To merge or not to merge: is that really a useful question?

Posted October 28, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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One of the experiences of higher education is that policy-makers are all too easily seduced by the alleged benefits of merging institutions. This is true of politicians, but also of those who advise them and write policy papers for them. Much of the narrative focuses on the claimed disadvantages of having too many institutions, the hoped for savings brought about by having fewer universities, and the assumed better performance and impact of bigger higher education entities. While there may be a few examples that appear to demonstrate some of this, there is little consistent evidence that would back up these claims and aspirations.

In fact, most mergers that appear to have worked will on closer analysis be shown not to be mergers at all, but rather take-overs of smaller, often specialised, institutions by much larger universities. In such cases the smaller institutions will often be able to slot in to their new host university as a department, school or Faculty, keeping alive a good bit of the ethos and spirit of the legacy body. So for example I would expect the recent merger of London’s Institute of Education with University College London to work well, and indeed also the planned integration into Dublin City University of St Patrick’s College of Education (and others). These mergers work because they don’t require anyone to lose their ethos or purpose and don’t confuse their strategic direction.

It is an entirely different matter when policy-makers force on institutions mergers where there is no clear strategic reason for the integration, or rather where the reasons are based on totally unproven assertions or assumptions, and where the main objective just seems to be to make the institutions bigger. Contrary to what many politicians and their advisers appear to believe, there is absolutely no evidence that larger universities are more successful or are capable of having a bigger impact than smaller ones; indeed there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. So for example, not a single one of the 500 largest universities in the world is in the top 500 best universities in the world, regardless of which rankings you consult. By contrast, the best university in the world according to the Times Higher Education rankings is also one of the smallest.

All of this has come into focus once again because of the truly bizarre spectacle now taking place in Ireland. Under a new framework for ‘technological universities’ (a category that has no objective meaning, as I have noted previously) institutes of technology can apply to become such an institution and so gain university status provided they merge with one or more other institutes first. One institute that has for some time been attempting to become a university is Waterford Institute of Technology. Following the new framework it had agreed to explore a merger with Carlow Institute. Last week however Waterford IT broke off negotiations with Carlow; according to media reports the reason was that its key performance indicators would suffer if such a merger were to take place, therefore making it less likely that it would be able to meet the legislation’s other criteria for ‘technological university’ status. The Minister for Education, Jan O’Sullivan TD, has reacted to this by telling Waterford IT that it must merge with Carlow IT if it is to succeed in its bid for a change of status.

All of this underlines again the totally crazy nature of the new Irish framework. The message being presented to Waterford IT is that it cannot be a ‘technological university’ on its own, but that if it merges with a weaker institute it may be eligible. This is an incomprehensible requirement, which appears to be based on the notion that size is the only criterion that counts, and that all other elements of quality are irrelevant, or at least much less important.

Institutional mergers may be a good idea in certain circumstances, but they should take place because they make sense for the institutions concerned and because they add value. To require mergers simply because they align with someone’s general notion that mergers are good regardless of other considerations is a recipe for disaster. In the case of Ireland, it is very doubtful whether the whole idea of a ‘technological university’ makes sense in the first place. Waterford Institute of Technology is a fine institution with significant elements of quality. It should be judged in its bid for university status on the basis of those qualities. Forcing it to merge with another institution in which those elements are largely absent is no way to pursue this agenda.

Time to take the stress out of academic life?

Posted October 20, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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Out there in what some still call the ‘real world’, there are many who will profess to believe that an academic’s life is full of relaxed days and pleasant comforts. Most of those working in the academy have known for some time that this is not so. Nor is this new: I have mentioned before in this blog that as far back as the 1990s I appointed a lecturer from an external professional legal practice background who left the university a relatively short while later because the work was too stressful.

Now there is another piece of new evidence. The Scottish education union, EIS, has conducted a survey of its members, which has come up with the following finding:

‘Teaching staff in the university sector have lower levels of wellbeing and satisfaction compared to overall scores of those working across all sectors of education. Some of the factors which contribute to lecturers’ wellbeing scores include concerns over management and leadership in their institution, as well as significant workload pressures and a lack of access to appropriate professional development.’

According to the survey results the two chief causes of stress are workloads and ‘dealing with management’.

There is no question that academics, as much as anyone else, have the right to a working environment that minimises stress and creates, to the greatest extent possible, a positive sense of opportunity and inclusion and a sense that everyone is valued and supported. But there also needs to be some recognition that stress apparently caused by management is often the result of external pressures, and in the system as a whole this requires more analysis. Universities are subject to mounting regulations, controls, targets and expectations, many of them encased in a framework of bureaucracy that maximises these pressures. It is time to look again at how all of this works, both in the system as a whole and within institutions. Stressed out and overworked university staff will not secure a world class university sector.

‘Non-academic’ staff in the academy

Posted October 13, 2014 by universitydiary
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One of the refreshing aspects of my university, Robert Gordon University, is that it makes few distinctions between those employees who have academic tasks, and those whose work is administrative, secretarial, technical or professional. There is no hierarchy of decision-making that places the latter groups in a less favourable position. This is significant, because in most other universities I know there appears to be open or covert warfare between academics and others.

I once attended a meeting of one of the learned academic bodies and was astounded to hear a very senior professor from another institution argue that administrators were a cancer in the academic system, but I was even more alarmed when that statement was greeted with mutters of approval by many others present. Academics, the speaker suggested, were entitled to expect priority support from, more or less, an obsequious caste of non-academics seeing to their needs. More nods and sotto voce statements of agreement.

One of the key requirements for any successful organisation is that its key members and employees see themselves as being in the same family, group or team. I have seen more energy wasted in in-fighting between groups than I care to remember, and it helps nobody. But there should in any case be an ethical principle that expects and observes basic equality between different types of staff, whoever they may be.

Those commenting on higher education often ask whether the proportion of administrative and support staff is higher than it should be, with the unspoken assumption that a percentage closer to zero is ideal. This is not a good starting point, since without administrative and other support functions we are always at some risk that we cannot adequately provide student services and high value research.

Of course academics are usually the front line staff who provide the teaching and research functions that represent the university’s core business, and all staff need to recognise that and work accordingly to facilitate this function. But we are all part of the collegiate group, and nobody should be allowed to look down on people in other parts of the organisation. I believe that, by and large, we have got this pretty much right in RGU.

One way in which we might express this better is by finding an label that is better than ‘non-academic staff’ for those who are not professors, lecturers or researchers. It is demeaning to define a role by saying what it is not – there must be a more positive way of expressing it. That is something the academy could usefully concern itself with.

The Berlin story

Posted October 10, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: history, photography

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As some readers know, I am German by birth but have not lived in Germany for many years; I last emigrated from my country of birth in 1974, moving to Ireland (for the second time) in that year. Since then I have returned for visits only infrequently.

However, every so often I do visit, and last month I spent three days in Berlin. It is not a city I knew well at all, having only visited twice previously, and each time for less than 12 hours. My first visit was in 1976, when the city was still divided, and on that occasion I was also able to visit East Berlin as it then was. The second time was not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I imagine that whatever impression anyone has of Berlin, it will always include a very powerful sense of seeing a city where the storms of history have blown more than in most places. There are signs of this everywhere, from the buildings and monuments of the city’s Prussian days, to the remaining evidence of destruction in World War 2, to the surviving reminders of communism and Cold War division.

Large parts of the city are still a building site. Restoration and recreation – the erection of buildings modelled entirely on destroyed and vanished edifices – is taking place alongside modern development. It is an astonishing sight. And then there is what one Berliner called ‘the return of history’ – Berlin is now the only city outside of Israel that has a growing Jewish population, an astonishing development.

The most recognisable landmark in Berlin is still the Brandenburg Gate. It was built in the late 18th century, based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. It marked part of the outer boundary of Berlin at the time. In later years it became a major part of ceremonial processions, witnessing the passing through over time of Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and the Soviet Red Army. During the period when Germany was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, only he was permitted to pass through the central arch of the gate; citizens had to pass on the left or right. During the Cold War the gate marked part of the boundary between East and West Berlin. The ‘Quadriga’ on top of the gate (chariot with four horses) has had a life of its own, having been removed by Napoleon and taken to Paris, then later restored, partly destroyed in World War II and subsequently restored (but only partly) and later fully restored. The Brandenburg Gate was at the heart of the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I took this photo during this visit, just after a heavy downpour of rain.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

The centre of political activity, now as in past periods (though not during the Cold War), is the Reichstag (the old Imperial Parliament). Badly damaged in the War, it seas restored and used as an occasional home for the West German Parliament, the Bundestag (then based in Bonn), until the 1990s, despite its location right on the border between East and West. It is now the permanent location for the Bundestag. The glass cupola (containing a restaurant) was famously designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster (who also designed one of the buildings on my campus). The Reichstag is surrounded by a whole city quarter dedicated entirely to parliamentary and government buildings.

Reichstag

Reichstag

One of the most overpowering buildings in Berlin is the Lutheran (Protestant) cathedral, located on the fascinating ‘Museum Island’. Built in the early 20th century during the Wilhelmine era, it reflected the Kaiser’s desire for Berlin to have a church that would rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It may have, more or less, succeeded. The extraordinarily ornate interior is overwhelming.

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin is a city of museums and galleries.

Museum Island

Museum Island

My guide book says it has the largest number of such facilities of any city in the world, and certainly you could spend weeks doing nothing else but visiting them. There are several major galleries, and museums on any subject you might care to mention. Though not strictly a museum, one building that caught my attention in particular was the New Synagogue. It isn’t ‘new’ in any contemporary sense, but was built as a sign of the confidence of the German Jewish community in the 19th century, some of whose surviving descendants have amazingly returned to live in Berlin. Not all of the building has survived, but the restored parts now house both a synagogue and a museum (separate from the huge Jewish Museum elsewhere in Berlin).

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue entrance

New Synagogue entrance

The plaque next to the door has the following inscription: ’50 years after the desecration of this synagogue and 45 years after its destruction, this house will rise again in accordance with our will and with the support of many friends in this country. The Jewish community of Berlin, 9 November 1988′.

Of course history never ends. But we may hope that it will not, in this place, retrace its steps. I don’t believe it will.

Gender in university leadership and governance

Posted October 7, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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As is well known, in many university courses women now make up the majority of the student body. But when you get to academic lecturing staff, in the UK only 39 per cent are women. The proportion of senior academic posts filled by women is smaller still. There is still clearly a job to be done in higher education to ensure that there are no barriers that keep women from pursuing successful careers to the highest level in universities.

In this particular debate, one other part of the system is now coming under increasing scrutiny: university governance. There was some evidence that until recently university governing bodies were finding it difficult to achieve any kind of gender balance.  When the panel that I chaired reviewed higher education governance in Scotland in 2012, we recommended that 40 per cent of all members of governing bodies should be women, and that institutions should work towards that aim.

The Herald newspaper has now looked more closely at gender distribution on university governing bodies, and found that there has been some improvement in Scotland, at least to the extent that a number of higher education institutions now have female chairs.

More generally, it is true to say that gender imbalance is not as severe as it used to be; but it is still far from perfect. Universities need to continue to address this issue, not least so as to ensure that women (and indeed men) do not end up in single-sex ghettoes in the labour market. A significant part of getting this right is to ensure that there are role models for both sexes: male teachers, female engineers, male therapists, female computer programmers. And of course, women as university heads and chairs.

Irish higher education and the quest for something better

Posted September 29, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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During my ten years as an Irish university President, one of my recurring and deeply frustrating experiences was encountering politicians who had persuaded themselves that the university sector received too much funding, wasted resources and needed more control to resolve this problem. Two of the four Ministers for Education who held office during my tenure came into the job proclaiming that something was wrong with the universities. One of them decided to test his suspicions by introducing funding cuts in the middle of an economic boom, while the other declared he was establishing a ‘forensic audit’ to find out where all the money was being stashed away by the institutions. Both of them hinted they had postbags full of complaints from citizens about wasteful expenditure in the sector.

Throughout the decade the university Presidents robustly defended the universities, pointing out that they delivered excellent results on the back of per capita funding far below that available to institutions in other developed countries. Then came the recession, and in 2008 we were advised that cuts would come soon, and would be brutal. Salaries were cut and employment was controlled, student contributions went up and government funding was reduced significantly. Now, six or so years on, the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, writing in the Irish Times, has said that government funding has over this period been reduced by ‘almost a third’, seriously affecting the student experience and university rankings. Perhaps a little confusingly, he also suggests that ‘through the dedication and hard work of both front and backline staff in the universities, quality, although at risk, has been maintained.’

It is very difficult for universities to make a case that a crisis threatens to engulf the system when they also suggest that cuts of 30 per cent have not compromised quality. Indeed that suggestion might convince long retired education ministers that they were right all along. Global rankings tend to attract media comment, but how much they really affect university fortunes could be debated. Even student/staff ratios generate much more excitement amongst lecturers than they aggravate students.

One of the problems is that few of those engaged in the higher education conversation have made a clear case as to what constitutes quality, and therefore what could be put at risk by inadequate resources.  The quality assurance industry built up over the past decade or so has focused on process rather than substance, and reports emerging from that system give few clues as to how close we may be to compromised educational standards. Saying that quality has been maintained gives little insight into what might happen if ‘quality’ were damaged or lost. Nor does it tell us much about what investment could do to raise standards and assure global competitiveness. Saying something like ‘if you give us more money we’ll ensure that what we’ve always done is performed to the highest level of quality’ won’t be persuasive if you’ve just said that without this money you’ve actually managed to achieve the same thing.

Irish higher education clearly does need more money, but it also needs new ideas and new models of delivering learning and research. It needs a narrative, a ‘story’. The IUA is an excellent and well-led organisation, and there is imaginative leadership in the universities. Generating this story is not a task that cannot be performed effectively.

Calls for more funding, or for other resourcing mechanisms including tuition fees, will make little headway as long as those who will take the decisions don’t really see what the new money will buy and why that should be bought. It is time to generate a narrative that says something about what higher education should be doing that would have the potential to transform the lives of those experiencing it and the fortunes of the country, beyond what has been delivered in the past. It would perhaps be better to stop talking about percentages, or resources, or processes, and to focus instead on what a new and maybe somewhat different framework of higher education can do for society. People need to be convinced that there is something better out there that deserves some money. Right now, I suspect most politicians and officials are persuaded that cuts have gone some way to reducing excess fat without seriously compromising quality, and that the impact of these cuts can and should be contained by a bigger dose of centralised controls: the worst of all possible worlds.

Information overload

Posted September 22, 2014 by universitydiary
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No reasonable person can be opposed to the idea of freedom of information: the idea that bodies in receipt of public money should be accountable and should be required to release information about how it is spent and how decisions are taken. I am instinctively and on principle in favour of such a framework.

But my support for freedom of information is sometimes sorely tested. So for example, recently I received my university’s report on freedom of information requests received in July and August of this year. There was a total of 33 requests – which I might say in passing is considerably more than the total we would typically have received in a full year when I was President of Dublin City University. We have calculated that processing and answering these 33 requests took 42 hours of staff time, in addition to the time spent by our freedom of information officer in managing the system.

I might have felt this was justifiable if the questions were of real significance and answering them met a public need. Some were. But a majority of them were submitted by people and organisations who wanted us to compile lists of products we use or services we require; in other words they wanted us to provide them with free information on the basis of which they could seek private business deals with us. One particularly annoying question asked us to compile a list of annoying FOI requests we receive.

Freedom of information is a precious resource and should be maintained. But there needs to be a mechanism which distinguishes genuine requests from those that merely try to secure private commercial advantage or which ask us to engage in detailed analysis of rather trivial issues, using significant public money in the process. It may be time to allow us to charge for the staff time spent in compiling answers. Freedom of information should not become a major bureaucracy in its own right.


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