Archive for September 2010

Finding the student voice

September 30, 2010

It has become a common argument that, as tuition fees return or at least are being discussed, students will become more demanding; if they are paying, they expect to see some service. As a theoretical perspective that sounds reasonable enough, but the experience of higher education systems with fees doesn’t necessarily bear this out. On the whole, the student voice has not become louder or more demanding.

And actually, that’s a pity. These days students are generally so focused on navigating their courses and coming out with a good grade that they don’t spend much time arguing about university policies – not even catering, for heaven’s sake. Even where they have representation on decision-making bodies, they often do not use this very actively. There are of course exceptions to the rule, as for example in the attempts here and there to stop Bertie Ahern speaking on a campus, but frankly these little outbursts are of no great significance in the scheme of things.

Over my time as President of DCU I spent some time thinking about why this might be so. One possibility is that we – meaning the universities and their students – have arranged student representation on a kind of ‘social partnership’ model, which in the end simply parachutes student representatives into what are essentially staff discussions, which may not always be of direct significance to them. It’s not that I think we should discontinue this – I don’t, emphatically – but rather we should become more skilled at making the students’ narratives a more recognisable part of the university communications.

One interesting experiment in this context is being conducted in Arizona State University, which now runs a student blog page on its website, where new students are given an opportunity to write about their experiences, and thereby perhaps highlight what is good and not so good about the university and their programmes of study. There are no doubt also other ways of giving space to student voices and encouraging them to engage in constructive critique. It can and should all be part of the earning experience, and perhaps will encourage students to take an active part in charting the direction of their university.

The lost art of unquestioning obedience

September 29, 2010

Maybe I should just emphasise up front that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met Father Tom Ingoldsby. Maybe he is a thoughtful clergyman and a kind man. I’m sure he is. But on the other hand, if he wants to serve the Roman Catholic Church, in which he is ordained priest, most effectively he might contemplate a period of silence.

You may not know what I am talking about here, so let me explain briefly. Fr Ingoldsby is a priest attached to the Salesian Secondary School in Pallaskenry, Co Limerick. Over the years he has developed something of a reputation in Ireland as being ready to come forward at every opportunity with a strong public defence of whatever he thinks is the most orthodox and traditional position of the church. He is no stranger to the media. He has shared his views on all sorts of things with the rest of us, for example including stem cell research and civil partnerships between gay people.

His most recent excursion into the public arena took place today in the letters page of the Irish Times. His chosen topic was last Sunday’s attempt to organise a boycott of Masses across Ireland in protest at the Roman Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women to the priesthood. Fr Ingoldsby really cannot understand why this should be a topic of discussion anywhere, never mind a cause for boycotting the Mass. He takes this view because, in a 1994 Apostolic Letter, the then Pope John Paul II announced that ‘I declare that the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and this judgment is to be definitively held by all the church’s faithful.’

As far as Fr Ingoldsby is concerned, that’s the end of the matter. He suggests in his letter to the Irish Times editor:

‘This statement, that the church has no power to change in this matter will be accepted by all loyal Catholics.’

In reality of course, as we know from all sorts of polls and other evidence, loyal Catholics are not accepting this at all; indeed some polls suggest that significant numbers of priests don’t. But I don’t want to get into the issue of women’s ordination here, I am more interested in the frame of mind suggested by Fr Ingoldsby’s statement that I quote above. It is based on the principle of absolute and unquestioning obedience: ‘the Pope has said it can’t be done, so why are we even discussing this?’ I just wish Fr Ingoldsby, and others who still think like him, might reflect a little on what has got the church into the mess it’s in. They might also think about how the church can connect with a new generation of people, many of whom still have spiritual and religious needs but who will not relate to the frame of reference that puts obedience before all else. And they might remember that the sustainability of a democratic society depends upon the ability and willingness of people to engage in critical analysis of received wisdom or orthodoxy.

I am not in any way hostile to the church, in its broader mission. But I am fearful for it. And it is views like those expressed by Fr Ingoldsby that make me so.

Class divisions

September 29, 2010

OK, I know many of you are tired of league tables, but bear with me on this one. What would you say is being measured by a UK university league table in which London Metropolitan University and the University of Greenwich come out on top, and the stragglers right at the bottom include the Universities of St Andrews, Oxford and Cambridge? Well, I suppose it’s not a difficult one to figure out: this league table, published this week in the Guardian newspaper, records what percentage of students come from a manual occupational background. So for example, Oxford University in the academic year 2008-09 admitted 2,875 first year students, of whom only 275 came from a manual employment background. Actually, St Andrews didn’t admit any from that background at all.

I shouldn’t really spoil the story, but when you get to the top of the league table the positions may be right, but the numbers given don’t add up at all: but hey, it’s the Guardian

But more interesting still is the proportion of manual background students in particular degree subject areas. Medicine, history, philosophy and languages have the least participation by students from a manual background, while the highest participation is in education, agriculture and computer science.

One of the real risks faced by an education sector during a financial crisis is that of social exclusion and apartheid. As I know from my DCU term of office, we always had to work extremely hard in order to maintain a reasonable diversity of background. It was also noticeable that as the recession appeared, we lost applicants from poorer backgrounds, even when we were able to offer them financial support.

Amidst all the wonderful things that higher education does, it also has the capacity to entrench social divisions, and constant care (and, to be honest, lots of money) is needed to avoid that. Right now we are in real danger of allowing the re-gentrification of higher education, and we had better get moving to stop it from gathering pace.

Taking the tablets

September 29, 2010

I’ve now had my iPad for over three months, and I continue to use it more and more. Most recently I have taken to propping it up at meetings and taking notes on it, since I discovered that I can actually write faster on it than on a traditional keyboard (I don’t touch type, however). Most of my reading is now done on the iPad, and quite a bit of my web browsing.I have found that as a gadget it kind of adapts to my needs and preferences in a very intuitive way. The thing works for me.

Now I see that the iPad is to get a competitor, in the form of a slightly smaller device to be known as the Blackberry Playbook. Like many people, I started my mobile computing on a Blackberry, and indeed had three of these in sequence. Then along came the iPhone, and to me at least the Blackberry suddenly looked dated and sort of boring; and I’ve been with Apple ever since. But the Blackberry has stayed in business, and remains very powerful. And now it has decided to follow Apple’s lead into the tablet market. Its sales pitch is that this is going to be the device for business – as distinct from the perceived idea that the iPad is for media and leisure. If that is the target, I do wonder about the ‘Playbook’ name, which just doesn’t conjure up seriousness. But it does look neat, and some may prefer its smaller size. It also has some features that the original iPad doesn’t have, such as a USB port.

I’ll stick with the iPad (a new model is now rumoured), but competition is always good, so I hope that Blackberry does manage to get a foothold with this device.

The teaching and researching university head

September 28, 2010

The latest issue of the US Chronicle of Higher Education contains a piece by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick, Professor Nigel Thrift, in which he explains his continuing involvement in research, in the form of at least five annual seminars or conference presentations. His argument is that he needs to be seen to be doing what other academics are expected to do, and that by doing it he retains a sense of what universities do and avoids being sucked excessively into the  ‘paraphernalia of management and administration’. Similarly, one of my fellow university presidents in Ireland during my term of office continued to teach a course in his university.

I would have to admit that my own performance as President of DCU was rather more patchy. I did continue to do some sporadic research, giving two conference papers during my term of office and publishing two peer-reviewed articles, and giving occasional one-off presentations to students. But I cannot say that I did this with any real regularity. I toyed with the idea of teaching a module but abandoned it because I knew I would be an unreliable teacher, as my schedules were wholly unpredictable and often dependent on the demands of politicians and others. On the other hand Professor Thrift is right, in that the duties of a university head can be carried out in a fairly rarified atmosphere, and there is much to be said for being grounded from time to time in something more ‘real’.

In the end, though, it is probably a matter for each person to decide. As I prepare for a new phase in my life as a university head, I shall certainly be giving this some thought.

In search of the working week

September 27, 2010

In a post last week I looked at the hearings that had just taken place before the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Public Accounts Committee, in which university presidents had been questioned about the financial management of their institutions. Much of the media coverage has concerned the payment of bonuses or other benefits to senior and middle managers in University College Dublin. While I shall make a short comment on this in a particular context in a moment, I think that the more important exchanges – and as I noted last week, the more absurd ones – focused on academic working practices.

The whole thing is now published on the Oireachtas website, and can be found here. But I am now going to quote specifically from page 5 of the report, and in fact it is maybe instructive to set out the exchanges between Róisín Shortall TD and others. I am sorry about the length of this quote, but it is worth reading in full. For those perhaps not familiar with the dramatis personae, they are  Ms Shortall herself, Ned Costello (the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, representing the universities), the Committee chairman Bernard Allen TD, John Hughes (outgoing President of NUI Maynooth), and Michael Murphy (President of University College Cork). Anyway, here it is:

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Most workers have to do a minimum number of hours. I am asking if there any system in place to ensure that university staff do a minimum number of hours. That is a reasonable question.

Mr. Ned Costello: The work is monitored to ensure it is done. The work requires at least the normal working week to undertake.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: How many hours is a person required to work? What is the minimum number of hours?

Mr. Ned Costello: There is not a minimum requirement.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: There is not a minimum requirement.

Mr. Ned Costello: Indeed, in the other part of the higher education—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: How then does one measure a person’s performance?

Mr. Ned Costello: The difficulty is that if one looks at the other part of the higher education sector, the institutes of technology sector, there is a minimum number of hours. With respect to my colleagues in that sector, that has tended to become a floor to which people work down. The benefit of not having a minimum number of hours is that there are reciprocal benefits.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: I am at a loss to know how Mr. Costello can possibly—–

Chairman: I am at a loss too because Mr. Costello is being very vague. How many contact hours—–

Mr. Ned Costello: Maybe I will pass over to some of my colleagues who—–

Professor John G. Hughes: Perhaps I can make a comment as a president. The universities all have a performance management development system in place where each member of staff is appraised on an annual basis in terms of their outputs, research, teaching and so on. We are also engaged in putting in place workload models right across all the universities. Recently, as part of that exercise, my university of NUI Maynooth did a fairly detailed study of the workload currently being experienced by academic staff members. We came to the figure that the average academic in NUI Maynooth is working 59 hours per week, which is of serious concern to me because I am responsible for their health and safety. That is not untypical in the current university environment where we are working with student-staff ratios of nearly 30:1.Deputy Róisín Shortall: We do not know whether it is typical or not because there is no measurement there.

Professor John G. Hughes: We are putting in place the measurements and we have—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: A situation where a person is given a very well paid job without any stipulation about the minimum number of hours required to be worked seems to be extraordinary. Does Mr. Boland have any view on that?

Chairman: Dr. Murphy has indicated—–

Dr. Michael Murphy: Might I make some comments on that and provide some evidence? In 2008 we conducted a review of contact hours. We have a policy that academic staff should exhibit not less than 150 contact hours of teaching. The average established for the institution was over 180. In one of the colleges, medicine and health, it was 280. In the past year, we have also conducted an extensive review of research output where we invited 120 international experts in 16 panels to examine everything being conducted across the university under the research heading. As I recall, 12 of the 16 international panels made the observation that the teaching loads they saw being exhibited by UCC academics, although I think the picture is common, far exceeded the norms in their institutions across the world.

I reiterate the comment made by Professor Hughes that I believe there is far greater risk to the institutions in counting the hours which will place us in breach of our legal obligations with regard to the number of hours staff should not exceed. That should be seriously considered when we are addressing this matter in the coming year.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: It is not adequate just to review and to report back to us. There should be a minium expectation on staff. Dr. Murphy said he found that staff had a 180 contact hours.

Professor John G. Hughes: The reported average figure for the institution was 180 contact hours.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Over how many weeks?

Dr. Michael Murphy: That is over the teaching year.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Say 30 weeks. Would that be—–

Dr. Michael Murphy: For us that is 24 weeks plus—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Some 30 weeks. That is six hours per week.

Dr. Michael Murphy: The Deputy must always remember—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: In terms of the 40-40-20 referred to earlier, if six hours is 40% of the week, we are talking about the full week being 15 hours.

This whole exchange is extraordinary, and I’ll avoid giving it an adjective that might be unnceessarily insulting or provocative. But it does not appear to have occurred to anyone involved in this exchange that there was something bizarre about a politician (who does not exactly have minimum working hours) insisting that everyone must have a minimum working week. I also cannot help feeling that the presidents didn’t play their cards well in this exchange, allowing it to focus on ‘contact hours’ as an indicator of the working week and getting sucked into meaningless metrics.

If there is an issue about staff availability for student teaching and support, the answer to this would not be to impose minimum working hours for academics, but to create a student entitlement for a minimum number of hours of staff time.

This whole session of the Public Accounts Committee was potentially very damaging to higher education, as it appears to have allowed the politicians to claim that universities were not being well managed. The outcome of such exchanges may turn out to be an assault on university autonomy, and no matter how much academics might dislike this or that group of management in a university, they are unlikely to find it better when everything is run and strategies are determined by civil servants; that may be the way we are heading.

As for the special payments and bonuses, I avoided these in DCU exactly because I feared that we might get sucked into this kind of debate. However, it is absurd that universities should be prevented from making payments to staff for taking on additional functions. This should be a matter for each university, with the obligation not to spend money that they do not have, but to be free to allocate funds as necessary within budgets. The current framework in Ireland makes no sense whatsoever.

A future for the humanities?

September 26, 2010

Two interesting reports have just been published about the humanities. The first is a report jointly commissioned in Ireland by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences (IRCHSS) and the Higher Education Authority – though curiously neither body has any reference to it on their websites (the HEA site rather charmingly suggested that my search was unsuccessful but might work better if I used the key words ‘blue smurf’). However, according to a report in the Irish Independent, it recommends that student should receive a ‘more rounded’ education by ensuring that both science and humanities elements are present in all degree programmes. This would also give a boost to the creative industries, which may turn out to be particularly significant in the next phase of economic development.

The second report (in the UK) is by the Sutton Trust, which is an education charity. According to a survey carried out by the Trust, a larger proportion of students in subjects like history and philosophy are the children of people from wealthier backgrounds. This may be due to the fact that people from poorer backgrounds prefer a degree that is more closely aligned with a particular career or vocation, but the consequence may turn out to be that humanities subjects will become the preserve of the wealthy, and by the same token of universities that themselves are better resourced.

Both of these reports suggest that it is now urgent that we have a clearer strategy for the humanities, both in their more traditional setting and in some of the newer interdisciplinary models. It seems to me that a system in which the humanities are kept apart from science and engineering, and where they are seen as something best suited to the well off, is not a good one. It is time to act before that becomes a reality.


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