From fixed to porous: the permeability of our institutions

Away from the chaos of the main chamber, the Commons Education Committee is taking a look at other important challenges facing our society. Members are imagining the future of learning: a world without restrictive examination practices and measurements, that nurtures different talents, in which there is more time in the day for different types of learning.

The committee is currently running an inquiry into the emergence of a range of new technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics, and the internet of things, and the impact of these on productivity and the labour market. It is examining how best to prepare people to take advantage of future opportunities by looking at the suitability of the school curriculum, and the role of colleges, universities, and lifelong learning.

Permeable institutions

Just before Christmas Mary gave evidence to the committee alongside Anthony Seldon of the University of Buckingham and John Baruch from Leeds Beckett University. A common thread was the question of how a more fluid education system might better support a population facing the fourth industrial revolution.

Much of the discussion in the committee session echoed the thoughts gathered from a range of contributors for Thinking Ahead, the inaugural publication of our 21st Century Lab project. One key idea proposes education institutions that are more permeable, and that are better at engaging and working with different sectors and different stages of the education system. This symbiotic process would be more engaging for students, who would then want to keep re-engaging over the course of their lives.

We need classrooms without walls, we need families involved, we need to re-establish education’s role at the heart of society. This is the crux of 21st Century Lab – it is not just about the impact of 21st century changes within the confines of the university campus, but on the society arounds us. It is about restating that universities have a significant role to play to shore up societal certainty against a backdrop of significant upheaval.

Permeable collaboration

Within the existing system, the University of Lincoln is already testing a range of interventions that build on this idea of permeability. For example, at our Holbeach campus, we are working with a secondary school on the same site – a part of the Multi-Academy Trust that we sponsor. The university is supporting the the school to extend the range of learning experiences that it is able to provide to its students. This is frequently achieved by extending the school day, week and year through the provision of extra-curricular activities.

A similar approach is being taken at the University Technical College (UTC) in Lincoln, which we sponsor in partnership with Siemens and Lincoln College, the local further education college. Students there participate in projects to resolve problems set by a range of employers that engage with the UTC. As the discussion in the Committee session highlighted, often exams are teaching students to regurgitate information – but robots can do that. We need to test students to be able to think about things that we don’t know the answer to and this is precisely where projects like these can play a role.

In HE as much as in schools there is a real sense that what we measure is in danger of becoming what we do. But just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Indeed, the things we can measure might be precisely the things that automation can replicate. If we are really to position ourselves to withstand the challenges brought on by technological change then we may well need to be braver about investing in activities that can’t easily be measured to determine their success. Will the anticipated changes to the post-18 funding system facilitate or hinder such risks?

Permeable people

We can think about permeability at an individual level too. Employers tell us that the thing that they want most of all from graduates is the ability to work in teams, and yet education often focuses on individual performance. Again, these collaboration skills can come through project working. We need to teach students to listen to each other, to learn from each other and to seek value from different types of intelligence found across their peers. This is about active and iterative learning – skills formed as part of undertaking research.

A more permeable and flexible approach is needed not least because neither the destination or the path that the new industrial revolution is known. There are vastly different rates of adoption in different parts of the population and in different parts of the country. We need to be alert to the signals in our localities and beyond if we are to play our role.

For example, in Greater Lincolnshire, the proportion of older workers and those past retirement age means that retraining is an important consideration in relation to automation. The proportion of over-55s in Greater Lincolnshire is projected to increase 20% faster than the national rate between 2014-25. In the coastal areas there are three people aged over 60 moving in for every two people aged 16-24 moving out. Meanwhile, it has been projected that 26-34% of jobs in the area will be at risk of automation by the early 2030s. These figures clearly demonstrate the finding of the Civic University Commission – that “this is precisely the wrong moment to have closed off adult education”.

These issues manifest at a local level but they are global problems; we need to understand better how colleagues in other countries are seeking to intervene. Indeed, examples from the US, China and Uruguay were all referenced during the committee session. In that vein the next phase of 21st Century Lab will continue to work with colleagues from other countries as we seek to build on Thinking Ahead to consider the purpose of universities in the 21st century.

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