Category Archives: universities

The academics are revolting

Crimes against humanities

On Monday, I wrote that it was starting to feel as if a debate on the future of higher education was finally starting to open up. Today, I have a post on Research Fortnight’s blog, Exquisite Life, about the way academics are (in their own way) starting to campaign on this issue.

I bashed out that post at the end of the day yesterday, and then went off to have a 3 hour meeting at UCL with a group of academic-activists (photos taken outside their History department). At the end of the meeting, we saw the news that MPs would vote on the raise tuition fees in England on 9 December. So, my conclusion that campus life seems to be moving little faster than usual at the moment might feel quite true over the next week.

I mention in the piece that I’d seen drafts of further letters to the press. Today, the Times published one from the Campaign for a Public University, signed by 165 academics, stressing¬† that students are not the only ones angry at the governments plans for education. You can read it here if you have access through the paywall (edit: now liberated). Though I don’t know if this tweet from Brian Cathcart proves my point about academic back-biting (sorry, I mean disagreement, critique and open debate) being a problem in terms of building a united front.

Edit: As well as all this essay writing, they are more and more seminars being organised too. Already spotted one at the LSE and another at Middlesex.

Research and Destroy

Something I didn’t have space for in the piece is the ways in which the students are utalising materials from their studies to better understand,¬† build and articulate their protests. I visited the UCL occupation on Monday, and spoke to a PhD student there, Aaron Peters:

They’re savvy in terms of conceptualizing the protest, which is a key point. I mean some of the books these kids are reading: Foucault, Derrida, Barthes… You see Lyotard, you see Deleuze, you see Guttari. You see the canon of critical theory and it’s 19 year old people, and they actually practicing it. They want to engage with it politically, in the streets. It’s no longer some sort of intellectual masturbation. It’s being used for something.

I didn’t use this on the Research Fortnight blog, because I thought a focus on academics was most appropriate on that post. However, it is a thread in the story worth bringing out, and I may well go back to it. There’s a lot more to be said about the way students are using their degrees in the protests and, perhaps, augmenting their eduction in the process. Above all, I think the student protests demonstrates quite how much students think, know and care about their degrees. If we do unlock a larger debate on the future of UK universities, it’s going to be very hard to students keep students out (not that I would have wanted to in the first place).

If you are in the area, I can recommended dropping in on the UCL occupation (before they get evicted). David Colquhoun has a post about his visit there, and there is a video on the Guardian. Or read about them directly on their blog.

Bredom is counter revolutionary

Unlocking the future of education

I’m just going to come out and say this: Sally Hunt made me cry.

Sally Hunt is General Secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) and the crying incident occurred during her speech at the NUS/ UCU anti-cuts demo a couple of weeks ago.
colourful banners in sunshine
I don’t normally stand in the street in the middle of the day, weeping. In my defense, it was only a few tears. I was also exceedingly tired, having staying up half the night, working. Plus, it had been a reasonably emotional build up to Hunt’s speech, walking from Trafalgar Square to Tate Britain with 50,000-ish other people in the blazing, cold November sunshine.

I should probably stress that from what I saw, it really was a peaceful protest. I saw a lot of anger – including the first Millbank window smash – but it wasn’t all destructive or negative anger. The emotion was running high, but this was as much a celebration of what is good about education as anything else. A rabble of people out to declare themselves and their worth. A large and diverse rabble too, which I felt showed a fair degree of altruism as well as the spread of impact of education on peoples lives.

Educate Don't Segregate
These protests feel very different from the ones in the late 1990s when the fees were re-introduced. I was still at school. A friend and I went on the big anti-fees demo in London. I say big, but there were probably only a few thousand there. The general feeling was that schoolkids weren’t organised or connected enough with the NUS to go, and current university students didn’t care because they wouldn’t have to pay. We shouted about education being for all and waved our signs. We didn’t think it would do much, but it made us feel better. Tourists asked us to pose for photos. They thought we were sweet to be out with out placards and balloons. I remember shrugging with a slight feeling of anti-climax as we got on the tube home.

Despite the introduction of fees, I did go on to university. I was lucky. My parents both went to university themselves: there was a cultural acceptance as well as financial support (though my younger brother is another story). I also worked before and throughout my time at university, something I think helped me understand and appreciate my education more, as well as simply pay for it. I got a degree, and another, and another (and another, and another…). All, in some way, studying issues of how academics connect to the rest of society. I also shared what I’d learnt, moving on to work as a lecturer.

So, university education is something I’ve experienced, studied and produced. It’s something I know about and care deeply about.

Protest gets to Parliment

That slightly embarrassing crying moment? It happened during Sally Hunt’s speech. She showed a student video against cuts, breathlessly declaring “this is why education is so important: it helps make people brilliant”. I heard her voice break, she was clearly trying not to cry. I thought about my students, my teachers, and all the other people that make up a university that I’d been lucky to work with. I thought about the p45 sitting on my desk. I noticed my cheeks were wet.

I didn’t just cry because I agreed with Hunt. I cried because she’s wrong too. People do work very hard in the university sector, and do amazing things, but the system as a whole needs to be better. Some argue that a rise in fees will put more power in the hands of the students. I’m all for student power, but I’m not so sure about this as an approach. I think it limits which students might have the chance at such power in the first place. Moreover, I think that this sort of model severely limits the scope of what a university might be able to provide its community.

Hunt’s shouts of “you say Tories, I say scum” also depressed me. It reminded me of a schooltrip to Winsdor when I was 14. We drove through Eton on the way back, and our teacher got us to lean out the windows of the bus to point and laugh at the students’ silly uniforms. The Eton kids probably thought we looked funny too. Our uniform included a bomber jacket and a baseball cap (Really. The running team and steel pan group had school-uniform shellsuits). The cultural gap between my old inner-city comp and Eton College is immense. It is one based on social injustices which make me sick. But getting one group to jeer at the other just makes things worse. And that makes me sicker.

Most of all, I felt like UK universities had wasted the last decade of relative financial comfort. Now crisis hits, we’re suddenly noticing how great we are (or rather great we could/ should be) whilst simultaneously being constrained by a lack of funds. I felt like privatization of the academy has been handed to us as the only way out and, annoyed at this, all we do was shout abuse as those who won’t listen.

So that was why I was standing outside Tate Britain, listening to Sally Hunt. Binded by the sunshine and my students’ brilliance. Chilled by the freezing cold and impending cuts. Crying.

after the demo (Victoria station, 7pm)

To end on a more positive note, in the last week, I’ve felt like the frustration has, at least partially, be unlocked. As David Mitchell put it in the Observer yesterday, the ongoing protests demonstrate a growing political will to reform our higher education system. A Campaign for the Public University has been launched, as was Humanities Matter and I’ve just heard about a similar Campaign for Social Sciences.. Today, the Telegraph has a letter from senior academics calling for a Public Commission of Enquiry, and the student occupations are going strong. More people want to talk about what we can do other than raising fees to improve universities. I’m starting to see the merest glimmer of hope.

Maybe I’m being ridiculously naive. What do you think?

The plagiarism business

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently ran a piece by a man who makes his living writing ‘bespoke’ essays for university students: The Shadow Scholar.

I’ve been keeping an eye on this business since I was flyered by one ‘Oxbridge Essays’ on campus about five years ago. At the time I was officially a PhD student, so possibly a customer (they’ll do you an 80,000 word PhD thesis in a month for a bit over ¬£10000). I was also a part-time lecturer though. I’d just dealt with my first case of plagiarism, and the dude flyering got rather an earful.

I can recommend spending some time on the Oxbridge Essays website. Their cynicism is an eye-opener if nothing else. is also worth a read. They both stress that the essays are for research purposes only, a way of finding a model answer. They present themselves as a support center for students. Oxbridge Essays has a blog covering issues like the increase in fees. Both also stress their openness. You can see photos of the UK Essays writers, and visit Oxbridge Essays’ offices. According to an interesting piece from the Guardian, they are both owned by Barclay Littlewood who, via a link on his wikipedia page, I learnt had made the 2008 Sunday Times Rich List (see also a piece from 2007 and another from 2006).

If any of those links depress you, you might find the scepticism of this student forum page cheering.

Such ‘bespoke’ essays are unlikely to be caught by plagiarism checks (e.g. turnitin) and more likely to fit the coursework brief than cutting and pasting off the web. I do know a tutor who once caught a student who had bought an essay from such a site. She noticed a sudden rise in a student’s standard of coursework, so pulled him into a meeting to discuss the essay’s topics, at which point he broke down and admitted it. But she only spotted this because she is a good tutor who knows her students, one that thinks about their development as she works through her marking. I think it’s fair to say that tutors like that are less likely to get students cheating in the first place.

When I first caught that undergrad cheating, I was angry with her. I thought she was being phenomenally lazy (it was a real doozy of a cheat) not to mention downright cheeky to think such laziness was ok when other students had bothered to produce original work. But part of me also felt like I’d failed her slightly, that she either felt unable or simply uninspired by the coursework. I don’t think I was just being hard on myself. I think any sign of student failure (and this includes them making ‘stupid mistakes’ as well as dishonesty) should be taken as a signal for the teacher to at the very least check themselves. I think assessment is not just a part of measuring learning, but helping to develop it. I put a lot of effort into setting and marking coursework. I think most (good) lecturers do. Still, it is difficult, and even the best lecturers will set coursework students cannot do well in. This isn’t (just) because we set challening work, it’s because it’s bad coursework: confusingly articulated, uninspiring. As another bespoke essay writer puts it ‘Imagine trying to write a novel, for a grade, under a tight deadline, without ever having read a novel’ (hat-tip Paula Salgado for that link).

I’m not saying we should ‘spoon-feed’ lazy students or set easier work (or let cheaters get away with it), I’m just saying a good coursework assignment is a project students can and want to work on.

So, educators: read up on this bespoke essay business. Keep an eye out for students using it, but take their existence as a challenge to yourself too. As the guy in the Chronicle piece put it ‘I live well on the desperation, misery, and incompetence that your educational system has created’. If you find him disgusting, think about how you can most productively help cut off the food supply.