Celebrity professors, online lectures and employability classes

Sir Michael Barber’s “revolution” in higher education.

A new report from the IPPR entitled “An avalanche is coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead” warns that British universities are at risk if they fail to respond to competition from abroad. “Why would you go to the quite ordinary lecture by a quite ordinary lecturer when you can get Niall Ferguson online?” Sir Michael Barber, “deliverology” expert and Chief Education Advisor at Pearson, asked John Humphrys on Monday’s Today programme.

Barber claims that “the Ronaldo effect” will mean the best lecturers – of course, crowd-pleasing lecturers and first class educators are not one and the same – can “command the circumstances they want and move from one university to another”. He praises the Employability Centre at Exeter University, and UCL’s plans for a “university quarter” in Stratford, aimed at cashing in on the booming local economy. In every case, two assumptions are made: the first is that help finding a job is the only reason university is worth attending. The second is that higher education should bolster a thriving economy, rather than the other way around.

Over the weekend I read the Observer’s interview with Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov. Taking the example of the press, Morozov said: “The newspaper offers something very different from Google’s aggregators. It offers a value system, an idea of what matters in the world. Newspapers need to start articulating that value.” Could it be that universities are falling into the same trap journalism has? Providers of higher education must engage with technology, but they should not be co-opted into propagating the fallacy of their own irrelevance. They set the intellectual agenda. Without them, aggregators are worthless.

The idea that a student’s progress might be assessed by a local “quite ordinary” robot-lecturer, while the star of the show telecasts from his or her luxury digs at Harvard, is uniquely alienating. It says nothing of the reality that the most effective tutors are often the least well-known on campus. A remote lecturer can create an electric one-hour show, but where are they when a student breaks down in tears before their final exams, when they confess they don’t know how to footnote properly, or want to take their work in a different direction to their peers. The emphasis upon star quality amplifies the deadening mandate for “impact” in tertiary teaching and research. “You can hold academics accountable for the quality of their teaching, as well as their research,” Barber told Humphrys on Today, as bleary-eyed lecturers nationwide veered their cars into oncoming traffic.

Many recent technological innovations have presented opportunities for thrift, but also for profit, enthusiastically spun by corporations and neoliberal politicians with so little faith in humanity they can barely comprehend that any motivating factor exists beyond the fiscal. Any opposition is tactically neutralised by the indivisible rhetoric of austerity: deficit, competition, growth. Nothing else matters. Our aim as a nation appears to be a return to late-90s levels of wealth, where the excess happily leaked over into social spending. But it was all a lie, and we risk making the same mistakes, if “growth” remains our sole reason for being.

We need a high-quality, universally available education system that will prepare young people for the realities of modern life. This does not mean ripping them off by lying about their future earning potential, nor cheating them by cutting down on university faculty and facilities, citing blue sky misconceptions about technology, openness and competition as an excuse.

“There are two things that a physical university can do that an online university can’t…” Barber said during his interview. Recognise that students are individuals with independent educational needs, not consumers who will be content with a one-size-fits-all syllabus, thought I. “One is, it can contribute to regional and city economy, second they can offer mentoring, support and experiences.”

In his interview Morotzov was keen to emphasise the ways in which technology companies can smuggle themselves inside our institutions, promising quality and universality, while eating them from the inside out. “We did not elect them to help us solve our problems. Once Google is selected to run the infrastructure on which we are changing the world, Google will be there forever.” The IPPR report, written as it was by Pearson employees – the world’s largest educational “delivery” specialist – is wrong to suggest the biggest threat to UK universities is optional online lectures from Singapore. The biggest threat is that they will talk themselves out of the discourse on education for good.

The Richelieu lecture theatre at the Sorbonne in Paris. Photo: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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