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Educators and the real world

  • 6 May 2020
  • By Joe Nutt

This blog has been kindly contributed by Joe Nutt, an international education consultant and author of several books about poetry including ‘The Point of Poetry’. His new book, ‘Teaching English for the Real World‘ will be published on May 15th by John Catt.

A recent newspaper article complained that it was unfair that on average every international student pays over £5,000 more than it costs the university to teach them. Apart from the fact that UK students and their parents pay UK taxes, in the real world that is called ‘a margin’ and without it no business, charity or any kind of organisation globally can survive. It does not matter if you are a window cleaner, Amazon or a lavishly funded NGO, if you cannot convince someone to pay more for something than it costs you to deliver it, you have no future.

In the run up to the lockdown and again now in the discussion about reopening schools, it is clear many state school leaders and teachers have little sense of who they work for. Their attacks on Government policy and individual politicians or on voices like Joanna Williams, who wrote a piece in The Daily Telegraph discussing the issues around reopening schools, demonstrate they lack any sense of the kind of relationship with their employer which is normal in the real world.

It matters that you know who you work for. If you do not know who you work for, how can you work effectively? Every employer, commercial or not, has goals its employees are required to deliver for the organisation or business to succeed. It seems for many employed as educators in the state sector, that vital link is broken.

One exchange I had with a state school teacher on Twitter shows just how confused this relationship is. They wrote:

I work first and foremost for my children, and to deliver the development plan the senior leadership team have developed to maximise their progress. It is as far removed from some generic cooperate model as it could be. There is no comparison.

One of the reasons independent schools have been able to re-orientate themselves around online teaching so quickly and effectively is because the employees know they work for an individual institution, they understand the individual school pays their wages and their relationship with their employer is clear.

Both the university and the school examples above highlight something of profound significance about our entire education system that the Government would do well to respond to in the aftermath of the economic crisis this pandemic has triggered.

For many educators, whether in school or university, the choice of an academic career is simultaneously, at least in part, a positive decision to reject the commercial world, its values and its practice. This has consequences both for the institutions where they work and for the education system as a whole.

When the fundamental financial literacy and budgetary discipline every other organisation in the world relies on is missing at the outset, when people reject a need for budgeting, finance or business training, it is inevitable that issues of waste and value mount up exponentially. I had no financial or budgetary training at all until I left teaching and I had been employed full time by four different businesses before I received any anti-fraud and anti-corruption training.

Basic budgeting and account management should be a compulsory feature of professional training for all teachers, primary through to higher education. Anti-fraud and anti-corruption training should be mandatory for educational professionals the moment their role includes any significant procurement responsibility.

The higher education sector has been caught in the headlights of this historical weakness because of this pandemic. The looming loss of thousands of international students has backed them into a corner of the real world which some have been happy to pretend does not exist for far too long. For years, university finance directors have complained that academic researchers display insufficient interest in capitalising on their research beyond publication and are not even embarrassed when some external business or organisation benefits from all their initial hard work. This has to stop. Universities need to make intellectual property right (IPR) planning and development a condition of research employment.

They also need to look at what they teach, their entire course offering, in the same unforgiving real world light. This does not have to be a crude utilitarian exercise linking courses to employment prospects or statistics. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is the bitter lesson that data is not only inherently untrustworthy, it can only ever be one part of any humane solution. Nonetheless, it does have to be a rational consideration of whether or not any particular course meets that fundamental real-world margin test. Universities will need to ask themselves urgently, if we cannot deliver it for more than it costs us to produce, should we be delivering it at all?

In the schools’ sector the Government needs to decide what it really wants for its own employees. If, as years of policy change seems to indicate, it wants the confused patchwork of school types, multi-academy trusts, single academies, maintained and free schools to have more freedom as individual institutions, yet remain funded by the state, it needs to train school leaders accordingly. Anyone running a school or multi-academy trust needs guidance and training on how to re-establish that fundamentally important link between employer and employee. Everyone would benefit as result the next time the real world comes calling.


  1. conor king says:

    A strange post. The first link to a HEPI document does not suggest it is unfair for international students to pay more than it costs to education them. That document simply points out the uses made of that premium.

    It is very clearly fair that students pay for what they get – a university education involves an institution that produces research, whose reputation is built around research outcomes, and whose research likely influences the education received.

    I do not call that a cross subsidy – it is a price for an education good.

    The comments about research and IP are less well founded. There is much to be said for opening the research to anyone who will transform it into change in the rest of the world, whether a good, a service or just a better way or doing things provided by Government. Funding the research allows that use to follow.

    Unis are not that good at the use part – it varies but generally not. Hence do not expect them to. Tax the resulting profit.

  2. Steve Jones says:

    A strange post. The author clearly holds strong views about teachers and academics relative to the ‘real world’ that he inhabits. However, no evidence is presented to support the stereotypes offered.

    Quite why the author was so triggered by the ‘state school teacher on Twitter’ is unclear. A link to the full exchange might be helpful?

  3. Albert Wright says:

    This was a refreshing article and to see it on Hepi, even more so.
    Those in charge of HE would benefit from a better understanding of business, profit and loss and economics.

    Many in the sector have responded to the Corona virus crisis by insisting the Government bails them out.

    In the private commercial sector, leaders have cut their own salaries and sought to protect their organisations by placing some employees on furlough at 80% of normal pay.

    Not one University seems to have taken this action.

    A cost saving conscious looks to be totally lacking. Many institutions seem to think they are somehow separate from the real world.

    Those that do recognise their future incomes will be reduced call on tax payers to fill the gap rather than accept they need to take action to balance their own books.

    Get real

  4. Colin McCaig says:

    Passive aggressive post which somehow suggests that anyone that doesn’t fully share the values of the organisation they work for requires ‘anti-fraud’ education because they don’t understand they work in a supply-demand marketplace.

    So in what way does a school teacher employed by the state to educate children misunderstand her/his role? How do they defraud the public purse? Unlike the author’s mates in the Independent School sector they don’t work in a market and their senior leadership teams are not guilty of fraud when they ask them to teach Social Science Level 3.

    Even in HE, which I acknowledge is a marketplace (for better or worse), how is it fraudulent for individual academics to propose degree modules or whole programmes in the hope that students enrol on them? The author speaks as if courses never close down due to low numbers; but he also misses the fact that autonomous HE institutions have among their multifaceted values the desire to educate and indeed offer the fullest possible range of subject disciplines. That is what ‘University’ means.

    Given the growth in HE enrolments over the last three decades it doesn’t look as if academics and HEIs are actually that bad at giving their consumers what they want.

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