Archive for November 2010

How can we identify the next generation of leading universities?

November 30, 2010

At a recent workshop on university rankings one participant was quoted as having said the following:

‘Universities less than 50 years old fall below the radar of current world university rankings systems. Younger institutions are under-represented in world rankings. Current rankings do not provide information which allows the early identification of universities which are building research activity and intensity.’

First, I cannot help pointing out that the university I led until very recently is definitely younger than 50 and is definitely not below the rankings radar, having entered the global top 300 in 2006. However, the question as to how we might identify the next generation of leaders is an interesting one. Although no university will make it into that group without real world-class research excellence, that may not be the early identifier. If you want to break the hegemony of US Ivy League institutions and Oxbridge I would suggest you need to be different, not an imitator. You need to be an innovator with knowledge, finding new ways to develop higher education both in pedagogy and in scholarship, finding new and better ways of answering society’s questions.

There is a widespread view that one model of university will always dominate. I doubt that.

Political expletives

November 30, 2010

Almost exactly 16 years ago in Ireland the then Leader of Fianna Fáil, Charles Haughey (who had been before and would later again become Taoiseach, and who was never less than controversial), gave an interview to the magazine Hot Press. The interview was unremarkable in terms of content, but explosive in terms of the colourful language used. So Ireland was able to learn that one of its political leaders used all sorts of swear words in conversation, and that he had a particular fondness for the ‘F’ word. Shock was expressed in newspaper comment pages. But nobody needed to be surprised. After all, most people in Ireland were (and are) fond of swearing their way through the day, by no means excluding politicians. One other Minister (of a different party) was notorious for his habit of arranging meetings by telling his secretary to ‘get that f***er in here’. And today several Irish politicians are known for their fondness of expletives.

It’s not uniquely an Irish habit. The White House tapes released at the time of the Watergate investigations revealed Richard Nixon as a serial swearer. Recently there have been newspaper reports telling us that current British Prime Minister David Cameron ‘uses four-letter expletives as casually as a teenager in a school playground.’ What is more, in doing so he follows, it is said, in the footsteps of the last two occupants of No 10 Downing Street. And back in America, Barack Obama last year said of his (now departed) White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that Mother’s Day was problematic for him because he was not used to saying ‘day’ after the word ‘mother’.

Why would any of that shock us? Maybe there is a view in some circles that politicians need to show some sort of decorum that suggests to voters that they would be more at ease at your granny’s birthday tea than just before closing time in the pub. But don’t we want our politicians to be part of life as it is lived, rather than as it is airbrushed?

I confess I get very tired of the over-use of swear words, particularly in Dublin, where many people seem to feel a need to introduce the ‘F’ word into every sub-clause of every sentence. But on the other hand, expletives can have a use, and apparently are effective in reducing tension and blood pressure. So if anyone wants to be critical of David Cameron, I hope they find a better basis for that. And as for Charles Haughey’s interview, even today it makes me smile, not because I admire the language, but because he felt confident enough to ‘be himself’. That’s not a bad thing.

The rise of for profit higher education?

November 29, 2010

As we have noted here recently, the British Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, appears to feel that more private for-profit institutions should be encouraged to play a role in English higher education. For those who may feel, like the Minister, that for-profit colleges will apply a market discipline and bring greater efficiency and choice, it is worth noting recent information coming from America that only 22 per cent of new entrants to such colleges actually graduate within six years. While some of the reasons for this may be related to the backgrounds of the students taken in, it is still an unacceptable performance and should give some considerable cause for concern.

Of course there are some high quality private institutions of this kind, including one or two in Ireland, but across the board there must always be questions about the idea of a ‘university’ that has to organise itself in a way that will secure significant profits and thus dividends for shareholders. I am not against participation in higher education by for-profits, but I would strongly suggest that this is not the answer to almost any issue that is currently of concern to the sector; and furthermore if new private institutions are pushed into the market too aggressively there could be serious problems in the medium term if some of them run into quality issues.

A better model might be for universities to enter into partnerships with some for-profit institutions that can provide services in an appropriately monitored environment.

Universities: what is the Scottish solution?

November 29, 2010

For understandable reasons, a lot of attention over recent weeks has focused on the future funding framework for English universities in the light of the publication of Lord Browne’s report. This report does not apply to Scotland, and as we have also noted here, the Scottish government plans to retain a system of ‘free’ higher education without tuition fees. But it also recognises that there is a serious funding problem, and it has invited suggestion for a ‘Scottish solution’ that will ensure its universities remain viable.

At a recent graduation ceremony the Principal of Abertay University in Dundee, Professor Bernard King (who is also Convener of Universities Scotland), has warned about the risks facing Scottish higher education in the light of budget cuts, and has said that a clear picture of how universities are to be adequately funded is now needed urgently. The Scottish government is planning to publish a Green Paper on the topic shortly. In the absence of tuition fees, but with the likelihood of funding cuts continuing over the next few years, Scottish universities will have to find ways of targeting additional revenue streams and may be driven away from traditional core activities in doing so. Right now they are at risk of being seen as having lower capacity for quality than English universities. Certainly whatever is to be done needs to be agreed quickly.

Occupation therapy?

November 28, 2010

It is hard to say when exactly the idea of student occupations was born, but some trace it to student protests in Columbia University, New York, in 1968 against the university’s alleged involvement in a defence think tank; these protests involved the occupation of several campus buildings, from which the students were eventually evicted by police action.

In the years that followed, student occupations became a common weapon in protests, to the point where they was almost a reflex action. Unhappy with President Nixon’s re-election? Occupy the administration building! Want to end the Vietnam war? Occupy the university library! These actions were often fun, though whether they achieved anything very much is another matter.

During the more conservative years that followed from the 1980s onwards, student occupations became very rare. But now, it seems, they are back; so much so that there is even a website dedicated exclusively to student occupations, starting with British university occupations in protest at Israel’s offensive against Gaza, and more recently the wave of occupations prompted by British government funding cuts in higher education.

I must now confess that, rather many years ago, I too participated in an occupation or two. Of course the occupations had no effect whatsoever on the grand political issues at they were directed, but I would not say that they were pointless: they produced debate and political analysis amongst the occupiers, some of it not uninteresting. But until recently I would have said that, as a society, we have moved on: we have very different opportunities for registering our views these days. Also, my concern (as I have stated before) is that these occupations actually help to turn the wider public against universities, something that we cannot afford right now.

I would not dismiss the intentions and motives of at least some of the protestors; but I think their methods are misguided, not least because they give opportunities to some whose motives are rather less clear.

The fire is going out?

November 27, 2010

A few weeks ago I visited someone in their home, and as I entered I was met by what, to me, was an almost overpowering smell of cigarette smoke. It is a very rare thing nowadays to find anyone smoking indoors, so encountering it now is rather striking. My friend is a chain smoker, and at home he continues to light up constantly.

Some years ago that would not have been unusual at all. When I was a boy both my parents smoked, my father about 40 a day (and occasional pipes and cigars), my mother maybe 20. I am sure that our house smelled strongly of cigarette smoke. As, probably, did most public buildings that I might have entered. I have never been a smoker, but for years I was a gifted passive smoker.

Now, I gather that the number of smokers is going down rapidly, and of course we have smoking bans in public spaces. So can smoking die out completely? I suspect that even if it could, it won’t happen for some time. But social expectations and requirements have changed, and so the various bans that have been introduced in a number of countries have been accepted and have started to change behaviour. This is so even in France (which banned smoking in most public spaces in 2007), where it was always thought that French smokers would refuse to obey anti-smoking laws. I remember a delegation of French public officials visiting Dublin in 2005 and absolutely refusing to believe that a smoking ban was either just or enforceable.

And what does one say to the person who occasionally will suggest that smoking is a civil liberty, and that it is no part of the government’s role to make people stop? Smoking can impose significant costs on society, and so the taxpayer has an interest in ensuring there is decreased consumption. And as for me, I am delighted that whenever I enter s bar or a hotel my eyes do not begin to water, as they once did.

PS. But whatever happened to pipes? I used to love the smell of pipe smoke…

Interesting times for English universities

November 27, 2010

Over the past few days, the British Minister of State for Universities and Science has been making various statements designed to map out the future direction of English higher education. On November 3 he made a statement to the House of Commons in which he explained the government’s decision to allow an increase in tuition fees, without lifting the cap completely. The standard ceiling will now be £6,000, with fees ‘n ‘exceptional cases’ permitted up to £9,000. This will not take the form of a payment on entry, but rather a repayment on graduation after pay exceeds a threshold of £21,000. He explained the payment system as follows:

‘We are also proposing a more progressive repayment structure. At present graduates start repaying when their income reaches £15,000. We will increase the repayment threshold to £21,000, and will thereafter increase it periodically to reflect earnings. The repayment will be 9% of income above £21,000, and all outstanding repayments will be written off after 30 years. Raising the threshold reduces the monthly repayments for every single graduate.’

Then the minister also addressed a meeting of Universities UK in which he explained that the upper cap of £9,000 would only apply where universities made special access arrangements for disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the minister also laid emphasis on his desire to have private higher education providers enter the market, and for growth in higher education provision by further education colleges. He described the new world of higher education as follows:

‘First of all there is a serious requirement of widening access. Secondly, universities shouldn’t underestimate the competitive challenge they will face. I have a stream of new providers who believe that there is potential to offer an alternative. I believe that the challenge for universities is to look very carefully at their costs, not simply assume [they can] take today’s costs and put them into the new world.’

Clearly the British government intends to change English higher education quite fundamentally. It is still too early to see for sure how the changes will look, but clearly there will be a major emphasis on competition, both between institutions and between types of institutions. Whether the system can flourish on that basis rather remains to be seen.


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