Podcasting and public engagement

Liveblog notes from an OU e-Learning Community event on Podcasting, 16 November 2010. Martin Weller started off with his talk on Academic output as collateral damage.

Nigel Warburton – Will podcasting win friends and influence people?

Nigel is a prolific and popular podcaster on philosophy. Giving a talk direct, no slides, no notes.

Short answer is yes and no.

(cc) nattu on Flickr

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Non-digital scholarship troubles

For the first time in ages, I went to the real, physical library to look some stuff up this morning.

It didn’t go well. The books I wanted were all out on loan to other people, and a problem with my account meant I got a not entirely helpful error message when I tried to recall them. The books that seemed like they might be related – shelved next to them, or matching in the same query to the catalogue – turned out not to be relevant.

My catalogue search suggested that there was a journal in the library that was very relevant. I thought a quick browse through the physical copies would be ideal for a general trawl. (I can’t shake a suspicion that it’s hard to skim stuff online.) But try as I might, I couldn’t find the journal.

I’d forgotten just how much time you waste physically searching for stuff, even in a well-shelved, well-signposted library that isn’t heavily used by students. And even once you find the thing you’re after, you have to pick it up, open it, and flick to the right page before you find the information you’re looking for – and then be sure to put it back in exactly the same place. It was nice to get the extra exercise I suppose, but as a search strategy it seemed silly. I’d never pursue a virtual search strategy that long with such poor results.

Back at my desk, and trying a more digital approach, things went much better, even using the most unrefined and simplistic search strategy. A quick query at Amazon not only offered to supply the books within 24 hours (if I’m prepared to pay for express delivery), but helpfully alerted me that a whole host of very relevant books are scheduled for publication in the next few months. And a quick Google yielded the journal’s home page as first hit – and it turned out to be open access so I could just browse the titles in the table of contents and click through to full text where it looked promising.

One thing that really struck me was that my failure to find the print journal in the physical library was because I had the title of the journal wrong: I was looking for a sort of sub-title rather than what it’s formally called. Online, that didn’t matter at all, but in a physical shelving system it was enough to preventing me finding it. Digital technology actually made it less important to get things precisely right.

I had an epiphany about journal articles some years ago. I wanted to check something in an article I knew fairly well. I knew the journal, the authors, and roughly when it came out. I had a well-organised shelf of the journal in question right behind me: all I’d have to do would be spin my chair round and reach out my hand to browse  … but it was much quicker and easier to just search for the article online. (I got rid of the journals.)

I think it might be time to go more digital with my books, too. Which means Amazon. (Other online book retailers are available.) For wide-circulation books I strongly suspect it’s less money to simply order copies of books I want from them than for the Library to get a copy, catalogue, shelve, issue, etc. Though of course it’s my personal cash rather than the University’s, and the pricing for more obscure scholarly books is rather too eye-watering for me to shell out on a regular basis and probably changes the cost calculation.

(cc) reidrac on Flickr

For balance I should relate a very positive physical bookshop experience I had recently: there was a book I was after for a potential research collaboration, but the last time I’d looked it up on Amazon it didn’t appear to have a UK publication date. I happened to be walking past Blackwell’s in Oxford, and on the off chance dived in to the subterranean cavern of academic and technical book-lovers’ delight that is the Norrington Room. An assistant quickly located a copy on the shelf and I was back out on Broad Street with a copy in my hands less than five minutes after I’d gone in. (I got away lightly because I had no time for browsing.) Online things are usually all about instant gratification, but this was one occasion where the physical world came up trumps. Alas, not all bookshops are like that.

How ever did anyone keep up with research when they had all that physical stuff to struggle with?


This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.

Tuition Fees and the costs of HE

I’ve done some back-of-an-envelope calculations about the costs of HE, and blogged about the Browne Review of HE. Now we have the Government’s response, which in summary is to lift the cap on fees to £6,000 a year, or £9,000 if certain conditions about access are met.

Anyway, here are my previous back-of-an-envelope calculations (see the original post, including comments, for the horrific details of how I made these numbers up), with some further development.

[Data in a Google Spreadsheet, should you want to do something more meaningful with them]

The main change is to divide the numbers I came up with for a total degree cost by three, to give a (misleading) per-year cost. The total degree cost makes more sense, but nobody talks about that so I won’t either. It means that the ‘Buckingham’ and ‘Open University’ numbers are a bit odd, since students there typically take two or six years to get a degree respectively, not three. But it works as a comparator.

Remember, these are really not the correct figures, and are almost certainly wrong by a long shot. For instance, this has the cost of a home degree at a UK university at slightly less than the £7,000 Browne said was needed just to sustain investment. And the cost of a degree is highly variable – I’m not touching the unit of resource multipliers here.

We won’t know the details of how the residual state funding for universities will be doled out until the funding letter in a couple of months or so, but the strong steer is that the teaching grant will go almost entirely to Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine type subjects – which, handily for my convenience in doing these sums – is likely to mean that lab-based subjects, which cost a lot more  to provide, will be subsidised pretty much  to the degree (sorry) that they they cost more than the basic. Which means, essentially, that UK students are going to have to shift from paying the ‘fees’ figure on the left to paying the ‘Total / 3’ figure on the right. Or more.

With all those caveats out of the way, we can see from these figures why people are reacting the way they are. The Russell Group – who are probably going to be able to get their students to pay £9,000 a year – are happy: they’ll be getting more money, since the fees income will be more than the loss of state subsidy. The Million+ group, who are probably going to struggle to get students to pay £9,000 a year, or even £6,000 – are not very happy at all.  And students – who are facing having to pay three times as much as they do now – are really very unhappy. The nascent private HE sector is likely to be cock-a-hoop – not that any of the press reports I’ve seen have quotes from them, and they’d be wise to be circumspect at this moment of triumph anyway. I said I suspected that there “will be a substantial expansion of private provision of higher education in the UK”; I am now pretty sure there will: there is huge scope to offer very cost-competitive courses in particular areas. Look at the right-hand column: a potential student is facing £6,000 to £9,000 fees at a conventional university per year, or £3,333 with BPP.  And we know there is unmet demand for student places.

Up the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Interesting Question of whether Oxbridge – or some part thereof, or some minor chunk of the University of London (e.g. Imperial, UCL or LSE) – will decide that the £9k cap and the other hassle that goes with taking Her Majesty’s Shilling is not worth the remaining pennies on offer.

(cc) terinea on Flickr

So what about the OU?

I don’t know what will happen to our fees – it’s not my department, and I’m not close to the people who’ve been sweating blood and doing real sums on actual data to work out what we have to do. And they are not in a position to give a proper answer until we get the funding details in the grant letter. The official position is, quite reasonably, “We have been modelling figures but it will take several months before we know the full reality of the new funding environment we’re operating in.”

But my back-of-an-envelope spreadsheet suggests our annualised fees might need to jump from £1,800 to £4,700, a factor of 2.6 times higher.

So I suspect that OU students will be firmly in the ‘really very unhappy’ camp.

You must bear in mind that I could be way, way off the mark here – this is rough stuff, and I may well have missed something very important. And the details of the grant settlement are likely to be hugely important for the OU in particular.

The good news for the OU, of course, is that our students will have access to loans to pay fees on the same basis as students at other universities.

The big question for us is whether our students will – given access to loans – be prepared to pay higher fees. Ceteris paribus, they probably wouldn’t, but of course all the other universities are going to be increasing their fees, and probably by a higher multiple of the current ones. This is a big issue, and the OU has set up a campaigning site, FourInTen, “to ensure that part-time students are not overlooked” in this debate.

There are details that matter crucially to us – as you can see in the OU’s official response to the Comprehensive Spending Review,  there’s the prospect of undoing the ELQ funding bar, which particularly hurts us, and if the threshold for funding is reduced from 40 credits to 30 credits, we’d be in much better shape (otherwise, we’ll be wanting to cook up a lot of 40 point courses in a tearing hurry). There’s the they-can’t-possibly-mean-that-to-apply-to-us thing about funding being linked to UCAS points, which would make a complete nonsense of the OU’s open access policy.

I know our Martin Bean, our Vice-Chancellor, is chipper about the situation in broad terms: I hope he’s right. (He’s led us well so far.) But I personally can’t bring myself to be remotely happy about a situation where students are going to have to pay so much more, even if it isn’t up front.


This work by Doug Clow is copyright but licenced under a Creative Commons BY Licence.
No further permission needed to reuse or remix (with attribution), but it’s nice to be notified if you do use it.