Digging deeper into No. 1 of Paddy’s Dangerous Ideas

I think the time has come for us to do a lot more with No. 1 of Paddy’s Dangerous Ideas.

We persist in the medieval practice of taking students to medieval ivy-covered buildings, to receive their education in the medieval manner from minds, too many of which, when it comes to delivering education, are stuck in the middle ages. Yet distance learning was pioneered in Britain at the Open University when communicating with your tutor meant stuffing your academic paper in an envelope, licking it, sticking a stamp on it and putting it in the local post-box.

Today the whole planet is into distance learning. Many of our own Universities make tons of money providing distance learning degree courses to students all over the world. But none of them are in Britain! If we were to convert at least part of our tertiary education syllabus to distance learning we might reduce the cost of degrees without diminishing their quality, give students more flexibility, force lecturers into the modern age, widen access and create a superb platform for adult education all at the same time.

Why, beloved Lib Dems, do we allow medieval vested interests to preserve our ivy-covered tertiary education system exactly as it is, loading more and more debt on students and preventing us from doing what much of the rest of the world is doing already? Just asking?

This idea has come back to me in North Devon. A local councillor in South Molton, not realising that it was one of Paddy’s Dangerous Ideas, spoke to me at length about how wonderful the Open University was. How in places like North Devon, where there are no universities, and a real lack of opportunity to advance skills, one can still access the Open University and get a degree. He asked me, how can we build on this model and enable everyone in North Devon to upskill and train?

I am suggesting that one of our best ways of honouring Paddy is to bring some of his Dangerous Ideas into fruition.

Let’s champion life-long learning, as Vince has promoted, by building online learning platforms so that people, whether they live in North Devon or in Shetland, can achieve the same level of accreditation and training as those who live in cities. Let’s put in place 21st-century methods of education, and not be stuck in the medieval model of tutorials and physical lectures.

We have a real opportunity to lead here and I think it is a fantastic opportunity for us. Promoting virtual education is education-for-all, not just those who can take time off for university or afford three years of tuition without working at the same time.

My South Molton Councillor works full time as a welder. He studies in the evenings and at weekends for his Open University course. This is the hard reality of many. Working to pay bills is a necessity, education is what is squeezed into spare time.

We, as Liberal Democrats championing education for all, need to promote online, virtual education which is accessible to everyone, anytime, whatever their circumstances might be.

This is truly levelling the playing field.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at www.kirstenjohnsonpiano.com.

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  • David Becket 27th Dec '18 - 9:14am

    @ Kirsten
    We need to work to bring these ideas, and similar ones, into the mainstream. The original stream by Paddy in 2017 produced over 60 comments. Many of them were critical of his education idea, but combining it, as Kirsten has done, with some of Vince’s ideas offers a way forward. What has happened to Vince’s £10,000 grant to all for education? Disappeared into the mind boggling bureaucracy that passes for policy making in this party.
    The resistance to anything new is summed up in the response to his dangerous idea 3, where he proposes bringing party structure and communication into the 21st century from its current place in the 19th century. The response Paddy received :

    ” I know this, because I sent a paper to our Party Board suggesting that we might take a look at these revolutionary new ideas being followed by those who are succeeding, where we are not. I did not suggest anything as radical as actually doing this. Just that we should look at it. I know it was discussed (and rejected with some muscularity)”

    That is typical of our current committees.

    Matthew d”Ancona in the Guardian (24th December) in an article entitled “Let the centre find inspiration in Ashdown” points the way forward. Nothing as positive as this came from our hierarchy, so it is up to members to make them listen and make it happened.

    We replace Vince’s ideas to create a movement with a more dynamic movement, PADDY”S MOVEMENT

    We give Paddy’s movement a slot at conference. We allow local parties and organisations (e.g. SLF) to bring forward ideas, (ignoring the current convention of conference notes, conference believes etc) for debate. It would need to be limited to four ideas per conference,(can we trust conference committee to select them?).

    After a short debate these are then thrown open to three months of on line discussion. The party would need to provide a facilitator. The summary of that discussion is brought to the next conference where the ideas are put forward for party policy, voted on by members.

    This could start with a two hour session at the next spring conference, and I do not expect to hear negative comments such as the time table is agreed.

    It is high time we got this party moving.

  • Peter Watson 27th Dec '18 - 9:43am

    “I think the time has come …”
    The time came a long time ago. It’s more than a year since Paddy Ashdown wrote about his “dangerous ideas” and the impact of the Coalition’s policies on part-time students (including those studying with the Open University) was apparent in the years before that.
    I suspect that a fear of going anywhere near the issue of tuition fees has paralysed the party in this policy area.

  • Yes the Open University is a great British success story. It started off of course not as an online University, but as one centred around TV lectures, often in the middle of the night, local tutorials and assignments marked by tutors or by the computer. It developed as computers developed. Now we see the development of free and not-so-free online courses by universities across the world. They have become very profitable.
    What is happening much more slowly is a recognition that the method of learning might need to change as possible delivery methods change.
    There is a need in our country for the sort of innovation introduced by the OU, which made such an impact on University, and in fact all education. However we are all too busy ensuring that we stop the development of anyone but the rich.

  • David Evershed 27th Dec '18 - 11:14am

    The use of the internet for lectures would also provide the opportunity for everyone to have access to the best lecturers and to improve the productivity of university education by cutting down on the number of lecturers needed.

    This would certainly work for first year maths, science and engineering students where the face to face lectures are to relatively large groups anyway.

    It will also help with more specialist areas (classics?) which might otherwise not be available as a university course at all.

    There would still be a need for certain practical experiments to be carried out in situ and some opportunities for face to face discussions.

    Exams could be carried out at regional centres. Much marking could be automated.

    I could also be a spur to systematising some of the more subjective courses like English and History and making their students more employable.

  • I am an immense fan of distance learning. On an ad hoc basis I have been watching on youtube university lectures from Stanford University on quantum physics and behavioural biology as well as how to make the “perfect” scrambled eggs! Learning Spanish on Duolingo. And being fascinated by youtube channels such as numberphile and the World Science Festival. All free! The internet is a truly brilliant amazing resource.

    And I would quite like to do a physics A-level to understand quantum mechanics better. I haven’t looked into it but I suspect that would involve a “real world” class not just online.


    We shouldn’t as Liberal Democrats see distance learning as a panacea.

    It is a crying shame and an absolute national disgrace that there are whole school where no-one gets a good GSCE in Maths and English. People have differing talents, abilities and interests. But I believe there is limited variation in intelligence. Indeed this is rather shown by Paddy himself who failed O-level French but went on to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese and several other languages. It is our schools and society that is letting down our kids. So the absolute first priority of Lib Dems must be to fund schools better. Pupil Premium doubled. Free breakfast and lunches for all at primary and secondary schools. Real terms increase in the schools budget.

    Secondly we should give every adult £27,000 to use over their lifetime as they wish on adult education and skills development.

    But we should not underestimate the difficulty of getting an education if you miss out when young. I have an immense admiration for those that get an Open University degree etc. But finding the time as an adult when juggling family, work and paying the bills is tough.

    We do though need to send 75% of our 18 year-olds to university.

    And we need to open up schools, colleges and universities so they are not places you leave with some relief at hopefully having passed some exams never to return. But places you return to again and again for on-going career development, inspiration, skills development and mentoring.

    A truly excellent world-class inspiring 5-21 education must be our first priority.

  • Peter Watson 27th Dec '18 - 12:56pm

    The notion of “lectures” seems old-fashioned and is probably not the best starting point for any approach in this area. Yes, as a non-interactive presentation, lectures are easy to reproduce on-line (bricks and mortar universities already do this routinely by recording lectures) but they are possibly the least useful part of studying and I expect 100% attendance has always been rare. The Royal Institution Christmas lectures are a good example of what can be done with this format in front of a live audience but are probably less effective for TV/internet viewers than well-made TV programs.

    Making educational materials available and providing passive learning opportunities is great and straightforward but not enough in and of itself (e.g. “massive open online courses” generally have a very low completion rate).

    I think the Open University is great. Over the last 20 years or so I have completed quite a few OU modules (computing, maths and science) and the traditional lecture has not been an element of any of them. Most have been based on guided study of a course text supported by multimedia resources, but as well as online forums, the availability of face-to-face tutorials and one-to-one support from a tutor are vital aspects of the experience.

    Distance learning and part-time study provide brilliant flexibility both for teachers and learners, and the internet has enriched the provision of this. The challenge is providing interactive and supported teaching, assessment and feedback, and obviously this requires more people (tutors, mentors, markers, etc.), more resources and more cost.

    But before getting carried away with longer-term highfalutin visions and “dangerous ideas”, there is the more immediate and pressing challenge of addressing the significant fall in the numbers of part-time students in recent years.

  • Surely as a national political party we should be trying to identify the biggest issues facing the UK and trying to create Liberal policy to address them. We can’t just rely on “dangerous ideas” from former party leaders, Lords and other party grandees.

  • David Evans 27th Dec '18 - 2:33pm

    Andrew T raises a very valid point, but there is one question equally important if not more so, and that is why do so many of the population refuse to vote for us even when we have good Lib Dem candidates and good Lib Dem policies to address the big issues.

    That comes back to the point Peter Watson raises, where since 2010 we have been a party where those at and those around the top are so paralysed with the fear of admitting they messed up, that they would rather watch the party continue to decline than face up to the problems their decisions created for us. Hence tuition fees are a continual search for a way to pretend it was the right thing to do, while somehow change it, and social policy is a morass of saying “Isn’t it bad what the Conservatives are doing?”, while doing little to publicise it so people can’t point out that they were there when Theresa May introduced the Hostile Environment, the Bedroom Tax was started, benefit sanctions became rampant etc. etc.

    Until we do that, we will remain in what has become our comfort zone, talking righteously and virtue signalling amongst ourselves, while delivering nothing to the British people. Because Liberalism is nothing while it is just being talked about, but it can be everything for people once it is delivered.

  • David Becket 27th Dec '18 - 2:52pm

    I would agree with both the above which is why I suggest a movement of members, with the facility to bring fresh and dangerous ideas to conference without having to go through the bureaucracy currently involved in bringing motions to conference.

  • Neil Sandison 27th Dec '18 - 4:50pm

    I am with David Evershed imagine top class lecture that was interactive that didnt just reach 3,000 students but 30,000 students .And that those lecturers came from across the world and ours and other global students could access that material with an agreed qualification recognised by upper tier universities ans colleges .Lets sell something we are really good at through the digital economy .

  • Jane Ann Liston 27th Dec '18 - 6:54pm

    However, surely university education is about more than gaining an academic qualification?

  • It is important that any expansion of distance learning is not at the cost of reducing opportunities to go away to university. There are many life experience benefits a person receives if they leave home to go to university for three years. I think being in that environment surrounded by other students is beneficial. I also think that the structure of lectures, seminars and tutorials held in the fresh are important for some people to enable them to learn. Having a library to hand to study in might also be beneficial.

  • There is real comfort to be found in the familiar which acts as a brake on innovation. The tertiary education world of today is very different to the world of 1960 when I left home in Salford to study psychology in Nottingham. For a start, I was one of only 5% of school leavers who went to university and even more unusual in coming from a working class background. Secondly, apart from youth hostelling around the Lake District I had travelled very little and only within England and Wales. Going away to university was seen as an opportunity to develop the skills needed for independent living. Today, by contrast a much higher percentage of school leavers have tertiary education available to them, and most young people going off to university are already much more widely travelled than my generation were.
    In the field of life coaching there is a dictum, “ If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.” We are a party which believes that people can be trusted, that they have the capacity, indeed the right, to chart their own course in life; the role of the state is to facilitate their choice. If we are to achieve that we must not be afraid to grapple with how we adapt to changes and the difficult choices that may be involved.
    The point was made in an earlier comment that part-time study enrolments are down, but OU course fees, for example, are far higher in real terms than when I studied in the 1990s; are the two related? The first year drop out rate at bricks and mortar universities is far higher than is good for the institutions or for the young people who drop out. Is the combined cost of accommodation and tuition an important factor? I don’t know, but we should want to know.
    Does distance learning offer a significantly better outcome for significantly more school leavers than what we presently have? Again, I don’t know, but we should be wanting to find out. Paddy bequeathed us his dangerous ideas; we should be prepared to take up that challenge; all ideas are dangerous in prospect if they invite us to change.

  • Most ‘distance learning’ courses involve residential weekends, or in some cases weeks, so they blend the two. Both Oxford and Cambridge have Departments of Continuing Education which offer ‘life-long learning’ which is suitable for mature students and students who are in work. Some of the comments here make the assumption that learning and university education is only for the young. It is not. After a two year part-time (distance) course at Oxford I did the full three year undergraduate degree at the grand old age of fifty, then a masters, and am now completing my PhD at Cambridge. When i was younger I had no money, couldn’t afford the luxury of a three year university degree, and got into industry as quickly as i could after an HND. Studying in later years has enriched my life and understanding in ways that I could not have imagined. Unfortunately, not everybody has the financial resources to do this. We need to make it easier for mature students from all backgrounds to afford to go back to distance, part-time, and full-time study. The present government has cut away virtually all of the financial support for mature students, and for institutions offering part-time courses, which is starting to make life-long learning the domain of the wealthy and the privileged. More financial support needs to be available to ALL mature students so that they can retrain, enrich their lives, and improve their education.

  • @ Tony Harris. I entirely agree; my return to formal learning with the OU in the nineties allowed to reach a high level of facility in the Spanish language before retiring to Spain later. True fluency came with daily use in real life situations, but it was the excellent, solid grounding provided by the OU that gave me the confidence to build up to fluency whilst living in Spain. However, here the primary focus (I think) is on tertiary education for young people. And the key thought is that we should be promoting and supporting both.

  • I am not bragging but I, like many others before the 90’s, obtained an LLb and LLm external degrees whilst full time working. The costs were very low and in many cases, more or less met by ones employer. The 3 year degree course makes me very angry, totally not required can all be done in 2 years with reduced holidays and more hard work, after all the students are going to be “hard working families!”

  • It should not be an either/or option between “traditional” university and distance learning. And of course distance learning allows people to add skills to their degrees.

    I whole-heartedly agree with @Michael BG that university education is about much more than just the degree. And some go on to do things that their time at university have allowed them to “dabble” in – setting up their own businesses, journalism, comedy, drama, um.. politics!

    The three biggest success stories of the US economy all show that. Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Bill Gates at Microsoft and Steve Jobs – all developed their businesses “on the side” at university and then dropped out. As I have said before when the economic value of courses, the course with the biggest economic payback of all time was probably the calligraphy course Steve Jobs took at university – leading to his appreciation of typography and creation of the Apple Mac computer.

    While we have had some excellent and inspiring stories of adult education in this thread, they are somewhat “exceptions” that prove the rule and that is it is tough to find the time to learn as an adult when juggling a job, a family and paying the bills. There is the most time and least lack of other financial pressures when people are young. Also sadly those that schools have let down as a child may not feel as an adult that they have what it takes whereas more than likely they do.

    There are three keystones of good education and thus a prospering economy:

    1. An excellent and inspiring education as a child. Giving them the skills and confidence to continue learning and a fascination with the world to encourage them to do so. Particularly but not exclusively directed at the poorer who we are letting down at the moment.

    2. 18-21 year-old high-quality education for all. Flexibility yes – university technical colleges for 14-19 year-olds, higher level and degree level apprenticeships. But in time with 75% going to university.

    3. Continuing education and skills development. Distance learning, internet learning but also through “bricks and mortar” face-to-face learning as well.

  • Ian Hurdley 28th Dec '18 - 3:16pm

    @ Michael 1. A question which I think should also feature in any debate in this area is, if governments believe as they do that primary and secondary education is of sufficient cultural and economic value to society to justify providing it free of charge to all children and young people, why is tertiary education (by implication) seen as less valuable and therefore to paid for by students and their families and not by the State?
    On a separate issue, I’m interested to know where the 75% target comes from; what can educational studies contribute to an understanding of what proportion of young people can rise to the challenges of tertiary education? 75% sounds like a politicians’ target rather than an evidence based conclusion.

  • Jayne Mansfield 28th Dec '18 - 4:28pm

    I too have reason to be grateful to the Labour and the OU for allowing me access to uninterrupted life- long learning in the periods when I took time out for my profession to become a full time Mother.

    Interestingly, when I returned to my profession, although I had chosen to undertake an OU History of Art degree, a subject unrelated to the necessary knowledge and skills for the positions I applied for, I found that enlightened interviewers did not feel that I should be disadvantaged because of my gap in experience. Indeed, they were suitably impressed and extremely obliging when easing me back.

    If one is to be true to the original vision of the OU, one needs to be mindful that those aged 18 plus, from less advantaged homes may not have an important place to read and learn in peace, or have access to a computer, in their locality.

    Alan Bennett when he appeared on the Youtube video: ‘ Closing Libraries is Child Abuse: Keeping on keeping on’ : may have been referring to children, but he could equally be referring to young and older adults who live in homes that are not conducive to study.

  • Well said Katerina Porter! One of the three shortest letters, I think — and those three among THE most important. As an old academic myself I hope I may point out that most of the responses above are unusually lengthy, as well as unusually true and cogent: but that in the context they miss the point made by Katerina: the point today is what we should be doing NOW, on the verge of Brexit, in the depth of Austerity, as calamity unfolds before our eyes. There may be a General Election almost at any moment: are we ready? And is the bewildered electorate primarily concerned with Higher Education? It is not. But it is from the votes of a bewildered electorate that their future, and the Party’s, must be wrought.

    So if we want a “Dangerous Idea”, why not turn our attention to mending or healing that ‘damage to society’ that Katerina highlights , and consider and promote the notion of a Universal Basic Income? And let’s start, not by reminding each other of all the niggling problems in the proposal ( real enough, the problems — but details) and start thinking of the goal, not the kick-off.

  • Simon Banks 29th Dec '18 - 3:11pm

    Paddy’s original post contained some huge stereotypes of academics and academia (pity, because he wasn’t a stereotypical military man or politician) and there’s a lot more to be said for traditional universities than he allowed. Lectures – except for the brilliant few lecturers – could profitably be replaced by distance learning, provided a variety of sources was available with challenges to orthodoxy and obviously books don’t have to be hard copy. But there is a lot to be said for the traditional university education, bringing very different people together to spark ideas off one another, something the internet isn’t very good at because it specialises and selects too easily. But the traditional university education is very expensive. So a vast expansion of distance learning makes huge sense – not only for “student-age” students, but for older people. However, the internet can’t entirely take over teaching you to make pottery or speak poetry or repair cars or hip joints. We need a rebalancing, with the internet element growing and being better supported.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th Dec '18 - 5:58pm

    @ Roger Lake,

    I think that the electorate might be even more bewildered, if during an election campaign, the Liberal Democrats offered their solutions to the damage done by austerity and the 2012 Health and Social Care Act.

    They are two whopping elephants in the room for the party.

  • @ Jayne Mansfield

    Jayne, if that is what they are, surely the sooner we LDs start talking sensibly and publicly about them, the sooner they will shrink and make way for forward-looking topics — like UBI ?

  • Peter Watson 30th Dec '18 - 12:12am

    Dangerous Idea No. 1 begins, “We are guiltily obsessed with student fees.”
    It is reported (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46591500) that changing the way tuition fee loans are accounted for will add £12 billion to the deficit (rising to £17 billion in 5 years) with the removal of a “fiscal illusion” created by the Coalition government.
    It is also reported (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46607306) that having already raised the loan repayment income threshold, the Tory Government might reduce tuition fees following the completion of a review in the new year.
    It looks likely that the Lib Dems will be left wed to and defending the Coalition’s scheme and level of fees despite having been the only party dead-set against such a thing in 2010.
    Perhaps the party needs to revisit this “guilty obsession” pretty quickly!

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