Roger Brown is spot on with his recent Guardian article “Student choice is a myth - and it's immoral”. He starts off with a reference to the Key Information Set (KIS), something I have written about on previous occasions. Most of the information in the KIS is meaningless and is subject to manipulation by institutions in any case— if you start judging organisations by certain figures, the leaders of these organisations are apt to focus on improving the figures, even if they are totally irrelevant to quality. I’m yet to be convinced that any aspect of the KIS will be useful in informing student choice. I suspect that it will inform student choice, but in the same way that Mystic Meg informs people of which lottery numbers to choose.
What interested me most about Professor Brown’s article was this comment:
…the emphasis on student choice is actually immoral. It loads upon immature participants all the responsibility and risks of making the wrong choice, a choice that is hard to unravel once made.
I wrote a blog post in December which responded to an article comparing higher education choice to buying car insurance.
I said it there and I'll say it again. The two things are not alike. If my car insurance company treats me badly or put its prices up I’ll go elsewhere next year. I can replace my car if it dies on me, though I will be annoyed. If my house fell down I could find somewhere else to live. In North America graduates often refer to their college as their alma mater (that is a “nourishing mother”) – a sense of the great esteem in which one’s university is held. Despite all the emphasis on the rights of parents to choose a school for their children, research seems to suggest that a child’s life outcomes are influenced much more by what happens at home than by what happens at school. Is a poor or regretted choice of university course as damaging as an uncaring parent? Is blaming an 18 year-old for making a poor decision in the choice of university like blaming a child living in poverty for choosing parents who don’t have much money?
The (US) Chronicle has just run an article about a graduate student called Monica Johnston who has an $88,000 debt. Part of the reason for her debt was that she spent $40,000 attending an institution with a great reputation, which turned out not to be right for one reason or another. Some of those commenting on the article suggest that much of this debt is her own fault for spending a year at an unsuitable college and failing to graduate. I know nothing about the college Ms Johnston dropped out of or the one she is at now, but the choice to go to that expensive college obviously seemed like a good idea at one point. It was not the right choice and it has substantially increased her debts. I’m not sure that a KIS or anything like it would have prevented her from going there. It may have actually led her to being more even more unsuitable choices.
A friend asked for my advice on applying for undergraduate courses last year. I was able to give some help, but I was shocked at how little help I was really able to give despite having spent the last 17 odd years studying and working in higher education. There are so many variables in play, different course content and combinations, reputation, distance from family and friends, and career possibilities (for someone who like many young people is not fully sure what she wants to do afterwards). The KIS would have been worse than useless and league tables are no use. In fact we could have ended up in conversations with me explaining that just because Course X has a graduate employment rate of 73% and Course Y of 75% does not necessarily make Course Y the better choice. But students will make choices on this sort of basis.
My worst fear is not that students will ignore the KIS. My fear is that it could become the sacred text of university applications.
Source: UCAS: Accepted applicants 2011 entry
Economic background of accepted applications for European Languages, non-European languages and All subjects.
|Quintile (Polar 2)*
|European languages (Group R) %
|Non-European Languages (Group T) %
|All accepted applicants.%
|1 (applicants from postcodes with fewest 20% applicants to HE (2000-2004)
|5 1 (applicants from postcodes with highest 20% applicants to HE (2000-2004)
Ethnic background of accepted applications for European Languages, non-European languages and all subjects.
|European languages (Group R) (%)
|Non-European Languages (Group T) (%)
|All accepted applicants.(%)
|Asian - Bangladeshi
|Asian - Chinese
|Asian - Indian
|Asian - Other Asian background
|Asian - Pakistani
|Black - African
|Black - Caribbean
|Black - Other black background
|Mixed - Other mixed background
|Mixed - White and Asian
|Mixed - White and Black African
|Mixed - White and Black Caribbean
|Other ethnic background
|Unknown or Prefer Not To Say
Are some topics intrinsically too difficult for undergraduate students to write about? This question has been raised in some form by two reviewers in the past few months where a student has submitted a paper to the undergraduate journal Début which either engages with very complex ideas or attempts to challenge a well-established theory and offer an alternative. Should scholars lay off trying to dismantle received wisdom and attempting to make theoretical breakthroughs during their undergraduate education? Can undergraduate researchers genuinely advance the discipline? One might argue that if an idea is really good enough to be taken seriously by the academic community it is good enough to be published in a journal which is not restricted to undergraduates.
One of the most memorable incidents of my own academic career took place as an undergraduate. I was in a tutorial with a professor and three other students. I can’t remember what the trigger was, but he turned to one of my fellow tutees and responded, “You may be cleverer than me, but I have been reading this stuff for the past fifteen years.” He pointed to the books by Marx on his bookshelf and told us how difficult it was to really understand Marx, notably because his output was so enormous. If you wish to really understand something you have to do a lot of reading – that takes time.
But should a lack of time to read the entire literature prevent publication in an undergraduate journal such as Début? When we ask people to review for Début we send them a form which reminds them that this is an undergraduate journal and that their expectations should take account of this. Some reviewers feel that certain topics should not be attempted at all. Others suggest that well thought out and plausible arguments and theories developed by undergraduates should be published, irrespective of whether or not the arguments are fully polished or the writer does not have a full grasp of the existing literature or that their ideas would not make publication in a non-undergraduate journal.
Although undergraduate journals have become increasingly popular in recent years expectations remain unclear. In the first Début editorial in spring 2010 I conceived of the aims of the journal as follows:
Début not only aims to showcase existing research and scholarship — it is also a form of training for the aspiring academic. Whatever its advantages and limitations peer review forms an important part of the process by which academic knowledge comes into being – it is perhaps a matter of concern therefore that many students graduate unaware of how the articles which appear in journals came to be there. The articles in this first volume are “first class” essays made even better. (Canning 2010: ii).
Début is a fifth issue is a useful time to return to the aims and objectives of the journal, but equally importantly a good time to remind ourselves of what Début is not. Début was and still is an undergraduate journal. Undergraduate journals complete the research cycle for undergraduate students giving them an outlet for their work familiarising them with the (imperfect) peer review process (Walkington in Corbyn 2008). I hope that everyone who publishes in Début benefits from the process and that readers enjoy the articles.
I sincerely hope that some of today’s Début contributors will become academic stars of the future. What we see in Début today may be the beginnings of paradigm-shifting work for the future.
Canning, J. (2010) Editorial: Introducing Début: Début: the undergraduate journal of language linguistics and area studies 1.1 pp. i-ii
Corbyn, Z. (2008) Let students enjoy the power of print. Times Higher Education, 7 August 2008.
Life and work in academia: event for new and aspiring lecturers in languages, linguistics and area studies
Thursday 12 April, Aston University, Birmingham
Fee: £80 ( publicly funded UK educational institutions)
£100 (private institutions/organisations and non-UK institutions)
Description: Aimed at early career teaching staff in languages, linguistics and area studies, this workshop aims to complement ‘generic’ Postgraduate Certificate courses offered by institutions. The workshop will also be useful for experienced staff who are new to the UK and finishing and recent PhD students seeking academic employment.
The event will take a holistic and long term examination of the academic career and will include discussions of:
- managing an academic career
- career promotion and progression (for both fixed-term and permanent staff)
- good practice in e-learning
- assessment of student learning and feedback
Dr Marie-Annick Gournet, University of the West of England, Bristol
Dr John Canning and Kate Borthwick, LLAS, University of Southampton
Dr Carolin Esser-Miles, University of Winchester
Dr Marina Orsini-Jones, Coventry University
A programme of the workshop is available here.
Two recent posts about my YazikOpen website published on other blogs
Yesterday, my guest post The right way to teach modern languages:an evidence based approach was published on the Research ML blog
Today I published a post about extending the life of older research by making it open access on my YazikOpen site blog.