Archive for February, 2008

Academics denounce courses tailored for businesses

Wednesday, February 27th, 2008

I’ve been writing a blog post on topics similar to this over the past few days but as it’s reached over 5000 words I might have to edit it down before I post it. In the meantime, read this Guardian story.

I share the worries, but wonder why it’s come as a surprise given that Sector Skills Councils have been around for about four years now with an overt policy of getting the government to make universities stop pushing the boundaries of knowledge and instead deliver nicely formed employees. Oh look, I’m off again – I’ll stop now and let you read the article yourself…

Lecturers today condemned reports that the government is planning a major expansion of the role business plays in the delivery of degrees, warning it will lead to graduates being ‘churned out’ of ‘identikit’ institutions.
A leaked document, seen by the Financial Times, suggests that ministers are considering ploughing extra funding into degrees jointly designed and funded by employers.

It also suggests that degrees could be redesigned to make them shorter and more intensive, reflecting an increasing interest in two-year qualifications.

The document, Higher Level Skills Strategy, dated from last November, recognises the ‘risks’ for universities in tailoring courses for businesses.

But it makes clear that the short-term expansion of higher education will be dominated by courses involved with industry.

‘An institution may worry about its public image,’ the FT reported the document as saying.

‘We expect the majority of this growth to be in provision that is developed with employer input – either foundation degrees [two year vocational degrees co-designed by employers] or employer co-funded places,’ it said.

A spokesman for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, refused to comment on the leaked document but confirmed an announcement made last December to plough £105m into ’employer engagement’, including co-funded places.

Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and Colleges Union, said: ‘University is about so much more than just getting students through their degree and out the other side. We should be celebrating universities that are prepared to take risks and push the boundaries in their pursuit of knowledge and research.

‘We need to trust people who have spent their lives working in education, not allowing business to dictate the short-term direction universities should be taking.

‘The creeping marketisation of higher education seems only concerned with a bottom line and treating students as commodities. Identikit institutions in all our towns and cities churning out graduates in a couple of years is not what the country needs to protect its proud position as world leader in teaching excellence and innovative research.’

The creative industries are the engine rooms of a modern economy? Not really…

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

According to Davide Kester, Chief Executive of the Design Council: “The creative industries are the engine room of a modern economy built on ideas and knowledge.”

Erm… really? Compare the ‘knowledge’ that’s come out of, say, the film industry or the fashion industry to the number of patents, medical discoveries, technologies and who knows what else that researchers in universities produce each year.

The creative industries may be built on ideas and knowledge, but that knowledge is produced elsewhere.

So not so much the engine room of a modern economy, more the onboard shopping mall.

The creative industries are important, but a little perspective would be good here.

‘Universities should offer more information about courses to Facebook generation’

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

Universities should offer more detailed information about courses to the Facebook generation, the shadow universities secretary, David Willetts, said today.
The Guardian’s Higher Education summit heard that students were sharing information about the offers they receive for university courses on social networking sites, forcing universities to rethink the kind of information they give out.

Willetts said students should be able to find out how crowded seminars were likely to be, how much access time they would receive from lecturers and what form this access would take.

‘Universities are going to have to become more proficient at answering these kinds of questions, even if it is something that many are uncomfortable with,’ he said.

Willetts also gave a cautious welcome to a new commercial website designed to plug into social networking sites and disseminate information to 5,500 higher education institutions across the world.

Jancice Kay, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter and chairwoman of the student experience policy group of the 1994 group of smaller research-led universities, said it was important for universities to become more transparent in response to the increasing use of Facebook sites by students exchanging information about their courses. This was the only way they would be able to maintain control of the information that students received and make sure it was accurate, she said.

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of the Universities UK student experience committee, warned that much of the information available to students over the web is misleading and inaccurate.

‘If there are questions to be asked, what better place to ask them than on an open day?’ he said.

It’s magic!

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

I’m giving a paper in New York in April on the way in which some design writers and designers describe creativity in almost magical terms.
Last night I woke up with an idea floating round my head – I want to do something a bit different from the usual dry conference paper and thought it might be an idea to write ‘extracts’ from books that feature magic but reinterpreted slightly.

Here’s my first attempt:

Gandalf looked at Frodo carefully. “Where is the ring?” he asked the hobbit.

“The ring?” stammered Frodo, trying not to look over to the fireplace where he had left the letter from his uncle.

“The ring” Gandalf repeated, moving slowly towards his little friend.

“Oh, that” said Frodo, giving in under the pressure of the wizard’s stare. He pointed to the hearth. “It’s over there. I don’t see what’s so special about it.”

Gandalf rose up – or as far as he could in the small burrow – and took a deep breath as he turned to see the open envelope. His eyes narrowed as he glimpsed a glint of cold metal. The ring!

In a pace he was there, picking up the envelope and allowing the ring to fall inside. But as it touched the bottom of the envelope and came close to his palm it seemed to burn him. Cursing, Gandalf let go of the package and it fell into the fire, incinerating the paper and leaving the ring sitting nestled in flame. “Now you will see what is so special about the ring,” he murmured to Frodo.

The hobbit crept forwards and, half hiding behind Gandalf he gazed in to the flames, expecting to see the ring melting on the coals. Instead he saw… “What’s happening?” he whispered.

“Magic!” exclaimed Gandalf. “No! Better than magic!” he corrected himself, grabbing a poker and pulling the glowing ring from the ashes. Frodo leant forwards to see a mysterious Elvish script engraved onto its surface. “ The ancient magic!” shouted Gandalf, “Typography!”

He stopped suddenly and peered intently at the cooling metal, grabbing it from the poker and, wincing slightly at the heat, he let his eyes drop, giving out a disappointed ‘Oh”.

“What’s wrong?” said Frodo, worried at the disappointment in his friend’s normally sparkling eyes.

Gandalf turned to face him slowly, a look of disgust on his face. He showed the ring to Frodo, the strange Elvish words still dancing with flame. “It’s Comic Sans”, he said. “I hate that font”.

Five hours of ‘culture’ a week for kids

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

The Guardian reports:

The green paper (to be published this month by The Department of Media, Culture and Sport ) is also expected to call for a £200m national film centre, as well as 19 other schemes intended to turn Britain into the ‘world’s creative hub’. Other pledges include the launching of a global arts conference, dubbed the ‘World Creative Economy Forum’ modelled on Davos, the creation of a new college of digital media and the protection of live music venues such as the Astoria and the Hammersmith Apollo in London.

The government is also expected to reveal plans for a new creative festivals season, a new film centre on London’s South Bank and a permanent home for London fashion week.

Under plans to be announced by Gordon Brown and the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, children will be given the right to ‘five hours of culture a week’ encouraging them to visit galleries and museums, attend the theatre, or study a musical instrument.

And some 1,000 creative apprenticeships for young people are also being proposed, which will be managed by a new Skills Academy.

Overselling universities

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Richard Florida:

Businesses, governments and economists talk of getting local universities more involved in technology transfer, commercial innovation and start-ups. ‘If only our university could be more like Stanford and MIT,’ they say.

The idea actually sells universities short. It oversells their commercial role and underestimates their other contributions.

Read in full

The difference between broadsheet and tabloid

Monday, February 4th, 2008

The Guardian reports:

Chinese court upholds death sentence against businessman accused of defrauding investors in would-be ant-breeding scheme

Or as the Sun would report it if they cared about such things:

Ant and Dec-apitate

(Only British readers will get it)

Design Cultures – a design blog worth reading!

Monday, February 4th, 2008

Regular readers of this blog may be interested in another that I keep, Design Cultures.

It’s intended as an educational resource for my own students but it gets a wide traffic from around the world. Basically I collect design-related stories from around the blogosphere and post them there, usually in their entirety, with links to the original source. It’s not been going long but there are already over 200 stories on there. I seem to be working on it from the moment I get up!

So if you’re interested in all aspects of design (and some of the stories are fairly obtuse at first) then head on over there.

And for your homework, please design a torture device (Updated)

Monday, February 4th, 2008

On first reading, this seems like a bit of a ‘whoops’ story (and that’s being kind). But as I read it I kept thinking, ‘hang on, there’s a possible logic to this’ and there it is, right in the last line. But don’t spoil it for yourself, read the whole thing…

My thoughts after the article.

An architectural school was at the centre of a row last night after it emerged that students were required to design a fully operational torture device.
The project, part of a masters course aimed at first-year students of the University of Kent’s School of Architecture, was described as ‘sick’. One student has lodged a complaint on the grounds that he was uncomfortable about carrying out the brief. Illustrated by a skull and a view of a Gestapo electric torture chamber, the brief handed to a class of students at the school was to ‘design, construct and draw a fully operational prototype torture device based on ergonomic principles’.

They were encouraged to ‘be original’ and instructed: ‘You may use a historical precedent as a point of departure or attempt to develop something completely without precedent. Through design development we hope you may advance your understanding of ergonomics as it pertains to torture.’

Paul Hyett, a former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) responsible for the Treatment Centre for Torture Victims in London, said the school was dabbling in ‘dangerous territory’ and called for the project to be stopped.

Hyett said: ‘It’s sick. Architecture should be about enriching our lives culturally and lifting the spirits of the people who live or work in the buildings we create. There is absolutely no circumstance where any piece of equipment for torture has any positive use in our lives or our society. This is monstrously complicated territory and I don’t think that amateurs should mess around in it. I’m appalled.’

George Ferguson, also a past RIBA president, said: ‘Architecture isn’t practised in some Britart external gallery. What we should be teaching students is about people-friendly buildings and it is obtuse to start with extreme discomfort as a way of teaching it. I would understand it in a philosophic course but I do not begin to understand it in a serious architecture course.’

The head of the University’s architecture department, Professor Don Gray, confirmed that one of the 12 students had complained. He said: ‘The only person who has raised any objection has been given the opportunity to address the project from a different angle. I agree that it is a slightly shocking introduction to a very serious long-term design project. I’m neither justifying it or defending it but that is how we are going about it.’

The two-week project was designed by course tutor Mike Richards, in advance of a project to design a new headquarters for Amnesty International.

So here’s my two penn’orth:

I’ve used provocation with students in the past to get them to see a problem from ‘the other side’ as it were. It can be controversial, but it’s in keeping with the spirit of free enquiry enshrined in our university system and culture. If you’re designing something for Amnesty International, it makes complete sense to immerse yourself in the problem of torture and the minds of those who do it.
Without knowing the full story, it’s stupid to speculate. So in the best tradition of 24hr news programmes let me do just that.

I suspect Mike Richards believes this is a legitimate way to help his students understand the issues that Amnesty campaign on, and if that’s the case then I support his novel approach. I would have suggested that the brief be explained in these terms and, seeing as only one student has complained, suspect that this did in fact happen (there’s always one).

The people quoted in this article have either not appreciated that higher education isn’t a cosy world of teaching students what they need to know to do a docile job, but of confronting them with knowledge of how the world works, or they’ve been given only half the story. If the former, they should think again. If the latter, they shouldn’t have commented at all (and the Guardian should be ashamed of itself).

(Update: Design Week is carrying the story, and even more badly written)