September 4, 2015

Next steps for the European HE system

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The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

The University of Siena: founded in 1240, but is it still relevant today?

Klemenčič, M. and Ashwin, P. (2015) What’s next for Europe? Inside Higher Ed, May 26

As my holiday in Italy draws to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to do a short blog on developments in European higher education. I look to my many readers in Europe to comment and correct me as appropriate.

What the article is about

This is an interesting article about future policy for European Higher Education, following the Bologna Process Ministerial Conference on May 14-15 in Yerevan, Armenia. (Sigh! Yes, you are right, Armenia is not yet part of the European Union, but it is a member of the Council of Europe, and, since 2005 has been part of the Bologna Process, which sets out pan-European strategy for higher education.)

This article gives a pretty good overview of what the Bologna Process has achieved to date, and also what it has not achieved, and also gives a good description of where European education ministers want to go in the future, in terms of pan-European policy.

The achievements of the Bologna Process

The Bologna Process is:

a voluntary convergence and coordinated reform of higher education systems across the member countries of the European Union and beyond. The aims have been to promote the mobility of students and staff and to enhance the quality and international competitiveness of European higher education.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) now has 48 members, including non-European Union countries such as the Russian Federation, Belarus, Armenia and the Ukraine.

Its successes include:

  • a common three-cycle degree structure across countries;
  • student mobility: students can transfer course credits acquired at one institution to any another institution in the EHEA;
  • European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance and the European Register of Quality Assurance Agencies, ensuring that all countries have compatible internal and external quality assurance procedures.

This of course raises the question: If the Europeans can enable students to transfer seamlessly between 4,000 higher education institutions across Europe and beyond (and they do, in droves), why is it so difficult to do this in Canada, and particularly within Ontario, for God’s sake?

One of the great scandals of Canadian higher education is the refusal of Ontario universities or the Ontario government to put in place any form of automatic transfer of credits. (Yeah, there are seven universities in Ontario that have a paper agreement amongst themselves, but the reality is that it is NOT an automatic process even between these seven institutions).

BC and Alberta have had a mutual transfer system in place for many years, but the only thing more difficult than moving from a university in BC (or from anywhere else in Canada) to a university in Ontario is taking a bottle of BC wine with you to Ontario (yes, that is actually illegal in Canada). Talk about provincialism.

The challenges of the Bologna Process

Like anything to do with the European Union, excessive bureaucracy is a major challenge. In particular, to quote from the article:

much of the energy of the Bologna Follow-Up Group, the governing body of the process, has been channeled into detailed questions about decision structures and processes. The Bologna Process needed a new sense of purpose to bring the governments together and re-energize international cooperation within the EHEA. And this indeed happened [at the Yerevan conference].

What’s driven this new sense of purpose is youth unemployment:

The unemployment rate for people 29 and younger in the European Union is 19 percent, the highest in at least 10 years. In Spain, the figure was 53 percent in November 2014; it was 49 percent, in Greece, followed closely by Croatia and Italy. Higher education is seen as one key pillar in Europe’s vision to fight unemployment among young people, preventing them from becoming a “lost generation” and source of social upheaval. The communiqué emphasizes the need to ensure that graduates possess competencies that will make them employable.

The article lists several ways this is to be done, such as:

  • a better dialogue between higher education institutions and employers,
  • a good balance between theoretical and practical components in curricula, and
  • continued support for international mobility for study and work placement.

The authors though acknowledge that:

higher education alone, of course, cannot solve the problem that is so clearly linked to economic growth and also labor regulations.

They might also have mentioned the failed economic policy of austerity, which is a major cause of youth unemployment in Europe.

A second objective is to make European higher education more inclusive. A particular concern is the low participation rate of immigrants from the Middle East and Africa in European higher education, and the possible radicalization of immigrant youth:

three types of mobility are accentuated in the communiqué: for students and staff from conflict areas, students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and mobility of teacher education students.

The third objective is to improve the quality of teaching and learning in universities and colleges. The authors note that it is surprising that it has taken so long for this to emerge as a priority for this first time at the Armenia conference:

..the quality of teaching and learning is far from satisfactory and varies significantly across European systems and institutions…the majority of countries do not have a strategy for the advancement of teaching and learning or specific structures to support it. At best, higher education institutions are developing their own units for supporting excellence in teaching and learning or funding teaching development programs. At worse, higher education teachers are left to their own devices to improve their teaching (or not) when alerted by the outcomes of student satisfaction surveys.

In Yerevan, the ministers have committed to support higher education institutions in pedagogical innovation, exploring the use of digital technologies for learning and teaching, and in better linking learning and teaching with research, innovation and entrepreneurship. You have to wonder though why it took almost 20 years to get these items on the agenda.

What next?

The authors of the article are surprisingly optimistic that these new policies will be successfully implemented by the governments of member states. However, by 2018, the set target gate for implementation, both Greece and Britain may well have left the European Union, and I will be surprised if countries such as Italy, the Ukraine and Bulgaria will have made much progress towards these objectives, because of structural and economic difficulties.

Nevertheless, on balance, despite the stifling bureaucracy of the European Union, and the political and economic challenges faced by many European countries, the Bologna Process has enabled many European universities to improve their standards and to modernise, and is likely to continue to do so into the future.

One of the University of Siena's student computer labs

One of the University of Siena’s student computer labs

How to make an omellette without breaking eggs: innovation and open-ness in university teaching

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The EFQUEL forum in Granada, Spain

It has been impossible for me to blog about online learning over the last four weeks because I have been on holiday for most of the time, in places deliberately chosen because there were no Internet connections.

The EFQUEL Innovation Forum

However, the first week away was spent at a very interesting forum organized by the European Foundation for Quality in e-Learning (EFQUEL). The focus was in the interface between open learning and innovation in post-secondary education. There were about 120 participants from all round Europe, including Russia and Serbia, as well as the usual suspects from the UK, Spain, Finland, Germany, Italy and Belgium.

One of the goals of the conference was to enable EFQUEL to identify its priorities over the next 12 months, in a context where most European governments are grappling with austerity and the resulting financial pressures on universities. Online learning of course is being heavily promoted by governments as a means of increasing productivity through innovation, and the bulk of the participants were anxious to ensure that the issue of maintaining or increasing the quality of the educational experience through online learning received as much attention as the technology and cost issues. In particular, papers and keynotes concentrated on the relationship between open educational resources, innovation, and quality.

Somewhat to my own surprise, I found myself in my opening keynote arguing the case for sustaining innovation rather than disruptive innovation for universities, because I want the core values of universities (knowledge preservation and creation; rationality; evidence-based research) to be maintained, while improving quality and cost-effectiveness. Thus the trick is to bring about the necessary changes without destroying the very benefits that make universities so important to our society. Thus my talk was titled: ‘How to make an omellette without breaking eggs.’ In fact, some eggs will get broken, but the egg will still be there in the omelette.

I argued that for innovation to succeed in universities, it needed to be supported and to some extent managed, and I discussed several strategies for supporting innovation in teaching and learning. A copy of my slides can be downloaded from Dropbox. You will need to request this by sending me an e-mail to: tony.bates@ubc.ca. Please ask for my EFQUEL presentation.

The conference provided a pretty good overview of the European context regarding approaches to open educational resources (full copies of the paper presentations can be accessed here.) The challenge in Europe as elsewhere is to find ways to integrate and build on OERs, but the focus still tends to be too much on just making materials open without any thought of how they can best be used. However, the forum provided a good way to bring players from all across Europe together to share ideas and to promote better quality in e-learning through the use of open content and approaches.

 

European universities: re-form or die; but what about Canada?

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University of Paris Sorbonne

Grove, J. (2012) Long, cold financial winter lies ahead for Europe’s academy Times Higher Education, February 9

What’s happening in Europe

This is a really depressing, bad news item. Especially in the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), universities are facing budget cuts in the region of 20% in the next year or so. For many of these countries, the entire principle of state-funded universities is under threat:

  •  in Spain, €485 million will be taken from education overall, and assistance to local authorities – key supporters of universities – will be reduced by just over €1 billion (total: US $2 billion; population 46 million). A spokesperson for Spanish universities said: ‘Universities have  [already] limited common expenditure as much as possible. But we cannot do it any longer. We have been tightening our belts for so long [and] we try to make the most of the means at our disposal, but right now we have so little leeway [to handle these extra cuts].”
  • in Ireland, university pensions are being cut by 15%. Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, believes that the current situation, which has had a severe impact on many individuals’ workloads, is not sustainable. “I think something has got to give,” he says. “People are doubling up and academics can give lectures to 1,000 people if it comes to that. But we won’t be able to correct essays or give feedback to students.  We are simply being starved to death, rather than having any dramatic blow to knock us out. It’s a case of death by a thousand cuts.”
  • the head of unit governance, autonomy and funding at the European Universities Association said that for 2012 out of 47 member countries only Norway, Finland and Germany have maintained their commitments to increasing funding for higher education.
  • the UK has already raised tuition fees to $9,600 ($15,000) a year, with a resulting drop in university applications, although to date this has been quite small (around 2%); however, since the UK government guarantees student loans, it has merely put off the day of reckoning, especially if the economy contracts, as expected, due to austerity measures, so there won’t be the jobs for graduates that they will need to repay their debts.

The need for reform

I could go on, but you get the picture. I’m not going to get into the debate about the stupidity of severe austerity measures to pay off bad bets by banks and bad decisions by governments who wouldn’t face reality, but I do have to say that particularly in Southern Europe (less so in Ireland) there is a good deal of room for increased efficiencies in their post-secondary educational systems.

Many turn out thousands of surplus graduates in law and philosophy for whom there are no jobs, while there is a shortage of skilled workers such as computer specialists, engineers and qualified workers for the creative industries. In many European countries, students pay no or very small tuition fees. No, I’m not arguing for closing down all law and philosophy departments, nor for the level of tuition fees in the UK, but in many of the southern European countries, there is almost open access for anyone who wants to go to university, which is fine, but no guarantee of a job afterwards as a result. In some countries (France comes to mind) university lecturers often have ridiculously low teaching commitments.

Unfortunately I fear though that the first to be cut will be what are considered ‘ancillary services’ such as learning technology support units (where they exist – many Italian universities have no such support), rather than looking to e-learning as one way to respond to a severe crisis.

What about Canada?

At this point, you may well be asking, ‘Well, what about Ontario?’ Canada’s largest province has its own financial troubles, with a $14 billion deficit in 2010–11 that is equivalent to 2.3 per cent of GDP. Net debt came to $214.5 billion, 35 per cent of GDP. As a result, the Ontario provincial government appointed a Commission led by an economist (Don Drummond) to advise it on developing a sustainable budget without privatization of health and education and without tax increases.

In my view, his report is excellent. First a matter of perspective. He states: ‘By current international standards, Ontario’s debt is still relatively small. We are a very long way from the dreadful fiscal condition of countries that have dominated the news in the past two years.’ However, he also points out that Ontario and Greece’s economies were very similar in 1985, and that economies can quickly spin out of control. Ontario’s is heading in the wrong direction and needs to be corrected.

One of the areas he looked at was post-secondary education. His conclusion: ‘The current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective.’ However, he does not recommend drastic cuts to funding, but an actual increase of 1.5 per cent per annum. However, enrollment growth is anticipated at 1.7 per cent while the institutions’ costs have been rising by three per cent to five per cent. ‘Just to keep the system operating as it does now, post-secondary institutions will need both more funding and more efficiency…..The current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective, as enrolment growth crowds out the funding that is available even to maintain the status quo.’

Thus the Drummond Commission recommends the following:

  1. Contain government funding and institutional expenses;
  2. Use differentiation to improve post-secondary quality and achieve financial sustainability;
  3. Encourage and reward quality;
  4. Revise research funding structures;
  5. Maintain the current overall cap on tuition-fee increases, but simplify the framework;
  6. Re-evaluate student financial assistance; and
  7. Generate cost efficiencies through measures such as integrating administrative and back-office functions.

Basically, unless taxes are increased (and per-capita, Ontario spends less on post-secondary education than most of the other provinces) then universities will have to become even more efficient. This will probably mean larger classes, or a freeze on salaries, or heavier teaching loads, or less research, or a combination of all of these and other measures. What is significant though is that compared to the rest of the government areas of responsibility in Ontario, PSE comes out quite well. Enrollment growth will continue, because Drummond recognizes that this will be needed to keep the economy growing through a better educated workforce. So Ontario, although facing significant challenges, is nowhere near being in the same boat as many of the European universities. Nevertheless, there will need to be some significant changes in the post-secondary system.

Some other provinces in Canada are facing somewhat similar, but perhaps not quite so acute, challenges as Ontario, while others are able to increase expenditure on PSE without difficulty. However, because Ontario constitutes almost a quarter of Canadian GDP, all provinces in Canada will eventually pay a price if Ontario doesn’t get its economy and government budget under control. The Ontario government will finally make the decision about what to do, and may even include some tax increases, but in terms of the mandate, the Drummond Commission has done an excellent job overall in trying to protect PSE in Ontario as much as possible.

What about online learning?

The question that arises is: to what extent can online learning contribute to enrollment growth, increased efficiency, and/or maintenance or improvement of quality in Ontario? This was not discussed in the report, but it is a question that needs to be more fully explored, at least within the online learning community. Any views you may have on this topic will be most welcomed. Meanwhile I plan to do a post on this topic at a later time.

In the meantime, feel Europe’s pain. It will be particularly the students (and potential students) who will suffer the most if the universities are unable to bring about major reforms and efficiencies, because the money just won’t be there to continue the system as it is.

European report on the future of learning

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Redecker, C. et al. (2011) The Future of Learning: Preparing for Change Seville Spain: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, JRC, European Commission

What the report is about

From the preface:

To determine how education and training policy can adequately prepare learners for life in the future society, there is a need to envisage what competences will be relevant and how these will be acquired in 2020-2030. The report identifies key factors for change that emerge at the interface of the visions painted by different stakeholder groups and arranges them into a descriptive vision of the future of learning in 2020-2030. In a second step, the report discusses future solutions to pending challenges for European Education and Training systems and outlines policy options

The vision

From the executive summary:

Personalisation, collaboration and  informal learning will be at the core of learning in the future.  The increased pace of change will bring new skills and competences to the fore, in particular generic, transversal and cross-cutting skills….

With the evolution of ICT, personalised learning and individual mentoring  will become a reality and teachers/trainers will need to be trained to exploit the available resources and tools to support tailor-made learning pathways and experiences which are motivating and engaging, but also efficient, relevant and challenging…

Most importantly, traditional E&T institutions  – schools and universities, vocational and adult training providers – will need to reposition themselves in the emerging learning landscape . They will need to experiment with new formats and strategies for learning and teaching to be able to offer relevant, effective and high quality learning experiences in the future. 

Policy implications

The visions presented in this report are not necessarily new or radical….. but to reach the goals of personalised, collaborative and informalised learning, holistic changes need to be made (including, among others: curricula, pedagogies,assessment, teacher training, leadership) and mechanisms need to be put in place which make flexible and targeted lifelong learning a reality and support the recognition of informally acquired skills.

Some of the challenges the report tries to address

  • an aging labour market in Europe
  • need for a higher proportion of knowledge workers and decline in jobs requiring minimal education or training
  • high youth unemployment associated with lack of appropriate educational qualifications and lack of jobs for unskilled/trained workers
  • immigration and multiculturalism

Implications for education and training

  • technology enabled lifelong learning (from cradle to grave, any time anywhere)
  • shift of focus from institutions to individuals: Institutions will need to re-create themselves as resilient systems with flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures, which engage all citizens and re-connect with society
  • a shift from public to private funding based on individual rather than institutional needs: the responsibility for the provision of individual education will increasingly move from the state to the individual and family groups. While state involvement in early years’ educational provision will remain central, the influence of the private sector on curriculum and policy will continue to grow.

Comments

First, this is a very important, interesting and stimulating report. It raises fundamental questions about the nature of learning and of the institutions that support learning. It warrants careful reading in full by anyone concerned about the future of learning.

As the report itself notes, ‘the visions in this report are not necessarily new’, but its recommendations are a major challenge – indeed I would say threat – for existing educational institutions, and in particular, for universities.

There are parts of this report with which I strongly agree, and other parts where I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of learning, particularly at a post-secondary level. I agree with setting an ambitious and broad general vision for the future of learning – it’s just that I disagree with or don’t like some elements of the vision.

What I agree with in the report

I agree completely with the need to make learning more relevant, more engaging for young people, and more heavily dependent on the intelligent use of technology for teaching and learning. Lifelong learning is essential, and so is the need for major institutional change to adapt to the learning needs of the 21st century. We are heading for disaster socially and economically by failing to meet the needs of young people who are increasingly being shut out of the labour market at a time when the workforce is aging. Part of the reason for this is external: globalization, and a particularly short-sighted and uncontrolled version of capitalism. But part is also due to the failure of our institutions to adapt to the changes in society, in particular the technological revolution and the changing nature of our students, and thus far too many young people drop out or underqualify because formal education is not seen as relevant or motivating.

More specifically I agree that technology offers the potential for the personalization of learning and this is highly desirable but the reality of making that happen on a mass scale is another matter. Collaborative learning is also critical for the future, but although I accept the importance of informal learning, I will argue later that it does not meet all learning needs.

What I disagree with or missed in the report

The first disagreement is with the assumption that all levels of education will require the same changes and the same vision. First we need a multiplicity of visions because predicting the future is fraught with difficulties and it would be foolish to put all our eggs in one basket. Also there is not a universal set of needs for learning for the future. There will need to be different goals and different solutions. I would prefer to have seen a document that looked at different markets or needs for education and training, that dealt with a diversity of learning needs.

The second is more an omission. The report is very weak on the infrastructure or organizational changes needed to implement the vision. For instance, take the personalization of learning and particularly the goal of individual mentoring. How would this be organized and paid for? It is one thing to set a vision; it’s quite another to find sustainable ways to pay for it. How would or should institutions respond to this? I understand that the important thing about a vision is to define it, but there also has to be some suggestions about how it could be realised.

Although I fully agree with the need to emphasise the development of ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, reflection, I disagree that these are generic, transversal skills (what an ugly Europeanization of English). Problem-solving is not the same in medicine as in business, for example. Not only is the knowledge base (the information needed to solve a problem) different, but so is the method (one is science-based and deductive, the other is more intuitive and with more willingness to accept risk). These skills need to be embedded within a specific domain (although I do agree that we need more interdisciplinary studies, which is not the same as developing transversal skills).

Lastly, I do wish people would realise that there is a difference between scientific or academic knowledge and everyday knowledge. Academic learning is about generalization, abstraction, hypothesising, testing and critical thinking. It is about questioning and challenging, based on logic and evidence. I am not arguing that this is more important than everyday knowledge, but it is different and there is a strong need for academic learning, because it takes us into areas that would not imaginable otherwise. The report does not deal with this issue, assuming that all learning needs in the future will be the same.

And this brings me to my concern about an over-emphasis on informal learning. Informal learning will be increasingly important in the future, but on its own it will not meet all learning needs. Learners often need a structure and guidance, feedback and assessment, to know what standards of learning are expected, etc. This means the demand for formal learning will still be there in the future (although its provision may/should be very different). The real challenge is whether we should combine both formal and informal approaches or whether they will be more effective if kept separate. This decision has major implications for how our institutions should be organized. (It would also help if we had a less ambiguous and more detailed understanding of what we mean when we talk about formal and informal learning respectively).

Above all, this report should force our universities to think very carefully about what their core values and beliefs are, to what extent these can or should be modified to meet changing needs, but also what they should not give up or lose, because those values or principles are critical for a free, open and knowledge-based society based on reason and evidence.

Conclusion

Despite these criticisms, this is an excellent report. It should stimulate a really useful debate about the future of learning, and how educational institutions need to change, or whether new models of organization that may not be institutionalized will need to be developed. Although it is set in a European context, the issues it raises are common across developed countries and also relevant for developing countries. I just wish it had come up with some concrete proposals or models for how these forms of learning that they are proposing would be established and sustained.

Note

For those of you with a LinkedIn account there is a discussion of this report at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Future-Learning-3960155.S.78957225?view=&gid=3960155&type=member&item=78957225&trk=eml-anet_dig-b_nd-pst_ttle-cn


 

 

 

Journal on the web and the internationalization of universities

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RUSC: Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento Vol. 8, No. 2

RUSC  is an e-journal published by the Open University of Catalonia, Spain. The articles are available in Spanish, English and Catalan.

The Monograph in this issue of RUSC looks at the internationalisation of universities. The six articles have been coordinated by Hans de Wit, Professor of Internationalisation of Higher Education at the School of Economics and Management, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, University of Applied Sciences. The articles analyse and assess internationalisation of universities in the context of the information and knowledge society, a global environment, where the web is particularly important, bringing with it new challenges, opportunities and scenarios for internationalisation.

There are also additional articles on:

Lifelong Learning in the Context of the European Area of Lifelong Learning, by Núria Arís and Miquel Àngel Comas

Digital Competency and University Curricula. In Search of the Missing Link, by Adriana Gewerc Barujel, Lourdes Montero Mesa, Eulogio Pernas Morado,and Almudena Alonso Ferreiro

Facebook’s Potential for Collaborative e-Learning, by Francesc Llorens Cerdà, and Neus Capdeferro Planas

Ascertaining the Relevance of Open Educational Resources by Integrating Various Quality Indicators, by  Sanz-Rodriguez, Juan Manuel Dodero Beardo, and Salvador Sánchez-Alonso

The Use of Podcasts in Higher Education: Communication, Innovation, Education and Knowledge Management, by Juan Manuel Trujillo Torres

Finally, there is a review of the following book:

The Facebook Project and Post-University. Social Operating Systems and Open Learning Environments, by Alejandro Piscitelli, Iván Adaime and Inés Binder (eds.) (2010), reviewed by Ana María Rodera Bermúdez

Comment

This journal is a great way to access the increasingly important work being done in Spain and other parts of Europe. This edition in particular has several very interesting articles on internationalization and the impact of web developments on education and society.