4 Education Debates To Watch Out For In 2016

Convocation House, Bodleian Library, Oxford
Education has long been an area of debate and controversy.

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The whole campus of University College Dublin was allegedly built in order to make it riot-proof (with stairs that students couldn’t run down and no large central spaces in which they could gather en masse), while Tony Blair’s priorities in 1996 were famously “education, education, education”, a vow that contributed to his landslide election victory the following year. 2015 has been no exception: newspapers have reported educational action from the Brunel University students who staged a mass walkout to protest against controversial writer Katie Hopkins, to arguments about whether more schools in England should be fast-tracked into becoming academies.
It seems likely that 2016 will be no different. In this article, we will take a look at the issues and debates set to rage (or, indeed, continue raging) in the world of education in the coming year:

1. Trigger warning debates

A ‘trigger warning’ is a note to say that whatever you may be about to view (text, images, video and so on) contains something that might cause some people considerable distress. A typical example might be a book with an unexpected scene describing violence; While certainly upsetting for anyone to read, for someone with PTSD it might cause a more severe reaction such as a panic attack.

Will trigger warnings soon become the norm?
Will trigger warnings soon become the norm?

Having a trigger warning allows someone to prepare themselves mentally for what they are about to read, which helps them avoid panicking. This can be preparation that takes place in the moment (“this might trigger me, so I will take a deep breath and try to be calm before I read it”) or a while ahead (“I have to engage with something that might trigger me, so I will discuss coping strategies with my therapist beforehand”).
The debate over trigger warnings in education is whether or not teachers and university professors should be required to provide trigger warnings with the texts they set their students to read. To some people it seems blindingly obvious that they should. Adding ‘TW: violent death; murder’ next to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None on a reading list doesn’t require a great deal of work and might spare someone a lot of pain.
But the situation is inevitably more complicated than this. Some teachers simply don’t want the extra workload, and feel that if their student needs extra warning about the content of the text, they can look it up themselves online; there are some online databases of triggers, though they are for the most part very under-populated.
Others fear that asking for trigger warnings is the start of a slippery slope that will lead to requests for particularly triggering material to be taken off courses altogether; a concern that is particularly acute in courses such as English Literature, where the importance of a text is highly subjective. Teachers fear it will be even harder to defend a text when it is no longer being seen as, to use the same example, ‘And Then There Were None: an examination of how justice can or should operate when the law has failed, exploring the boundaries of right and wrong’ and instead becomes ‘And Then There Were None: violent death; murder’ – it is reduced to its basest components.
This discussion has been bubbling along quietly for several years, and it’s now considered normal for blogs and internet forums to use trigger warnings (or alternatively ‘content notes’, which does the same thing as the trigger warning without the potential effect of diluting the concept of a psychological trigger). In 2015, however, the debate surrounding trigger warnings came into the mainstream, and it seems likely that 2016 will see more debate over when, where, and indeed if they ought to be used, particularly in the sensitive educational sphere.

2. No-platforming debates and safe spaces

In November 2015, the feminist writer Germaine Greer was asked to give a lecture at Cardiff University on the topic of women in political and social life. Over 3,000 people signed a petition to ask Cardiff to reconsider and rescind the invitation in light of Greer’s offensive comments about transgender people (which led even a Telegraph commentator to describe her as a “dinosaur”); Cardiff upheld the invitation, and Greer gave the lecture to a packed room.
At around the same time, a campaign in Oxford was gathering speed to have a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College.

A statue of Cecil Rhodes has already been removed from the University of Cape Town.
A statue of Cecil Rhodes has already been removed from the University of Cape Town.

Rhodes was a late Victorian British colonialist whose legacy is highly controversial. His views and actions may have been in line with some other people of his time, but his belief that the British were “the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race” is obviously unacceptable in the modern world. Campaigners trying to have the statue removed have described Rhodes as “the Hitler of southern Africa” and a plaque dedicated to Rhodes has already been moved. Rhodes, in his Will, provided funding for Rhodes scholarships, which existed to provide financial assistance to students from present and former British colonies to study at Oxford – yet even some Rhodes scholars have been involved in the campaign to have the statue removed.
These two campaigns might not immediately seem connected, but they relate to the same ongoing debate: to what extent should students be required to tolerate the passive promotion of views they consider unacceptable? This is connected to the growing debate around ‘safe spaces’: a space (whether literal or metaphorical) where people who might usually face discrimination can be assured that such behaviour will not be permitted. Walls decorated with statues of famous colonialists are perceived as preventing Oxford from being a safe space for black students (just as the lecture invitation to Greer prevents Cardiff from being a safe space for trans students), but it’s also been widely argued that it’s inappropriate for a university to be a safe space at all; that such a designation would stifle freedom of speech in the university, and that allowing for dissenting viewpoints to be aired is a significant part of what a university is for.
Another factor in these debates is new anti-extremism legislation that will require universities to vet speakers and events to prevent radicalisation of their students, which some universities fear will threaten freedom of speech. This leads to the question of whether it’s any more or less acceptable for the government to restrict what can be said or done on university campuses than it is for students to put restrictions in place themselves.
It seems highly unlikely that a consensus will be reached on these topics in 2016 – chances are, universities will continue to invite controversial speakers, and students will continue to protest – but we are at least likely to find out the fate of the statue of Rhodes at Oriel, and that decision is likely to be representative of the University of Oxford’s position on this kind of debate in future.

3. The EU Referendum

It’s not strictly an educational issue, but Britain’s upcoming referendum on EU membership is likely to have a significant impact on education in the country – just as it will have an impact on business, tourism, the law and a wealth of other things.
At some point in the next two years – quite possibly in June or July 2016 – British voters aged 18 or over will be asked “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” There was a move to reduce the voting age to 16 (partly motivated by the belief that younger voters are more likely to vote ‘remain’) but that was vetoed by the Conservative government at the end of 2015.
From an education perspective, the debate is likely to be quite one-sided. Universities UK, which represents the vice-chancellors of 133 universities, has unanimously agreed that the UK’s membership of the EU has been “overwhelmingly positive” for higher education, and has contributed considerably to the global reputation of British universities. Universities UK represents the views of university governors, not their students, which is probably best demonstrated by their differing views on tuition fees (Universities UK is in favour of increasing fees from £9,000 in line with inflation). In this instance, however, university governors and their students are politically aligned: 70% of British students are in favour of staying in the EU, while at 13%  the ‘leave’ vote polls even lower than ‘don’t know’. But it’s still not all good news for the ‘remain’ side; less than half of university students say they are certain to vote. This educational trend continues among graduates: British people who are university-educated are much more likely to vote ‘remain’ than those who are not – 37% of pro-EU voters have a university degree whilst only 15% of anti-EU voters do.

Some 'leave' campaigners are even accusing the EU of banning curved bananas!
Some ‘anti’ voters are even accusing the EU of banning curved bananas!

A date remains to be said and the referendum may not even happen in 2016, but campaigns have already been launched and more are set to do so in January. Some writers have questioned whether universities should take a position in the debate at all (they didn’t in the Scottish Independence referendum) but given the higher education sector is so unified on the matter, that ship has probably sailed. Either way, expect to hear a lot more discussion about university funding, foreign students and the wider question of EU membership over the course of the next year.

4. Automation and the changing jobs market

How we might cope in a world where jobs for humans are increasingly crowded out by automation is something that we’ve already glanced on in an article a little while ago. It’s an issue that is becoming more and more a part of mainstream discussion: in an otherwise unrelated article, Tony Blair wrote that “the next generation of technological advance – big data, possibly in time AI – will be akin to yet another industrial revolution except that this time it will affect the service sector too.”
It’s a topic that is affecting discussions about education as well. Schools and universities for most of the past 200 years have been preparing students for a future that looked quite different from the present (think of advice on managing servants at a time when servants were becoming obsolete, or being taught how to use mathematical tables shortly before scientific calculators became generally affordable) but the problem feels more acute now with the pace of change more rapid than ever, and ties in with a broader discussion about what education is actually for. One of the key questions of 2016 may well be whether the role of education is merely to create a workforce, or if the rapid changes in the world of work mean that any vocational education is likely to be out of date too quickly to be of use – that far from considering the jobs their students might be likely to do, schools should instead look at the general abstract skills and knowledge required to be a well-rounded member of society.
This is likely to be of particular concern in 2016, because 2016 is likely to be the year that the groundwork is laid for self-driving cars, buses and lorries. Chances are, we won’t see a large scale deployment of self-driving cars in 2016 (that might have to wait until 2017), but forward-thinking cities and countries will start to prepare for that deployment in terms of things like legislation.

The Google Lexus is famously self-driving.
The Google Lexus is famously self-driving.

For instance, the question of who is responsible if a self-driving car causes an accident may well be settled in some areas in 2016 (though not necessarily settled for good; as self-driving cars become more widely accepted and safer, the topic will probably be readdressed). And that will put the question of how to prepare young people for world of automation front and centre of educators’ minds.
What do you think the outcomes of these debates will be in 2016? Or do you think that there will be a completely different set of issues for us to talk about? Let us know in the comments!

image credits: bodleian library, book collection, rhodes statue, bananas, google lexus.