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Are Universities Losing Their Way?

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The pieces first appeared in the September and October '09 blogs.


Having Retired

Several people have asked me whether I am missing teaching. It’s a thought that surfaces as universities begin a new academic year with Induction Week. I hear of the son of an ex-colleague going from home to the north-east to be an undergraduate. The daughter of another friend has moved to the Liverpool area as another. It’s impossible to avoid hearing about the new academic year beginning.

Having first taught full time in 1962 and been involved inside education at secondary, higher and adult levels; and having worked in the tourism industry for 19 years, almost all of which being connected with education in one way or another, I will, perhaps a little rashly, venture some comments. Some will be considered too critical - might be claimed as unfair - but many people in many universities feel that higher education is losing its way and I offer these as some of the reasons why.

The answer to the question about missing teaching is a definite no. Well, OK, I miss many good friends amongst my well-respected ex-colleagues. I miss the fun and pleasure to be had teaching. Our students were outstanding in virtually every year, a delight to know, to teach, and - to learn from. I miss them.

The trouble is, to be honest, that education at all levels, and especially higher education, is turning more and more into a mass-production process. Numbers of students increase with scant regard for the level of resources that are needed to teach them. I worked out a while back that, in comparison with 1992 when I moved from the tourism industry into higher education, in 2009 I had only half the time available to deal with each student that I had then.

There are problems that universities have these days that did not exist in the same measure in the past. Of course some have these problems more than others. The ‘new’ universities formed from polytechnics in 1993 probably suffer more than the longer-established institutions because of the huge pressure they are under to compete as research and teaching universities which also have to earn through consultancy work. Financing higher education depends on all these things in a cut-throat environment, or, as an ex-colleague of some years back put it, in a dog-eat-dog world.

I have to compare universities with local government service, employment by educational charities and work in commerce. I give them in that order according to the length of time I worked in those types of organisations. For commerce it was just over a year, but I also acted as a leader for special interest weekends set up by what was at the time one of the largest hotel groups in the UK. That work spread over about 24 years with three or four weekends a year, and had to respond very definitely to commercial requirements – especially customer service - successfully: there was a rebooking rate of well over 90%. If you need to, have a look at the page listed to the left, near the bottom, “About The Author” for more detail of the sort of places I am using for comparisons.

The conclusions are not good. Clearly what universities are trying to do is very different from what local government, the charities (a major museum and a professional association) and commercial firms are trying to do. Universities, however, are faced with the need for rapid change in a way which calls for very different management approaches to be adopted quickly, and therein lie some huge problems.

Let me say here that the university where I served is, I believe, no different as far as problems go as any other, similar, institution. I would also say that much of its work was – still is – outstanding, with dedicated, hard-working staff. It is held in high regard by its students and ex-students. However, the demands and pressures placed upon it, as with so many other universities these days, are severe, imposed from above and requiring instant responses when it is long-term development strategies that are needed.

So I will refer to several problems which stand firmly in the way of good, sensible higher education development. You can add others, I’m sure. They are:

1 The public relations shell which surrounds university operations and which is replacing proper discussion of issues.

2 The heavy new demands on management at all levels with teachers often having to supply that management through processes in which many have little experience or training.

3 The cult of individuality – team-working is often misunderstood; rivalries can be fierce and left unchallenged.

4 Advancement depends on individuals succeeding, sometimes at the cost to others.

5 Competitive fragmentation follows from the previous two.

6 Management can be weak with people in posts for which they have little aptitude - a problem shared with most other organisations, obviously.

7 There are no rewards for being a good teacher – only gold stars. The rewards of prestige, pay and position go to those with a name for research, a willingness to become managers, or those able to pull in consultancy money. Yet it is good teaching that counts, overwhelmingly, at all levels.

8 What might be characterised as a teacher’s commitment ‘to serve them all my days’ in a more altruistic age has virtually disappeared since the 1980s.

9 Students coming from much wider ranges of knowledge, experience and culture - itself something to be wholly welcomed - but therefore often needing far more help and guidance from overworked staff.

10 A financial system which means most students must take on paid work requiring long hours (some - few - have accepted full time jobs) removing the ability for make teaching programmes flexible, exhausting many students, and reducing their discretionary educational time.

I will expand on these thoughts individually in the next few postings.


Numbers Game

Higher education has become a numbers game. Government targets, upon which the major part of funding is dependent, and a culture of competition between institutions and between similar courses are the main reasons. Universities have become sausage machines turning out products – the marketing terminology is everything – courses in new flavours, shapes and sizes determined by academic committees trying to think like marketers. With the disadvantage that many people on those committees don’t understand marketing anyway. They fail to follow through the need to gear their whole philosophies to driving new courses properly. Often, a senior manager decides that a new course sounds good and leaves the ‘marketing’ to a more junior colleague. They forget that in taking the decision they have destroyed their collective ability to carry out the real marketing process.

Is it possible to win the numbers game? Yes – but usually at the expense of educational values. One of the buzz-word phrases is that higher education is ‘student-focused’. That should mean that students learn how to study and take their own decisions. In reality the system has become dominated by tick boxes and spreadsheets that measure attainment to decimal points against tabulations of criteria. It’s a way of winning the game by devising formulae. The solution chosen is to try to number-crunch. Even in this approach, trying to be correct via statistics, the distinctions between levels of success remain largely subjective. Systems that appear to have clear guidelines using finely-tuned criteria and analysed by spreadsheet are virtually always fallacious. This is because you can’t have ‘finely-judged criteria’ when assessing peoples’ expressed opinions.

The whole point about university teaching is that it trains people to enter a world where decisions are taken based on shades of disagreement. The clash of independent thinking is what will lead to some kind of stronger outcome refined by the debate itself. Students have to write essays and reports or give presentations which must have valid, evidence-based ideas but otherwise be matters of opinion. They will be marked by tutors whose viewpoints are equally nuanced compared one with another. So if the marking criteria defines work worth a mark of 60+ as being “excellently argued but with minor flaws” and one of 70+ as “excellently argued throughout”, what exactly does “excellently argued” mean – what exactly are “minor flaws”? Try applying that to an essay discussing, for example, current government strategies towards regional development. Tutors might argue till the cows come home about whether something is worth one grade or another. Having criteria is essential, but trying to turn the process into something like an algorithm is doomed to failure.

This kind of highly-prescriptive strait-jacket of a system imposed on both tutors and students reduces both the opportunity for the latter to experiment and investigate broader issues and for the former to tailor their teaching programmes to meet the needs and aspirations of their students. The aim of many current systems is to handle large numbers in what is hoped to be a scrupulously fair process. The question has to be asked: is it actually ‘scrupulously fair’ or is it only superficially, outwardly fair? Can any system be devised that can lay down procedures which will deal with every eventuality, without creating a bureaucratic nightmare in which the time available for good teaching is squeezed out? That would appear to be the situation in many universities today.

Universities are bound to respond positively, at least in public, to the policies laid down by government. So when challenged about the problems of teaching large numbers they will point to ‘creative approaches’, ‘web-based learning’, ‘student-centred programmes of study’ and the like. I know a lot of very good, highly creative and effective approaches that colleagues developed. They were often aimed at helping them deal with lecture and workshop groups that are double or treble what they were fifteen years ago. It is a matter for debate as to how effective they have been.

Web-based learning does extend the ‘library’ of resources that students have. It might correct spelling and grammar, warn of inadequate referencing, mark multiple-choice tests and aid tutors in giving feedback comments. It’s a long way from engaging an individual student in learning how to string relevant thoughts together, using analysis, evaluation and creative synthesis. Student-centred learning is a worthy and laudable aim – it is what universities have being striving towards for decades – but it requires students to know how to research, analyse, evaluate and then construct knowledge-based approaches for themselves. And many, many of them arrive from schools and colleges inadequately equipped.

Having qualifications in a number of subjects is only part of the spread of skills and aptitudes necessary for successful graduation: attitudes - conscientiousness, application, hard work, initiative, cooperation, sociability and more are essentials. Universities have to make decisions about applicants’ abilities in these areas based solely on UCAS application forms. In these, the candidates’ statements and teachers’ references can only be an approximate guidance at best, and at worst ... downright misleading. There is little time for interviews or tests of one kind or another, and often the pressure is on to fill courses.

It’s a numbers game.


Public Debate Or Public Relations?

As someone who spent 19 years in tourism marketing I can recognise different qualities of public relations practice. There are all kinds – the good, the bad and the ugly. In one way or another every individual human being uses it in presenting themselves to other people. Education in general can be considered a form of public relations in that it tries to present particular choices about knowledge, opinions and actions and aims to persuade people – children, students – to accept them. So it is hardly surprising that universities employ it. Faced with present day pressures and the need to sell themselves in a way that they never had to before, HE institutions have had to adopt some hard PR tactics.

The trouble is, those tactics can involve adopting not just a few skilled specialists giving a service where required: they can introduce a management culture which runs right through the system from top to bottom. It can be a culture which crowds out internal and external debate, comment and criticism. At its worst – and the worst exists in some institutions – it becomes a form of repression, not encouragement.

As in politics and big business there exists a set of predictable responses to those who disagree, those who raise issues, criticise. We see it in party politics all the time. The public becomes totally disbelieving of anything that a political leader tries to claim. If that level of disaffection is reached within our major training and research institutions education will become divorced from the wider community, destroying itself from within.

Here is a test. Try checking this short list against the kind of responses given by national politicians. How many times do we find these as the kind of answers they give to critics of their actions? Then try checking the way that business leaders do it in similar circumstances. Do people who deal with universities find these responses in use?

When criticism is made, do they debate the issues openly, or else:

React with hurt that anyone should even mention it

Claim that criticisms do more harm than good at this sensitive time

Accuse the critic of being out of date – trying to judge by outdated criteria

Refer to successful activities and initiatives which present a better picture, while blatantly avoiding the issues

State that the comments do not apply to the wider picture within the organisation

Say that changes have already been made which have changed the situation fundamentally

It makes an interesting comparison, especially when you realise that these three sectors control the government, commercial life and educational future of the country.


The Cult Of Individuality

To a degree unknown in other kinds of organisations, the core of every university is one made up of highly independently-minded people – the tutors. The saying about the difficulty of herding cats must have been devised with the management of university teachers in mind. By origin academic independence is an important principle as it was a way of safeguarding its independence from interference by governments, religious interests, commercial companies and pressure groups.

Academics should have the right to say what they like and what they believe in, within the framework of the laws of libel and slander. Such groups of researchers and thinkers ought to represent a priceless resource that communities have to help them make the best decisions across the entire spectrum of human activity. They should be available for consultation, advice and, of course, should be entrusted with the top level of education of the next generations of leaders in each and every field.

That’s at its best.

At its worst it doesn’t work like that. First of all there are external and internal pressures shaping the expression – or non-expression – of opinions. Academic staff who are planning out their careers have to be careful of biting the hand that feeds them. This means, primarily, the internal management of the university school, faculty or central management. Externally it means the people responsible for funding, grant-aiding or sponsoring research or new courses. Blue sky research – that which is done for its own sake, rather than that which has some immediate practical application in mind - is not common, at least not in the newer universities. They are struggling to establish a research profile since as polytechnics they probably concentrated on teaching. Governments fund UK universities partly on their standing as successful, active research institutions. Other organisations wanting research and consultancy work done will choose according to the reputation of the research department.

When money is short the power of governments and commercial companies is even greater. Many people would say that is how it ought to be. But it is a situation which raises huge questions about academic freedom, especially if the effects on the results of research being bought by government and commerce is thought through. How those customers influence researchers to move in certain directions would be the subject of a whole book and beyond the scope of the present discussion, but all part of the process.

The second downside of ‘academic freedom’ is the fact that the phrase can be a catchword to be used whenever an academic wants to insist on going his or her own way. The culture in higher education is one in which the success of an individual depends on them making their mark, individually. They might work with other people but it will usually be as part of a group sharing certain aims but still essentially individuals. Team working might exist where more hierarchical units are set up – academics plus technicians plus research assistants for example – but the importance of individuality weighs against true integration.

The results have been the basis of satirical work ranging from ‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis (1954) to the Times Higher’s ‘Poppleton’ column written by Laurie Taylor which dissects the activities of another fictitious university. In the cartoon strips by Posy Simmonds in ‘Mrs Weber’s Diary’ (1979), Mrs W is married to a frustrated sociology lecturer, George Weber. He rails against back-stabbing by colleagues who act more like rivals manoeuvring to get their research papers published, their courses given prominence and themselves given advancement. There can result what I would call ‘competitive fragmentation’ in which a fatal mix of ambitious, unscrupulous individuals and managers lacking both vision and ability can destroy whole educational programmes.

Yes, it happens in other places, too, but I suspect having had experience of many it is more marked in higher education and all the more regrettable since these are the places where the next generation of leaders is being trained.


No Rewards

The importance of the ‘student experience’ is stressed heavily in universities. It is the foundation of successful higher education. It makes the relationship between students, tutors and support staff a happy one. And it is a powerful marketing tool. The student experience must revolve around teaching. Lectures, seminars, workshops and tutorials form the teaching process backed up by library and computer-based resources serving the student’s reading programme. But it is the delivery of lectures and the running of workshops and seminars by good teachers which makes up by far the biggest part of the educational experience. Whatever reading or other work the student undertakes will be inspired (or pushed) by the tutor’s leadership.

Universities compete for students and resources. They survey and measure the ‘student experience’ very deliberately using the long-established means of counting the number of degrees awarded and at which level. First class degrees are cherished, as are Upper Seconds. Lower Seconds are not so good, but at least respectable. Third class degrees and Unclassified degrees are usually regarded as failures, even though they are degrees and for some of the recipients they might represent the overcoming of difficult times or a personal background lacking in familiarity with the higher levels of education. University managers analyse the marks awarded to every course component, every year of the course and finally the average mark in all his or her modules that the student achieves. Questions are asked of teaching staff whose modules are considered to be below average, whether or not the subject was easy or difficult. Managers tend to consider all marks should be high: levels of complexity, technicality or unfamiliarity, all of which can depress final marks, are considered lamentable because they reduce grades. Many a tutor has been told they should teach better or just reduce the problems. This, course, is known to many as “dumbing down”.

So it comes as a bit of a shock to anyone examining the system that good teaching, on which the final outcome depends, receives little recognition or reward. I say ‘little’ because there are some token rewards given to a few good souls, of which more later. What rewards could be on offer? Sometimes teaching staff can be moved up a point or two on their pay scales. Usually it is a case of encouraging a good tutor to apply for re-grading. A Lecturer could become a Senior Lecturer. A Senior Lecturer could move up to become a Principal Lecturer. The catch is this: each move upwards will bring increased management responsibilities. Becoming a PL brings prestige and enhanced pay – but also takes the position-holder away from teaching to greater or lesser degree. Being seen as a successful PL adds even more management roles with a reduction in teaching commitment. Some PLs have little actual teaching.

It’s an old saying and I have referred to it on these pages before, quoting Ted Stubbs with whom I taught in secondary school in 1962-1964. Ted retired in '64. He had said to me that “the measure of success in teaching is the distance the person puts between himself and the classroom”. I could see even then what he meant and how true it was, as teachers became headmasters or lecturers in training colleges. Some less-than-competent teachers I have known went to training colleges because they were poor teachers.

I have seen good teachers pushed up the management ladder and prove to be hopeless at management. They weren’t trained for it and they weren’t, in turn, managed properly by their managers but left to flounder.

There are two other routes out of the classroom for university teachers. One is into research. This is attractive work and carries much prestige, and is usually rewarded if the right kind of research is done by postgraduate degrees including the much admired title of ‘Doctor’ which comes with a PhD (itself a demanding path to follow). Universities need staff with PhDs in order to attract prestige which brings funding and students. So tutors who spend some years working towards a PhD can, towards the end of their tribulations, be given lighter teaching timetables to free up research and writing time. It’s a good thing – except that someone else has to take on extra teaching to support their PhD colleague.

In theory they can ask for the same support later on. In practice there is a Catch 22 situation. Getting established as an MA or PhD candidate requires someone to prove they can write research papers, which at first means using their own time almost entirely. If the tutor concerned has shouldered a heavier teaching workload and been successful then they will find it virtually impossible to escape from it. Teaching brings masses of working in the individual’s own time anyway, meaning they struggle to research and write their first papers. It is often done by skating round quality teaching in favour of the bare minimum required.

The other route out is into consultancy. Similar rewards accrue – prestige, time to do more of this kind of work rather than teaching, research positions within the hierarchy – bringing a higher salary – and so on. Again, other colleagues have to take on teaching to free the consultant, who will be bringing in large sums of money to the institution. They will also travel more, often to distant locations, depending on their subject and work in hand. Along with the researchers the consultants will get to more conferences and they will be called upon to speak to the media, increasing their personal, as well as university, profile.

It should be added here that the researchers and consultants – often the same people – will also be working on journal papers, books and possibly media productions of various kinds. All of these things are extremely important and valuable to the institution and to the wider professional community – and possibly they will have direct benefit to the man and woman in the street. But there is a high cost in the workload to be shouldered by other people and in the movement of skilled tutors away from teaching – still the core activity of any university.

So what are the ”token rewards” that are given to the good teachers on whom successful tuition depends, if they choose not to follow the management or research-related routes? Perhaps a prize or two, given each year to a dozen people lucky enough to be nominated by their fellows, and judged as ‘successful’ on some sort of criteria by the management. A dozen out of several hundred, once a year. A prize of money to attend a conference, buy some books, or perhaps a nicely printed certificate to go in a frame on the office wall. It’s a cheap gesture, and in the minds of many who work in places that do it, an insult.


No Such Thing As ..... A Teaching Vocation?

In September 1987 the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, gave an interview to ‘Woman’s Own’ magazine in which she used one of the most controversial phrases of her period in office. She said “There is no such thing as society”. Her critics often say she was responsible for turning everything into matters of profit; profit to be made by individuals. Some say that she knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.
I am coming to the conclusion that it was the cultural changes of the 1980s – by no means all driven by Margaret Thatcher or, indeed, her political allies – that eroded, perhaps destroyed, the idea of teaching as a vocation. I may be wrong in this idea about teaching in schools, but I don’t think I am wrong to come to this conclusion about teaching in higher education.

Yes, there were people in the Sixties when I studied in university who were ambitious for their own careers above all else, but they seemed to be the exception. And I am not confusing the natural desire to get on, to do well, with the hard-edged ambition to climb the ladder not caring whose fingers got trodden on. I referred in an earlier posting to authors who wrote satirically about university life. If they were writing today I suspect they would have even stronger comments to make. As well as Kingsley Amis and Posy Simmons – one a novelist, the other a narrative cartoonist – we can look back on Malcolm Bradbury’s ‘The History Man’ and Frederick Raphael’s ‘The Glittering Prizes’ for their novelisation of university life and culture up to, and including, the 1970s. All kinds of attitudes were changing, though the kind of self-regarding, sardonic characters found in Amis and Simmons still existed: they always did, they always will, no doubt.

Yet it seems as though the feeling of optimism, social inclusion, opportunities-for-all spirit of the Fifties and Sixties was being attacked by the never-had-it-so-good culture of the Sixties and Seventies and by the era of Thatcher there was being added the cult of the individual being encouraged to get rich quick in any way they chose and with official blessing.

What are the symptoms of the malaise that I am ascribing to modern universities? Does it extend throughout them all? Of the second question I can only surmise and suspect, but my suspicions are strong and that it is. On the other hand, thank goodness, by no means everyone in universities is climbing the ladder, the greasy pole, in an attempt to grab advantages at any cost.

Altruism, care, vocation – call it what you will, still exists. But the system is no longer built on it, but on the ‘modern’ principles of individual ambition. I would be interested in hearing what other people in higher education think – and would publish suitable emails, with permission and anonymously if required so long as I was given details of where the author is teaching for confirmation. The views of ex-students would be welcome – from any university.


Competitive Fragmentation

Try herding cats, they say ... the little perishers race of in all directions, wherever they want to go.

It’s like that in higher education when a set of academics want to achieve things and the management is weak – sometimes virtually non-existent. The goals that are set at the top are those that universities are desperate for, given government policies: high profiles, income from consultancy and paid research, more and more students and students attracted from sectors without previous HE experience. Individual academics quite rightly want to progress in order to gain increased job satisfaction and pay.

So with the policy carrot and the personal stick of ambition every tutor will be looking for their own projects by which they can achieve these things.

From my own experience in both the public sector and commercial firms the level of teamwork approaches is, in HE, comparatively low. I would say extremely low in some departments where management is poor.

It has also been my experience that some departments are much better run, either because they have managers with non-HE experience or because they learnt their job at a time when universities had a stronger culture of caring about the people working within them. The rapid expansion of higher education over the last decade and more has meant the appointment of some managers who lack sufficient vision and management skills.

Put together the weakness of some management groups and the dynamic of a set of intelligent, ambitious individuals and the result becomes destructive. People pull in all directions until teams fall apart: what I would call ‘competitive fragmentation’.


Widening Participation, Thinning Resources

Quite rightly, there are many initiatives aimed at getting a broader cross-section of the community well represented in universities. As someone who, 45 years ago, went into higher education from a mill-worker family I am very much in favour. I know how a few years in university changed my life and opened up many new opportunities. I also know what the problems are: joining an academic world with a different vocabulary, strange systems and a confusing bunch of teachers. As I ended my working life with 17 years as a member of one of those sets of teachers I did see the process from both sides. It was also a delight to see how most students not only coped but settled in and got the best they could out of the system. But some failed and withdrew, a few within the first weeks, others on the brink of what had looked like their home straight to a degree or diploma.

The UK government wants to see half the school population go on to higher education. The percentage has increased to around 40% (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills figures for 2007/8) - 37% were on full time courses and 7% part time. In recent years the figures have faltered a little making it difficult to know for sure what the current trends are, but they are very much higher than in 1960 when, according to Vikki Bolivar of the Department of Sociology at Oxford University one in twenty school-leavers went into Higher Education. At that time there were 180,000 undergraduates compared with 1.8 million in 2008. Of course in 1960 there were fewer universities – 21 of them plus a number of other HE institutions, as against 172 today.

There are, of course, many different universities with different courses, situations and resources. It might be misleading to generalise across all of them. I will confine myself to Leeds Metropolitan University and the Tourism Management course on which I taught in order to make a point about quality. It might be quite unrepresentative. I suspect it is not, but I do expect it to represent many universities, especially the ‘new’ institutions converted from being polytechnics in February 1993.

As I commented in a posting introducing this topic (21.09.09) I worked out a few months back that compared with 1992 when I started teaching at Leeds Met, in 2009 just before retirement I had half the time to be available to each student. This reflected changes in most modules where I would deliver only one third or a half the number of lectures per module subject, run one workshop per student group per week instead of two, and have to be available for individual tutorials requested by students far less often – instead of forty or fifty students in a year group in ‘92/’93 there would typically be 120 in ‘08/’09.

Assessment exercise per module were being typically reduced because of staff time available to mark them – essays, reports, exam answers, presentations etc – from two to one. Multiple choice test papers were being encouraged as a partial solution: the problem, of course, is that those things deal with simple facts or judgements and do not help at all with the core of undergraduate intellectual life, namely the well written and rigorously developed discussions that professional thinking requires. Web-based systems of on-line quizzes were put forward along with other, similar ideas. Some of them had great merit and potential, but only in support of real teaching.

And what do I mean by ‘real teaching’? Well, in a lifetime of experience, not only in teaching but in raising children, managing work teams and developing my own skills, such as they are, I am sure that it takes on average at least three tries before someone gets right some new skill, handles factual knowledge competently or is able to analyse, synthesise and then communicate clearly through writing or speech. Any level of good, effective teaching is based on the one-to-one interaction between the tutor and the student (in which the tutor learns all kinds of relevant things via the same process). Giving a book or handout to read does not do the job of itself. Delivering a lecture does not. Having a PowerPoint or Word document available online is no substitute, even though it might be a good support.

So unless the number of teachers – real, live, human ones who are available by knocking on their office doors or chatting after a session – is increased in step with the student numbers, the process is going to be severely compromised.

Widening participation therefore adds a set of problems. Students from backgrounds without the same element of academic education in the family need more help and guidance. They have difficulties understanding and practising what is required. I did when I took on a subject that I had not taken in school beyond around age 15. It was a struggle. I could therefore sympathise with students who found formal academic writing difficult, or were fazed by terms like ‘critically analyse’ in assignments.

Setting government-decreed targets for the numbers of students in university is bound to be destructive unless at every stage the increases that result are met by better resources of every kind in exactly the same ratio – preferably, if quality is to go up as well, at an even better level. Otherwise the numbers game, bringing in more less-well equipped students, is bound to do what I think it has, and erode the whole experience and outcome.

Boliver, V (2008) PowerPoint slides of a lunchtime seminar of 20.10.08 available at:

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