Some Thoughts From Across the Pond

Two nations separated by a common language and a lot of acronyms. 

July 5, 2015

When we talk about higher education, Americans have a tendency to focus on some imaginary place that looks a bit like Harvard, has absurdly luxurious climbing walls and lazy rivers, involves months of campus visits and an anxious wait for acceptance letters before plunging students into hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. Dean Dad often reminds us that this is not  the experience of the vast majority of students, that half of them attend inexpensive community colleges (though a $5,000 debt load may be far more crushing than a $50,000 debt is for a student who comes from a place of privilege). We forget the enormous amount of diversity that we have in higher ed too often.

(This seems a good time to remind The New York Times that they really ought to hire Dean Dad to improve their higher ed coverage. John Warner would surely fit the bill, too.)

But I’m realizing that this diversity is even greater when you take into account that the US has a very different system (if you can call it that) and set of challenges than in, say, the UK, where I happen to be attending a conference. It’s humbling to realize how parochial our perspective often is – and, for me, to realize how some of my most basic thinking about teaching and learning and the place of the university in public life creaks and totters a bit when I see just how culture-bound my beliefs are.

SCONUL (also known as  The Society of College, National and University Libraries) is an association rather like ACRL – a national body representing academic libraries of all types. Their annual meeting is happening in tropical Southampton. (Yes, they have the odd palm tree, here. Lately they’ve also had record high temperatures.) I’ll be on a panel as the meeting closes and hope I don’t make a total fool of myself with all my higher ed culture shock on display. In preparation, I’m trying to ponder some of my observations from the first day of the conference.

Things we have in common:

  • We’re all scrambling for money.
  • We’re being urged to demonstrate how we’re worth the money that is spent on us even as we don’t have enough of it to keep doing what people expect us to do.
  • We’re trying to figure out how to make research open access. The UK has been on an accelerated timetable compared to the US, but there’s still a lot that’s up in the air in terms of how it will be funded and whether existing commercial publishers will carry on with open access as a new and profitable business model; meanwhile we’re sorting out what libraries can  contribute and whether our support could lead to something more equitable.
  • We’re trying to figure out what our role will be in a world where research practices are changing quickly and researchers are networked in new ways – which in many cases bypass libraries (except perhaps as an office somewhere else that pays for the stuff that you asked a colleague at another institution to send to you).  Cameron Neylon gave a fascinating presentation on this, and he has greater faith than I do that librarians can contribute something really valuable. I hope he’s right.
  • We’re really interested in helping students succeed – but that often comes into competition with spending time figuring out how to support researchers, who probably don’t know how libraries can help and have little idea that they can.

Things that are puzzling or different:

  • Acronyms. Lots and lots of acronyms. We have them, too, in the States, but I forget that I know they stand for. I know enough of the key UK library acronyms to get by, but when it comes to the politics of higher education, the subtleties escape me.
  • Centralization. Research funding and university priorities are much more influenced by the national government than in the US, where the politics are more local. For example, Minnesota and Wisconsin are neighbors, but we Minnesotans don't have the drama.The other surprise is that it’s not as centralized as it might seem. Devolution means that institutions of higher learning in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland now operate a bit differently than in England, and this is (I gather) rather new and for some a bit alarming.
  • Metrics. I'm on record saying we've gone overboard in the US on learning analytics and what are patently bogus impact factors but OH MY GOD in the UK they’ve turned counting things into an amazingly complex and thorough . . . not really an art, not really a science, and for what is a fairly secular society not a religion exactly, but numbers are collected and crunched and matter. Your university’s funding depends on how much research your faculty produce in the right places and whether the public is paying attention. Measuring teaching effectiveness will soon become A Thing (and a librarian at the conference questioned this very smartly, asking why it isn’t learning that’s being measured) but nobody seems to know how to do it, which  sounds very familiar.
  • Librarians in England seem very concerned that students who have to pay nine thousand pounds to attend university expect return on value that previously they wouldn’t because they weren’t customers, they were merely citizens. Some years ago, it was determined they should pay something; first a thousand, then three thousand pounds per year. In recent years, the cost to students has tripled. This was meant to introduce market efficiencies but mostly it seems to have been a way to reduce public spending and shift it to students. Of course, to a Yank, nine thousand quid sounds relatively reasonable, but it’s a shock to the system and seems to many librarians to require some new sort of concierge treatment, some special customer status. I mean, they’re paying now. They'll demand more, surely. In Scotland, which has less faith in market logic than the Tories down south, tuition remains free. I suspect Scottish librarians are no less interested in treating their students well. I’ve hear rumors that some northern counties have considered moving the border south of Hadrian’s Wall. Don’t quote me on that.

One thing, though, that is a constant is that librarians on both sides of the pond seem really invested in making a difference in the lives of students and in building a robust foundation for the advancement of knowledge. And you couldn’t meet a nicer, smarter, more hospitable bunch of people than I have at this conference.



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