Sunday, 15 December 2013

Challenging Conventional Wisdom while Enjoying a Cheese and Opinion Pie!


Last week had a slightly ‘Ground Hog Day’ feel to it. One recurring theme was the National Student Survey (NSS). In the company of others I spent time looking back at last year’s results and forward to the next NSS, due to start in January 2014. Every year since 2005, Ipsos MORI conducts the NSS. The survey provides an opportunity for students to feedback on their experiences of study at their University. The results are important as these are published and used by students (and possibly their parents) in selecting a University to study at.

The results are also important as they contribute to where each University is located on the various national and international league tables that describe the quality of research, education and employment prospects of graduates. High performing institutions will attract both high performing students and academics. Interestingly in a study published last week by the London School of Economics, they noted the benefit of individuals who were high performing, rather than the institutions they studied at.

The LSE study was looking at primary children and not University students however. Their study involved 2 million children, and was conducted across all types of primary schools. The study found that being seen as a high flyer in a primary school, regardless of the child’s actual ability was a strong motivator for their performance in secondary school. Boys were 4 times more affected by being top of the class than girls. The suggestion that pupils benefited from being top of a weak class, rather than being middle ranking in a class of high-performing children really does challenge the conventional wisdom that children will do better if pushed into a higher performing peer group.

And in a week where I was being asked to report on the number of 3* and 4* quality publications each of my colleagues had published in the last quarter, I was interested to read of someone who was also challenging conventional wisdom. This was the Nobel Prize Winner Randy Schekman, who last week claimed that leading academic journals are distorting the process of science and represent a ‘tyranny’ which must be broken. He has declared a boycott on such publications. Schekman, a US biologist who was presented with the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine last Tuesday said his laboratory would no longer send research papers to the top-tier journals, Nature, Cell and Science.

He also attacked the widespread metric called an ‘impact factor’ used by many top-tier journals. A journals impact factor is a measure of how often its papers are cited, and is used as proxy for quality. Schekman said the 'impact factor' was a toxic influence on science and introduced a distortion – a paper can become highly cited because it is eye catching, provocative or wrong.

I went out last week to one of my favourite restaurants (Albert’s Shed) for what I had hoped was going to be a meal with a high impact factor, a meal I thought was both eye catching and provocative. However, I was wrong. My favourite starter, asparagus, with a poached egg covered in bread crumbs, was off the menu. My favourite main course, a cheese and onion pie, was on, but to be frank, it simply wasn't that good. I was disappointed. Telling a friend the next day, I mistakenly wrote ‘cheese and opinion’ pie, which more closely described the second cheese and onion pie I had later on in the week at Chancellors.

I was there with other Heads of School and Deans from the North West, and we were meeting with Laura Roberts, the Managing Director of Health Education North West. This is the organisation responsible for spending over £700,000 million a year on educating and training health care professionals in the North West. It was an interesting conversation, made so by colleague’s willingness to offer and debate their thoughts on the challenges facing health care educators. I also found out that Laura and I once had the same mentor and ‘rabbi’, the wise Bill Sang, someone not shy of challenging me or conventional wisdom. And the cheese and onion pie, well it was just exquisite.