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The (monetary) value of a university education during a pandemic

Claudia Webbe MP: "Charging £9,250 tuition fees for university by zoom or microsoft teams is daylight robbery

Yesterday, Claudia Webbe, a Labour MP, called purely online university education provision during the current pandemic “daylight robbery”. She cited the maximum fees that universities can charge students in England and Wales.

I had some thoughts about that, which I put in a Twitter thread, but am saving here to refer back to. (I regularly delete my tweets.)


The fees are a product of government policy. Hence universities are in the impossible and unenviable position of both having to operate like businesses in a marketplace *and* be subject to government interference.

When I did my doctorate, I did pretty much all of it online and paid £££ for some very good supervision, access to stuff I couldn’t easily get other than through the uni library, and… the qualification at the end.

As has been written about at length elsewhere, credentials are signals to the job market and other groups. University degrees have historically been top-quality signals, but that’s less and less the case in the industries I work with. People want to see what you can do.

This is not to say that universities are just about credentials, or that those credentials aren’t valuable (I hope they are for my sake!) What I am saying is that there are other ways of packaging up knowledge, skills and understanding. Open Badges, for example.

Universities, because they’re acting like businesses, don’t have as much goodwill from the general population anymore. Especially given the general distrust of experts generated by the right-wing media over the last decade. They need to tread really carefully.

New approaches like ‘masterships’ where you get a Masters-level qualification while learning on the job are currently provided by orgs like Accenture in collaboration with universities. It’s a win/win for employer and employee, but for the uni…?

I can foresee a situation, which is probably already happening, where elite research centres are decoupled entirely from teaching, learning, and credentialing operations. As that happens, the latter function becomes more and more focused on employment.

For ~£9k you can do a 480-hour bootcamp over a few months with an org like General Assemblys and get a well-paid job at the end of it. No debt after a year. Now, I’m a graduate of Philosophy, History, and Education degrees, but I’m not sure I’d advise my kids to do traditional uni.

So back to the tweet from the Labour MP. She’s absolutely correct, despite the protestations of academics and those who love higher education (like me). You can get daily feedback to quickly develop employable skills, which is more important than ever in a pandemic.

So how will higher education respond? Who is nimble enough? I feel like the main problem is the pseudo-market created by the government. Many unis can and want to respond more quickly, but they have baggage and regulation that others do not. Sadly.


This post is Day 84 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

3 things I’ve learned in my 11 years as a student in Higher Education.

I started my degree in Philosophy at the University of Sheffield in 1999, following it with an MA in Modern History at Durham University (2002-3). I stayed there to do a PGCE (2003-4) which was the first year of an MA in Education. I continued this part-time whilst teaching and then transferred to the Ed.D. programme. I’m  currently (hopefully!) coming towards the end of writing my thesis on the concept of ‘digital literacy’. In total, then, I’ve been a student in Higher Education for 11 years.

Three of the most important things I’ve learned in the process?

1. Thinking, writing and editing are separate activities

There’s not point trying to think something through whilst in the midst of writing. Stop, go for a walk or just do something different (like the washing-up). Likewise, editing whilst writing is a frustrating activity. Separate these three activities to be more successful and productive in your academic writing.

2. Dont’ copy other people

Obviously don’t plagiarise other people’s work, but also don’t copy the way they go about doing things. Others engaged in research express shock that I don’t use the usual doctoral-level tools such as Endnote, etc. Whilst you should certainly learn from others, create (and continue to iterate) a system that works for you. I use a combination of a personal wiki, Google ScholarEvernote, Dropbox, XMind and Scrivener. Have the confidence to go your own way.

3. Immersion is more important than chunking

Studying part-time is a whole lot harder than studying full-time, for obvious reasons. When studying part-time, instead of setting aside just one block of time per week it’s a a much better idea to have several shorter sessions. This keeps ideas in your mind and makes it more likely that your subconscious churns over and creates links between concepts!

The end of the beginning.

I suppose it’s a bit of a random day to start (April Fool’s Day, the last day before a public holiday…) but I begin a new job today that I’ve very excited about. I’m delighted to announce that I’ve signed a two-year contract (I sound like a professional footballer!) with JISC infoNet as Researcher/Analyst:

JISC infoNet aims to be the UK’s leading advisory service for managers in the post-compulsory education sector promoting the effective strategic planning, implementation and management of information and learning technology.

The team are a great bunch who I’ve already been in to meet since my successful interview a couple of months ago. I’m looking forward to extending my knowledge and experience in education up to FE and HE level!

JISC infoNet is one of eight sub-sections of JISC Advance, which is funded by the UK taxpayer through the Research Councils. I’ll be researching (duh!), putting together infoKits and helping facilitate workshops in colleges of further education and universities around the country. I’m based at, although not actually part of (despite the new @northumbria.ac.uk email address) Northumbria University.

I’m happy to answer any questions you’ve got about the move by email – use this contact form. I’ll reproduce the most commonly-asked questions over at Doug’s FAQ. 🙂

Telling a new story.

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98/365 by tim caynes @ Flickr

Oh, how the media do spin things! Teachers want ‘four-day week’ screams the headline from first of all the Daily Mail and then, more unexpectedly, the Daily Telegraph. Those within the profession know that this is, of course, nothing like the reality – and this is indeed revealed in the second paragraph of the Telegraph article (in the actual newspaper):

[Teachers] want the equivalent of a four-day teaching week to free up more time to mark and prepare children’s work.

How on earth can that be a bad thing? And notice that little word that was omitted from the headline? ‘Teaching’. We want to not teach so much in order that we can spend more time preparing high-quality lessons and have time to assess work properly. We don’t want a ‘four-day week’; we just want the proportion of time we spend in school to be allocated differently.

This, of course, highlights the problem facing anybody or group of people who want to change education in any real sense:  the nature of the conservative media. Whilst happy to bemoan declining standards in schools and the ‘factory’ nature of the state system, anything which might lead to progress is attacked as ‘unworkable’, ‘expensive’, or ‘dangerous’.

Take another piece of ‘research’ that also appears in today’s Daily Telegraph under the headline Facebook students ‘underachieve’ (I quote this in full):

Students who spend their time on Facebook are underachieving in exams, research suggests.

A study by Ohio State University has found that students who spend their time on the social networking website may devote as little as one hour per week to their academic work. It found that 65 per cent of Facebook users accessed their account daily, usually checking it several times to see if they had received new messages.

However, students who used Facebook had a “significantly” lower grade point average – the US marking system – than those who did not use the site.

On the face of it, a factual report and one that could be used to bolster stances taken by parents and those generally of a more reactionary nature during dinner party-table discussions. Looking at the Ohio State University’s overview of the study, the tentative nature of the conclusions become apparent:

The researchers surveyed 219 students at Ohio State, including 102 undergraduate students and 117 graduate students.  Of the participants, 148 said they had a Facebook account.

The study found that 85 percent of undergraduates were Facebook users, while only 52 percent of graduate students had accounts.

Karpinski emphasized that the results don’t necessarily mean that Facebook use leads to lower grades.

“There may be other factors involved, such as personality traits, that link Facebook use and lower grades,” she said.

“It may be that if it wasn’t for Facebook, some students would still find other ways to avoid studying, and would still get lower grades.  But perhaps the lower GPAs could actually be because students are spending too much time socializing online.”

Now that paints a fuller picture, doesn’t it? And what about the potential benefits? What about the fact that many more undergraduates are using it than graduates? What about harnessing the potential of a space students are already spending much of their time?

And then comes the darling of the middle classes, the neuroscientist who’s never scared to tell us that new equals bad. Professor Susan Greenfield is against computer games, social networking, and now the teaching of things like Twitter to Primary school children. It’s hard to feel that she’s not somewhat out of touch and setting up ‘straw man’ arguments:

“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying games. But don’t you think it’s strange that people are engaging in activities that have no purpose? Spending their precious time and money sitting in front of a screen in a make-believe world when they could be out there having love affairs and doing things in the real world?

“And that’s what worries me. That we are rearing a generation of kids that are in danger of becoming emotionally stunted, inarticulate, hedonists with the attention span of a gnat. Because they spend the majority of their time in front of a computer screen. A whole generation that can’t interact because their skills are limited to inhabiting a fantasy world on a screen.”

Never mind that ways of communicating change and evolve, that she’s as inarticulate in that world as she’s claiming the gamers to be in hers.

I think we need to tell a new story. A story about how technology can be used to bring people together. A story about realistic 21st century education. A story based on experts deciding upon and then implementing what’s best for children. A story, I suppose, not told by journalists in the traditional media.

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