Art or just narcissism – should universities be places of refuge from popular culture?

Posted April 22, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: society

Tags: ,

One phenomenon of popular culture that suddenly erupted on the scene is the ‘selfie’. One can hardly call it a self-portrait, because that would suggest an artistic intention of sorts and an attempt to portray personality and appearance. Rather, the selfie is more of a casual capture of the moment, whatever that moment may be. It is everywhere: famously, Barack Obama and David Cameron shared the photographic frame in a selfie taken by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela’s funeral; and Ellen Degeneres provided some advertising for Samsung with her group selfie at the Oscars. And naturally you can wander through the pages of Facebook to see one of the selfie’s natural habitats. The onward march of the selfie has now even been recognised by the Oxford University Press, though not yet by its flagship, the OED.

Of course universities are not insulated from the world of selfies. Recently Bryant University in the United States asked students to stop taking selfies during graduations. And apparently the University of Alabama has tried to stop students from taking selfies in any setting at all ‘because it [is] immature and made them look bad’.

Universities sometimes have a difficult relationship with popular culture. There is often an instinctive suspicion of anything that has caught public attention in a sudden wave of enthusiasm, perhaps on the understanding that if it’s caught on too fast across society it will dumb down the academy if it enters there. While not every trend deserves academic recognition, some do. Charles Dickens was, in his day, part of popular culture, as was Shakespeare. The selfie may not generally be today’s manifestation of Rembrandt or van Gogh, but there is no need to get all worked up about it. In fact, I would love it if there were available for viewing today a collection of selfies from, say, 1914. Actually, if you look hard enough, there are.

Happy Easter

Posted April 20, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: religion, society

Tags:

I would like to wish all readers of this blog a very happy Easter. If the religious context of the day does not resonate with you, then I hope that you will enjoy some nice chocolate; and maybe take advantage of the fine weather (if that is what you are experiencing).

Postgraduate studies, a higher calling?

Posted April 14, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags:

One of the curiosities of my university education was that I completed my first postgraduate degree before I completed any undergraduate one. If I were to write about that in any detail, it would be too mind-numbingly boring, so just a very brief explanation: my undergraduate degree in Trinity College Dublin was a BA in Law. In those days TCD allowed law students to do, concurrently, the LLB (Bachelor of Law), which was technically a postgraduate degree (it’s all different now, by the way).  In fact the LLB course used all the same subjects (today we would say modules) as the BA, so there only real manifestation of doing two degree programmes was two sets of examinations. And that year, the LLB exams took place a few weeks before the BA exams. I told you this was boring.

So I graduated with two degrees at the same time, and stuck them both behind my name with hardly a hint of shame at this maybe rather doubtful practice. A couple of years later I had my PhD, so it didn’t matter much any more.

The LLB of that day was a most confusing thing. It had an undergraduate title but was, at least technically, a postgraduate degree; in that it aped its namesake in Cambridge, or the BCL in Oxford. Its syllabus – well, I’m not sure you could say it had a syllabus, as the BA lectures doubled up for the LLB – was hardly a postgraduate one. And the whole thing was corrected a few years later when the LLB became the primary undergraduate law degree of TCD.

If I had wanted to study law in the United States, it would have been rather different: I would have had to study for an unrelated undergraduate degree first, and then pursued my law studies at a postgraduate level, generally leading to the Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, which while labelled a doctoral degree is overwhelmingly not considered to be one.

And if I had studied any subject at all in Germany, it would have been hard to say whether what I was doing was undergraduate or postgraduate or some sort of seamless transition between the two.

Perhaps encouraged by the Bologna process, we have begun to look more systematically at this. It is not that we need to be pedantic or bureaucratic about it all, rather we need to have a clear sense of what we are doing pedagogically. We need to understand what standards and methodologies separate the different levels of degree programmes. We may also need to consider the significance (if any) of the different lengths of degree programmes culminating in the same award – some universities in Britain and Ireland have three-year undergraduate degree programmes, and some (including Scottish universities) have four-year ones.

As the framework for postgraduate courses becomes clearer, so they also appear to be gaining in popularity. Numbers taking postgraduate courses have increased very substantially over the past decade or two, and there is now evidence that those graduating with a postgraduate degree find jobs more quickly and more easily. But, apart from research degrees (including PhDs), what are postgraduate courses for? Are they a seamless extension of undergraduate programmes (as they clearly are in some subjects, for example engineering)? Is their purpose to address their subject-matter in a deeper way? Do they represent (as in the United States) a more advanced but also more vocational approach to learning? Are they the new gold standard of employability?

An increasing proportion of university students nowadays are postgraduates. That proportion is almost certain to rise. It is perhaps time to reflect on what the implications are for higher education.

What’s at stake?

Posted April 7, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, society, university

Tags:

The term ‘stakeholder’ is one of those words that appears to have suddenly emerged as a key concept of higher education policy. It is not a term, so far as I can remember, that was ever used when I embarked upon my academic career. Now it is ubiquitous in university documentation.

So what does it actually mean? There word ‘stakeholder’ was originally a legal concept referring to a person or body that held money or property pending a determination of who was the rightful owner. It was common for stakeholders to be used in gambling transactions, but in other settings as well. From this original use came the more modern meaning of stakeholder as someone or some body with an interest in the success or otherwise of a person, organisation or business. In the business world it is usually a reference to someone who, while not necessarily being a shareholder or owner, has a legitimate interest in a firm’s success or could be affected by its failure: employees, customers, suppliers, creditors. There is also the concept of a ‘secondary stakeholder’, who is not affected as directly by a firm’s fortunes, but who nevertheless has an interest: the general public, trade unions, community groups, and so forth.

So who are the ‘stakeholders’ of a university? The obvious primary group of stakeholders are students, and of course also staff. The concept may be seen as more complex when it is extended to government, industry (local or otherwise), schools, public agencies. As public policy to an ever greater extent expects universities to engage stakeholders in planning and in strategic communication, it is important to assess how far this community of interested parties could extend, and what entitlements they have. Some studies have suggested that there is a particular triumvirate of stakeholders whose interests should to some extent be accommodated: parents, communities and employers. This, it is suggested, should lead universities to adopt the business tool of ‘business stakeholder analysis’:

‘BSA is a useful tool for learning how to think more expansively about stakeholders, and then actively to incorporate these newly identified stakeholders into the corporate decision-making process without sacrificing institutional values.’

Universities, like other organisations, need to be aware of those bodies and networks that can have an impact on their success. Unlike firms, universities are often seen as public bodies, and this creates not just a sense amongst various groups that they have an interest in the institution, it sometimes generates a sense of entitlement in relation to them. Governments express this through the conditions they attach to the distribution of public money to universities and through the monitoring of performance. But it is felt more widely also: a man once came up to me on the campus (having recognised who I was) and proceeded to deliver a set of instructions as to what I, in his view, was obliged to do. He ended his statement with: ‘I have paid for all this, I am entitled to have my views taken into account.’

And indeed, in many way he was so entitled. Universities should not be resistant to the stakeholder concept; it reinforces a sense of the university as a significant element of the wider community, even if the institution does not have to dance to everyone’s tune. Autonomy should not, in my view, mean disengagement or disinterest. In some ways indeed we are stakeholders for the wider community: we hold the valuable property of knowledge in the interests of the society which, ultimately, owns it.

Trinity College Dublin

Posted April 5, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: photography

Tags:

Having been rather critical of the proposal to change the name of Ireland’s oldest university, I thought I might balance that with a photo I took recently. This shows TCD’s chapel on the north side of the Front Square.

Trinity College chapel

Trinity College chapel

Academic publishing: escaping the stranglehold?

Posted April 1, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

Tags: , , ,

Elsevier BV is a Netherlands company which, according to its website, is a ‘world-leading provider of information solutions’; in other words, it is a publisher. Its main focus is on science and medicine. It publishes 2,900 journals in one format or another, including such well known periodicals as Acta Anaesthesiologica Taiwanica, or the American Journal of Otolaryngology, or the unputdownable Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes & Essential Fatty Acids. It has published more than 24,000 academic books. So one thing you already know about Elsevier is that it holds the key to publication for many academics, and to access to scholarship for university libraries and their readers.

And it is not cheap. So for example, the seminal book Dacie and Lewis Practical Haematology will, should you decide to buy it, set you back €93. And if you think your library should subscribe to Prostaglandins, you may want to let them know that the electronic version (only) will cost €3,743.33; if you need it in print, that’ll be €4,524.

It would not be fair to single out Elsevier; it is merely doing what companies do in an inadequately competitive market. Academic publishing  is full of such examples; th0ugh not that full, because the number of really significant publishers is not a large one. And as universities across the worlds try to prioritise their expenditure, library subscriptions and purchases have become more and more unaffordable.

And yet, universities have not seriously resisted the exploitation by publishers, beyond agitated discussions. However, now a German university, the University of Konstanz, has told Elsevier that the university ‘will no longer keep up with this aggressive pricing policy and will not support such an approach’. More precisely, it has decided to discontinue the existing licensing arrangement, and to tell academics that they will instead support them when they need individual access.

Perhaps this bold step will prompt a wider and more decisive response by the global academy. Perhaps it will create more debate about how open access publishing can be developed in such a way that scholarly output is not pulled behind an excessively high paywall. Perhaps the abuse of trade in knowledge in a very imperfect market can be fought after all.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 747 other followers