Alan Dix > HCI Education

opportunities for change

SIGCHI Bulletin HCI Education column January/February 2002

It is good to see Matt Jones' new social issues column. As is clear from my columns, I find that ethical and social issues are inextricably linked with those of both education and our broader professional roles in HCI.

Few of us have not been moved or shaped by events over recent months. This issue will come out in the New Year, a traditional time of hope and new beginnings, but I am still writing in the shadow of the events of September 11th. I'm sure I won't be the only writer in this issue to expresses their sadness and sympathy to all those who have suffered during this autumn of 2001. I only hope and pray that by the time this issue comes to press the world will seem a more hopeful place.

And there are signs of hope.

On September 11th I flew out on a 3 week visit to the University of South Africa (UNISA). Before I left the images that flooded British television were of small frightened schoolgirls in Northern Ireland walking to school amidst a hail of spittle and abuse and eventually a blast bomb. Why? Because they were Catholic schoolgirls walking down a Protestant street. However, in recent days with the announcement that the IRA has begun decommissioning their weapons this terrorist war that has raged for so long and claimed so many lives has taken another step towards peace. I recall as a child the TV images of British soldiers going into Belfast and now see images of army watchtowers being demolished.

South Africa itself is a country of contradictions - very obvious racial and social divisions which will clearly persist for many generations, as they have in the US and UK, yet in the midst of a peaceful process to reverse this which is truly remarkable amidst so much bloody conflict worldwide.

The education system is in the forefront with a generation hitting the Universities many of whom were involved in school boycotts during the end years of apartheid and more still suffering extreme social and educational deprivation. UNISA is a distance education university and as such has a high proportion of black students, many from disadvantaged backgrounds with correspondingly low educational achievement. Many students on computing degrees only occasionally have access to a computer at all. How can the university, and the education system as a whole, offer opportunities fairly amidst such disparity of backgrounds? These are issues which have taxed me in my own country too, especially having worked and studied in range of universities some catering largely for the socially and educationally elite and others for less advantaged students.

Equality of opportunity is not about a single choice or offer, but is forged over a lifetime and generations.

Several times in South Africa I was asked by those I met how I found the country and whether it accorded with the images I'd had before I came. My reply was always that I was shocked, but not surprised, at the very obvious racial divisions - just looking at the faces of those driving cars and those walking on the roadside and, in the University, the teaching staff as compared with the security and domestic staff. But also among so many I met, mostly liberal whites, I heard the occasional statement that jarred on my ears tuned to 20 years of PC language. However, I also realised if I changed the word 'blacks' to 'people on social security' or 'working class' these were all statements that would be commonplace amongst professional people in the UK. If in the UK we painted faces depending on social roots, how many coloured faces would there be in our major financial institutions, law courts or even universities? Look too at the student faces in any 'top' US university. As a UK professor with working class roots and 10 years of my childhood on various forms of state support, perhaps I was rather like a black lawyer in South Africa?

With all this still in my mind, on my return I picked a copy of The Times on the plane back, only to read the headline* Professor scoffs at 'useless' degrees". The report quoted Professor Zellick, the Vice-Chancellor of London University, who poured scorn on the UK government's aim to increase the numbers of young people entering higher education to 50% by the year 2010. Significantly he was talking to headmasters of independent (private fee paying) schools when he denigrated 'useless degrees from third class institutions', comparing the present with a golden age 20 years ago when only around 5% of school-leavers went on to university courses.

So what was the London VC's solution? A return to higher entrance grades at age 18 with the lower achievers sent to vocational institutions. In fact, attainment at age 18 is a far better measure of social class than educational potential. Currently in the UK around 70% of children of middle class professional parents enter universities and less than 10% of those from low-income and unemployed parents. I'm sure the picture is similar in the US, Europe and most countries that aspire to have an open education system.

Now it is clear that in the UK we have a higher education system which was well suited to the 1960's with a small highly-selected elite of perhaps 2-5% of students entering universities and not at all matched to the current situation (for example, we have a normal 3 year taught honours bachelors degree compared with a minimum of 4 years and often longer in most of the world). But the solution must be reform not retrenchment - a lesson learnt in Pretoria, but evidently not in London.

Now this article on the return plane flight is not unconnected to the events of September 11th on my outward flight.

Throughout recent history, terrorism and guerrilla war has been the response of those (whether their causes have been just or corrupt) who feel disenfranchised and powerless. This has been the case in the Middle East - both Zionist terrorism against the British during the 1950s and more recent Palestinian attacks. It has also been the case in South Africa both during the Boer rebellion against British rule in 1900 and in the ANC struggle against apartheid. And of course the case in Ireland for over a century.

As for those of us who enjoy the privileges of social, economic and educational success if we choose to pull up the drawbridge behind us, rather than seeking to share our success more widely, then the whirlwind we reap may engulf us all.

* Professor scoffs at 'useless' degrees. Reported by John O'Leary, Education Editor, The Times, Wednesday October 3rd 2001, page 13.,,2-2001342268,00.html