Dig Your Own Hole – Coalition cuts “consultation”

(the following is my own personal opinion and not that of my employers)

(video has nothing to do with the post other than the title, but it’s great music for a Friday afternoon)

Like many I awoke to the disturbing news that David Cameron had announced that Facebook would be the “primary channel” for communicating with the public about spending cuts. Issues with the foetid and gaping all-consuming maw of Facebook aside this struck me as a pretty rubbish way of running a consultation. So 22 million people in the UK have been on Facebook – once. What about the other 60-odd million?
 
There is a well established and generally respected Code of Practice on public consultations – which itself suggested not only that using Facebook as a “primary channel was a bad idea, but that there were many other fundamental issues with gathering ideas in this way. The Treasury (along with most other public bodies) are signatories to this Code of Practice.
 
When the announcement came from the Treasury I decided to heckle and the response was interesting to say the least.
 
So all of this “spending challenge” is not a consultation under the accepted government definition.
 
Consultations are cool because:
* there’s an in built commitment to report on and respond to ideas received outside of the context of a simple policy decision.
* there is a defined start point and end point
* responses are generally in confidence unless the submitter decides otherwise.
 
These rules exist to stop Government departments and bodies running consultations as a sop to justify pre-existing policy decisions. Or from cherry picking the “independent” ideas that meet their own prejudices as a justification for acting on these prejudices. 
 
The fact that the Treasury has said that this is “not” a consultation such that the Code of Practice on Consultation (2007) would apply is telling.
 
 

Personal reflections #heaconf10 … causing trouble

(just to start by reminding all that these are personal reflections and not the opinions of my employer)

I always like to look for themes at conference, underlying points of reference that come up in a number of sessions and begin to form a narrative. CETIS conferences, especially, do this very well and you can often spot the EdTech trends just by noting what keeps coming up (Linked Data last year, in case you were asking).

At the 2010 Academy conference, given the timing, forthcoming (and existing) cuts to education funding were central to pretty much every session, coupled with a linked expectation that radical change was on the way and radical change was needed to cope with it.

I wouldn’t go as far as the panel members who claimed the cuts were an “opportunity for innovation”… certainly not for the thousands of students unable to get a university place. But clearly, people are going to try increasingly crazy stuff, and make increasingly crazy leaps. And it’s our responsibility to make sure that the outcome of all this “we must do something…” headless-chicken dancing is actually something worth doing.

Business, it appears to me, is not going to solve anything. First up, universities run businesses all the time… conference facilities, bus companies, science parks, innovation centres, cafes and restaurants. And we’re damn good at it. We work with businesses already – both on the research and teaching side, and also with stuff like business incubators and advice centres. Aaron Porter at the NUS noted that HE get about 2% of the annual business training budget – I’d argue that this was probably about the right level. So the idea we can learn from and grow with business is rubbish – we are doing it already. We could maybe do more of it, but maybe universities would be less exciting and less valuable places if we did.

Business is characterised by short-term thinking – they want skills for people to do the jobs that they need doing, and they need them now. Looking to businesses to plan long-term curricula is nonsensical – most businesses only have one long-term plan which is to grow as much as possible as fast as possible. There’s this myth within the public sector more generally that private sector management practices will save us all – this is nonsense. Management is not the strength of the private sector, profit is.

So why would HE be well placed to seriously enter the workplace skills delivery market? It’s not what we’ve traditionally done. I see HE as basically a factory for producing awkward bastards.. the kind of people who will create change and innovation, and also question and dispute poor existing practice. The private sector needs these kind of people, but it tends to think that it doesn’t. It then claims that the staff it has are not “proactive” – which is just a horrible airport management book way of saying the same things. But the “awkward squad” aren’t necessarily profit making, so it’s not what the managers (focused on their bottom line) look for from universities, colleges and trainng.

We need more troublemakers in HE too – and especially in the educational development world. The establishment of the Academy, and predecessor bodies like the LTSN and ILTHE, has added a lot of weight to the arguments around teaching quality and the student experience – issues that the rise of the fee-paying student “customer” are starting to raise in the minds of very senior university managers. Ideally, we could now just roll out what we have learned into the system and reap the benefits. But there is still a lot more work to be done, and a lot more trouble to cause – and I wonder if the structure and hierarchy of JISC, the Academy and others are the right tools for the job.

Fundamentally, we need to have the courage to get up and question stuff. There is nothing that makes me more pessimistic about the future of my profession (which I’m still going to maintain is “educational developer”) than when we let nonsense pass unchallenged, or dubious reasoning pass unargued. This happened on a few occasions at #heaconf10, and it depressed me. These are the attitudes and confidences we need to pass on to our students. Maybe we need to start closer to home.

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