Vocational qualifications: ‘a great idea for other people’s children’

A new review of vocational qualifications

The BBC reports on Education Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement of an independent review of vocational qualifications for students aged 14 to 19 in England.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said the government wanted qualifications in practical subjects to be more “hands on”. The number of vocational qualifications taken has risen fast in recent years.

But critics say schools push weaker pupils to do courses of little benefit to them, to boost league table scores.

Professor Alison Wolf, an expert on education and skills from Kings’ College London, is to head the review. It will look at “ways to improve vocational education’s organisation and responsiveness to a changing labour market, and to ensure vocational education is progressing young people to the next stage,” the Department for Education said.

Professor Wolf is an obvious choice to lead this. In her fascinating 2002 book, Does Education Matter?, she has a lot to say (not much of it positive) about vocational qualifications and NVQs in particular which she observes pointedly are ‘a great idea for other people’s children’. Let’s hope we do better this time.


“Top scholars should lead research universities”

Top scholars should lead research universities:

Review of fascinating new work in University World News.

Research universities should be led by brilliant scholars and not merely talented managers, says Warwick University fellow Amanda Goodall. It is not sufficient for leaders to have management skills alone, Goodall states in a new book. In Socrates in the Boardroom: why research universities should be led by top scholars, Goodall challenges the orthodoxy of “managerialism” which began in the Thatcher era and continued during the Blair decade. Using a mix of empirical research of 100 universities and interviews with 26 of their leaders in the UK and the US, she concludes that institutions led by highly regarded academics perform better.

Goodall gives four reasons why leaders should be able scholars. They are more credible to academic colleagues and appear more legitimate which, in turn, extends a leader’s power and influence. A top scholar provides a leader with a deep understanding and expert knowledge about the core business of universities which informs decision-making and strategic priorities. The leader sets the quality threshold: “The standard bearer has first set the standard that is to be enforced.” Finally, she says a leader who is a researcher sends a signal to the faculty that he or she shares their scholarly values, and that research success is important to the institution. It also transmits an external signal to potential job candidates, donors, alumni and students.

Some choice quotations here too:

When Goodall asked Patrick Harker, University of Delaware President, if non-academics could lead research universities, he replied: “To be the leader of a jazz group you have to be able to play. That is true of higher education as well. You might not be in the classroom or laboratory now but it helps if you have been there.”

One UK vice-chancellor told her: “A successful international businessman should be appointed as CEO into an international business. An editor of the Financial Times will have been a competent journalist. A vice-chancellor of a university must have been an academic to understand the culture. Universities are profoundly intellectual and can only be led by an academic.”

Have bought a copy now and look forward to reading it!

Scandals of Higher Education

Is this the future for UK HE?
Scandals of Higher Education – The New York Review of Books

A really interesting and hard-hitting review article from the New York Review of Books of a set of recent publications on US higher education. Two fundamental questions here: what is higher education actually for? And who is it for?

As Harvard’s former dean Harry Lewis sums up the matter:

Universities affect horror when students attend college in the hope of becoming financially successful, but they offer students neither a coherent view of the point of college education nor any guidance on how they might discover for themselves some larger purpose in life.

It is certainly a good thing that fresh attention is being paid in books such as Bowen’s, Golden’s, and Michaels’s to the question of whom education is for. But there remains the fundamental question of what it is for and what it should consist of. One way to bring these questions together would be to ask how well our colleges reflect our best democratic traditions, in which individuals are not assessed by any group affiliation but are treated, regardless of their origins, as independent beings capable of responsible freedom. Opening wider the admissions doors is a necessary step toward furthering that end, but it is by no means a sufficient one. Colleges will fulfill their responsibilities only when they confront the question of what students should learn—a question that most administrators, compilers of rank lists, and authors of books on higher education prefer to avoid.

Challenging stuff.

90 years of Universities UK: exciting book of facts

Universities UK celebrates 90 years

To mark this notable event, and presumably to provide stocking fillers for many lucky Vice-Chancellors, UUK has released an exciting book of facts:

Did you know that the first official rules of football were influenced by student footballers at the University of Cambridge Football Club?

Or that the University of Bradford is the only University to have had a serving Prime Minister as Chancellor – Harold Wilson

Me neither.

This light-hearted booklet provides 90 “quirky and surprising facts” about universities it seems. Including the following: uniuk240px

Originally called the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP), Universities UK’s first meeting took place on 22 November 1918, one week after the end of the First World War. Looking at the minutes from this first meeting, (where one of the points agreed was that the cost of a PhD was not to exceed £10!), it is clear that the sector has undergone major developments since then, with universities constantly re-inventing themselves and the sector growing in both size and diversity. Indeed, in 1922, around 20% of women attended university compared to 55% today, and on average 10,000 first-degrees were conferred, compared to 260,000 in 2006/7.

Surely though it can’t be correct that 20% in the twenties (when only a tiny percentage of the whole population went to university) or 55% of all women attend university?

via Media releases – Newsroom – Universities UK

Books “that make you dumb”

Interesting piece of work – a website which shows the correlation between favourite books on Facebook and average SAT scores for particular US institutions.


The five highest-scoring books (and Average SAT scores):

1. Lolita (1317)
2. 100 Years of Solitude (1308)
3. Crime and Punishment (1307)
4. Freakonomics (1275)
5. Catch-22 (1233)

Someone, with more time on their hands than is good for them, could do the same in the UK using average tariff scores – we need a new league table.

He really doesn’t like the QAA

Entertaining Guardian interview with Thomas Docherty

It includes some quotations from his forthcoming book which offer a choice perspective on the QAA:

Is the Quality Assurance Agency (a) a safeguard designed to maintain and improve academic standards or (b) the “worst thing to happen to higher education in recent times – and perhaps ever”?

Docherty is not afraid of courting controversy. “The QAA, for those of us who have suffered under its tawdry posturing, is a cancer that gnaws at the core of knowledge, value and freedom in education; its carcinogenic growth is now perhaps the greatest pervasive danger to the function of a university as a surviving institution,” he writes. “It has presided over the valorisation and celebration of mediocrity, paradoxically at the very moment when it is allegedly assuring the public of the quality of education and universities …”

Looking forward to reading more. The book is:

The English Question: Or Academic Freedoms

The synopsis on Amazon:

To be or not to be free, that is the question, the English question, the question of what is academic English at the beginning of the 21st century. So argues Thomas Docherty in this new and important new study, a study that begins with the claim that the fundamental idea governing the institution of the University is a will to freedom. Tracing a history of the modern European University from Vico onwards and including Hume, Rousseau, Schiller, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Newman, Alain, Benda and Jaspers, the author argues the academy’s will to freedom is grounded in study of the ‘eloquence’ that has shaped literate and humane values. He goes on to explore the current condition of English as a literary discipline, arguing that literary studies is (or should be) a search for the unknown; and that in only that search can the academy establish the real meaning – or meanings – of social, political and ethical freedom.

So it really does go much further than just a critique of the QAA.

Faddish behaviour…

Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail by Robert Birnbaum


This is just an outstanding book. Although the focus is on the USA, the messages are eminently translatable to the UK context. Birnbaum carefully analyses and deconstructs the big management fads to have hit US universities including:

    Management by objectives
    Zero-based budgeting
    Strategic planning
    Business process re-engineering.

The reasons behind the popularity of each and the vulnerability of institutions and managers to their charms are also explored at length.

Despite the fact that he demonstrates their failures in the USA on all terms, Birnbaum concludes, surprisingly perhaps, that their introduction in a controlled and measured way can have positive benefits in forcing managers to think differently about the way in which they tackle big challenges. The conclusion of the book includes a strong exhortation to a humane and pragmatic approach to management in universities. Such an approach he argues, whilst not easily seduced by fads such as these, is capable of positive adaptation to changing environments.