewhat to be by way of a defence of their efforts. Surely it is tacitly understood that what they do is central to government policy on HE. But should it  really be  for their university masters or government agencies to own them?

The serious business of student welfare.

In a session on student mental health support, Steve West, the head of the University of the West of England, was passionate in his concern and stressed the importance of using a university-wide approach. His very important points struck a genuine chord, but will surely stretch the resources of any institution to the limit.  The use of various drugs by students, such as well known anti-depressants, was highlighted as part of the problem. But his proposed solutions will have to be implemented and will mean that staff will be needed at greater cost.

The best talk by far was delivered with exemplary  skill by Yinbo You, the International Students Officer of the NUS.  He told us that the UK had a "backward way of thinking" when it came to international students. Also, that many international students "feel that they are under suspicion from the moment they step of the plane".  This looks very bad, but it is also the fact that any home student seeking help as a disadvantaged student also feels under suspicion. That is the nature of the government beast and the pressure for international students, who might also have little resource,  is magnified so much more by the imposition of expensive visa rules and strictures. Those in the room were visibly uncomfortable.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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