Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: August 2014

People and Planet? Petulance and Pique more like

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The girls and boys who run People & Planet have always tended to take themselves rather too seriously, falling into the trap of thinking that their Green League has had far more influence than it really has; they have also been far too self-satisfied with the methods used.  Anyway, they are now on their high horses over UK universities' concerns about the methods used, and hence the validity of data, and are threatening to trash the furniture.

Institutional frustration and disgruntlement became so bad that, at the end of July, AUDE (Association of University Directors of Estates) and EAUC (Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges) got together to write to P & P with sector-wide concerns about how the green league table has been operated.  Even those who always do well under the current dispensation joined in; as good an example of solidarity as you'd like to find.  Their letter begins ...

Joint statement on behalf of EAUC and AUDE Memberships

Dear People and Planet,

The EAUC and AUDE are committed to promoting sustainability within the education sector, and seek to consistently raise the standards adhered to by universities in order to build on the excellent work to date.  We believe the sector has a unique and powerful contribution to make to society, and we value the Green League’s role in helping us account for and improve performance.

While we do not want to see or do anything that will damage the progress made through the Green League, both the EAUC and AUDE have serious concerns over the 2014 survey; particularly on the grounds of the timings given to universities, and changes to the survey which are perceived as time-consuming and detrimental to the credibility of the results.  Additionally, we do not believe that the three-week extension communicated on July 31st will address these concerns.

We are disappointed that our comments have not been incorporated, to the detriment of this process.  We are concerned that the Green League 2014 will not drive the innovative and positive change it used to, and risks reducing sustainability to a narrowly and prescriptively defined tick box agenda.

Therefore, we are asking People and Planet to defer this year’s Green League and to work openly and collaboratively with AUDE and the EAUC to improve the process for next year.  We do support the decision of those universities who have already chosen, or will choose to defer from participating in this year’s Green League.  This is a decision for each institution to make individually.

For the 2015 survey, we request in particular that the timings of the survey are more considerate of the numerous demands on university staff, particularly around busy building periods and students returning to university.  ...

You can read the full letter here, see P&P's sniffy response here, and find the Green League methodology here – just in case you want to make up your own mind (Thanks to the assiduous David Somervell for providing easy access to these links).

The tensions and difficulties in all this are evident in the letter that DS sent to colleagues via the EAUC member list in the middle of August:

Dear colleagues and friends across the sector

Ever since this ruction blew up I have been considering what our best way forward is – and I feel on balance that it is in our interests for Universities to respond to the request for information in good faith.

Dozens of us have participated in the Green League Oversight Group these past years and one thing that has been asked for is a broadening of the Education for Sustainable Development theme and more on wider Sustainability issues. The evolution has been at a snail’s pace with tiny incremental changes. Even this year the main new item relates to tracking our beneficial impact.

Considering that we are collectively in receipt of billions of public funding – and that this request comes from representatives [albeit edgy ones] of our main beneficiaries asking for us to share what we are doing – is it good practice to effectively boycott the process?

Like many others who have kept silent so far the University of Edinburgh currently intends to make a return as we have in past years. I hope others will carefully weigh up the appropriateness of withdrawing from the process.

Our submission form has already been partially completed automatically with last year’s return and we are using the opportunity with our other stakeholders across the University to review where progress has been made and reflect on what more can be done in the coming year. ...

So, some will respond to the data request, and others (maybe more than usual) will not, and P&P will use FOI requests more aggressively.  Not a happy state of affairs.  Meanwhile, some innocents will continue to deplore the whole idea of a league table and look back to that golden age before they emerged.  Happy daze ...



Hefce in the firing line as new report criticises its support for learning enhancement

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

There's a new report from the HEA on: The Role of Hefce in Teaching and Learning Enhancement: A Review of Evaluative Evidence.  It does not make good reading.

This report was commissioned by the HEA in 2013 at Hefce's request, with the following foci:

1 What do previous evaluations and current stakeholders’ opinions suggest were the key strengths and weaknesses of HEFCE-funded learning and teaching enhancement initiatives, both at the strategic and the tactical level, over the period 2005-2012?

2 What does the evidence suggest are the future needs of the HE sector in relation to the direction of learning and teaching enhancement initiatives?

3 What are the options available for HEFCE’s future role (if any) in learning and teaching enhancement initiatives for the future?

4 What alternatives, beyond a role for HEFCE, exist in learning and teaching enhancement initiatives for the future?

5 What does the evidence suggest are likely to be the most effective choices among these?

These are extracts from the report's executive summary ...

"The review considers selected aspects of HEFCE-initiated enhancement activities including the various Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund initiatives: Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Teaching and Learning Research Programme, the National Teaching Fellowship Scheme, support for institutional learning and teaching strategies, targeted funding allocation for teaching and learning enhancement (but not the retention element) through Support for Teaching Enhancement and Student Success (TESS). The report also takes into consideration the National Student Survey and Key Information Sets.  ..."

Key findings from 15 telephone interviews are:

  • there is a need for better data about enhancement requirements, prioritisation of efforts and good evaluation of outcomes and effects;
  • there is a need for better knowledge exchange in relation to what we know about good learning and teaching practices and about effective implementation of change into the policies, priorities and actions of government and enhancement-related bodies. The development of a good, explicitly stated theory of systemic change is important in this;
  • enhancement initiatives have tended to arrive hermetically sealed and so there is a need for policy links or increased joined-up activity with other initiatives and with the resources already in place on the ground;
  • despite many local successes, aspirations and expectations at the level of system-wide enhancement of learning and teaching have not been achieved;
  • there is a need for deeper and wider engagement of students and their representatives in decision making about, and the implementation of, enhancement initiatives;
  • large, high-profile projects often do not represent good value for money. In times of fiscal constraint and resource depletion, better thinking about small but effective initiatives would be beneficial.

Key findings from a literature review are:

  • the significant importance of HEFCE’s teaching enhancement initiatives in signalling the centrality of teaching and learning in higher education;
  • the significant benefits that individuals across the sector gained from their involvement in these initiatives;
  • the tendency to focus on raising the profile of, and rewarding, teaching rather than on the strategic development of teaching and learning across the sector;
  • the way in which these initiatives tended to focus on innovations and educational specialists rather than developing everyday university teaching and teachers;
  • the lack of a cohesive strategy that brought together HEFCE’s different quality enhancement initiatives.

Overall, it says,

"Our review of the literature has suggested that while HEFCE’s enhancement initiatives have played an important role in signalling the centrality of teaching as well as supporting individuals in developing their innovative practices (often to the benefit of students), it has been far less successful in promoting the strategic development of quality enhancement across the sector as a whole. Thus while some very innovative teaching practices have been supported, the impact on day-to-day teaching across the sector has been much more limited."

The NUS comes out of the report well, as does the NSS which is seen as a cost-effective way of subtly strong-arming institutions into taking students seriously.

This, about the NUS, is from page 25:

"A number of respondents had suggestions for or offered examples of ways in which learning and teaching enhancement across the sector could be augmented. These included: ... The NUS appears to be adept at generating considerable amounts of activity on limited resources by concentrating on local incentives and the outcomes.  ...."

This, about the NSS, is from page 27:

"If we ask the question “what has been the most cost-effective mechanism that has changed learning and teaching practices on the ground?” the answer would almost certainly be the National Student Survey. There is general agreement that, like the REF in the research field, the NSS is the object of close attention from, and often rapid response by, institutions.  It has focused attention and helped institutions prioritise enhancement efforts. This is not to say that it is not in need of amendment, nor that it has not had some deleterious effects; only that it has had a demonstrable impact across English higher education."

All this will come as little surprise to anyone who has followed Hefce's funding of sustainability-related initiatives through its various schemes where countless £zillions have been 'invested' to such little effect, 'NUS excepted', of course!


Pandas and the Scottish education system – both found wanting

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I watched the TV debates between the YES and NO campaigns for the break up of the UK out of a sense of duty – in part to see how many mentions sustainability got.

Well, I heard two – sort of.

First, there was Salmond's much repeated joke about their being more pandas in Edinburgh zoo than Tory MPs at Westminster.  That is a fact; the ratio is 2 : 1.  However, as is typical of Salmond, there was another fact hidden behind the first: of late, between 14 and 19% [typically ~17%] of people have voted conservative in Scotland in all kinds of elections, and they now have 15 MSPs at Holyrood.  This may well continue as the Tories, whatever their faults, do know how to breed – and, unlike pandas, can mostly do so unaided.

The only other mention I heard – and I did fall asleep at one point in the first debate, despite watching it in the afternoon – was when oil was the focus.  The sustainability of the money from oil is key to Scotland's future, it seems, no matter how many times you spend the cash.

Depressing stuff; but more depressing still was the standard of comment and questioning from some of the audience where credulity was much in evidence.  And here was me thinking that the Scottish education system was all about engendering critical thinking.


Shock Horror – The Telegraph discovers that plants can be poisonous

📥  Comment, News and Updates

It's good to be back.  The Daily Telegraph, every-ready to bash the BBC, has splashed an hysterical story about corn cockle [Agrrostemma githago] seeds being distributed in packages c/o Kew Gardens and the Countryfile programme.   You'd think the country was now awash with them (fat chance), the way that vigilantes are roaming the highways and byways looking for the evil weed.  What will these urban types worry about next.


Corn cockle (a member of the Pink family) used to be a common weed of corn fields, and, because it ripens in July and August, the poisonous seeds got threshed out with the corn and found their way into grain and hence into  bread, etc.  This can still happen in countries where seed is not cleaned and dressed.  Here, sadly, you'd be as likely to see a corn cockle in a corn field as a cornflower.  Dear me!

Mind you, if I worried about poisonous plants, I'd never leave the house.  Personally, I find that the best way to avoid being poisoned by plants is not to eat them in the first place – especially their seeds.

Environmental education anyone?