Higher education: sunk at the end of history?

A reply to Justine Andrew. ‘The Strategic Imperative: Planning for a Post-Covid Future’. Wonkhe.

Justine Andrew in Wonkhe (6 May 2020) sets out a strategic approach to the big questions facing higher education: sector, institutions and their governors. She, at KPMG, uses the structure: React, Resilience, Recovery, Renewal and New Reality.

I want to suggest there is a flaw in her argument particularly when addressing the “New Reality”. The flaw is that higher education is a service delivered to customers by firms with employees. I acknowledge that this model underpins most orthodox economic thinking about society. I also acknowledge that that such a model is part of the story. The mission of the Office for Students to regulate higher education as a public utility confirms this. But, it is not the whole story.

Andrew asks, among other questions:

WHO is the “customer” (students, employers, government, partners in our region and globally) and what are their needs, now and in the future.

Higher education does not easily fit into the customer service model which dominates thought in the big accountancy consultancies and outsourcing firms. Higher education particularly does not fit into conventional accounting cycles, though it is forced to do so.

Higher education is, among others Andrew lists, its own customer, acquiring some of its “outputs” (graduates) for some of its own purposes (teaching and research). Therefore, higher education is also an employer. And, higher education is a partner. Institutions partner with each other as well as with local, regional and transnational partners in many categories: businesses, governments, militaries and NGOs.

But such a view is entrenched in the cadre of senior managers and governors of higher education institutions. Andrew asks:

Is the portfolio mix the right one and how can the university balance the need to reduce cost, generate revenue and, most importantly, meet the needs of the wider economy post-Covid-19, as well support strong recovery in the places where the university operates?

Lost in these questions is the epistemic role higher education plays as the “psyche of society”, one among several repositories of our cultures’ memories.

To point this out is to risk the accusation of elitism. To engage in activity that does not appear to deliver a customer a service within an annual accounting cycle for an efficient return is presented as a privilege to be pulled down. And that is not how a “new reality” will be shaped. That is the old one seeking to reassert itself. If there is one thing that the corona virus crisis should show us is that we are not sunk at the end of history.


Andrew, Justine. 2020. ‘The Strategic Imperative: Planning for a Post-Covid Future’. Wonkhe (blog). Accessed 6 May 2020. http://wonkhe.com/blogs/the-strategic-imperative-planning-for-a-post-covid-future/.

Sustainable assessment

Been asked to reread David Boud’s (2000), Sustainable Assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society. For me the article dances around problems of performativity and supervision.

Implicit and explicit throughout is the assumption that individuals might become effective at self-assessment.

Assessment involves identifying appropriate standards and criteria and making judgements about quality. This is as necessary to lifelong learning as it is to any formal educational experience, although it may not be represented in formal ways outside the environment of certification. Assessment therefore needs to be seen as an indispensable accompaniment to lifelong learning. This means that it has to move from the exclusive domain of assessors into the hands of learners. A focus on methods and techniques needs to be replaced by a new conception of sustainable assessment required for lifelong learning.

Boud 2000, 151

On reflection I might see that I bring these problems. I often question supervised performance. Supervised performance is linked to real hunger through not lifelong learning but through lifelong employment. Real hunger is where will the next meal come from? For me? For my children? My neighbourhood, city, region. Can I provide my children the lifelong security I have had? There are plenty in the world who cannot, mostly through circumstances brought about by supervision and performance put at the service of, call it what you will: colonisation, surplus value, interest, rent, oligopoly; usurpation of a common wealth.

In abstracting many factors into the term “learning needs” we lose sight of the moral aspect of the question.

Sustainable assessment can similarly be defined as assessment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of students to meet their own future learning needs.

Boud 2000, 151

Sustainability becomes an empty value unless there is consideration of some substance around what is sustained. Is learning a good in itself without regard to application or outcome? And, what is a “learning task”? Learners “… need also to be prepared to undertake assessment of the learning tasks they face throughout their lives” (152). Could daily activity become a learning task? How much activity should be framed as learning? Who frames the learning task? Who says: this-is-real-life; and: this-is-a-learning-task? When assessment is framed this way, questions of justice are raised.

Maybe this is easier when employed by a university or any educational institution. Boud reserves his comments for “…formal educational experience… within courses” (151). People like me and my colleagues are employed by institutions to assess formal learning activities in courses. If you remove “the domain of these assessors”, have you removed the need for assessment? For whom is the assessment performed, in the end? The assessors? Or, the assessed? Or another? Again I return to justice.

The idea of reciprocity appears to offer a means to retain justice within a framework of assessment for (and of) the other, but can a grand-narrative learning society serve reciprocal justice without doing to others? Boud draws on Frank Coffield’s excellent work. Coffield’s (2006) “Running ever faster down the wrong road”, summarises work undertaken throughout the 1980s and 90s, concluding, “… the government’s programme of reform in the public services, despite significant investments and successes, is now doing more harm than good.” I suggest this is as true today as it was then. There have been some successes in the first two decades of this century as there were in the last two of the previous century but, directionally, the inequities remain. Health and wealth inequalities are starkly illuminated by the coronavirus presence.


Boud, David. 2000. ‘Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking Assessment for the Learning Society’. Studies in Continuing Education 22 (2): 151–67. https://doi.org/10.1080/713695728.

Coffield, Frank. 2006. ‘Running Ever Faster Down the Wrong Road: An Alternative Future for Education and Skills. Inaugural Lecture’. Institute of Education. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

The personal-political imaginary restructured by a universal-Turing-machine symbolic

The tools used in a personal learning environment (PLE) will to some extent determine the shape of that environment. The shape of any object is always in some way a reflection of the tools used to make it. And as tools shape the object, so too will desire for the object shape the evolution of tools. That is, there are no “universal” tools. Any tool operates only on a part of the whole.

Lacan, who took Vygotsky’s work from develomental psychology into psychiatry, asserted that the imaginary is what we believe ordinary life to be. It is our representation of the real to ourselves: our belief as to what is “real”. The symbolic is the apparatus of language, law, discourse and custom: the tools by which we express and regulate the imaginary. The tools of our symbolic order shape our imaginary life. We think within the frames of our languages, cultures, tools and experiences.

Our learning environments are shaped these days by digital technologies. Digital technologies are the contemporary new-shiny symbolic order: a universal-turing-machine symbolic of imaginary universality.

Personal learning environments: everybody has one

Covid-19 has given me a little time to reflect on my past 10 or 15 years. A Personal Learning Environment (PLE) is for me, first of all a purpose, and then a place where I engage in activity with others. Only then do I look for tools to effect my participation in that activity with those other people. Whatever it is, it is not one thing.

A healthy personal learning environment and personal learning network is (or strives to be) a social learning network.

PLE 2010

One large multi-modal conference I participated in was the Personal Learning Environments (PLE) Conference (2010). In Barcelona and everywhere. (Graham Attwell’s account is still here). Graham’s “unkeynote”, partly crowd-sourced, asked us to imagine our own PLE. I went critical theoretical and wrote this, below. My aim in a few subsequent posts is to expand and explain. I said, my PLE is:

A progressive, emancipatory, democratic re-centering on the human other-space between community and identity where cultural capital accounts are balanced and the personal-political imaginary is restructured by a universal-Turing-machine symbolic, generating and regenerating tools and knowledge with which to build – in struggle if necessary – an unenclosed global commons of culture, nature, and  our geno-mimetic heritage;

A hyper-distributed mesh of universal, co-created, open community information and applications, on extremely local (even personal) infrastructure;

GPL-type, open-source, creative commons (attribution, share-alike) licensed; Powered by renewable, sustainable energy sources.

Return surplus value (material and symbolic) to the common-wealth;

Enable the free movement of economic, social and cultural capital, the free movement of cultural and economic goods, and the free movement of people;

Facilitate cultural mediation, creativity, learning and play;

Preserve, respect and protect human (and bio) diversity; Resist oppression, exploitation and hegemony.

A progressive, emancipatory, democratic re-centering

My Personal Learning Environment (PLE) first of all has purpose and principles. I enter into learning in order to foster progressive (Wikipedia), emancipatory (recognising and reorienting where power is drawn from) and democratic (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) relations between people and groups of people. My Personal learning environment is autonomist, supporting self-directed, purposeful learning and self-effective (Wikipedia) life practice.

As a teacher I try to re-center learning on the individual learner and their community in order that they can themselves become a reliable authority in their own life.

The human other-space between community and identity

With the Covid-19 rush to online, learning environments are suddenly of core concern. We each, student, teacher and staff need to be able to insert our personal learning environments into those of one another.

In an earlier post, I considered my Personal Learning Environment (PLE) first a purpose. Here I consider it as a place of a particular sort. A place between a real community “out there” and a real me “in here”. A place where I, who know (or doesn’t); I, who know how, or know that, or know what to do can acquire and practice that knowing with others.

I have always seen community and identity as two sides of a coin. The individual and society are co-constituted. The learning environment is a space between real communities and real individuals. It is a liminal space, which mediates between the self and others. The learning environment allows and facilitates the deconstruction, analysis and modelling of the real world, real community or real individual: psychometrics, for example, model the person. Such activity has a general aim of understanding and transforming the real “out there” or “in here” in some way.

Then, to acknowledge its own reality, the learning environment is itself a collection of real people, communities: schools, homes, disciplines, departments, institutions, professions engaged together in a project of creating liminal places: learning environments; other spaces between the real through which I learn.

The new normal in the arms of the old

Diversity of working practices must be one way of improving diversity of participation. It may become a factor in survival.

In the first week of the Covid19 distancing, on a departmental coffee break in one of the popular meeting applications, colleagues maybe uncomfortable with distributed collaboration and diverse working patterns asked what they had to “give up” in order to work in a distributed collaborative mode.

My first thought was, “The nine to five!” But, much comfort shared in well-defined protected time emulating the old normal. Some argued that it was important to maintain routine. Many colleagues dressed for work. There were jokes about not being: “… only dressed from the waist up.” Children and pets presented briefly but neither seen or heard during work.

I have spent my life trying not to work the nine to five. I love working “anti-social hours”. I hate commuting. I do not revel in avoidable shared misery.

I was an early adopter of distributed collaborative working. Never truly a pioneer. In the late 1990s I helped implement Internet Relay Chat for professional development in a global industry. I envied my friends who had “real email” in universities while I made do with CompuServe. I had a”web log” just before they became “blogs”, a LiveJournal, a MySpace, and TypePad (Remarkably still there from 2009).

When I started working in higher education I was 48. I found colleagues similarly motivated by passion as much as reason, who didn’t all think they were doing the day job. Some kept routines in offices. Others lived in tele-cottages on outer islands. Some lived on boats. Some had children. All appeared to be enthusiastically productive, effective and influential, navigating senior corridors in universities and governments. We ran large and small-scale online distributed collaboration learning events. We made a MOOC that was among the first in the UK to be accredited. Some of the things we did have become business as usual. Much did not.

I understand routine. But, I also understand diversity. We declare how important diversity is. This post could become more of a discussion of diversity than I planned. I will observe that diversity of working practices must be one way of improving diversity of participation in the benefits of society, including higher education.

I am concerned

I am 66 with a history of pneumonia x2, once with the nee naw up to the John Radcliffe and about 8 hours in A&E. And that was two years ago. I have had bronchitis many times until I started getting the flu jab: winter chest infection free for the past 2 years. I am very not keen to get Covid-19. But, life does go on and if this is my last week/month/season, I do not want it to be, even metaphorically, spent hiding behind the sofa trembling in isolation. But, I also respect those who want to stay out of harm’s way. I do not want to be on their vector of transmission.

Reflection in action: professional development study visits

How close to the moment can you get? “Be here now,”  urges 1960s psychologist Richard Alpert. A mythical Google aspires to a perfect concurrent rendering of this reality: in real-time, in software. How much rewinding can we do before anyone notices the pause for thought? Reflection in action often has the effect of: “Oops! Don’t do that again.” Have we all heard ourselves tell ourselves, “Don’t say that,” and then hear ourselves say it? The warning reverberates like a slow bell buoy. It fades until the next wave makes a ding! Good learning is sometimes referred to as “authentic”. What is this but being “in the moment”?

I have been invited to “Listen to and comment on” a number of presentations this morning. These presentations will be made by participants on a study tour for Chinese academics and higher education professional and student-support services staff.

I received the invitation yesterday morning in a hotel dining room in Cardiff, shortly before co-facilitating a workshop for newer academic staff at the University of Cardiff, who may be new to teaching and leading study modules.

So this is a note to myself, in the moment between. My colleagues at OCSLD and I use a phenomenographic approach to analysing learning events and the work of those who lead, teach or otherwise facilitate learning in higher education. Try to distinguish between event and judgement. There is data. And, there is analysis.

I have engaged with four one or two-day events organised by Oxford Prospects Programmes. Two events were for about 50 “senior academics” (n=100) from a number of Chinese Universities. One event was for about 45 professional and student-support services staff. One event was a symposium on “Education and Social Governance” jointly organised by Beijing Normal University and the Department of Education at the University of Oxford. At the symposium, academics from both institutions, eminent local government officers and representatives of the British Embassy in Beijing and the Chinese Embassy in London addressed contemporary socio-economic impacts of higher education and the role of education in social governance issues such as rural depopulation, industrial development and teacher education.

I am seeing these events all through a professional development eye as an authentic opportunity to consider where a globalising academy sees itself going next.

One notebook warning

One notebook

One notebook

I write. Not as much or as well as I should. But I write. Two very broad forms interest me: poetry and philosophy of learning, knowledge, theory. What is true and good?

Do these concepts mean anything? I believe they do. My job, and much of this writing, here, has to do with trying to explain – to myself as much or more than anyone else – what it means to learn and do “well”, that which is “right to do”: Plato, Aristotle, Chuang Tzu, Lucretius, Karl Marx, Julia Kristeva, Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Bob Dylan, Paul Eluard, Alain Badiou, Bob Marley, Slavoj Žižek and Mikey Smith mashed up.

Žižek, late in this monologue, says the real artist does not add, but takes away.

I used to keep a separate notebook for work and a different one for poetry. I took it away  one and a half notebooks ago.

I am adopting that principle here in this blog. Over the next few weeks I will be on a rescue mission to a few old websites.

And the warning? You might come across some poems. You might come across some philosophy. You might come across some teaching. My honest intention is to make connections. To converse. It is all dialogue. And, a story.