Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Interview - Bandwagon Driver's Point of Departure: News

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Interview - Bandwagon Driver's Point of Departure: News

Article excerpt

Upon his retirement, UCL's Michael Worton tells Elizabeth Gibney about his triumphs and regrets.

The year in which John Lennon was shot, Yes Minister first aired and Margaret Thatcher claimed she was "not for turning" was also the year Michael Worton started work at University College London. He has been there ever since.

Since 1980, the researcher in French language and literature has climbed from the rank of lecturer to end up as vice-provost academic and vice- provost international. But at the end of this month his time at UCL draws to a close when he retires.

Despite many years at the institution, he still has big ideas.

"I'm never terribly keen to be jumping on bandwagons; I prefer to be driving the wagon and seeing who else is jumping on," he says.

In this instance, Worton is talking about massive open online courses, an area of educational innovation about which he is not optimistic (a rarity for him), despite two such courses being planned at UCL.

Although he is an advocate of many new forms of teaching, with UCL's bachelor's of arts and sciences being one of the things he is most proud of, Worton questions universities' motivations in opting to create Moocs instead of "really robust online provision".

"Is this being driven because of the technology making it possible and because of a certain degree of hype around it, or is it for institutional reasons?" he asks.

Worton certainly cannot be said to be conservative when it comes to education. During his tenure as vice-provost international, the institution has expanded its global reach with the creation of UCL Australia and UCL Qatar. In addition, the number of overseas students recruited to its UK campus has grown markedly.

But after 33 years there are bound to be causes for regret. The Fielden professor of French language and literature says he still kicks himself for not having mounted stronger opposition to the government's decision in 2002 to make the study of foreign languages optional for pupils aged 14 and above - a move he calls "a disaster".

"Perhaps I could have done more with other people to really try to stop that foolish piece of legislation, which has led to British graduates having a much less competitive place in the international market," he says.

Fears are growing over the future of modern languages at UK universities, with some predicting that the introduction of Pounds 9,000 fees will push students away from those areas and towards more clearly vocational degrees. Last year, the number of undergraduate entrants to modern languages courses fell by 12 per cent against 2011-12 figures, twice the overall drop in student numbers.

Worton says the message on the value of language skills, especially in business, needs to be articulated more clearly by employers and the government, as well as by universities.

"The leaders of the future are people who are going to be engaged constantly with colleagues from other cultures and languages," he adds.

However, Worton is wary of "shroud waving" - creating an atmosphere of negativity that he says can itself cause decline - especially given that the picture is much rosier for young children.

From September 2014, foreign languages will become compulsory for primary school pupils aged seven to 11 in state schools in England. And innovative approaches to the teaching of languages at primary level are pushing secondary schools to create more interesting curricula, he says.

Influence a two-way street

Pre-university education is an area Worton should know about. …

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