A Sustainable Future for HE?

A Sustainable Future for HE?

This blog was first published for GuildHE, here.


Interesting times

In the words of the late former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, Climate change represents “the greatest existential threat of our time”. Yet, while many universities and colleges are facing this challenge head on, there remains much more that could be done.

It’s easy to see why governing bodies might be preoccupied. Short-term uncertainties abound, from the Augar and ONS reviews of student funding to the TEF, KEF and REF. And if Labour wins the next general election, all bets are off. We can hardly be surprised if these uncertainties are prioritised over longer-term challenges.

 

The long view

Universities and colleges can and should take a long-term view. Whereas governments rarely look beyond the next election, many providers trace their history over a century or more, and most hope to have a future at least as long. Institutions look to prepare their students for working lives which may last 50 years and span numerous industries and roles. They also seek to foster ‘active citizenship’ among students, helping them grow in their engagement with the world on social, political and cultural levels.

 

The (endangered) elephant in the room.

As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows, the future could be catastrophically different from the present reality. Without radical changes in the way we live, we could see droughts, floods, extreme weather events and mass extinction by the time this year’s Freshers turn 30. The sector can hardly claim to be preparing graduates for the future without addressing this reality.

Of course, there is no shortage of good practice to draw upon. Many institutions are taking steps towards more sustainable operation, recognised by EAUC’s Green Gown Awards. Professor Joy Carter, Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, highlighted the importance of environmental sustainability when addressing GuildHE’s Council last month, and it formed a key theme in our 2016 Active Citizenship report.

 

Leading by example

Higher education is big business; UK universities had a turnover of some £33bn in 2014/15. This means that collective action can have far-reaching impacts.

Steps already taken by many institutions, and which could be taken up across the whole sector, include:

  • Divest from companies in the fossil fuels sector, and the most heavily emitting industries (just 25 companies have been responsible for over 50% of emission since 1988);
  • Focus their procurement on sustainable companies;
  • Ensure their energy is from renewable sources;
  • Invest in improvements to improve the sustainability of estates;
  • Embed the Sustainable Development Goals into strategic plans and curriculum development;
  • Identify climate change on institutional risk registers.

Universities and Colleges are also visible champions of sustainability, supporting students to make the little changes which together make a big difference, and imbuing values of sustainable stewardship:

  • Ensuring catering is responsibly sourced, with more vegetarian and sustainable options available and eliminating single-use plastics;
  • Ensuring university vehicles are hybrid or electric and providing electric vehicle charging facilities on campus;
  • Supporting staff and students to access public transport, or to walk or cycle to campus;
  • Providing students with opportunities to take part in sustainability activities such as community gardens or clothes swaps.

 

Then say something, say something

Crucially, the HE sector occupies a position of trust and respectability. Professors remain the fourth most trusted professionals in the UK, after nurses, doctors and teachers, and followed by scientists. When VCs speak as one, the media listens, and as the passage of the Higher Education and Research Act demonstrated, the university lobby has major clout with policymakers.

HE institutions can continue to undertake and showcase world-leading research which not only demonstrates the seriousness of man-made climate change but also presents possible solutions. They can invest in innovative forms of green growth. They can use their public engagement functions to drive forward changes in individual behaviour right across society. And they can encourage governments to act on a national scale, for example by investing in sustainable energy or public transport.

Universities must use their voices to call for greater action, must support relevant research and teaching, and must, above all, put their money where their mouths are. Only then can they really plan for a sustainable future.

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Small but Perfectly Formed: supporting the “small” research group

Small but Perfectly Formed: supporting the “small” research group

This blog was first written for, and published by, GuildHE, here.

 

As demonstrated by REF 2014, research at UK higher education institutions both world-leading and diverse. Research England, the new research funding body, is paying heed to this fact, with policies and programmes intended to directly address the needs of “small” research groups.

But if you asked twenty civil servants what a “small” research group is, it’s a safe bet that you’d get twenty different answers. And, if policy-makers aren’t clear about their objectives or target groups, unintended consequences will follow, as the night the day.

Missed opportunities

One such targeted funding stream is the Expanding Excellence in England (E3) fund, which exists to “help grow small but excellent research units and departments in English universities”.

This is a laudable aim.

Small grants can make a big difference to modest teams with limited resources. They can drive significant growth, catalysing the research environment, culture, and capacity of both the research group and the whole institution.

What’s more, where those small groups exist in smaller and specialist institutions, new funding could have an even greater impact. Such institutions normally focus on applied research, with close ties to specialist industries, and are distributed across the country, including in areas which have seen little growth or investment in recent decades. They are thus well-placed to meet priorities identified in the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

Troublingly the technical specification for E3 does not live up to this promise. Instead, it notes that “owing to the diverse nature of the sector the broad disciplinary scope of this fund, a singular definition of ‘small’ is impractical.”

This leaves open the possibility that research units which are small by some measures, but part of larger, well-resourced institutions, absorb available funding. Fledgeling units in less research-intensive institutions may well miss out on this opportunity.

Defining the undefinable

We can get a picture of what small research groups actually look like by considering data from REF 2014.

Across nearly 2000 submissions, relating to 154 institutions, and 36 units of assessment (UoAs), the average number of staff per institution UoA was 27.2 FTE.

Significantly, the distribution of staff per institution UoA was concentrated at the smaller end of the spectrum, with a long tail of larger teams. Figure 1 shows this distribution (we recommend viewing these visualisations in full screen mode).

We can also break this down by subject (UoA), as in Figure 2.

The median number of FTE staff per institution UoA is just 18.2, while the lower quartile across the sector is 11.8FTE.

Interestingly, 80% of the units of assessment submitted by GuildHE and CREST members in 2014 – a group which consciously identifies as small or specialist – were below the 11.8 FTE lower quartile. These research units are most often found in institutions with a traditional teaching focus, but in which there is a growing commitment to research and impact.

Go easy on me

While E3, and the new RED fund, skirt around the issue by simply leaving ‘“small” undefined, the REF managers have taken a different line.

Institutions may request not to submit units, with less than 5 FTE. But this simply means that potentially excellent research goes unrecognised. In the smallest institutions this would include a majority of their submissions; hardly an ideal solution.

The REF managers also recently announced that the threshold for additional impact case studies – above the two required for all UoAs – would be increased from 15 to 20 FTE staff (above the 18.2 FTE median).

This is a welcome change for those groups struggling to meet the new requirements to include all research active staff. Yet it means that there is no distinction in REF between the impact evidence required from a unit with 6 staff and one with 19, though the two would be very different in practice.

The reality is that, as currently planned, REF 2021 offers is no real reduced burden option for very small units at all.

The wrong tools for the job

Current funding mechanisms aren’t great for smaller institutions, and the new REF rules, unfortunately, result in a heavy administrative burden for institutions that can least afford it.

Policies and funding streams must explicitly recognise the differences in scale and capacity between research groups and institutions if the UK’s diverse research environment is to flourish. Only then can they help “build a Britain fit for the future”.

Only Skin Deep? Belfast and BiH

Only Skin Deep? Belfast and BiH

As is so often the case, I must caveat this post. My understanding of Northern Ireland is, like my understanding of Bosnia-Herzegovina, partial at best. But I believe we do not address problems by keeping silent. As always, I welcome feedback, especially from people better informed than myself. 


Recently, I was able to spend a few days in Belfast for work. While there, I was able to take some time to explore the city. Far too little time learn what life is really like there, but nonetheless I was struck by similarities between how Belfast and Mostar, a city I visited back in 2014, have addressed the divisions which led them to internecine sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

One thing which stood out while I was in Mostar was the number of buildings which had not been rebuilt after the Bosnia War came to an end in 1995. While the west side of the city (the half which is ethnically Croat), has been largely rebuild, many buildings on the east (Bosniak) side remain in ruins. Walking through the city, you are constantly reminded of the conflict – in some places, you could be forgiven for forgetting it ended over 20 years ago.

You do not see buildings in ruins in Belfast. No walls are marked with bullet holes. The longer, less intensive nature of the Troubles perhaps left less massive destruction than the siege and counter-siege of Mostar in the Bosnia War, and the UK was far better resourced to rebuild afterwards than was Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nonetheless, physical reminders of the war remain. Walking down Falls road or Shankill road, you see murals emphasising local Unionist or Republican identity, through depictions of key figures from the Troubles (and earlier history), military symbols, and slogans like “prepared for peace, ready for war”. In other places, the colour of the kerbs marks out local sentiment.

The nature of the reminders are different between Belfast and Mostar, yet both force recollection of a painful past; they prevent wounds from properly healing. They normalise the idea of conflict, entrenching ideological differences.

Worse still, in both Belfast and Mostar, the two side are physically divided from one another.

As a result of the 1992-95 war, the vast majority of Bosniaks live on the east side of Mostar city, while most Croats live on the west. Between the two lies the main North-south road and the river, a no-man’s land over which civilians were forced, under threat of snipers, in order to make the two sides homogenous. The divides in Belfast are less clear cut, with pockets of Republican or  Unionist affiliation spread across the city, but those pockets are often homogenous, and physically divided from each other by ‘peace lines’, walls and fences often 6 meters high or more, which exist to prevent violence.

These divisions do not seem to be going away. Despite a stated goal of the devolved administration in Belfast being the removal of all peace lines by 2023, the number of peace lines has actually risen since 1998, and many residents feel they provide security. With no devolved government in Northern Ireland at present, the chances of the 2023 target being met look slim.

Again, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, young people from different ethnicities attend schools separately, and are taught different curriculums, giving them little or no opportunities to interact across ethnic boundaries. The divisions in Belfast are not set in stone as they are in BiH, but the majority of young people from Republican communities attend schools run by the Catholic Church, while most Unionist children attend state schools; just 7% of children attend integrated schools.

It seems to me that, rather than committing to the painful, risky business of building peace, both Belfast and Mostar have instead opted simply to prevent any kind of contact which could lead to a breakout of hostilities. Given the harrowing events of the war in Bosnia, and the intractable nature of the Troubles, it is perhaps unsurprising that both countries focussed on armistice, rather than trying to address the underlying causes of the war. Yet this ‘safer’ path leaves open the possibility of a return to violence. It entrenches divisions, it prevents real reconciliation, and it passes the conflict on to the next generation.

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

Between time and eternity / nothing was fixed

Between time and eternity / nothing was fixed

The centrality of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection

The salvation of creation, through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the defining tenet of Christianity. It is the most challenging, fascinating and vital part of our faith. Without it, Christianity is a moral code, based on the teachings of an itinerant preacher. But a moral code does not a way of living make. A moral code is not the foundation of a transformative faith.

No, it is through the decision of God to be man, to die and to make new life of that death, that we are made new. Our faith, our lives as Christians are rooted in the Great Three Days. That is the still point of the turning world. The atonement is the eucatastrophe of humanity.

This transforming moment is beyond comprehending – it is the working out of the Divine Will on earth. Yet it is also fundamentally important – because it is the cornerstone of our relationship with God. So we try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

The injustice and lovelessness of atonement theologies

Theologies of the atonement range hugely. At one extreme, Penal Substitution holds that the sins of humanity are so severe that they demand the ultimate punishment. Eternal punishment is the just punishment for sin. Only through Christ standing in place of humanity to receive that punishment is the righteous anger of God satisfied, giving humanity the hope of salvation. Other variants on this theology hold that Christ’s death comes in place of human death to Satan, or that it somehow does God the honour which humanity has, through sin, failed to do.

Such a view, however, has many flaws. First, it implies a time before the debt was paid  – the language of debt and payment is inherently temporal. It follows that part of humanity is beyond the hope of salvation. This cannot be a moral choice of a God who is love.

This theology is also rooted in the deeply problematic concept of original sin. Christ’s death does not, it is held, automatically win humanity the right to eternal salvation. We still rely on either living a good, moral life, or on God’s grace (depending on your tradition). All Christ’s death wins is the possibility that we might not be eternally damned. It wins the hope of Glory, yet the means of grace is still necessary. If we do not hold that humanity is ‘fallen’, there is no justification for an act of atonement – God’s grace alone would be sufficient.

Worse still, this atonement theology is rooted in an idea of justice, or worse of wrath and appeasement, which ignores the role of love altogether. To forgive without demanding reparations is surely a greater act of love than to demand the payment owed. Surely the divine love must be able to encompass such infinite generosity? Indeed, Christ shows that God can make sins as nothing, and not demand the punishment required by the law: Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. Is that not the definition of grace?

Indeed, if we are made free, then human failure is an inevitable result of our humanity. Only the Divine can meet divine standards. To be human is to fall short of the Glory of God. How, then, could God demand punishment for what is the essential fact of how we are made by Him – our imperfection? To condemn, to demand retribution, would be neither just not loving.

The deficiency of moral influence

At the other extreme, Christ’s willing death for sins committed not by Him, but by the world, can be seen as the ultimate moral exemplar, an example of what the Divine nature is, and what we should choose to be. Christ died, not to change our relationship with God, or to win us the chance of salvation, but to show us how to live.

Yet this moral influence theory seems to fall into the trap of ignoring the vital (in all senses of the word) importance of the crucifixion and resurrection. There must be something more to this moment than a mere exemplar, or exposition of God’s love for us. Something bigger must have happened.

The timelessness of God, incarnate in time

God is eternal and unchanging. To be otherwise would fall short of perfection. Again, God must be outside time, which He created. God cannot create Godself, so He cannot be bounded by time. Nor can He change, as it is the passage of time, of before and after alone, which allows for change. To God, there is no before or after; no before or after creation, no before or after incarnation.

“Thou art always the Selfsame and thy years shall have no end.” Thy years neither go nor come… All Thy years stand together as one, since they are abiding… Thy “today” yields not to tomorrow and does not follow yesterday. Thy “today” is eternity.

– Augustine, Confessions

Yet, this leaves God cut off from His world. While God experiences all existence as God, it is only through Christ that God is able to be human. The incarnation anchors God in time. Through the crucifixion, Christ lives out human suffering. Through the resurrection, He embodies human joy.

The choice of incarnation

And this is the heart of it. Through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God gives Godself to die. It is true that in this moment, we see God’s love for us enacted, as the moral influence view holds. But more than that, through the incarnation, which is eternally present to God, God continually makes the active choice to be part of the world and to inhabit our suffering and our joy. This is not simply a revelation of God’s nature, it is a fundamental part of His being.

What makes Christ’s death and resurrection so vital then, is that it changes our relationship to God. It does not do this by paying the price for our sins and satisfying divine justice, nor by simply helping us see what God is like. It does this by defining what it is to be God, altering God’s very being compared to a conceivable god which is not incarnate, or compared to the partial knowledge of what it is to be God which humanity held before we experienced the incarnation of Christ in time.

God is the god who chooses to share in the very worst of what it is to be human. It is played out, in its ultimate form, in Calvary. It breaks His heart, as it does ours. And it goes on.

Our relationship with the Divine is rooted in who we are, and in who God is. It is at the still point of God’s cross that we meet in the dance.

Between time and eternity
nothing was fixed.
One gaped at the other
across an unbridgeable void…

…nothing was fixed
until a workman took
a hammer and a wrist
and with one whack nailed down
eternity screaming into time.

Godfrey Rust

Practitioner-teachers – the value of dual professionals

Practitioner-teachers – the value of dual professionals

This blog was first written for GuildHE; it can be found on the GuildHE website, here.


Over the last two decades, as student fees have increased, so too have concerns that students do not receive ‘value for money’ from their education. The Conservatives set out to change this in 2015, through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). Drawing on the HEPI/HEA Student Academic Experience Survey, they identified student priorities such as “having more hours of teaching”, “reducing the size of teaching groups” and “better training for lecturers”.

What do students value?

Yet the TEF has focused on the academic side of teaching, and ignored perhaps the most interesting finding of the 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey; 44% of students rated industry experience as the most important characteristic of their teaching staff.

That’s more students than rated training in how to teach as most important (39%) and significantly more than prioritised staff being active researchers in their field (17%). Of course, this result varies by type of institution and subject. Nonetheless, it is an important finding, and one which has received little attention.

As the Teaching Excellence Framework develops it will be important to keep in mind this finding.

Dual-Professionals in GuildHE institutions

Many GuildHE member institutions are closely aligned to professions and provide highly vocational education. Whether in creative arts or agri-tech, sports science or cyber-security, or a whole host of other subjects, many teachers continue to work in their industry, as “dual-professionals” or “practitioner-teachers”. The HEPI/HEA survey demonstrates that these staff members have real credibility amongst students.

GuildHE are currently working on a project, which will explore some of the benefits and challenges of working with these practitioner-teachers. Yet it seems clear from the outset that many students will benefit from a more employment-focused experience of higher education.

Practitioner-teachers are able to integrate real-world experience into their teaching, providing first-hand knowledge of how to address specific professional challenges. They will help students understand how the skills accrued through years of study are relevant when applying for graduate jobs. Practitioner-led teaching and placements can also provide students with access to informal networks, which may provide routes into industry or professional roles. This opens up new possibilities, especially for students with low social capital.

Having staff working in both industry and teaching is not without its challenges though. This can include supporting staff to recognise that just because they are experts in their field they may not automatically be expert teachers. There are also a range of more practical issues including the wide range of contracts that these staff are likely to be on.

Practitioner-teachers and the TEF

As we approach the Independent Review of the TEF, and consider possible models for a subject-level TEF, we should develop methods to reflect the value that dual-professionals bring to the teaching of a wide range of subjects. This should sit alongside other important factors such as “having more hours of teaching”, “reducing the size of teaching groups” and “better training for lecturers”. A nuanced approach that truly recognises and rewards excellent teaching, will value practitioner-teachers alongside more traditional academic roles. We hope that, by showcasing the benefits of practitioner-led teaching, our project will help expand the picture of what excellent teaching looks like.

The worst thing you have ever done

Think of the worst thing you have ever done.

It’s not a nice thought, is it?

Well, don’t worry, you are more than that. Like everybody, you have made mistakes, but you have also done amazing things. As Sr. Helen Prejean says, “people are more than the worst thing they have ever done in their lives”. I do not believe anyone should be judged solely on their darkest moments, on their worst failings, but on the sum of their life.

So when I saw this image doing the rounds among Labour voting friends on Facebook the other day, I felt deeply uncomfortable.

We know, with hindsight, that the Iraq War was misinformed and unjustified. We know that Tony Blair ‘sexed up’ evidence in order to convince the country to back a war which turned Iraq into a failed state. Even at the time, many people were not persuaded by the case for war.

It is right that Tony Blair be held accountable for his part in the whole sorry affair. I do not doubt he holds himself responsible for what has followed. It is right that we learn lessons from Iraq (though I would argue we have now turned to far the other way, heeding only the lessons from Iraq, and ignoring lessons from Bosnia, from Sierra Leone, from Rwanda).

But it is not right that the good which Tony Blair’s government achieved be soured by this failing. From the Northern Ireland peace process, through to the national minimum wage, the Labour Government which closed the 20th century achieved a great deal which was positive.

What’s more, the legacy of Iraq should not mean that everything Mr Blair and his senior team say should be decried as falsehood and self-interest. If people have experience and knowledge, they are worth listening to, at least so you can work out why they are wrong.

So please, stop with the vilification. It simply serves to sour public debate further. Everybody deserves a chance at atonement.

People are more than the worst thing they have ever done.

It’s not the scandal…

It’s not the scandal…

As some of you will know, for a couple of years after leaving university, I was a volunteer at an Oxfam Bookshop. Oxfam has the scale and capacity to provide the kind of aid which has one, fundamental aim – to save lives in the most desperate situations – making it, in my view, one of the most important charities operating today. For similar reasons, I have helped with collections run by Christian Aid, I have volunteered in Ghana, and I have written about the importance of overseas aid here before.

I know where I stand – my position is clear.

So I have been saddened to learn that staff working for some of our most important charities have been accused of taking advantage of their positions, and of the vulnerable people they should be working to help.

But I will be much more saddened should this scandal be used to attack the principle of international aid.

While I know nothing of the particular accusations, I was not shocked by the revelation. Recent years have seen similar accusations levelled against individuals in almost every institution, from churches and the BBC, for schools, to Parliament. And every institution has failed to properly respond. But that doesn’t mean we have cut funding for the BBC, or education. We still have a government, and people still believe in God.

Some people are deeply flawed, and choose to do appalling things. It is, therefore, not hard to believe that such individuals, when put in chaotic situations with little oversight (the sorts of situations where most aid work takes place), and given charge over vulnerable people, would abuse that power.

Nor, perhaps, should we be surprised that organisations which rely in large part on public generosity and good-will in order to carry out their work, attempt to avoid scandals. Bad press is one of the most significant risks facing charities, and will undermine their capacity to help other people.

Of course, we rightly expect charities to set and meet exhaustive standards. We know that aid organisations are working with people who are already vulnerable, and should do everything possible to ensure those people are not taken abused, but are supported. That is their fundamental mission. Again, to justify their privileged position, aid organisations funded by public generosity must be open and transparent.

It appears that charities have not met these high standards, either in terms of ensuring that every vulnerable person in their care is protected, and in acting quickly and openly when failings are discovered.

It is this second failing which may have the greater impact on international development work; “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up”. We have already seen significant negative backlash from across a media landscape which is broadly opposed to the UK’s foreign aid spending. The International Development Secretary, Penny Mourdant, has stated that “any organisation that does not live up to [DFID’s] high standards on safeguarding and protection” will lose funding.

Cutting funding to major charities will not stop people abusing positions of power across society – they will simply move elsewhere. Instead, the ultimate victims of such actions would be the vulnerable people in need of help.

These charities have the infrastructure and experience to make a real difference in some of the worst situations imaginable. Smaller charities might have higher safeguarding policies, but they will lack the capacity to respond to the next natural disaster or refugee crisis. The best way for charities to make amends for their failings will be for them to keep doing what they do to ever higher standards.

Worse still in scale would be if these revelations are weaponised by those who oppose the UK’s commitment to overseas aid. Even if you believe that specific charities ought to be punished for their failings, that does not undermine principle that we should help those most in need, wherever they happen to live. The UK’s commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP reaps huge benefits, helping to bring stability around the world, enhance the global economy and boost UK soft power.

I can but hope that we do not throw the baby out with the bath-water.