Happy Easter

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

How do we know what we know?

Posted March 24, 2014 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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While drinking a cup of cappuccino in a very nice coffee shop recently, I overheard two students discussing research methods for their essays. Both of them believed that they had correctly identified the solution to a particular scientific – I think biomedical – problem, but neither was sure on what evidence they could base it. So one of them pulled out his mobile phone and tweeted the question. Within two minutes they apparently had received 38 responses, with 21 of these suggesting one particular source, 8 another, and the remaining 9 (according to one of the students) ‘just spouting rubbish’. So the 21 were deemed to have the winning formula, and I believe that this is what both submitted in their essays.

It was, I suppose, a form of crowdsourcing. And of course this doesn’t just get used as a research tool for students. Last week we read that online crowdsourcing was used to identify the likely flight direction of the missing Malaysian flight MH370. Or how about Californian Assemblyman Mike Gatto, who is using Twitter to help him draft legislation which he would like to see enacted? Others again have taken to crowdsourcing to predict stock market movements. A cancer research charity is using crowdsourcing to analyse medical data.

For those still struggling with the validity or otherwise of using Wikipedia as a research tool, the ever more informal and broad ranging methods of research made possible by the internet must seem a major challenge. In part this is because, increasingly, we are processing information supplied by large numbers of people about whose credentials we know, and seek to know, nothing at all; and yet we may trust what they advise us. This raises completely new notions about the validation of information and data.

In the past, when I was first doing research, our task was to acquire knowledge and based on that knowledge carry out analysis, each step of which we could document and justify. If those were our intellectual tools, how shall we respond to a new age in which we throw questions into cyberspace and wait for an answer, whose validity we cannot document beyond the volume of the response? Do we need to review the whole idea of what constitutes knowledge?


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