The Rise of the Free University: Some Thoughts (Session 3 of #LFE2012)

There is discussion in the higher education community at the moment on the issue of treating students as customers: that their paying fees and filling out surveys on how satisfied they are with services provided makes them out to be consumers rather than partners in the education sector. I also don’t agree with the commodification of higher education and strongly believe in students as partners in the education process. The idea of free universities is therefore a useful concept, making education of degree level open to everyone.

The organisers of the session described the rise of the free universities as a response to current political and economic contexts, and built from ideas raised in the ‘tent university’ formed at St Pauls occupation. They wanted to create a debt free form of education (although you need to pay a fee to enrol) so that higher education is opened up to everyone regardless of their economic situation. Their ideal also involved taking away the ‘messiness’ (for lack of a better word to describe it) of some of the academic process in universities. I think that this is a reasonable idea, as universities have got so big that sometimes to get one idea across to even just one department is quite difficult – never mind the whole education system! Therefore, wanting to start from scratch is obviously an option, but I wonder how workable and sustainable this particular solution might be.

Then, somewhere in the description of how the idea came about 9/11 was mentioned. I honestly don’t know where this came from. Maybe unsurprisingly then, later came the mention of some of the courses they were going to be running in addition to their current social science courses: two on GM foods and chemtrails.

Chemtrails. When there was initial mention of ‘helping dispel misconceptions of genetically modified foods’ I gave them the benefit of the doubt, but then they wanted to develop a whole course around the subject of chemtrails. Then came a spiel about how these are also misconstrued because they are classed a ‘conspiracy’, but this of course is what the government call anything they want to cover up, so this free university wanted to develop a course to ‘uncover the truth’ about chemtrails. Most likely however their course would go against the Occam’s razor approach, or for that matter any form of scientific evidence and come up with a *highly likely* solution of why there are white clouds coming out the back of aeroplanes. Of course they also run courses on critical thinking. But unlike my advocacy for these kinds of courses in my last post, I can’t say I have the same degree of confidence in the course content as those offered on Coursera.

Once our digression into the conspiratorial was over, which I was completely unprepared for, we lapsed back in to discussion that was actually related to higher education, including their purpose and values as an organisation, their primary focus on knowledge acquisition etc.

Needless to say, this was not what I expected from this session. Although I like the idea in principal of free higher education, I am unsure (regardless of the course content) whether this is a workable or sustainable idea. Here are a few of my questions:

  • How useful is a degree from a free university? Their postgraduate courses (PhD’s included) are certified by a group of around 80 academics from across the country. However, they are not formally recognised by any official body. Therefore subsequently, how many people will spend three years studying for a PhD that is not officially certified apart from by less than 100 academics?
  • How will the free universities ensure the protection of students’ intellectual property without formal regulations enforced by external organisations?
  • How does the university measure its impact? How do they monitor students satisfaction with the course and compare this to other universities? How can they ensure their quality and standard of education effectively?
  • How can outsiders be convinced of the scientific rigour of the studies and the accuracy with which this research has been completed (even putting aside for now what we know about some of their specific views and courses)?

Academia as an institution is good because work done by any one of them is certified by all academics including external bodies, not just the few individuals who agree with a certain concept. This is what in principle makes it reliable (although admittedly there are problems with such things as peer review and open access for publicly funded research). We need to ensure that when thinking of making changes to the system, we approach changes with the full support of the academic community and higher education organisations.

This is happening currently with massive debates on open access and peer review. Higher education is also moving to make a better experience for students with the rise of fees in mind, and we will undoubtedly be seeing more changes in the years to come in pedagogical practice within universities. Unfortunately these changes do take time, even years to properly filter through but ultimately will provide a more reliable and quality assured system within academia and higher education.

Personally, I would advocate free courses such as Coursera or the Open University’s LearningSpace/OpenLearn courses much more than the free university. Here are ways to be educated at higher education level without paying massive sums of money that have been set up by established higher education authorities that can be quality controlled. 

Is It Worth Going to University? Part 2 of My #LFE2012

In my second post about the subsequent #lfe2012 session last weekend, I will summarise my views on the panel discussion held on whether it is still worth going to university.

The discussion was set up with the aim to discuss the effect of rising fees and ever growing number of other advanced forms of skills and knowledge training on the decisions of young people to go to university. The overall question posed was whether we should discourage more young people from attending university.

The panel consisted of three speakers: Eric Thomas (President of Universities UK), John Holmwood (University of Nottingham), Isabel Carlisle ( and chairing the session was Alison Wolf (Kings College London).

The session began with Eric Thomas noting some figures from this year’s student intake across the UK, noting a loss in 50,000 students. Losses occurred particularly in mature and part-time students, and a smaller loss in 18 year olds applying, however this could also be linked to the lower number of 18 year olds in the UK this year than last. Considering this was the first year with high fees, and at a time where everyone is being hit by the recession, this was not that much of a surprise and universities continue to look positive for the next year’s cohort figures. He ended stating that he would definitely still encourage young people to go to university, as graduates are still more employable from current employment figures.

John Holmwood agreed in principle with Thomas that he would still encourage students to go to university, but did not share Thomas’s obvious enthusiasm for the excellence of the university experience, and worried that the rise in fees will once again mean that universities cater only to the elite. His concern for this elitist approach to university meant that he stressed the importance of a university degree not just being a qualification for a job, but an experience for life, enhancing student’s personal development. He noted that there is actually declining support amongst university graduates for a university degree, although those who have not attended university yet consider a degree to be highly important. This discrepancy in opinion is concerning, raising the question of what the higher education system is leaving out of its curriculum to produce less satisfied graduates. Importantly, this issue links to the idea of the student experience, and whether universities pay enough attention to students as people and not as customers.

The final panel speaker, Isabel Carlisle, was against encouraging young people to go to university. Her argument rested upon the fact that we are now educating for a future that is very different from the past. Issues such as climate change, increasing population, development all need to be addressed and this is not done purely through academic research. We need young people who work in and with communities learning the hands on ‘know-how’ of these issues and how to communicate and interact with different communities and cultures. This experience, like the Transitions Network she runs, gives young people the ability to learn constantly through a constant feedback process, and to be using their knowledge and experiences instantly in order to practice and improve. She noted that universities don’t have enough community based programmes, and that internships are exclusionary mechanisms.

The three opinions were varied and interesting, and in many ways expected responses from the three when asked whether they would still recommend university. Eric Thomas was reserved with his comments, obviously keeping up the role of president of Universities UK without having to commit to personal opinions. Holmwood did express some interesting thoughts on the state of the higher education system currently, and I think reflects a large number of those involved in the higher education system nowadays – we do not want it to be an exclusionary system, and we want to put students at the heart of higher education, but the question is not whether we would like this, but how on earth we actually achieve it.

Isabel’s opinion was very strong, and did not mention the possibilities of other types of ‘hands-on’ work other than communities. She also did not talk about where the knowledge for the methods of community work come from in the first place – undoubtedly university research! Her argument would have had more substance if there was less focus particularly on promoting her own Transitions programme, and more on the wider benefits of non-university education, or combining university education with practical experiences allowing students to apply their knowledge and research to real life experiences.

I personally see no benefit of either practical application with no appreciation of where the knowledge comes from in the first place (which as a scientist makes me inherently uneasy at the thought of people developing methods for anything without a solid literature review of evidence for why it should be done that way) or university education with no practical application. I completely agree in principle with Isabel in the fact that new generations of learners really do need to approach their education in a different way, and the pertinent issues of today will not only be solved by scientists in their labs, but by going out and putting their work/study into action with the help of a crack team of other excellent students and professionals. The skills young people in university need are then not just those to make sure they understand the logical thought, their specific disciplines and how to do good research, but a range of other skills that allow them to effectively manage and communicate to people from a wide range of backgrounds.

Unfortunately none of the questions from the floor were exciting enough to make it into my post today, but the lack of a prominent one did. Why did no one bring up the fact that the two methods of teaching and learning could be combined? No one commented on the possibilities of integrating practical communities learning with university courses. (Shamefully, I also did not raise this point, although I did take a more prominent part in a later interesting discussion.) Yes, it may be a lot of work, but essentially Isabel is right, we do need to think carefully about how we educate now. Technologies and global issues are changing and evolving quicker than they ever have done before and we need to acknowledge that in order to continue to provide the world with people who can address this change and solve emerging problems. I believe that universities are where we will find the next generation(s) of  problem solvers, and that it is universities who need to think the hardest about how they will maintain their edge as leading institutions (and choices) for further education. This means we (universities) need to consider, amongst other things, deciding on whether we teach young people the underlying basics of their disciplines, or whether we branch out into teaching use of new technologies in practice and/or focus more on field trips and practical work (an issue I will be partially addressing through my job at UCL). It may also include putting what students want at the heart of the curriculum, involving them in their education in terms of content, method and assessment.

Future Prospects

This article was published in Museum Practice in September 2012 in their issue on starting your career in museums.

Taking on a Masters of Research in Heritage Science is a big task. Especially since the subject of mine was so interdisciplinary: it is about where geology and heritage meet, presenting an interesting and continually challenging environment to study in. This is especially important as the heritage field is itself constantly evolving, in a sector with so many innovative ideas and yet so small budgets. The best strategy for future students of the heritage sector is to ‘be prepared’.

Heritage Science is a relatively new discipline. Initially the term was coined in 2006 by the House of Lords’ report on ‘science and heritage’, bringing the discipline to life with respect to preservation of the UK’s national cultural heritage. In 2011, University College London began teaching the first course in heritage science, offered as a Masters of Research (MRes). The teaching part of the 2011/2012 course is now finished and the four pioneering students, including myself, are now well into our individual research projects on which our dissertations will be based.  While studying for the masters, two of us are already involved in heritage organisations: Pimpim is a project manager in an Asian heritage fund, Gabrielle is a senior conservator in an archive. Tiphaine is undertaking the MRes as the first year in her engineering doctorate and I am pursuing the course as a stand-alone Masters.

The research projects range from analysing traditional Tibetan building materials; finding out what non-textual information users of archival objects require when accessing digitised archives; using terahertz technology to image archival objects we cannot open due to their physical condition and finally understanding what users value in museum geological collections. All of our projects are practice-driven and based on collaboration with heritage institutions such as the National Archives of the Netherlands and the Natural History Museum in London.

The heritage science domain is a highly interdisciplinary field and allows for a wide range of interests to be catered for. As students you meet a vast number of people who can help you along your way and improve communication skills with all types of professions: from artists to curators, conservators to engineers; you will find that working together is a challenge and a reward. Clashes of opinion may be common, but these enrich the creative scientific process. I believe one of the key skills for working in such a highly interdisciplinary sector is being able to communicate with this wide range of personalities and disciplines, and to learn how best to communicate and synchronise ideas.

The state of the sector’s economic affairs means that there is high competition for jobs. Having talked to fellow students of conservation, it appears that every job opening or even unpaid internship is a rush for the finish line. Luckily, in heritage science this is not so much of an issue. With two students already engaged and our vastly differing fields of expertise there will be little competition between each other for jobs, but this does not mean it will be easy to secure a future in the heritage sector.

My experience with the course has taught me a lot about the heritage sector, and although I went into the course with dreams of being a curator in a geological museum and now want to work with outdoor heritage, this shift in ambition is not due to any failing as part of the course (although I wouldn’t turn down an offer to be a curator!). If anything it has opened my eyes to the wide selection of avenues I can go down within the heritage sector and allowed me to develop new and exciting ideas for future research projects and career paths.

Looking to the future, after her doctorate Tiphaine would like to continue to work in terahertz technology, possibly as an independent consultant or working for an archive and using the technology she is pioneering. Gabrielle would like to see her current role become more research focused and ideally sees herself coordinating and stimulating further projects with the help of the MRes in introducing her to scientific practice. Pimpim and I would like to work towards further qualifications, either taking the form of an MPhil or PhD. My ambition would be to continue to work within the heritage sector but take a step back from collaborating only with museums and extend this to the outdoors, looking at cultural landscapes and our natural heritage.

To achieve our ambitions we have realised that one of the key issues is to engage with heritage professionals and organisations from an early stage. For me, becoming a member of the Museums Association was one of the first steps, as well as a member of the Institute of Conservation. In addition to this my project involves collaboration with as many professional societies associated with my field as possible. I would highly recommend this approach to anyone looking to enter the heritage sector, as even if job opportunities do not abound you will find you learn much more about your subject and other, new and exciting aspects of heritage you never even knew existed.

Life After [Insert Discipline Here] : An Alternative Career Guide For Graduates

Life shuffles on, putting one tenuous foot in front of the other hoping that the next step leads somewhere decent, but eventually you manage to find some solid ground that doesn’t have the feeling that it might  run out of strength and fall from under you. With handing in my masters degree and finally managing to secure an awesome (and well paid!) job, it seems appropriate for me now to do a little post about life after university and the unexpected career and study routes that you can take in life.

Not many people expect to hear someone say they do heritage science, let alone that rocks need conserving and least of all that you used to be a geologist with a world of opportunities in the oil and gas industries ahead of you with people ready to offer you lots and lots of money. You explain that you aren’t driven by money (and groan internally at your own naivety) and that a research career in the heritage sector seemed like such a good idea when you found that course on the internet one day and ended up applying. The inevitable question follows “So, what made you want to do that?”. Short, to the point and identical to the question you have been asking yourself for the past year.

When I look at it now, I see a great fun experience in the past year and importantly a dissertation that I am immensely proud of. Unfortunately for many leaving their undergraduate in geology there are only two main career paths: academia or industry. Fortunately however there are alternatives that don’t mean you have to leave all that well learned knowledge behind but where you can be innovative and put them to good use in a range of other exciting disciplines.

For me, it was science communication. At 16 I somehow landed an amazing position as front of house staff (after a horrendous interview) at a science centre in Edinburgh. I kept the job throughout university, and used my expanding knowledge of science to progress my communication skills in the job. It was an ideal match and a great maturing experience. Through my director of studies at university, I was then offered a position with the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum (which he was the director of) and became involved in some amazing projects across the country delivering formal education resources for the earth sciences to secondary schools.

Nearing the end of my degree, I started to wonder what I wanted to do next. I can’t quite remember what drove me to do further education rather than get a job in science communication but I think that one of the main factors that enticed me was the uniqueness of the particular masters and the fact that it was at one of the best universities in the world. The idea for going into heritage mainly spawned from the fact I didn’t want to do pure geology and I always wanted to be a curator in a geology museum when I was younger, and had always had an interest in history and archaeology. Simple, really.

Since the masters was only one year long it wasn’t long before I was panicking about what to do next – again. Because I like keeping as many options open and was dreading not having a job at the end of the year I began to look at some of the interesting questions I had come across when doing the research project, but couldn’t address in such a short project. From this spawned a proposal for another research project that began as a one page summary, but with encouragement and interest from a couple of supervisors in the sustainable heritage centre it grew into a fully fledged PhD proposal. I also applied for another PhD at another university, and although I was not qualified for it they wanted to keep in touch and get me involved in other projects, which led to one of them becoming a partner for the PhD proposal. This has happened to me again since in an interview, where although I wasn’t right for the job they referred me on to others and I have ended up cultivating some useful and interesting professional relationships from these experiences.

Towards the end of the degree however I felt that I needed a break from academia, another 3 years of study immediately after did not look exciting to me at the time. i considered taking a part time job and doing the PhD, but realised that this would be too much work and double the amount of time needed to complete the degree. So, I postponed the proposal indefinitely to enable me to get a job for a couple of years and reanimate the proposal at a time to suit me.

This then meant I had to find a job. I thought I had lots of skills that are all highly transferable, but I soon realised that this was also my enemy. Combined with the fact that I had no set idea of exactly what I wanted to do meant that tailoring my CV and LinkedIn profile was nightmarish. However, I knew that ‘communications’ in a broad sense was my biggest passion and skill. This led me to look at a wide range of jobs ranging from marketing and public relations positions in random businesses and press office and publishing/editorial roles to science communications and community development in science/government and higher education organisations. I think I was too transferable for a large number of the jobs I applied for. However, I did get a number of interviews where the particular range of skills were relevant – niche and innovative or new roles that needed lots of strong competencies or specific qualifications/knowledge.

I finally got a job that I was very excited about and knew I had the correct skills for as soon as I saw the advert. The position is looking at ways to engage students more effectively in their higher education to ensure they get the best possible experience from their time at university. Now more than ever this is important as students have to pay higher fees, and universities need to prove they can provide an all-round excellent experience bringing out the best skills in their graduates. I will be developing a range of initiatives for mainly postgraduate and doctorate students and see it as an exciting role that utilises my best communications, research and project management skills. Not only will it also develop me in a really exciting area that I can see a bright future in terms of a career, but also for when I want to return to the PhD proposal.

Looking at my LinkedIn profile and CV now, I have a much better idea of what skills and experience I should highlight. I think that especially for my online professional presence I was trying to put too much into the space provided, and it was difficult to see what I was looking for in  a job as well as where my relevant skills were. However, I also realised how many disciplines I could go into with the skills I had to gain experience in a range of abstract fields.

I think it is important for graduates to be able to look critically at their experiences and manage to tease out their best skills and individual experiences that could see them with a successful career in something they would not have even dreamed of at the beginning of their degree. You don’t have to stick to what you choose early on in your studies or career, and knowing that there is a whole world of possibilities is crucial. But even more crucial is knowing how to actually do this, because it can get depressing when you know you could do something but just can’t seem to get the right opportunity. Making graduates aware of this and how to market themselves effectively is just one of the things I want to implement in this new position I have, and hopefully it is something other graduates will feel is useful too.