Policy failure as an opportunity?

Reading Peter Scott’s piece in the Guardian today, I was struck once again by the continuing failure of policy-makers in the UK to define a clear and consistent approach to British Higher Education. While I don’t think that’s just a UK problem, as Chad’s numerous posts here can attest, it’s one that impacts more directly on my professional experience.

In essence, Scott argues that the nominal drive towards ‘improving standards’ is fatally undermined by the lack of clarity about what ‘standards’ consists of, and about who sets and checks them. Financial implications and the pressures of a globalising market make it hard to gain university-level buy-in.

But while it’s easy to be all doom-and-gloom about this, it’s also worth reflecting on the possible opportunities it brings.Even if central government or individual universities can’t agree about such things, then they can still appreciate that they do matter. This means that there is space at the more local level to work on improving the quality of provision to students. And if we’re being good political scientists about it, then we all know the value of agenda-setting.

It’s a constant – and pleasant – surprise to me to see how many colleagues in institutions around the world are engaging in this kind of work. While the specific forms are very different, there are still shared characteristics: active learning, varied learning environments and incorporation of new technologies. By setting out de facto standards of what a modern curriculum and modern learning & teaching can look like, we ultimately shape what those with fancier job titles might decide.

I say this with the usual caveats about policy-making: my historical institutionalist preferences remind me that I shouldn’t expect radical change. However, I also know that facts on the ground count for a lot.

It’s with all this in mind that I travel in the coming week to Hong Kong with Amanda to run some ALPS workshops on curriculum design and using simulations: we’ll be filing some reports from there about how that works in practice and what lessons we all might take from it.