Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Monthly Archives: January 2015

Teaching a green standard

📥  Comment, New Publications, News and Updates

This is Steve Martin's letter in today's THE ...

A glaring omission from the People & Planet University League 2015 tables is any meaningful measure of teaching quality and how the programmes that universities offer contribute to the life chances of their graduates. If, as is commonly supposed, green league tables (or indeed any other form of differentiated assessment of a university’s performance) are used by prospective students to determine which university will be best for them, then an important factor is whether the teaching on offer is fit for purpose in meeting the future needs of a graduate. And there is good empirical evidence from recent student surveys (commissioned by the Higher Education Academy) that of the 15,000 students canvassed, 80 per cent wanted more emphasis on sustainability in their courses.

No one can predict with any certainty how the world will change in the future, but it is likely to be in many significant ways. An expanding population, increasing globalisation and advances in technology will bring colossal societal and ecological changes, particularly if our unsustainable practices and lifestyles prevail. Without significant policy interventions, more people will be consuming more resources; climate change will cause global temperatures to increase; demand for food will double globally; and more than 4 million people in the UK will have diabetes.

Preparing our graduates for such a complex and uncertain future by integrating sustainability into the teaching of all courses is an essential element of a quality student experience that is fit for the 21st century. The challenge for the People & Planet team, helped perhaps by many of the universities that did not participate in this year’s assessment, is to design a credible system for measuring the impact of the student experience and students’ engagement with sustainability.

Stephen Martin Former chair of the Higher Education Academy’s education for sustainable development advisory group

I'd say that P&P won't dare look at any of this, in part because they wouldn't know where to start.  As was noted the other day, the P&P methodology only devotes 9% of its weighting to education [actually, to 'ESD'], and that is already fragmented into:

  • Commitment and Governance for Education for Sustainable Development (25%)
  • Implementing and Tracking Progress in Education for Sustainable Development (30%)
  • Supporting Academic Staff (25%)
  • Education for Sustainable Development Actions (20%)

... which by my reckoning leaves just 2% [ 20% of 9% ] of the weighting having anything to do with the actual teaching / learning experience.  All the rest is just, one way or another, bubble/babble about 'quality'.

This letter comes a week after Graham Gibbs' intervention (also in the THE) in which he calls for more focus on the process of teaching / learning: "what institutions do with whatever students they have, using whatever resources are available".  Taken together, they are a massive blow to the credibility of what P&P offers – and QAA, of course.  Such a shame that P&P will not know how to respond, despite its new partnership with EAUC / AUDE.


Overturning the measuring of 'quality' – a Gibbsean revolution

📥  Comment, New Publications

Although Graham Gibb's article in the THE last week is ostensibly about fees, ...

"Higher fees should reflect an institution's quality, rather than status, so we should start measuring it, argues Graham Gibbs"

... it is actually an argument about how to measure the likely quality of student experience in a university degree.  Gibbs says that much of what is currently measured in the various UK league tables are merely proxies for reputation:

"Input variables, such as resources, do not predict outcomes, such as degree results and employability, as much as you would expect.  And the modest extent to which input variables do predict outcomes results largely from reputation.  Input variables are even worse at predicting educational gains – the difference between students at the start and on graduation – than they are at predicting outcomes.  Outcome measures such as employability tell us little about the institution, other than about their reputation and the quality of students they can attract, and so outcome measures are also not as helpful as one might hope as indicators of quality."

He argues that what can more validly predict educational gains are process measures: what institutions do with whatever students they have, using whatever resources are available.  He goes on to say that thirty years of research has identified which process variables best predict educational gains.  They include:

class size; cohort size; who does the teaching; the volume, promptness and usefulness of feedback on student work; the extent of close contact with academics; and the extent of collaborative learning – along with the extent of student engagement that results from these variables.

Gibbs says that key aspects of engagement include how much time students spend on their studies, and the extent to which they take a deep approach (attempting to understand) or a surface approach (attempting only to reproduce).   He says that all these variables are measurable, and that institutions that have improved in these process variables have been shown to increase student engagement and increase learning gains, without increasing resources.  Gibbs says that the Quality Assurance Agency does not ask institutions to provide information about these educational characteristics, nor do National Student Survey and the National Union of Students' student satisfaction ratings.

Whilst there is much to ponder here, and even agree with, my feeling is that a Gibbsean revolution in the way which "quality" is measured might not make all that much difference to who comes out well / badly in all these measures.  It seems highly unlikely that the first shall be last, and last first.

Whilst it might be quite interesting to find out, I'm sure institutions will say they cannot afford it.  They could, of course, replace all those quality assurers and managers they now employ with real teachers who know something about both subject and teaching.



A burning ESD 2 issue ...

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Here's some more on "energy" from waste [ EfW ].  I commented on the language difficulties around all this a week or so ago, after a recent visit to Devon's EfW plant in Exeter.

Now Private Eye has a story about the politics of EfW and the interplay between the Secretary of State, independent government inspectors, and the supposedly-independent Environment Agency.  Much here on conflicts of interest, health issues down-wind of EfW plants, and the financial tightrope to be walked in getting economics and waste reduction (and availability!) in some sort of dynamic balance within EU regulations.

Whilst the nuts and bolts of energy from waste might be great for an ESD 1-style environmental science approach, you have to add in the politics and economics of it all for ESD 2-style explorations which add human social interest(s) to environmental topics.

Is anyone daring to do this?


Interview with a Director of Sustainability

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Following the recent publication of the 2014 People & Planet (green) league tables for 2014, here's a transcript of a conversation with the Director of Sustainability at one of the successful universities.


Thank you very much for agreeing to talk about your university's success in the People & Planet green league report that was published last week.  You must be pleased with the outcome as you've continued to do well.


Yes.  It's very gratifying and reflects a lot of hard work by my team.


Memory tells me that you've always been in the top cohort of universities in the green league; how have you managed that?


Yes; that is correct.  As to how we've managed it, well, we treat it seriously.  We look at the criteria and we work hard to maximise our scores.  I know that sounds an instrumental way of working, but, happily, doing the right things to do well in the league, coincide with doing the right things in relation to sustainability.


That's good to know.  I see that only 9% of the green league weighting goes to education.  Isn't that a bit disappointing for your institution, given your reputation, internationally, for ESD?  Would you not want a much higher proportion of the weighting to be focused on that?  The university's main focus is learning, after all.


You're right about reputation, of course, but there has to be a balance in all this between the various aspects of a university. It is a business, after all, with a wide range of ways that sustainability impacts on it – and it on sustainability.  Education, and students, is only one aspect of that, albeit an important one, let me stress.


Yes; I see that.  However, the UK has less than 2% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and universities only about 2% of the total UK emissions, but universities have 100% of the students, doesn't that argue for a much higher weighting in the green league for education – especially since NUS / HEA surveys keep illustrating how important sustainability is to students in HE?   Or are you saying that other instruments do that and so there's no need for the green league to focus on it.  In that sense, should the national student survey, be seen as a complement to the green league, perhaps?


Well, as I suppose you know, the NSS doesn't focus on ESD at all, so you can't really add the two together.


But doesn't the NSS look at the student experience in the round?  And, as such, it doesn't have to mention sustainability – or anything else – to be a useful measure of the student experience.  And in this way, doesn't it have to be a complement to what the green league looks at?  Or are you saying that the NSS methodology is flawed whereas the green league approach isn't?


Well, all these approaches are approximations to one degree or another, if you'll pardon the pun.  How they are constructed represents different framings of the university world.  Many of us think that, given that we know how keen students are on sustainability (from the NUS / HEA surveys), and because the NSS doesn't include sustainability or ESD as a focus, then the NSS is not an adequate measure of the student experience today.


So, does that go some way to explaining why so many of those institutions that do well in the green league, do so badly in the national student survey.  In 2014, for example, only 2 of the top 10 institutions in the green league (including your own university) appeared in the top 100 places in the NSS.  Are you saying that, if the NSS took ESD seriously as a focus, then your scores (and those of like-minded institutions) would increase?


Of course.  This is why we have spend so much time lobbying HEFCE to change the rules.


That sounds rather self-serving.


Not at all!  If the NSS took ESD seriously, then all universities would have to do so as well, whether they liked it or not.


Thank you, Director.  All the very best for 2015.


Forget the Premier League ...

📥  Comment, News and Updates

... the new tables from People & Planet are much more colourful.

I see that the usual suspects have done reasonably well again, and that many of those that do well in everything else, have all done equally badly.  My own institution would no doubt take pleasure to be clustered with Imperial, Oxford, and Cambridge, were it ever to take any notice at all of what P & P gets up to.  I have written before on the disparities between success in the P&P world, and in the one that matters to most universities.

The winner this year, and by a distance, was Plymouth, whose success seems to owe a lot to its carbon reduction score.  This, at 80%, is way ahead of others near the top.  Mind you, other institutions scored 100%, which leads you to wonder, 100% of what, exactly.  There is small print somewhere, I guess, but it would be taking all this nonsense too seriously to hunt it down.  Plymouth will, no doubt, hope that such a good news story will take the public mind off the waste of money and energy that accrued from having recently quite carelessly misplaced a VC.

If you want some detailed background on university league tables, then two recent posts from the Greenwich VC might be of interest.  The second post concludes:

"... league tables ... continue to be based on what we can easily measure and what we have always measured, rather than on what counts and what should be counted."

Rather like assessment and evaluation in general, then.  It will be quite a challenge to overcome these tendencies, and not just because they are so entrenched.


Riding along in my automobile, ...

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Sadly, it was only along the M4, and Chuck Berry wasn't there singing along, but I saw something I'd not seen before - the iconic wind turbine at the Reading business park was silent, hanging limply in the still, cold air.

That's the trouble with large high pressure systems when they sit over the country - no wind.  This was obviously happening over most of the country as the proportion of electricity coming from wind that day was ~1% of total demand.  Sadly (for wind enthusiasts) this coincided with peak winter demand (so far) of 52.5GW.

As I write this a few days later, things are not much better with wind only contributing 0.7GW to a total demand of 48.5GW.

Thank goodness for all that coal which is providing 14.7GW, otherwise ...  .  However, I'll leave the full detail, and any moralising about wind power policy, to the Telegraph.


Green Capital – Student Capital: unleashing the power of Bristol Students to benefit the UK

📥  Comment, News and Updates

Bristol is the 2015 European Green Capital, and its universities have come together with a promise to make "positive and sustainable environmental changes" during 2015.  This project has been made possible by generous tax-payer funding of £249,734 c/o the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

The focus of the Bristol project is on student participation, and the universities and student unions are aiming to provide 100,000 hours of student activity involving 3,000 students.  I understand that HEFCE insisted that outcomes from the green capital project had to "benefit HE nationally".  This will be quite a challenge, unless benefit is interpreted loosely.  You have to suspect it will be, given the funding council's habit of declaring all its green / sustainability projects a success without bothering too much with evaluation data.






Eating away at our life support systems

📥  Comment, New Publications

The Guardian has reported on two recent research studies that it says:

"... have pinpointed the key factors that ensure a livable planet for humans, with stark results.  Of nine worldwide processes that underpin life on Earth, four have exceeded “safe” levels – human-driven climate change, loss of biosphere integrity, land system change and the high level of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans due to fertiliser use."

These will be discussed at Davos later in the month.  There's a nice graphic and the piece concludes with a comment from one of the authors that the research showed the economic system to be “fundamentally flawed” as it ignored critically important life support systems.  He added:

“It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive.  History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change.  That’s where we are today.”

Is it too late for environmental education, do you think?  Of course, it's a pity that environmental education has never taken economics seriously – or vice versa.

No wealth but life

📥  Comment, New Publications

I usually avoid discussions about the 'global population problem' of the 'something must be done before it's too late' variety because there are usually no sensible policy options on offer – save ' more education' and/or 'more economic growth'.  Rarely does anyone dare to suggest anything remotely practical such as free contraception to all who want it, or abortion / assisted dying on demand – or, much more extreme – closing every neo-natal unit.

Such discussions are also usually free of theory; that is, there's an absence, for example, of any explanatory conceptual framework that enables our understanding of human population in the context of how we live our lives in the wider biosphere.  How useful it was, then, to find Herman Daly musing about these issues in a recent blog.

This begins:

A steady state economy is defined by a constant population and a constant stock of physical capital. In a way it is an extension of the demographer’s model of a stationary population to include non living populations of artifacts, with production rates equal to depreciation rates, as well as birth rates equal to death rates.  The basic idea goes back to the classical economists and was most favorably envisioned by John Stuart Mill.

The population problem should be considered from the point of view of all populations–populations of both humans and their things (cars, houses, livestock, crops, cell phones, etc.)–in short, populations of all “dissipative structures” engendered, bred, or built by humans.  Both human bodies and artifacts wear out and die.  The populations of all organs that support human life, and the enjoyment thereof, require a metabolic throughput to counteract entropy and remain in an organized steady state.  

All of these organs are capital equipment that support our lives.  Endosomatic (within skin) capital–heart, lungs, kidneys–supports our lives quite directly.  Exosomatic (outside skin) capital supports our lives indirectly, and consists both of natural capital (e.g., photosynthesizing plants, structures comprising the hydrologic cycle), and manmade capital (e.g., farms, factories, electric grids). 

Recommended reading, perhaps, for all who bang mindlessly on about something needing to be done about population without actually saying anything.  You know who you are.

20th January update

It seems that one political party does have these policies – the Greens. T his is what the Telegraph reports this morning after a close look at their election manifesto:

Assisted dying will be legalised, and the law on abortion liberalised to allow nurses to carry it out. “Alternative” medicine will be promoted.  Private healthcare will be more heavily taxed, with special levies on private hospitals that employ staff who were trained on the NHS.  It will be a criminal offence, with “significant fines”, to stop a woman from breastfeeding in a restaurant or shop, and formula milk will be more tightly regulated.  In order to prevent “overpopulation” burdening the earth, the state will provide free condoms and fund research for new contraceptives.

Not all bad, then, just most of it.  I tried to provide a link to the GP manifesto with no luck.  Must be all those prospective new members checking it out.


DfID to send emergency aid cash to Saudi Arabia

📥  Comment

As world-wide condemnation grows of the sentence of 10 years in jail, a fine of 1m riyals (~£175k), and 1000 lashes on blogger, Raif Badawi, DfID announced emergency development aid to Saudi Arabia yesterday following an historic agreement with the Saudi kingdom.  The £10m programme is to help the Saudis set up an internal global learning programme to help the country come to terms with secularism and to learn from other countries about reducing the influence of poorly educated clerics in its judicial system.  A DfID spokesperson said,

"Look, we know the Saudis have a lot of cash, but so do we, and they do really need help in turning themselves into a modern society; every little helps you know."