Thursday, 17 August 2017

University courses, student loans/debts

Back after a long break, more or less resolved to blog at more regular intervals (thank you Walter!), but not at all optimistic.

Today the English and Welsh A-level results are out, determining university entrance. As well as the stock media debates about standards, fairness etc., this year there is much discussion of the massive debts incurred by students and the poor rates of repayment (determined by subsequent income). The interested parties - experts on education, school teachers, students, politicians of various hues - trot out their opinions on a ritualised annual basis, looking to score points rather than really thinking. No-one seems to be stepping back and asking radical questions (at least not those who obtain media time).

Let's ask some basic questions. Why is it that at age 18 (or so) we have determined that teenagers should embark on monolithic studies of three years (or four in Scotland) in highly defined areas in a way that determines much in their future lives, and more or less ensures that they will thereafter undergo no further formal education.

Why three or four years at this point in someone's life? There is no good basis for this "rule". If there is one single lesson I learnt over the course of my many years in the education world, it is that people develop at very different rates and ways, and have very diverse forms of intelligence and skill. Our current system cannot handle this diversity and fails most 16 to 18-year-olds to greater of lesser degrees.

My suggestion is that we think of scrapping the current assumptions about further education.

At school leaving age (itself open to revision), each student would be given a set number of further education credits (perhaps equivalent to a 3-year course) that they could take up at any point in their lives. Each credit would be "spent" on a course in a particular area of activity, ranging from carpentry to chemistry. This might be taken immediately following school, or after some kind of work experience. Subsequent credits could be taken in a continuous batch of studies over the same kind of period as now (above all for people of an academic inclination, who might move on to post-credit, "graduate" work), or at any time and after any interval of years. Someone might, for instance, gain some work experience in the law or in the building trade immediately on leaving school, and decide that they need to to upgrade their formal qualifications (ideally in collaboration with an employer).  Or they might decide to study something different, having gained some experience and a broader perspective. Or they might study for 2 years, leaving for employment, with the equivalent of one year's credits still available for future use. Someone else might want to change direction at any point in their life, either radically or re-tooling in their present area of activity to master new directions which were not apparent during their initial training. The requirement of jobs are not static in the present age of rapid technological and other changes. Someone who missed out on schooling, not having engaged with study, would have the opportunity to re-engage and gain valuable credits. None would be cast on the rubbish heap at 16 or later. Practical intelligence would be given as much chance to flower as academic intelligence.

No-one would be obliged to take up their credits. Someone who went straight into employment may achieve what they desire without further formal study. Someone who retires with, say, a year's credits still available might seek a fulfilling direction in the many years that will remain for many retirees.

Higher education providers would need to re-thing what they teach, how they attract students and the relationships of the qualifications to the worlds of employment. Students would be able assess the trajectory of their lives from a broader perspective. Schools would need to think about what diverse students need to launch themselves on worthwhile lives. Less exams and more actual teaching.

This flexible system might seem like a recipe for chaos in not knowing how many are going to be studying what. But the Open University has taught us that such numbers are forecastable on statistical basis. The system would settle down quite quickly.

The finance dimension needs thinking through. It may be that the equivalent of a year's study is met automatically by the state. Subsequently, courses could be financed by a cocktail of official and private support, the latter involving employers and perhaps direct loans. It may be that employers would contribute to a central pot of funds for later qualifications and re-tooling courses.

I have been the beneficiary of the present system. It suited a clever state-school boy of the 1950s and 1960s. There are increasingly few that it really suits over the full course of their lives. Let's seriously ask, "why three or four years in a row?'.

Saturday, 25 June 2016


I feel ashamed to be British. We have succumbed to  narrow-minded jingoism and covert (sometimes overt) racism, encouraged opportunistically be those who should know better.  The cosy political and financial cabal's in London must take their fair share of blame, and Corbyn's  Labour party has been wholly impotent.
It's clear that two factors won the day for brexit. The first and most prominent is immigration. Campaigners reporting from the "doorstep" indicated that this was almost the only issue that really counted. The second is decades of neglect of the regions, particularly in the North of England, which allowed those who have been "left out" to blame the EU - in spite of EU regional aid.  This does not apply to Scotland, which thinks behaves as a country.

We are now cut adrift in the North Sea, battered by financial and social storms and bereft of credible leadership.

What to do? We should strive to be internationalist on a world-wide basis, fostering genuine British values independently of the corrupt power structures that pertain in so many walks of life, above all financial. This means that we should do everything to stop John Major's "bastards" from taking over.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Gove and Johnson

Michael Gove paints a picture of Britain as a "progressive beacon" outside the EU. There is nothing "progressive" about Gove. He belongs to the intellectually dogmatic radical right. Let loose, he will privatise everything in sight. Johnson is of the emotionally opportunistic radical right.  Beside them, David Cameron's pragmatic right looks positively desirable.  The idea they can legitimately speak for a broad spectrum of society is absurd. They exploit inflammatory issues to draw in sectors of society with which they have nothing in common.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Jo Cox, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage

Let us characterise political and social views in the EU debate as a continuous spectrum. At one end is a tolerant internationalism, coupled with a proper recognition and respect for one's geographical and ethnic origins. At the other is committed racism and bigotry, underpinned by potential violence. All the mainstream politicians stand not too far from the middle of that spectrum - or claim to. The issue is which way they are facing when they look for support. There is no doubt that Johnson is consciously facing down the spectrum, implicitly looking for support from those closer to the racist end. Farage is more or less openly soliciting such support, while disclaiming racist views on his own behalf.
At the extreme end of the spectrum stand Brevic, the Norwegian killer, and now Mair, the murderer of Jo Cox. Those using fear of invading foreigners in the EU debate should ask themselves hard questions about which end of the spectrum they are facing.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Brexit and EU referendum

The debate, which has degenerated into a slanging match, has essentially become economics vs immigration. In the long term and in the big picture immigration is a secondary issue, inflated by politicians and press who are exploiting residual jingoism. What has been lost is any sense of the greater ideal of the European "family" , based on our shared heritage and future place in the world.
When I first visited America, I realised that I was European - as well as British, English (with a Scottish family), a resident of Stirlingshire. Do you remember at school proudly writing down one's address as (in my case)
122, Clarence Road,
Great Britain,
the Northern Hemisphere,
the World,
the Universe?

To which level we assign power over us is a matter of informed cultural and political choice. We are governed and regulated by entities ranging from local councils to the UN.  Europe is just part of the spectrum, and not as monolithically dominant as the bilious Brexiters spuriously claim.  On balance, the legislation passed by Europe compares very favourably with that passed by our national government.

Leaving Europe would be a disaster.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Attribution and other issues, mainly Leonardo da Vinci

After speaking at the Art in Authentication Congress in The Hague, I confirm that I am withdrawing the "advice service" I have been providing. This is the relevant statement.

Attribution and other enquiries

After almost 40 years of responding carefully to every message about attribution and other enquiries, including many concerning supposed “secrets” hidden in Leonardo’s works, I am stepping aside from this aspect of my activity. As a professor, I have been committed to the notion of public service, and have not taken any money for opinions, but the quantity of material I receive and the abuse to which I am subsequently subject on the internet means that this ideal is no longer sustainable in the IT age. I am sorry. This is a pity, but my work as a historian in public is being seriously distorted, not least by the unnecessary personalisation of arguments about matters of judgement.  I will continue to engage selectively with a few major items/issues and with important developments in the academic and public domains.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Leonardo La Bella Principessa: personalisation of the debate

In view the personalised nature of recent postings on the web about the attribution to Leonardo da Vinci of the profile of Bianca Sforza on vellum, I wish to make the following statement.

I wholly reject the personalisation of the debate. A matter of professional judgement is just that and no more. I would rather be right than wrong, but no-one has a divine prerogative to be right.
The totality of the evidence about Leonardo's authorship and the identity of the sitter presents what is close to an open-and-shut case. If genuinely new and decisive evidence indicates to the contrary I will accept that.
Ultimately a single attribution is not a "big deal" to me, either in the local terms of my publications on Leonardo over 50 years, or far more importantly in human terms - it is not a matter of life and death, and pales into insignificance in the light of the problems faced by those less fortunate than those of us who have the time and means at debate such matters.

(I will not be saying more on this unless genuinely new evidence comes to light, with the exception of a long-arranged talk at the Art in Authentication Congress in the Hague on 12th May, and a chapter in my forthcoming book, Living with Leonardo [2017].)