The beginnings of HECI

University Challenge

This is an introductory blog post that explains a bit about the history, aims, motivations and ethos of HECI.

By way of a quick introduction: I’m Anna, I’m currently in my third year studying English and Philosophy at the University of Bristol (UoB) and myself and a friend and course peer (on the English side), Harriet, are the ‘original founders’ of HECI.

So, to start with the history: roughly speaking the chain of events that led to us setting up HECI include the following: the various manifestations of the ‘Industrial Action’ taken by the University and College Union (UCU) in 2013-4; an information meeting hosted by the UCU at UoB for staff and students, which took place on 2 March 2014; the publication of an article in Epigram that led to the UoB ASS students’ protest, which took place on 12 December 2014; an information meeting hosted by members of UoB’s English and History departments on 10 December 2014; and a meeting held by Pro-Vice Chancellor Prof Judith Squires as part of a newly formed ‘Task Force’ aiming to address the concerns raised in the ASS protest.

These events (amongst others) alerted us to several key issues which played motivating roles in our coming to set up HECI:

(1) Firstly, the need to talk. There seemed to us (and evidenced by us) an alarming lack of knowledge about the current state of affairs in higher education. Given the influence universities have in society, and especially given their influence on the lives of the individuals actually working and studying in them, this seems wrong. It also seems to be a result of the flawed communication channels currently available (or not, as the case may be) to inform people about issues in higher education. The main problem is that information tends only to be actively shared when groups of people are trying to promote a particular cause or point of view. As a result the information attached is frequently either propagandistic or at least received as such. While this might sometimes succeed in attracting interest, the understanding people gain from this sort of communication is normally shallow and thus engagement from those not directly involved has tended to be short-lived. This is why we need to talk about it. It is the two-way process of engagement that leads to the depth of understanding necessary to legitimate the authority of decision makers in higher education. I realise this is all a bit wordy, but I think I’m getting the point across!

(2) Secondly, the need for a space in which to talk. This was most obviously revealed at the meeting on the 10 December. When talking about the then recent industrial action, academic staff expressed their hesitation to talk to students about it the classroom in case it made students feel that the issues were being forced on them. Students, on the other hand, seemed to feel that they didn’t know whether it was appropriate to approach staff about these issues. Both, however, agreed that better communication was very much the thing. What is needed, then, is a neutral space for communication that allows everyone to come together to ask questions and share opinions, perspectives and expertise. Ta da!

(3) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the desire amongst staff and students to talk about these things. It doesn’t seem to be the case at all that ‘student apathy’ means people just aren’t interested. What we’ve witnessed is that, given the right circumstances, there is plenty of willingness to engage and understand. The greater problem is the compromised conditions in which communication is mostly taking place. And so we arrive at the founding of HECI. We now rely, of course, on uptake.

A couple of things everyone can do: get involved – create an account, subscribe to our mailing list, join the Facebook group, follow us on Twitter, come to meetings/events and explore the website; get talking – use the discussion forum, contribute to the blog, add to the resources, host a meeting, talk to your peers/colleges/teachers/students/friends/family or whoever it is you talk to; spread the word – let everyone know about HECI by directing them to the website, tweeting us, inviting people to the group on Facebook and to HECI meetings and events. If this is going to work we’re going to need everyone to support each other as much as possible (a truism in life as well as HECI, I think).

Before blogging off I’d briefly like to say a little about the ethea we’re promoting in HECI. There has been lots written about the ‘community of inquiry’ (CoI) method of investigation (following philosophers C. S. Peirce and John Dewey) so I’ll leave those not acquainted with it to look it up on the world wide web at their leisure. For our purposes I’ll just highlight a few key aspects of CoI that characterise HECI:

  • Community – perhaps an obvious one, given our name, but I think it’s worth stressing that we’re trying to bring people together to create a community really interested in understanding issues in higher education. Like any good community we value respect and consideration. In the move against ignorance these are going to be particularly important.
  • Neutrality – by this we do not mean we expect the discussions to be neutral, however we are committed to keeping the forum so. Thus participating in, contributing to, or associating with HECI is not a commitment to a particular position on any given issue (beyond the aim of becoming a more informed society, that is). We feel the neutrality of the forum is the best way to encourage the representative spread of opinions that allows understanding to be advanced.
  • Constructiveness – By this we mean that conversations should always aim at understanding. This is not just in the sense of understanding the issue in hand, although this is of course very important to us, but also understanding differences of opinion. A CoI method of tackling this is to aim to establish points of agreement first and then work outwards towards understanding points of disagreement. Central to this process is open-mindedness, a much cited but (possibly) little practiced virtue.

And so concludes the introductory blog post. Thanks for staying with me. I hope to hear from you all soon!

Yours conversationally,

Anna

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