Thursday, 25 August 2016

The magic firkin

Once upon a time the was a magic firkin (hogshead or cask).  It's magic properties included the apparent impossibility of filling it.

One day Baron Thomas arrived in the village. He and his friends had been drinking at the fountain of hope and expectation and needed to relieve themselves. The Baron began to  use the firkin. His friends followed suit and soon the firkin was full. Baron Thomas went back to his castle, happy and confident that the firkin had done its job well.


But the Baron was a cautious and jealous leader and wanted the firkin to be exclusively for his own use - so he appointed an overseer to supervise it. The overseer never thought to empty it and it stood, steadfastly, in the village centre, full but not overflowing. Every few days the Baron used his exclusive firkin and handed back to the overseer's safe keeping, to ensure that the firkin could not be used by anyone else. 

The Baron protected the firkin from abuse by others by announcing that the firkin was enchanted - a magic cask that could never be filled up.  The cask became know, locally, as Thomas' Enchanted Firkin (TEF for short).  However, over a number of years the contents of the firkin became stale and began to be a health issue for many who worked near it.  Neither the Baron nor the overseer really bothered about it - because the firkin was doing the job it was always intended to do and the enchanted status meant that nobody asked serious questions.

One day the overseer needed to relieve himself too and turned to the full firkin.  He was mindful of the Baron's orders and the nature of the enchantment and so ensured that nobody saw him.  He used the firkin and found, to his immense surprise, that it coped with his needs without overflowing, complaining or leaking.

"Truly, this is a magic firkin" said the overseer  and told the population that they lived in a truly blessed realm.

Once again Baron Thomas came to the village and relieved himself in the firkin.  He then emptied the contents over the overseer as a punishment for disobeying his orders. It was then that the firkin realised that the reason why it never filled up was that someone - probably the Baron himself - had arranged to extract its contents under cover of nightfall so that it appeared never to fill up.  The act of tipping the firkin upside down had stirred the firkin's memory.

The moral of this story is that there is no such thing as a magic firkin that will never overflow and that the country's leaders will often take the pee.


Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Will they ever learn?

OIn my occasional musings about the state of UK Universities I have used the backdrop of banks as a benchmark of over exuberance and unfettered selfishness. I do so in the hope that lessons can be learned and sensible behaviour reinstated - in order, largely, to avoid the problems and ignominy awarded to financial institutions through their actions following various regulatory regimes NOT mirroring the global situation.

Banks are a reasonable foil for Universities as they have seen lax and then more stringent regulation, protected markets being entered by new domestic and foreign competitors, advances in technology that undermine traditional methods and social change that both values and then eschews "experts" and scholarship - normally against the measure of "value for money".

So, let us consider technology. What is possible is not always desirable.

Banks in developed economies, and some undeveloped ones where the leap to mobile telephony has bypassed years of gestation of plastic cards, ATMs etc, report that consumers flock to use pre-payment cards, mobile banking and remote delivery. Bank investment in these systems comes at a huge cost and allows competition but there are benefits of customer convenience and the certain knowledge that traditional delivery systems (cheques, branches, human beings) can be downsized and retired so that bank profits can be maintained or even increased.

For commercial banks that's probably a good thing as governments and consumers press for efficiency - a.k.a. low prices, empowerment - a.k.a. buyer beware and shareholders press for, let's be frank, more of everything every quarter.

For Universities, however, where the "product" is less transactional, the objectives less profit oriented and the learning partners ( note I did not call students "consumers") less empowered by so called "efficiencies" a proper balance must be struck.

Technology in the form of smart classrooms, VLEs, podcasts and voting systems, flipped lectures and on-line tests are great - in their place.  We need to understand the learning benefits rather than the shorter term reactions to cost cutting, "efficiency" and bowing to student demand simply to boost short-term ratings.  In that way investment can be targeted to promote teaching rather than purely financial strategies.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

TEF review published

In 2020 Dame Janet Harsh was asked by the then post Brexit, Rainbow Alliance party Education Secretary, Cynthia May-Johnson (6) to undetake a review of the Teaching Excellence Framework for Higher Education (TEF) following its introduction 4 years previously.


Dame Janet's recommendations were:

1: All teaching active staff should be returned in the TEF.

Thankfully, Professor V.Boring was pronounced dead during his last lecture and so can no longer be classed as "active".  Some doubt if that adjective could have been ascribed to him for the last 20 years anyway.

2: NSS and DEHLE outputs should be submitted at Unit of Assessment level with a set average number per FTE but with flexibility for some faculty members to submit more and others less than the average.

Thankfully, nobody really knew what this meant and so allowed different Universities to submit data based on a wide range of assumptions, making realistic comparisons with others almost impossible.

3: Outputs should not be portable.

Thankfully, Universities could continue to pursue a policy of not offering high salaries and other inducements to so called "Super Teachers", thus removing the motivation both to buy success or to become a "Teaching Tart".

So, that's all good then...