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Some New Thoughts on Education are needed

The new Government’s plans to scrap SHAs by 2012 in an effort to slash NHS administration costs will have ‘major ramifications’ for the future of GP training, and could see budgets cut, warns the GMC. From the GP Bulletin, Pulse, 1 June 2010.

As Mark Twain said, rumors of his death, etc. the issue is overstated as always.  Fear replaces optimism as vested interests worry that they won’t be getting their education funding. But what was it doing with the SHAs in the first place? The creation of some form of market in health professions education, tied in some way to supply management does not in the end ensure a steady and flexible supply of health professions, any more than a similar system would ensure a reliable supply of geologists or accountants. The higher education system fails to evolve in response to the funding, as it is quite separate from the students or the continuing professional development needs of practising professionals.

It is good, though, to know that some see merit in this change as it will, in the end, clarify the purchaser/provider issues and redefine the necessary oversight of the health system. GPs and other health professions, though, do need to be assured that funding is in place to ensure that the programmes they need are properly funded, and accessible in ways that meet their requirements. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the revalidation argument fell at the final hurdle on the issue of a doctor’s time to do revalidation (having had some involvement in this issue in the past, I had calculated the full-time equivalents required to run the system, as well as the time it would take just to read the documents involved — but no one it seems had actually tried to read the paperwork, conduct the required activities with an eye to a clock!).

In the end, the simplest solution is to put the funding in the hands of both the students seeking the study a health profession, and in the hands of either the self-employed GP or their employer (the hospital) to decide what to do. With a level playing field on the provider side, this would ensure that the free-ride enjoyed by the private sector ended, and that all providers were properly responsible for both professional development generally, and CPD in particular. One benefit would be improved accountability by the higher education institutions that have come to monopolise this area, regardless of the quality of their offerings or not.

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Graph of the locations of water on EarthI attended the European Foundation for Management Development conference at Advancia 22-23 February 2010, to meet new colleagues as well as participate in a panel discussion on the challenges facing entrepreneurs. I organised my presentation around the question: “what sort of the future will the entrepreneur invent?”  I used two pictures to start my talk, one a 1530 Utopian painting and the other a poster of Fritz Lang’s dystopian film Metropolis.

Everything around us is invented, discovered, or created by the mind of people making sense of the world, so while it may be too much to see the entrepreneur as a super-human force of nature (as some discussed at the conference), the point is that human ingenuity is behind the world we live in, and our ability to be ingenious drives the

entrepreneurial spirit. I raised these issues in my presentation:

  • crises are really opportunities, especially for entrepreneurs;
  • the growing networking and interconnectedness of the world offers amazing opportunities for entrepreneurs to look at ways to bring people, information and services together; concerns about digital divides, social exclusion etc., in my view are transitional features of the current world, and not defining features, and that in time, these will be replaced with other forms of exclusion; the point being that technologies themselves are not exclusionary, but what people do with them is;
  • rising educational attainment is upon us, and there will be a substantial decline in the percentageof the population globally with only primary education, and doubling in the next decade or so of numbers of people with tertiary education; again, this offers amazing opportunities for learning in new ways, also considering the networking of the planet;
  • agricultural innovation is seriously important as over the next 20 or so growing seasons (years), the planet’s population will rise by about 30%, per capita food consumption will rise by 50%, dietary preferences will change, water and energy demand will also rise; this points to the need to ensure that fresh water is where the people are (right now, the fresh water is located mostly where people are fewer), and that each agriculturally productive hectare can add 50% of productive capacity — in very few growing seasons; with climate change, too, factors such as what grows where comes under stress, as different areas will need to learn to grow non-traditional crops, and other areas will become unproductive;
  • I also showed pictures of intelligent machines such as an autonomous GPS-guided farm tractor, and a similarly autonomous mining truck; the autonomous military robot with its gun on top is a telling reminder of the progress in military science, while the Utopian picture of the smart city of the future offers a different sort of hope;
  • finally, I showed a map of the world 4 degrees warmer, and wondered how we were going to deal with social displacement indicated by the growing numbers of people who will come to live in unihabitable or hostile environments (at risk of flooding, heat stress, and so on).

Having said all that, I am left to wondering though how we bridge the entrepreneurial challenges facing the public sector.  In many cases the challenges entrepreneurs face are caused by governments, and by regulation, as well as by restrictive banking practices which make access to capital so very hard. While we look to the entrepreneurial spirit in the private sector, and feed and encourage creativity, we find the opposite is true in the public sector. Indeed, Martin Lukes, from Prague, presented an excellent paper, with a telling conclusion that public sector people have less organisational support for innovation and entrepreneurial activity than their private sector counterparts. In some respects the elephant in the room is the public sector, consuming huge amounts of taxpayers’ money, yet often failing in two ways, failing to ensure entrepreneurial growth through poorly thought out rules and regulations (red-tape, regulatory burden and so on), and failing to get their own house in order.  Given the current state of affairs in some the world’s major economies, I don’t think the public sector can excuse itself from the need for entrepreneurial reform and effort.

The invention of the future requires all hands on deck, and no one can be spectator any more.

Edsel

News item in the UK: The sector’s funding body, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), announced (on 1 February 2010) that budgets are to be cut by £449 million for 2010/11.  This includes:

* A 1.6 per cent reduction (£215 million) in teaching funding;

* Research budgets will remain the same as last year;

* A 16.9 per cent cut in capital funding;

* A 7 per cent reduction for funding of special programmes and initiatives.

In a letter to vice-chancellors setting out the budgets, HEFCE said it recognised that the reductions will be “challenging” to institutions.

Now what is to be done? Predictably, the higher education sector in the UK is arguing that this will affect perhaps 200,000 students who won’t be able to get a university education. A few weeks ago, the sector argued that the UK’s place as a top tier home of higher learning was at risk — but that came from the elite Russell Group, which represents perhaps the top of the top universities in the UK.

There are a number of possible ways of thinking about this. A few:

  1. Universities already get a lot of money, and they perhaps could reduce their running costs — think of the disorganised structure of the academic year, think of teaching loads or confused performance management (is it teaching quality, research or publications??), and pretty good employment contracts. (I had one once.)
  2. There are too many universities trying to do too much, and perhaps it would not be a bad thing if some either closed or merged with another institution. The loss of the old polytechnics deprived the higher education system of a sensible alternative. Since comparisons to the US are frequently made, it is worth noting that some of the US’s top institutions are not called “university”, anyway, but ‘institute’ and indeed ‘polytechnic’. One could also look for new innovative institutions to emerge to challenge much that universities do. For instance, research institutions without university links, or which are focused on compelling issues — check out the Santa Fe Institute, for instance. Universities are not the only fruit!
  3. Cutting capital funding is not such a bad thing, given the horrendous financing of a state-sponsored capital funding body. Better universities learn how to build collaborative relationships with sources of capital, than expect their funding automatically to come from the state.
  4. Perhaps too much inadequate research is done, poor deployment of intellectual effort at reaching wider learning communities, responding to new ways of structuring learning beyond the rather tired full or part time dichotomy, and so on.

But of course, the key dilemma remains, what is to be done?

I take an optimistic view, but I would put the challenge at the door-step of the universities.

Rather than complain, prove that 800 years of public and private investment hasn’t been wasted, and come up with sensible solutions that would establish a sustainable approach going forward.  I doubt 200,000 or 200 students would be disenfranchised as a result, new ideas would emerge.

A recent book review in the Financial Times of Louis Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, would be a good place to begin some fresh thinking. The reviewer, Christopher Caldwell, notes:

Starting in the 1970s, professors, newly alert to injustices in society at large, took aim at credentialism and departmentalisation in every nook and cranny of American life – except, Mr Menand notes pointedly, their own. The professorial hierarchy continued to rest on a system of arduous PhDs (raising high barriers to entry), “disciplinarity” (denying the authority of the non-credentialed to teach or even discuss academic subject matter), and tenure (jobs for life). It was a system well-suited to monopolising bureaucratic power, but less well-suited to the free flow of ideas. Menand cites a 2007 study to show that, in the 2004 presidential elections, 95 per cent of the social science and humanities professors at elite US universities voted for John Kerry and 0 per cent (statistically speaking) for George W. Bush. Monopolies produce smugness and sameness in universities, just as they do anywhere else.

The title of this blog entry takes from a line in the film Independence Day, where the President says to the Geoff Goldblum character, ” And we’ll see if you’re as smart as we all hope you are” It is now time for the universities with their massive subsidised top-tier braintrust put on their thinking caps, stop playing victim and take responsibility for the solution.  The university-based economists let us down quite badly with failing models of our economies, and we are all paying for it in one way or other. Let’s not see two in a row.

Florence Nightingale, pioneer of modern nursin...
What would Florence do?

Who owns a profession and who should take responsibility for its development?

In the UK, the Prime Minister’s Commission on the Future of Nursing and Midwifery has been working away for awhile to determine the future of these two professions, so lets reflect on this question and look at what this Commission appears to be thinking.

The most obvious observation is that it appears to be thinking of nursing and midwifery within an NHS context. Many nurses work outside of the state-sponsored NHS, such in prisons, nursing homes, private and independent settings and workplaces. The Commission’s focus, therefore, on defining the future role of the profession suffers from a dilemma and in resolving this dilemma in a particular way, may further limit these professions to what the NHS defines as its role. This is particularly worrisome given the dire need for fresh and innovative thinking particularly from such a broad and diverse profession as nurses and midwifes which may indeed need to challenge current political and policy thinking.

I wonder whether, too, it is indeed appropriate for the ‘state’ to sponsor this type of work in the first place. The selection of those on the Commission is probably subject to various criteria — one can only hope that these folk are able to address the work of these professions in non-NHS settings in the first place, and secondly can address the dire need for fresh thinking about future demands and innovative approaches to service delivery, however and wherever.

The other concern is the tendency of these sorts of activities to become a restatement of warm words of praise, and in the end fail to move beyond that to address the underlying interconnectedness of clinical work, the interprofessional relationships and clinical responsibility and indeed to more disruptive and potentially more professionally satisfying professional development itself. Regretfully, the so-called “summary vision” is a weak and predictable statement.

There is nothing inherently wrong with addressing the needs of the NHS, but to address it to the exclusion of the legitimacy of the wider and likely future roles is a mistake.  Indeed, the NHS is a stakeholder in the development of these professions, but should not be given too much authority or control over how the professions develop. When the state steps in, as it has in this case, it should do so with the assurance of fairness to the widest possible range of interests, and not just those that fits its current, and probably ideological, preferences.

In the end, the professions own themselves (in an important relationship with their regulator) and should act to ensure that they confront these issues responsibly. Is it a sign of weakness perhaps that this Commission was even needed? Perhaps therein lies a clue to the future of these professions: take responsibility for your profession, as if you don’t others will.