At the Bottom of the World.

Staying in Australia as the down under Winter begins its creep has proven fascinating. A cloudless 22C, bristling eucalyptus and the surfer’s ocean, all the shades of sunlit blue. A new sky, unique to the southern hemisphere, blue on blue. Admittedly, a jumper may be required for al fresco happy hours but repeated conversations with the innumerable friendly locals would have one believe it was positively freezing this time of year. A depressing moment, when night time equates to a rather mild English day of grey (a grey that one can miss intensely at the most unlikely of moments).

We are staying near Manly Beach, just north of Sydney. A western utopia. Weather aside, double-decker super-duper tube-trains to take you around the city, cheerful bus drivers, craft beers in every pub and cheaply exquisite wine. Automatics on the left, American sized homes and very beautiful people running along the beaches with their surfboards and half-on wetsuits. Everyone’s fit, stunning coastal walks rising up to sweeping panoramas and down into cute coves of soft sand and seagulls. The apples are bigger. And every retired couple seems to be an absolute whizz at the Waltz. Instead of freezing grannies at christmas, the winter softens temperatures just enough for dears to tip their toes and bathe in rays.

It is almost too much. The infuriating, enraging, mindblowingly annoying swell of antsy flies that attack your eyes, nose and ears all around Ayers Rock proving to be a welcome downside. Until they get into your mouth. Ayers Rock, or Uluru, and the National Park within which it sits, and has done for so many thousands of years, a neighbour to the Olgas. A colossus of sandstone, rusted to a deep red. The remains of an ancient mountain range, worn away into the sea before being compacted, crushed and then thrust back through the land’s crust. What can be seen is the tip of an iceberg. Or rather, an inselberg. The Aboriginal creation story, the history of the Anangu, an intriguing lesson in totems and shapeshifters and survival in the outback of central Australia. A long way from Sydney, a long way from anything.

Steep prices in the resort – the monopoly of a one and only. But sunrise at the rock was money well spent. Light seeping slowing across the landscape, deathly quiet, hues of orange and browned yellow. Just as Nic feels quite odd when anything reminds him of, making him acutely aware of, his tongue, that it’s there, wriggling around in his mouth with a mind of its own, it is really rather odd to remember that one is on the other side of the world to home, upsidedown or, as John Oliver’s new adverts for his Last Week Tonight keep reminding us, the bottom of the earth.

The familiarity is acute. Aside from ‘pint of…’ requiring a ‘we only do schooners’ retort, there are the Salvation Army stands, tourist-maintained historiana of Sydney Rocks and the flurry of worker bees on the fast ferry into financial hubs. The motivation to set up shop, understandable, very understandable. Alas, the lack of a spontaneous weekend on the continent would gripe. An unsettling feel to be so far away from everything, and in quite so big a place (US yet to come). Fiji only marginally further away than Ayers Rock.

The home comforts of staying with a family, the beaches, the wharf-side bars and seedy Kings Cross pubs (Soho) have made for a degree of relaxation that is somewhat tiring. The mayhem of Bangkok, madness of Hanoi, buzz of Chiang Mai seem so distant amid the suburban sprawl. An episode of Top Gear in Burma feels like the memory of another lifetime. Existential fury gives way to Lana del Ray on the sand with an underscore of lingering unemployment, beer before wine and you’ll feel like watching another episode of Seinfield, wine before beer and…

The episode of Friends when they go to London. Nic’s gone wild.

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A Lesson in British History

Owing to the unanticipated nature of KTM’s booking system (Malaysian trains selling out weeks in advance of departure) six nights have been spent, languished, in Georgetown, a colonial relic drenched in decaying grandeur. Crumbled eighteenth century townhouses, British-wrought but European in style. Worn and empty shells that have been converted into guesthouses, bars and 7/11s. Our B&B proved cavernous, beautiful tiles and cracking floorboards as originally set and laid. Fans rumble around overhead, the warm air just the same as would have struck Francis Light in 1786 when he struck forth with his almighty flag.

Naturally, high rises, roads and a Wire-esque Dockland now surrounds the UNESCO protected Old Town but distinction only adds to the charm of idling through a warren of streets, each signposted in the Malay of telling originals.

Jln Tun Syed Sheh Barakbah – The Esplanade

Lebuh Gereja – Church Street

Dickens, Buckingham and King streets connect Chinatown to Little India to the Old Colonial District, home to a very complacently insignificant Fort Cornwallis.

A charming place. Sightseeing abounds, including Kek Lok Si Temple, but a genteel stroll between Parisian coffeehouse, gutter bar and Western restaurant, dodging hawkers, admiring the local Banksy and watching the lighthouse flash and flush is, as in any characterful town, rewarding enough. Instead of feeling like the parasitic tourist of old, queuing and sweating and snapping and orienteering, Georgetown allows one to become an honorary local. Small enough that a map is memorised by hour 23 and considerate enough that the barman comes to have the ‘large Skoll, two glasses’ ready before one’s sat down. The enjoyment of a jam-jar served OJ to the tune of jazz so mellow one’s hair stands on end in a slick cafe, ye olde maps lining the walls, followed by a beer in Ali Baba’s den of mish mash, the roadside an arcade of which San Marco would be proud.

It is the life of leisure, of the traveller, but a leisure that’s more basic, simple and less pumped than elsewhere. Amidst motorbike fumes and boiling rice, gutted pigs and thunderstorm puddles, a Nirvana lies still.

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Back to Kuala Lumpur. Replacing the Chinatown of bygone blog posts is Bukit Bitang,  home of malls malls and more malls. Having seen the surrounding Asia it is easy to understand Malaysian insistence on comparison with UK/US rather than Vietnam or Thailand. Here are fat cats with salaries on par with Wall St, city slickers who look at you, a white trash backpacker scraping 80 sen for the monorail aware, so aware, that their world and mine, elite-salaried-boheme, are orbiting nose to nose and both too close to the sun. This is rich KL. Ralph Lauren’s lounge, Hugo’s the Boss and Victoria’s Secrets are all too well known across town.

It’s aggressive, subtle Savile would say crass. Logos seem bigger, bolder, more aware of the social statuses they confer and size most definitely matters. Bank balance. Wallet. Credit card limit. Georgetown and KL are polar opposites but we (Kate Brittain and Great Britain) have left our mark on both.

Nic’s uncle will be picking us up in Sydney at some God awful hour in just a few days. Asia: The Retrospective. I feel it coming on.

Identity Crisis

HE has been having an identity crisis for a while now, or at least I have. I am a firm advocate of widening participation policies and social mobility, but I am also concerned about unyielding massification. The dilemma? A belief in positively encouraging more ‘non-traditional students’ into HE, without wanting it to necessitate an exponential rise in the number of students is tricky. Limit the amount of white middle-class kids conveyor-belting into ‘uni,’ advocate an alternative system which takes some of the educational burden away from HEIs, simple privatisation, or insist that universities can adapt themselves to the increasing pressures of capacity and deliverance?

My support for social mobility enterprises rests in a rejection of the ‘elite’ HE that used to exist in Britain. Labour’s 50% target helped to boost such programmes, as it could only be met by encouraging an increasingly diverse student body. British universities have exploded in size, changed in character and become international superstars with bases all over the world. However, as Andy Westwood noted in his It’s (Hard) Labour article, I may not be alone in a post-crash Britain when it comes to doubting that bigger is better, that more and more students entering HEIs is the best method for tackling the issues of young peoples’ employability, universities’ usefulness and society mechanics as a whole.

This is not to oppose massification as a policy. But the ‘logical’ conclusion that leads to a ‘universal’ HE, near compulsory higher education for all young citizens, seems overwhelming. With the number of UK and EU students admitted to university up by 9% on last year, the concomitant discussion continues to be that of fees and the sector’s riding of a wave back up to pre-£9000 attainments. But the continuing need is for a discussion about what this actually means, amid the media’s quotidian reminder that superfluous amounts of graduates are struggling to find work for a lack of soft skills, or simply a lack of jobs.

Making sure that anyone able and willing to study at university is given a fair and supported opportunity to do so, regardless of background, is the core of my understanding of social mobility. Encouraging young people to follow the ‘Redbrick Road’ for the sake of it, on the assumption that it’s ‘just the best,’ – that is where I stumble. As part of the wider debate about the place of HEIs in an ever knowledge-based economy of ever-diversifying and intensifying needs, should the university identity become a catch-all for everything and everyone or is it not capable of being so?

Universities are places in which people can transform their lives, in terms of social mobility, personal development and the provision of lifelong learning. They continue to be the answer when disadvantaged, talented young people need an opportunity to progress. But does this mean that everyone should go to university, and only strive to the ‘best’ ones at that? If a young person spies an interest elsewhere, do we push them on regardless, especially if they are ‘gifted and talented?’

To paraphrase Educating Yorkshire’s Headmaster, Mr Mitchell, the goal is for every young person who wants to go to college to be able to, who wants to go to university to be able to, and who wants to find a job to be able to. ‘Vocational’ should not be a dirty word, something for the dunces of the family whilst the best and brightest get all the status attached to attending university. Oxbridge does need more state school students, but the focus should not rest solely on squeezing more and more young people into the gaps between dreaming spires. There is a finite amount of room.

As the employability-based concerns of students increases, as well as employers’ concern for their ‘skills,’ there is an evident need for this identity crisis to be tackled. Is it the new identity of HEIs to provide layered education, or does it need to be layered alongside them? By no means am I the first to ask…

Student Experience

Published by Wonkhe on Monday 19th August, I consider ‘student experience’ at British universities, its odd lack of definition and how a marketplace in UK higher education is driving the discourse:

http://www.wonkhe.com/2013/08/19/what-is-the-student-experience/

Everyone in UK higher education should have had the memo by now: Put Students at the centre.

More specifically, put their ‘experience’ at the heart of the system. ‘Student experience’ has become deeply embedded in policy discourse, increasingly aligned with student engagement mechanisms that encourage students to play a more impactful role in the development and running of university initiatives, such is students’ re-enlightened centrality.

But what does ‘student experience’ mean? What can it possibly mean? In 2011, Duna Sabri argued that ‘both “student” and “experience” are shallow conceptions’ deployed as powerfully discursive notions in the marketising rationale that places students on a consumer pedestal. In 2013 an accepted definition remains elusive, possibly because an enigmatic and standardised student serves vested interests much more easily. A formidable hybrid remains; welfare, co-curriculum, employability and academic attributes fall into a futile melting pot of definition.

To place ‘student experience’ in the context of recent higher education reforms, the heightened marketplace aura of higher education has remodelled students as clients, whose assessments of the service they receive are central to judging universities’ success. Writing in Blue Skies for the Pearson Think Tank Ken Starkey analogises British higher education to British banks: if both are to remain credible they must demonstrate how they create value for their customers. In other words, how can universities convince students that they are not offering sub-prime degrees?

As an observer, it feels like Britain is running before walking. If ‘student experience’ is to be so intimately connected to the mode or amount of payment, the controversial implication being ‘Pay More, Get More,’ then there must be consideration for how vacuous the phrase becomes in the context of the practical delivery of teaching and services.

There is not one student, and there is not one experience – that much is obvious. ‘Student experience’ implies that each student’s university life is undifferentiated; class, race, ethnicity and economic circumstance all disappear. Moreover, ‘student experience’ is expressly generic and places all students on an equal footing regardless of the huge variation in what higher education institutions have to offer. If policy, put simply, is to treat students ‘better’ because they are a more substantial financial asset then how is that policy going to meet the demands of all those students in all those different contexts?

Phrases such as ‘student experience’ are used for ease of conversation; everyone is fully aware that it does not, and cannot, encompass ‘everything’. Yet the policy associated with its heightened use in the discourse is striking. In this vein ‘student experience,’ the enigma behind much strategy, is quantifiably justified as sound business practice. Fresher Bloggs checks in at registration to find he’s been bumped from Economy up to Business, but not for nothing. Correlating levels of experience with those of a purse makes sense: for a £500 hotel room, you would expect more than just clean sheets.

Nevertheless it is disheartening to think of ‘student’ as nothing more than a synonym of ‘customer,’ and the university experience comparable to staying in a Deluxe Double. This is not to suggest that the situation is so simply drawn, for that would be naive, but to ask a cynical question as to whether ‘student experience,’ is just the spin-marketing of a far more controversial upheaval within the sector. If the phrase is to be useful, if it is to genuinely enhance teaching and learning by listening to the student experience as a multifaceted concept, then the shackles of its narrow usage must be cast off.

Educational institutions offer a priceless commodity: knowledge and the opportunity to develop as an individual. If ‘student experience’ is to be a force for progressive change then it needs to mean more than the ‘student is always right.’ ‘Experience’ and ‘Engagement’ need to become closer cousins to undermine ‘Student’ and ‘Customer’ being treated as one and the same in a manner that does not allow clients any role other than to simply put a utilitarian value on the ‘product’ they’re receiving. Exeter’s positive revisualisation of students as ‘Change Agents’ is representative of a different trend, one which seeks to affirm the importance of students among the swathes of tribal academic communities that make up the average HEI. ‘Student Experience’ is too tied to consumer-only discourses. It is worth much more than that, whatever it may actually be.

The University Brand

As a newly graduated young adult 5 months into her first ‘proper job’ in the ‘real world’ I was disproportionately excited when provided with a Tablet. Having duly dragged  my work email widget onto the home screen, synced my calendar and updated all work documents I proceeded to the important bit – downloading games. I’ve  flung some birds around, raced cars and explored whole new worlds. Then I discovered a logo-identifying challenge; just how much have Golden Arches, animal silhouettes and quirky squiggles  invaded my psyche?

Coca-Cola – Inevitable.

Unilever – Do-able.

Kodak – Getting Harder.

University of Oxford – WAIT.

Brand Identity (OED) – A set of attributes designed to distinguish a particular firm, product or line with the intention of promoting awareness and loyalty on the part of consumers.

Times Higher Education has published an article discussing British universities’ increasing obsession with branding – the sort of differentiation/consumer-benefit-realisation/promise-delivery = customer loyalty ‘stuff’ that is a mainstay of our capitalising society.

The problem? Universities are meant to transcend this slickly-grubby reality – bastions of intellectual integrity upon pedestals of pedagogic granite. However, a narrative of marketisation has overwhelmed higher education in Britain, increased student fees the most notable manifestation of changes that have rendered universities ever more vulnerable to and aware of competition.

Oxford is not recognisable simply because its heritage is noble and romantically gothic, rooted in good ol’ British history.  No. It has a brand, strict guidelines, large-scale strategies for inseminating a particular image of itself that, paradoxically, presents itself as effortlessly superior. Not one university can rest on its laurels.

It is easy to be disheartened. Is nothing sacred, even knowledge? It is easy to rest an elbow-patch on the table and mourn the pounds disappearing into advertising agencies’ pockets, pounds which could extend a library, provide better sports facilities, fund laboratories, ensure the toxins of modern PR do not undermine the pursuit of truth and insight. And yet, universities are nothing without people to do the thinking.

Potential students must be provided with a USP, existing students must experience that USP and alumni must feel they have benefited enough to remain loyal and proud of their association. An umbrella-identity must inform everything – universities are huge, multifaceted conglomerations that increasingly exist on a global scale. Spending time on questions of purpose, style and mission are not reductionist ploys, but important and complex issues that can be usefully codified with a brand identity. It is reasonable for universities to want to promote their activity, draw people in and share their work with as wide a group as possible.

What is sad, however, is the language. If universities are going to act like businesses then students quickly become referred to as consumers. They become passive sponges to marketing guff and not proactive partners in learning. This should not be. It is one thing for universities to concern themselves with branding, another for their product to become nothing but a packaged up, branded ‘brain-power’ for which refund policies apply and students do nothing but queue up with a debit card.

Students are no longer just monks in robes, or upper class men in matching  tail coats. As higher educational institutions, student cohorts and  further education opportunities diversify, so too should universities’ approach to what they can and want to offer uniquely. But branding should only ever act as a doorway, a mechanism with which students can usefully decide where they want to pursue a degree, something with which they can engage.

Kate Brittain