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Editorial - 01 February 2003

Alison Wolf's new book ("Does education matter?", Penguin 2002, ISBN 0-14-028660-8) should be read by all teachers and lecturers. She documents much of the research that undermines the current hysteria for educational throughput. Elsewhere1 she has a vivid description of the madness of securing economic growth by showering the country in certificates from the Council for National Vocational qualifications (NVQs):

"The [NVQ] reforms slid into something reminiscent of the 'Cargo Cults' of Polynesia. Just as worshipping replicas of planes was thought, by cult adherents, to bring the showering of gifts from the sky, so it became an article of faith that awarding enough vocational certificates would somehow transform the nature of the UK economy."

Naturally Professor Wolf's treatment of university reforms is rather kinder but it is still robust enough to apply her quote to universities and degree certificates.

However, universitiesandinnovation.org.uk exists to take issue with a spin that even Professor Wolf seems to fall for: that Universities are good mechanisms for promoting innovation. The superficial case is easily spun. Just say "Cambridge Science Park" and you have got it. Alison Wolf uses the example of Silicon Valley:

"Of course, if you look at somewhere special like a Silicon Valley, something on these lines is certainly happening: The energy, ideas and creativity generated by a mass of very clever and skilled people are greater than if you scattered that group evenly across the United States. But there is no clear or consistent empirical support for the idea that a higher 'volume' of education in a whole society creates spillover effects..."
Here Professor Wolf does not actually say that the higher education machine created the phenomenon of Silicon Valley but it is clearly implied. Indeed, on the Stanford University website there is a "genealogy tree" that links all the key figures in Silicon Valley back to Stanford. Universities in the UK use similar arguments. But those that have broken out of universities to start their own businesses know that the university power structures are often more hinderance than help.

For the record Stanford's genealogy tree can be found here. They claim

"Research and teaching at Stanford are synergistic: research intimately intertwines the professor with his or her subject material; teaching sharpens and broadens students' minds as their research approaches. The result of this dynamic is that research funding bears fruit in the lab and its benefits spill over to the classroom. Research drives innovation and empowers education."

Stanford may have made the system work for them. Tim Smit believes (see below) that an innovative learning environment is possible. He describes the situation at his Eden Centre:

"...great thinking comes from being liberated from the constraints of curriculum, oddly enough. One of the great pleasures of working [at the Eden Centre] is that you get people from all sorts of different backgrounds who contribute their bit, and suddenly you see that something that was almost insoluble in your mind, someone just comes from left field and you go Jesus, that's fantastic, never thought of that. And I think what we need to be doing is building an education system where people learn to enjoy their minds as opposed to constrain their minds..."

This is so different to our experience of universities and their Innovation Centres and Science Parks. The latter are populated by companies for which the universities claim credit. But when we have asked question "What did the university do for you?" these companies give few positive answers. (But they are often guarded in their replies).

Note 1: (p39 "Growth stocks and lemons: Diplomas in the English market-place", Assessment in Education: principles, policies and practice. Volume 4 Number 1 January 1997, Carfax)


Click on a link or scroll directly to an article.

Lecturing in Marketing: It's like swimming in a luke warm pool.
Found on innovation.gov.uk: Education constrains innovation
Postgraduate: Most undergraduates are dead wood.
Turning ocean liners into moon rockets?
Scientist becomes gas fitter. Charles Clarke get real.
No evidence that expansion of higher education increases economic growth.
Education and the knowledge economy: We need to rethink our "quality" systems. Mostly the courses were stating the obvious.
Dumbed Down Degrees. Lessons in Google.



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16may04a: Letter in The Business: Lessons in Google.

Sir - I enjoyed your profile featuring Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. Not only was it a story about two, bright ambitious young men, but it made me wonder why Stanford University in the US is so successful at turning business brains like Page and Brin into successful entrepreneurs. These days, the universities of France, Germany and Britain seem capable only of churning out academics, bureaucrats and greedy professional managers and rather low quality politicians.

Gunther Bragge

Note: Looking at Google's history of Google, it seems that the project that started Google was outside their university studies - implemented in a dormitory. They even gave up doing their PhDs.

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15may04a: Channel 4 30 Minutes: Dumbed Down Degrees.

Channel 4's 30 Minutes looked at the proliferation of degree subjects brought about by the Government's wish to have 50% of people to go to university. A summary can be found here.

The program had some convincing examples, such as

Ed Rice has a BSC and an MSC in maritime science. Today he’s at Chichester College learning carpentry. “Carpentry is opening more doors than university,” he says. He’s already working restoring a neighbour’s house.

But in an interview with one of the Education Ministers, the presenter, Sam Kiley questioned the academic status of some of the new degree subjects, such as Surf Science at Plymouth University. The Minister in turn questioned the use of traditional courses, such as Ancient Greek Poetry. "But doesn't that train the mind?" we think1 Sam responded.

1OK. We'll get the transcript and get this paragraph right.

While we applaud Sam for pointing out some of the failings of current policy, how does he know ancient Greek poetry trains the mind? Evidence? Or old academic PR? The academics would say that wouldn't they? Anyway we've just found an old unpublished poem (circa 1993) from one of our contributors.

                   Emperor Opens Fairyland Training Centre

              You all see these schoolgowns, the salesmen said
              None but the wise see their scolarly thread
              Use these gowns which are sewn with our special threads
              And your subjects shall prosper, the salesmen said

           Janet, 20, working as researcher at the Radio Station,
           gave up the chance to improve her typing because the
           course director insisted Janet also took the NVQ module 
           in photocopying.
           Roger, 17, wants next year off.  He thinks college is 
           crap but he does quite like it when he has to act the
           part of a storeman once a week.  But that is not a job
           he will ever do.
           Philip, 42, manages highly specialised computer courses.
           He is sceptical of computer science graduates. He finds
           them rather short on deliverables but they can write
           weighty reports describing the simplest of tasks.
           Tony, 23, is a history graduate.  He has found it almost
           impossible to get work that uses his degree.  But he is
           glad he has not sold out like many of his contemporaries
           and started accountancy training.  That would be a waste
           of his education.

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18mar04a: Bob Garvey: Education and the knowledge economy: We need to rethink our "quality" systems.

Economies have always been knowledge based. However, as a result of globalisation and technological innovation, knowledge has become a much stronger factor in economic progress than ever before. The implications for education are considerable.

One question we must ask is 'what kind of people do we need if we are to compete effectively in the knowledge economy?' In Michael Porter's recent ESRC funded research on the UK's competitiveness he highlighted the need to develop people and organisations that are capable of being creative and innovative. But is our educational system producing such people in the numbers we require? Sadly, it is not. Higher education has become driven by a quality movement, which, paradoxically, is not producing the 'quality' that is required for our future.

Knowledge can be thought of in two ways - explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is the knowledge that can be stored and published. It is the stuff of databases and libraries; it is in the public domain. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that is still locked within individuals. It is typically based on experience and cannot always be easily explained - even by the individual who possesses this tacit knowledge. Michael Shumaker, for example, could not explain all his complex internal knowledge about driving a racing car.

A highly skilled scientist will operate using both tacit and explicit knowledge but it is tacit knowledge (his internal knowledge, which is not yet published and not yet explained) that that leads to scientific breakthroughs. As the generator of scientific innovation, the ability to use tacit knowledge is much more value.

Paradoxically, the process of scientific publication converts tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge causing its economic value to rapidly reduce. In a successful knowledge economy, there is a need to constantly develop tacit knowledge in order to encourage innovation and scientific breakthroughs. So, how might this be done?

Unfortunately, our existing educational system values explicit knowledge above tacit knowledge. This is because explicit knowledge is more easily measured and assessed than tacit knowledge. The current emphasis on "quality" in education gives measurability such a high status that explicit knowledge is valued above tacit knowledge because it is easy to measure,. Thus known, explicit knowledge is taught at the expense of the development of the ability to create new knowledge.

Universities write their modules with pre-specified learning outcomes, assessment is linked to these pre-specified outcomes and the teaching falls in line with this. This is to satisfy the "quality" systems and not the learners. Consequently, we are simply engineering that which has been pre-specified. This is like flying a group of hill walkers straight to the top of the hill and wondering why they are unfit and unhappy!

We are treating young people as vessels to be filled with well-known knowledge rather than helping them develop into the critical, creative and innovative thinkers that Porter described in his report.

Alternatives do exist. An education system, which gives a better balance between explicit and tacit knowledge, is possible. High quality learning can occur without solely teaching explicit knowledge. For this to happen we need to rethink the quality systems (which can only produce compliance and not creative innovations). We need a new debate about knowledge and learning. This needs to be rooted in more experiential and situated approaches to learning in order to equip the UK economy with the creativity and innovation it needs.

(Note: Bob Garvey and Bill Williamson are the authors of Beyond Knowledge Management: Dialogue, Creativity and the Corporate Curriculum published by Prentice Hall. See it on Amazon)

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10mar04a: Chris Pattern in "Oxford Today": No evidence that expansion of higher education increases economic growth.

There is an interview with Chris Pattern, The Chancellor of Oxford University in Oxford Today. Two interesting paragraphs found here.
Much more worrying, in his view, is the utilitarian tone adopted throughout the White Paper. 'Governments not just here but elsewhere too have argued that higher education should be expanded in order to increase the rate of economic growth, and to promote social cohesion', he says. 'There is no objective evidence that either of those propositions is true. While it is the case that it's difficult to see a competitive economy based on ignorance, if you consider what's happened in Europe in the last few years, an expansion in higher education across the board has been accompanied by a deceleration in economic growth.'
The case for greater social cohesion is no more convincing, he believes. 'Although more young people from working-class backgrounds have a university education, the number of middle-class people receiving higher education today as a proportion of total students is pretty much the same as it was when I was here - when only 6 per cent of 18-year-olds went to university. So while I'm totally supportive of opportunities for all young people, if you're really concerned about social cohesion you should be focusing on preschool, primary and secondary education.'

Perhaps he's read Alison Woolf.

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28feb04a: Comment: Scientist becomes gas fitter. Charles Clarke get real.

A story prominent in the UK media this week has been the scientist with PhD and several years research experience who has left his £23000 pa research post to train to become a gas fitter. He expects, quite rightly, that his income will increase considerably. The Telegraph's version of the story can be found here.

In this report the AUT spokesman claimed that academic salaries had fallen behind by up tp 40% over the last 20 years.

Dr Gensberg said

"I am just not prepared to keep looking around for jobs that are so badly paid. The university has never offered me a staff job. It is incredibly frustrating and disappointing.
"I feel my education was a complete waste of taxpayers' money."

The AUT spokeman also said

"The tragedy is that there are hundreds of people like Dr Gensberg who are doing work of national or international importance who are now leaving higher education in Britain in their droves."

What these stories miss is that Dr Gesberg was doing the kind of scientific research that has very little cultural bias - Dr Gensberg investigated the effects of electro-magnetic fields on the body. Such jobs can be more easily outsourced than, say, jobs in IT or call-centres, where local knowledge can be important. We should ask why we employ Dr Gensberg in Birmingham for £23,000 when 10 research posts can be created in India for the same money? (See www.placementindia.com for salary comparisons.)

Simon Jenkins comments in the Times on February 25, 2004 make a related point.

"Dr Gensberg is victim of decades of Whitehall manpower planning. Told that Britain needs more scientists, he has received a costly higher education free of charge, with no need to relate it to the outside world...
"Undaunted by Dr Gensberg’s experience, Mr Clarke is about to make matters worse. He has been recommended to disgorge a staggering £100 million or so of loose cash for extra mathematics teaching, to distort his manpower planning yet further towards scientists. He is following the same path as Soviet planners did after the Second World War. Science was considered vital to the future of the state. Soviet apparatchiks produced what was, by the end of the 1980s, half the world’s trained scientists. They put a man into space and bankrupted their economy. Astrophysicists are good for politics but bad for companies in need of management or drains in need of clearing."

There are enormous difference in labour rates between the developing world and the developed world. New technologies will erode many more geographical boundaries - when will we see selected school subjects taught by videolink? Such things will further undermine the middle ground of the UK labour market.

Some economists might argue that the market will create an optimal solution. Several contrary views to this perfect market argument have been expressed on our www.jobstaxesandtraining.org.uk website. But this is not a time to bury our heads in the sand. In the famous words of a fellow Cambridge graduate, Charles Clarke should "Get Real", flooding the country with maths teachers will not get us all the best jobs in the world. If the market is the true arbiter we need more of Ali G and less of Charles Clarke.

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02mar03a: Turning ocean liners into moon rockets?:

According to The Independent Chancellor Gordon Brown has set up a review of universities links with business. (Universities face funding cuts unless they attract private sponsorship)

Gordon Brown is threatening to cut government funding for universities unless they agree to sweeping management reforms and attract more sponsorship from industry....
The Chancellor believes outdated practices act as a barrier to working closer with business and wants a "more responsive" approach to boost innovation and economic growth.

The question should be asked: Has the Chancellor any experience of the meetings between business and universities? Is he hoping to bribe them to get together? Our advice is don't do it - few straight businessmen and few academics have the right mindset to make this work. A third class of agent is needed to bring them together. The Chancellor should fund some experiments now.

The cash should be easy to find: Planning authorities are giving 10s of millions of pounds to universities as planning permissions for business parks (often called "innovation centres"). Go for it Gordon.

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20feb03a: Postgraduate on the coach : Most undergraduates are dead wood.
Disappointed by university

I was very disappointed when I got to university. My parents had enthused about their education. The atmosphere they described was one where everybody, students and lecturers, were passionate about their subjects (Interruption from the seat behind: before the Thomas Gradgrinds got hold of it all.) And it was not just an enthusiasm for their particular subjects: They swapped ideas with students from other disciplines.

Hardly anyone interested

But hardly anyone on my course, Mathematics, was genuinely interested in maths - or at least were prepared to show that they were. Students wanted to be given a set of notes to get them through an exam with as little effort as possible. I could see how frustrating it was to the lecturers. Those that tried to teach students to think for themselves got slated in the course appraisals given by students at the end of the course.

Lecturers despair

Now I am a postgraduate I can talk to those lecturers and they seem to be in despair. They are helpless. The university is now run by form fillers aiming for mechanical targets. The idea seems to be to spoon feed the students so that the department can meet uniform but superficial standards required by the system.

No room for inspiration

Undergraduate courses have no room for inspirational mathematics. I respect the lecturers in my department who try so hard fight the system and encourage individual mathematical thought. But they are fighting the government and the hordes of students that are simply at university because society believes it's best for most people to go to university. In fact, the only people that really gain are those who wanted to go to university because they had the drive to understand.

New ideas not allowed

The dead wood of the time servers, not only held back the few inspired students but because they were exam focussed they created an atmosphere that restricts creativity and ingenuity. After all, trying a new idea is taking a risk - a risk that it may not be wise to take when there is only really time to learn by rote.

Enquiry by argument and discussion - at last

When I was doing A levels we had a small class (6 or 7 pupils). We ended nearly every lesson arguing over some mathematical point. As an undergraduate I never experienced any such heated discussions. Now I am a research student, this enquiry by argument and discussion has finally resurfaced.

An appetite for knowledge

There has been much talk of increasing the number of people attending university. But most people are not suited to attending university. This is not simply a function of academic ability as measured by the exam machine. Suitability strongly depends on a willingness to make the effort to learn and an appetite for knowledge.

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25jan03a: Found on innovation.gov.uk : Education constrains innovation

Living Innovation 2002:
"you can only constrain [innovation] by education"
"I don't think [innovation] necessarily depends on your education ... But innovation needs leadership"

Living Innovation 2002, sponsored by Innovation.gov.uk, was launched at 1800 hours on June 18 with a one-hour satellite television programme from The Eden Project in Cornwall. Colin Prescot, Sue Wharton and Tim Smit spoke about what Innovation meant to them.

The main speakers are introduced here like this.

Colin Prescot. Inspiration behind the helium-filled balloon soon to travel to the very boundary of space!

Tim Smit Visionary innovator and founder of the Eden Project. Creating an outstanding visitor experience from holes in the ground!

Sue Wharton Connecting in the High Street, how the Trading and Innovation Director at WH Smith tackled innovation head on at one of Britain's oldest and best loved retailers.

Here are some excerpts from the transcript (which used to be be found here. But are you surprised this transcript can no longer be found?).

So does it matter where you went to school or where you went to college?

I don't think so, no. I think as long.. With encouragement to work in a more open way, I think everybody actually has the ability to be innovative and think of new things and develop new things.

Okay, well, we're going to go to a phone question now...

Yes, good evening from the Pop Factory. I have a question related to the last email that you answered, and this is to do with education. To what extent did your own education influence your ability to innovate, and what should we within education do to ensure that we have a higher level of interest and activity in innovation for all who pass through our educational establishments?


Well, I was privileged to have a private education, and that certainly taught me to talk proper, but other than that, I would say it didn't have much effect on it at all. I have a partner who is an engineer, he is a genius, in just the same way Tim was describing. He left school at the age of 16 with no qualifications at all, and he was the guy I was demonstrating who has just built this amazing machine. So, again, as Tim said, there's something in everybody. I don't think it necessarily depends on your education because we all have different brains. But innovation needs leadership, and I think that anybody has a chance to realise their dreams, if only somebody will give them a little bit more encouragement to do so, because we're a pretty stuffy society in Britain.

Okay, thank you, David, for your question.
Let's go to an e-mail question. Again, it's about education, we will get off this subject in a moment, but what should schools, colleges and universities do to encourage innovation? Tim perhaps you have a view on this one.

I have a view, it might not be a very popular one.

Can you teach innovation?

No. You can't teach innovation, you can only constrain it by education.


I didn't mean to actually be flippant, because of all the people on earth I revere the most they are teachers, what a gift to have, and they should be the most revered people that we have in our society. If you have children, and you are prepared to put them in the hands of these people, they must be the most valuable, mustn't they? I just think that our system is too geared to the concept that we have to have jobs, we're slaves to create jobs, and we're not encouraged to dream at school, because we need qualifications that get you jobs. And, actually, great thinking comes from being liberated from the constraints of curriculum, oddly enough. One of the great pleasures of working here is that you get people from all sorts of different backgrounds who contribute their bit, and suddenly you see that something that was almost insoluble in your mind, someone just comes from left field and you go Jesus, that's fantastic, never thought of that. And I think what we need to be doing is building an education system where people learn to enjoy their minds as opposed to constrain their minds, and I really feel that.

: (phone)



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01jan03a: Lecturer in Marketing: It's like swimming in a luke warm pool.

When the first years start the course they are reserved and scared to speak. But when they find their feet they are full of ideas and creativity.

Unfortunately, "the system" conspires to close them down. They learn to "perform to win" and loose their creativity. Dispite our best efforts they will be working in a way they think will give them good grades.

We want them to get good grades too but it is very difficult to design methods of assesment that rewards creativity without taking chances that are no longer allowed.

The problem of working to targets makes us timid. The tendency to play safe inhibits innovation and the chances of spectacular success ... and spectacular failure. But anything spectacular is better than the mediocre.

It's like swimming in a luke warm pool.

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27mar04a: University Dropout: Mostly the courses were stating the obvious.

After six months I have just left a course on English Literature and American Studies at a new Northern University. I left because I found the work uninteresting and not even as challenging as my A levels, which were English, Psychology, Philosophy and Law. After these six months I am left with a debt of £2000 but I have spent much more than that. The student loan money was spent on accommodation. I also spent about £3000 on tuition fees and living expenses.

I think that having a degree might have helped with certain job chances. But I don't want to be a teacher or anything like THAT.

I started the course with some excitement as I was beginning to learn again as I had two years working as a model in London.

I felt that both courses were badly organised. The American Studies was better but it mostly consisted of a lecturer talking with students making notes. Neither course improved my mind, mostly the courses were stating the obvious. It wasn't the case that we were given knowledge we could read in books. It all seemed obvious for that.

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25may07a: IT infrastructure consultant: Degrees don't count.

I am an IT infrastructure consultant with 10 years' experience working with higher management on recruitment and IT recruitment policy.

I am frequently asked to advise companies on their recruitment into technical positions. A question that often arises is that of academic qualifications and experience.

The general opinion of myself and the people I advise is that degrees as qualifications make little or no difference to a candidate's desirability. Some clients argue that a degree is a useful pre-qualification - at least it shows the candidate has the persistance to last three years on one pursuit.

However, while I have seen graduates employed in my field, which is pretty high tech, I cannot recall ever being responsible for employing a graduate out of about a hundred appointees. One of the issues is that for the lower level posts new graduates expect to be paid significantly more. At higher levels it's only experience that counts.

I have frequently worked alongside graduates. A particular aspect I have perceived about graduates is their impulse to relate what happens in the real world to what they were taught at university. It just does not work. They would be better clearing their mind (if possible) so they could learn from experience.

In my field, qualifications that have been useful are vendor qualifications, such as the Cisco, Microsoft and Red Hat certification programmes. They at least show a knowledge of the relevant technologies.

These can be studied with the help of books, the internet searching and e-learning. Short courses are also useful if they are quickly followed by experience.

Some educational institutes do try to teach these qualification but in my experience have the tendency to drag them out

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25may07b: David Ward Maclean: Despair