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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Shaking the Foundations of Universities

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I could not let David Willetts' recent comments on the funding of Higher Education pass without a very brief comment. I'll largely skirt around his comments on fees; it is quite clear her is preparing the ground for higher tuition fees to be introduced once Lord Browne's report formally recommends their introduction. Once I've ironed out a few bugs, I'll be formally launching my Tuition Fee and Contact Hours Calculator, and will say more about the relation between fees and teaching (which Willetts demanded be improved across the sector) then. Objectively he is right to say that university funding rests on "shaky foundations," but it is economically short-sighted and socially unfair to expect students to be the ones to prop them up.

What I was more struck by today was his "innovation" of encouraging students to study at Further Education colleges to gain degrees from attached universities; according to Willetts:
That means that you don't have the costs of living away from home but you do get a prestigious degree and that's actually how we spread our access to higher education. This is a way you can have more people going to university, which is an aspiration, more rewards for high quality teaching.
As someone who teaches in both a distance learning institution (the Open University) and at a conventional university, I can see both sides of the fence. And it seems quite clear to me that whilst distance learning is outstanding at broadening access to those who might otherwise find it difficult to study conventionally, it is no substitute for the experience of a residential university. Distance learning has a place in the UK's Higher Education system, and I need only refer to my post on teaching for the OU to show that I do not in any way see the OU as a limited or weaker university, just a different one.

But it simply cannot offer as rich and diverse a learning experience as can be had in a conventional university. Just this morning, for example, I received an email from a really outstanding student, who has also taken up writing plays and novels since beginning university, inviting me to a performance of his new play. Through the university's drama groups, he has been to the Edinburgh Fringe and made the contacts that will allow him to continue his writing career beyond university. If he succeeds as a writer, it will be partly in spite of, not because of, his degree work in English. Cardinal Newman's ideal of a university as a place where groups of scholars and students work in close proximity, such that a student like this can ask me to make suggestions about his novel or go see his new play, cannot be replicated by a distance or remote learning option.

I would certainly welcome a broadening of the types of learning offered by institutions. A good place to start would be by providing a fairer funding system for part time students. But to suggest as Willetts does that a degree is all that should come out of education is misguided - and the sorts of education that occur within a university's walls cannot adequately be replicated by students studying remotely from their institutions.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:36 pm


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