Last year BERA celebrated its 40th Anniversary in London, and this year’s annual conference in Belfast promises to be stimulating and invigorating with an emphasis on networking, exchanging ideas, learning more about research outside one’s own area and investigating connections. The conference notice encourages a positive sharing of learning and experiences. The keynotes on the trials of evidence based practice in education and pathways from research to policy implications for research underline challenges that educators in tertiary education face. These provide for stimulating consideration of the links between research and practice.
Political intervention and dependence on benefactors for funding is not new, it is inexorable
We need an opportunity for positive and stimulating conversations, and provocation for new ideas and work in what can be an environment which is challenging to say the least. ‘Globalisation, marketisation, and massification’ are used so frequently to describe the current influences on universities that they form a mantra along with having to operate in a neo liberal environment. Universities historically have faced pressures to be relevant, financially viable and competitive to meet local, national and global perceived needs and agenda. Political intervention and dependence on benefactors for funding is not new, it is inexorable.
The UK government states that it ‘is working with universities and colleges so that they can continue to provide high quality teaching and research and produce highly skilled graduates and post graduates, and welcomes strength in diversity. In Australia, the government is promoting a demand driven model, with reductions in financial support for research in particular (www.aph.gov.au). These national agendas create barriers that hedge and confine academic work and development.
Over recent decades, we have participated in a shift to learner-centred learning, self-managed learning, active learning, problem based learning, work-based and workplace learning, experiential learning, lifelong learning, and blended learning. Such approaches to learning and teaching are jusxtaposed against the realities of reduced funding for education, and universities operating as restrictive workplaces, with encouragement of short term operations, provision of job specific training and lack of staff involvement in decision making (Fuller and Unwin in Malloch et al, 2011).
Pressures for financial viability contribute to staff and course reductions, limit research and publishing opportunities, and impact on the contributions that universities can make to society
Universities as large organisations can succumb to hierarchical structures and restrictive work environments. Pressures for financial viability contribute to staff and course reductions, limit research and publishing opportunities, and impact on the contributions that universities can make to society and to individual learners. Quality and standards agendum intensify the processes of teaching and documentation, monitoring and evaluation. Computer software templates guide the academic to fill in boxes for the creation of new courses. Professional development is in how to manage risks and use the new software. Everything must be evaluated, measured and audited. Staff are exhorted to work smarter not harder, as they struggle to keep their jobs. Lunch breaks are spent hunched over the computer keyboard. What ever happened to erudite discussion and the lively exchange of ideas?
There are also the challenges to provide for a greater diversity of students with learning which is transformative, blended and with e-learning capacity, which encourages the learners to develop their capability. Staff need opportunities to work together with collegiality, to contribute actively to the development of their work. Universities should ideally be expansive workplaces with expansive learning environments (Fuller and Unwin, in Malloch et al, 2011) with includes opportunities for workers to participate in decision making, in workplace learning, time for reflection, workers to be seen as learners, ability to cross job and team boundaries, and to have a shared culture. Professional autonomy should be integral to such a workplace.
BERA has consistently provided a forum for informed consideration of education and this year’s conference will hopefully contribute to continued resolute participation in education.