HEA conference, roundup

by Paul Maharg on 23/06/2010

On the train, back to Newcastle.  Reflections on the last two days…

  1. Some years ago I attended the HEA conference at York U.  I seem to remember it was far bigger, though that might just be the effects of false memory.  This one in Herts was smaller, more subdued certainly, but that's hardly surprising.  But it was also more focused.  I seem to remember spending quite a time at the York conference trudging around in torrid weather from one distant session to the next.  This one was more focused in space — also in topic and theme.  It had the feeling of a conference with direction; so kudos to the organisers in York HQ for achieving that — no small achievement for a conference with over 400 delegates.  
  2. The question is, of course, in which directions we'll be going with HE.  I've just written a draft chapter (one reason why I've been silent on the blog for so long — it's one of several deadlines that stacked up like planes circling Heathrow…) for a book to be published by UKCLE on legal education, and as usual my head was full of phrases, ideas, bits of educational theory rattling around.  The only disappointing part of the conference for me was the Panel.  There was a lack of inspired, innovative educational thinking about universities that is also grounded in the possible — in what is possible given the many other pressures HE faces.  
  3. Having recently moved from one university sector (pre-1992 Strathclyde) to another (post-1992 Northumbria), I'm still sensitive to the divides between and allegiances within the sectors.  The vast majority of the participants were post-1992.  Ironically enough, and leaving aside whether it's in better economic shape that the pre-1992 sector, it may be best placed to make progress in the next few years, not just because it has to, faced with multiple cuts and an ever-reducing research pot, but because it's had to shape-shift so often since the early nineties.  This brings its own stresses, undoubtedly.  But if the process of change can be managed so that it's swift, focused and not endless then there may be advantage.  How might we do this?  We need intelligent use of technology (not more distance learning and less staff-student contact), intelligent collaborations between schools, faculties, whole institutions (not more mergers), a fundamental rethinking of disciplinary knowledge and its place in the world (not more Global Inc-branded programmes), and a substantial review of what constitutes international education and our place in it (not more fees via short-termist team-ups with local colleges abroad).  The best stream sessions pointed the way, in miniature.  Will we heed them? 
  4. I'm a Senior Fellow of the HEA.  I think there were a few other SFs present.  Maybe I missed it, but there was nothing in the programme for SFs, no special meet-up.  There was no SF stream, and as far as I know we weren't called upon to do anything for the conference. This is a sad waste of potential energy and creativity, and symptomatic of the need for a wider review of the place of SFs within the Academy.  We could do much more than we presently do.  Over to you, Academy — but thanks for the great conference.

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