Friday, 23 July 2010

The missing link in the Big Society

Comment piece requested by

When it comes to realising the dream of the Big Society, nothing strikes fear more in the hearts and minds of young Britain than "National Citizen Service" or, to give it its street title, "doing something for nothing".

The arguments put forward in favour of the National Citizen Service are indeed noble. Civic responsibility; volunteering in the community; cost saving etc. However, Cameron’s weakness in this approach is its lack of militarism to galvanise the disaffected youth into taking part. Those that will heed the call are, likely as not, already volunteering or looking for internships to develop their earning potential – convincing the rest is the challenge.

In a recent journal, social anthropologist Matt Ridley theorises that the major societal changes throughout human history come about as a result of one thing: specialisation. Development of societal behaviours, he theorises, largely only come about through experts demonstrating and teaching others. A recent campaign in the Evening Standard on Britain’s dispossessed population utilised big names to highlight the issue – and has received formal backing for the campaign from the PM himself thus demonstrating the power and necessity of role model endorsement.

The Citizen Service campaign was launched with Michael Caine – are others needed? Only by highlighting these experts can Cameron hope to achieve the desired impact of his Big Society and Citizenship campaign.

Cameron has often been criticised of social nudging from the dispatch box. According to Ridley’s theory, in order to achieve longevity in his quest he must nudge a little harder by planting the idea firmly within the minds of Britain’s young.

And that’s where Michael Gove comes in.

I’m surprised that as of yet the National Citizen Service has not been aligned or linked to in any way to the Department for Education. Why not make it a compulsory unit of study? Citizenship modules are becoming ever more popular in state education, being directly incorporated alongside traditional PSHE lessons. Could this partnership be the missing link between long term successes and media buy in?

Could the missing link be Michael Gove?

If this is the case; then could Gove’s current political radiation be the biggest issue currently facing in the Big Society?

Mario Creatura is a Conservative activist with experience in communications and public relations. He currently works in the higher education sector. Follow him on Twitter: @mariocreatura

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Two year degrees: Opening Pandora’s box

Vince Cable, Business Secretary, has re-opened the debate on the purpose and economic benefits of the two year degree course:

‘Two-year university degrees, more part-time courses and more students living with their parents while they study will be proposed by the coalition Government as it begins the task of cutting the £155bn deficit.’ The Independent

Students can be incredibly industrious. Creative, excited, genuinely enthused about academic rigour and the desire to delve into previously unthought-of scholarly principles. A three year degree allocates a relatively small amount of time during the working week to formally defined lecture/seminar sessions with the onus being on the mature and intelligent student to take up the rest of their free time to fit in adequate outside reading as well as co-curricular activities.

Then there is the time that extra-curricular activities take up – something that I hope we all agree is an essential part of the student experience and thus the formation of a well rounded and employable graduate.

But what about the rest of the time? The hours spent procrastinating; of staring into space and failing to adequately make use of project deadlines? Careers services are reportedly more underused than ever – which suggests that although many immensely useful free courses such as ‘how to manage your project time effectively’ are being ignored. Could this be an indication that pressure to perform is too lax at our leading HEI’s?

This could be the unannounced benefit of the two year degree. Students arguably perform better under pressure - the logic following the ‘there’s less time to procrastinate so I won’t’ theme. And why shouldn’t they? Will two year degrees see an increase in the power and utilisation of the careers centre? I think it might.

‘Teaching qualifications’ for academics have helped to create a behavioural expectation in students that once fees are paid then a degree is almost certain: the mentality of the spoon-fed GCSE seems to be have permeated expectation and become abundant in many universities that I have had the fortune to observe.

Squeezing a three year course into two years we may increase project management efficiency in students (perfect differentiation criteria for the hotly contested graduate placements) but at the cost to the student experience. University is about enjoying yourself: joining crazy student societies; going on protest marches and getting drunk on ridiculously cheap vodka. Of course I’m using stereotypes but the point still stands – co-curricular activities shape us for the rest of our lives. This is a core part of the two year degree that Mr Cable doesn’t seem to have considered.

But they will be better for student debt, better for the economy, better for the HEI’s and better for the job market. May not be better for the ‘enjoyment’ of university but is that something that we can all live without? The question returns again: what is a university for?

‘I work better under pressure’ the mantra that we all hear regularly from the student who leaves work to the last minute. I’d be careful to open that box if I were you. You may just get what you wish for.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

“He sends text messages, how hard can getting him on Twitter be?”

A few months back I took a vague interest in how many University heads were on Twitter. I’ve been active on the social networking site for a few years now and have kept tabs on most of the main speakers in HE, but failed to come across more than a couple of UK Vice-Chancellors.

I asked Times Higher Education if they knew of any: ‘@vcsalford is the only one we know of UK-wise, there's also (blog from DCU president).’

I took a look, Professor Martin Hall sends out messages once every few days. Implies a busy schedule; but a connection with a popular emerging communication tool. Decent number of followers (315 currently) who he tends to interact with.

After a bit more digging I found that the office of the VC for Southampton is on Twitter (@Soton_VC_Office). Official messages in a corporate voice, little personal interaction but hasn’t been updated since mid January. Could it be that they found it too difficult to maintain as a staff and had to resource elsewhere?

Up until the recent emergence of the newly appointed De Montfort University Vice-Chancellor Dominic Shellard, in June this year, that was it. @DMUVC is doing very well at engaging with his audience as demonstrated by the near 300 followers that he had gained in a few weeks. Interacting with staff questions and claiming to be tweeting himself without the aide of an assistant with constant meeting updates is a time consuming task.

No other UK VC’s have ventured into the territory. So it begs the question: why?

“He send text messages, how hard can Twitter be?” These fairly logical words came from a friend of mine as we were discussing how to get senior academics into social media.

For some, commenting on current affairs and announcing the contents of their lives is an easy process – one akin to a good gossip in a pub. But winning executives round to incorporating a new piece of technology into their daily lives can be an incredibly tricky process.

Now let me be clear on this point, it is not that they find it difficult, my view is that the least cited yet most important excuse for not tweeting is ‘danger of exposure’. The examples above show three distinct styles for academics using social media:

1) Personal approach, vocal and frequent (@DMUVC)
2) Office approach, depersonalised and corporate messages (@Soton_VC_office)
3) A mixture of the above (@vcsalford)

Is one approached better than the other? I genuinely believe that Professor Hall has nailed it. A VC shouldn’t have the time to send dozens of tweets a day; a recent article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that constant use of social media reshapes our brains ‘and makes our thinking shallower’. Even if this isn’t the case, the amount of time spent online tweeting is akin to someone texting during a presentation – highlights a priority on PR of the self or the institution, rather than governance and executive management.

And for the hundreds of VC’s that aren’t on Twitter? It can’t hurt to give it a go. Provided that you aren’t spewing tripe about what you had for breakfast and use your podium to promote official messages and interact with your audience, it shouldn’t be incredibly daunting.

Yes it can open you up to attack, but it also creates a level of interaction and transparency that I feel is strongly needed in the sector. In the era of staff reductions and budget cuts, the sector must unify to a greater or lesser extent to promote its successes and apologise for its failures on a public platform, together. Only then can the public at large truly understand the incalculable benefits of investing in a higher education sector.

Communication is key. Having university executives on Twitter is just one way of attacking the issue.

Interesting to note that since my blog went out that @Soton_VC_Office has been disabled. Still exists in Google though.