Archive for January 2011

Assessments and examinations at risk

January 31, 2011

As governments in a number of countries try to square the circle of rising higher education participation rates and budget (and therefore faculty) cuts, one thing in particular should be borne in mind: the risk to the quality of exam and assignment correction. Only academics can really know the burden that descends on them at certain times of the year, when large numbers of papers have to be corrected and scored in a very short space of time, and detailed feedback provided for students. And while it is possible (though undesirable) to cram more students into a hall to hear a lecture, when these students produce examination papers, essays and projects the volume of this material may overwhelm the declining number of academics who have to carry out the corrections.

Initially, the risk is not that the job will not be done, but rather that it will be done too hastily. In the longer run the quality of the higher education experience is at risk.

When I was still teaching actively I always enjoyed and was greatly stimulated by the teaching. But even then I found exam correction a source of great pressure, both because of the numbers involved and because I was very aware of the responsibility that rested on me when I was doing this. As governments continue to push for greater participation in higher education while cutting the resources, they are creating a quality risk that will, in the end, have serious consequences.

Is the party over?

January 31, 2011

The latest opinion poll figures in Ireland suggest that independent candidates in the forthcoming general election may do very well: they are currently scoring 15 per cent, only one percentage point lower than Fianna Fáil. If this kind of support is maintained on the actual polling day it could, at least in theory, produce a record number of independent TDs (members of the Dáil, i.e. the lower house of parliament). This would create a completely different political composition of the country’s parliament from that of any other state (apart from Canada) of which I am aware. What does this signify, and does it matter?

Historically independent members of parliament are often elected on single-issue platforms, often to do with local services in the constituency. Where a government does not have a clear majority independent parliamentarians can become crucial to sustaining them in power, and often this is achieved through bargaining that involves the provision of resources or facilities for the area or region. A quick study of the parliamentary career of Jackie Healy-Rae in Ireland illustrates this point.

At a time when political parties are not held in very high esteem the electorate may be more willing to experiment with independents, and may even find them a better proposition. But in fact they distort the political system, because for the most part at least they are unpredictable. Taken as a group they do not represent a recognisable political direction, and so they do not help in the maintenance of sustainable and coherent policy-making, which at this point in our economic fortunes is particularly necessary. They also may, in some cases at least, represent the pursuit of pork barrell practices to support one area at the expense of others.

An interesting development in Ireland was the recent attempt to assemble a group of independent candidates (including journalists and commentators David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole) and allow them to run under one organisational umbrella, to be called ‘Democracy Now’. However, the individuals who would have made up that group have wildly differing views on almost all matters imaginable, ranging from the fairly extreme right to the very radical left. They would have been committed to a common goal of political reform and the renegotiation of the recent Irish bail-out, but it would have been difficult for them to unite around substantive principles even in those contexts. In the event the group has decided not to proceed, and only one of them, Shane Ross, seems determined to stand as an independent.

It is my view that independents representing university seats in the Seanad, Ireland’s upper house, have played a very valuable role. But the game in the Dáil is a different one, and for me at least there is no evidence that independent TDs enhance democracy and progress. I therefore hope that current opinion poll figures turn out to be wrong. In the end, the capacity of citizens to have their political priorities reflected in government will depend on their ability to vote for a manifesto held in common by a group large enough to form an administration. I hope that the political parties are not finished yet.

Measuring influence in today’s world

January 30, 2011

Maybe you have heard of Justin Bieber, maybe you haven’t. So here’s a very short biography. He is nearly 17 years old. He is a singer. He has released one well-received album. He has a Twitter account with nearly 7 million followers. And according to some noise published earlier this month, he is more influential than Barack Obama. Actually, let’s tell the whole truth, according to the same survey Obama also lags behind Lady Gaga, who has just short of 8 million Twitter followers. You may be starting to get the idea: President Obama has a Twitter following of ‘only’ about 6 and a half million.

So what’s this all about? Are we just measuring Twitter followers and concluding that this must be the sole basis of power and influence? Well, not quite, but very nearly. This league table of influence was brought to us courtesy of the website klout, which describes itself as the ‘standard for influence’. In fact klout is one of those internet success stories, and it has suddenly caught on. According to its own website, this is what it does:

‘The Klout Score is the measurement of your overall online influence. The scores range from 1 to 100 with higher scores representing a wider and stronger sphere of influence. Klout uses over 35 variables on Facebook and Twitter to measure True Reach, Amplification Probability, and Network Score.’

So let me reveal my own influence: according to klout, my score is 53. Let’s see how that compares with others. Well, the would-be next Taoiseach Enda Kenny beats me by one point and comes in at 54. But I am happy to report that he is the only Irish politician who is more influential than I am, and that no Irish university president or Scottish principal comes even close to competing with me. But I am not the most influential university president globally. Professor Steven Schwartz of Macquarie University is an exact tie with Enda Kenny, at 54 points.

What are we to make of all this? Should we just laugh at such nonsense and conclude it’s trivial? Or is there an argument somewhere to be made about the changing nature of influence in the new world of instant communication?

I wouldn’t spend two minutes worrying about whether Barack Obama really is less influential than Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but I would point out that he is in this league table at all, which almost no other politician is. In fact, as we well know, this is entirely connected with his presidential campaign, which took off in part because he was smart enough to understand the political potential of the internet and social networking. We don’t yet see the Chinese president in any of this, but sooner or later, with the Chinese people’s voracious appetite for the internet, that too will come in some shape or form.

As for an academic dimension, some worry that the major source of modern day influence, Twitter, may actually be trivialising scholarship, forcing all academic knowledge into 140 characters and celebrating celebrity rather than vision or insight; this is the theme of an article by Professor Tara Brabazon (klout score: 50) in Times Higher Education. There is a hint in this kind of critique that if you can prompt someone to re-tweet your most recent 140-character thought then neither you nor the thought nor the re-tweeter can amount to much. I can understand why one might say that, but I believe it to be wrong. The message of scholarship doesn’t change, but the means for disseminating it do; if that were not so, we’d be publishing our work on hand-printed vellum.

I suspect that Stephen Hawking is not concerned that his klout score is only 50. But he is there on Twitter, and so are many others who want to share their knowledge, often by referring readers to more detailed presentations of it elsewhere. It would be foolish to believe that using the new media to broaden the scholarly community and shape its influence is wrong.

The return of ‘industrial action’?

January 29, 2011

My first academic job back in the 1980s was that of lecturer in industrial relations in Trinity College Dublin. This came just after Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’ that fatally undermined Jim Callaghan’s term as British Prime Minister, and just before the British miners’ strike, which probably more than anything else contributed to the erosion of trade union strength in the UK. In Ireland at the time industrial unrest was also widespread. In the year before I took up my post Ireland had lost over a million working hours due to strikes, about a hundred times the number that would be normal now.

Over the two decades that followed, strike action was subjected to far more legal constraints, including the requirement of a secret ballot before action could go ahead. In addition, with the rise of the ICT sector trade union density – membership as a proportion of the total labour force – declined. This combination produced an era of low levels of industrial action.

Is this about to change? There have been mutterings in Britain about strikes, or even a general strike, in response to government policies and cutbacks. Some trade union leaders have taken to issuing threats, or maybe predictions, of industrial unrest. This in turn has prompted the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to state that trade unions are ‘forces of stagnation’ and that they are set to hinder economic recovery.

While there is clearly a fair amount of uneasiness in society about the impact of government economic policies, there is little evidence that the wider public would look benignly on waves of industrial action. The miners’ strike in the mid-1980s was actually a turning point, in that it helped to swing public opinion behind the Thatcher government rather than against it.

A free society needs to protect the right of employees to withdraw their labour. But using this as a tool in a political campaign is not wise, as has been reccognised by the UK Labour Party. Trade unions would do well to think very carefully about such campaigns.

Academic hierarchy

January 29, 2011

About a year ago I was at a dinner in another Irish university and sat next to a very distinguished senior academic from that institution. The conversation was lively and interesting, and amongst other things we talked about the changing circumstances of academic lives and careers. My friend expressed the view that one of the things that distressed him in the modern university was the erosion of what he called ‘the deep-rooted democracy of the academy’. I had to pause to think about that, and on reflection I told him I couldn’t agree that ‘democracy’ had ever been a real feature of university life; or not, as I suggested somewhat mischievously, unless you took the view that pre-liberation South Africa was a democracy.

My own academic career began in 1980, and my early impressions were of an extraordinarily hierarchical setting. Most departments had one professor, and this professor was God. His (invariably ‘his’) word was the law. Departmental meetings involved discussion, but rarely decisions taken by a majority of those present. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t unhappy, and as it happens my Professor and Head was actually an extremely civilised man whom I owe a lot. But it sure as hell wasn’t a democracy; nor was any other department of which I had any knowledge. In fact, having experienced life as a bank employee a few years earlier, I can say with some emphasis that it was far less hierarchical than life in the academy; which is saying something, as banks were notoriously old-fashioned back then.

I mention this because, in the latest issue of Times Higher Education, there is an article by John Warren, a lecturer in Aberystwyth University, in which he muses nostalgically about an bygone era when fewer people were professors and when this title was reserved for those somewhat older academics who had experienced ‘many years of scholarly endeavour’. The tendency to give the title now to ‘youthful high-flyers’ appears to be something he finds regrettable. I can’t say I agree.

In this blog I have on previous occasions drawn attention to the proliferation of professorial titles, and the decision by some universities to award them to all academics, whatever their precise grade. It still seems to me that, if this were done everywhere and across the board, it would not be such a bad thing. It would help overcome the sense of hierarchy that has been part of university life. It would still be possible to recognise exceptional academic achievement by having different grades of professors (such as Assistant, Associate and so forth), but it might bring to an end the kind of personal deference that was a traditional feature of the academy.

A web of confusion

January 28, 2011

As I have noted previously, these days the main ‘shop window’ in which a university presents its programmes, facilities and services to a wider world is its worldwide web homepage. Anyone wanting to make contact with it is likely to look there first, and therefore it is very important that the institution presents itself well. A few weeks ago I had a look at the Irish university websites, and on the whole I did not think they were well designed. Yesterday I investigated the home pages of 14 British universities. I am inclined to conclude that, like their Irish counterparts, they mostly don’t get it right.

Here are some of the key problems.

First, what almost all (except one, to which I return in a moment) get terribly wrong is the sheer busy-ness of the page. Generally it is full of small print and densely formatted text, with a vast array of links that are not usually organised in a user-friendly way. It is my view that a homepage should not give more than nine or ten clickable links, and that these should be presented in a visually accessible way. In fact, most have dozens. For example, this university gives you 57 links on the homepage, not organised into any coherent groups. This world famous university has 62, though admittedly the links are clustered in a somewhat more logical way. The one that gets it absolutely right is the University of Warwick, with only nine links on the homepage.

Secondly, almost no university seems to be able to resist the idea that it should publish self-congratulatory news stories on the homepage. Of course this is simply a form of PR, but not a useful one. It is not an effective way of publishing press releases (journalists don’t scour university websites looking for these), while those who go to a university website will almost always find them a distraction. They serve absolutely no purpose, except in very rare cases of stories that people may genuinely want to have brought to their attention.

Thirdly, most of the websites were very hard to navigate. I asked a friend to look at each of them and try to get as much information as possible about undergraduate examinations, including exam dates, initially without using the ‘search’ function. In the case of three of them he was unable to get any information at all by following links. Interestingly, in one of these even the search function didn’t help, while in the other two it brought so many results that it took him ages to work out which of them was of use to him. Seven of the 14 universities seemed to publish no information about examination dates (or if they did he couldn’t find it). In the case of only one university did the hunt for exam information turn out to be easy and logical.

Finally, the design of most websites goes against the most obvious principle: keep it simple. Don’t cover the page with writing and images, and don’t make the following of links too complex. On the homepage, keep individual items apart from each other with plenty of white space, and only include information that will clearly be helpful to those accessing the page. Of the 14 websites I looked at, five even put so much on the page that it forces the user to scroll down to find key information, an absolute no-no in the design of internet home pages.

It seems to me that all this is another sign that many universities don’t have a proper understanding of the key objectives of PR, and in particular that they don’t really appreciate the potential and pitfalls of websites. Mostly they have not properly considered what they want these sites to do for them, and therefore they don’t knowhow they should design them to achieve their purposes. Universities deal with very complex areas of knowledge, but when it comes to the internet they should, above all, keep it simple.

Taking ‘banter’ seriously

January 28, 2011

It’s not easy to take Katie Hopkins – really a person just famous for being famous – seriously, and so probably one shouldn’t bother too much with anything she says. For those who are not familiar with her, she was a contestant on the BBC’s show The Apprentice in 2007, and before and after that she was known more for her various relationships than much else; but somehow she has reinvented herself as a serious business consultant, and indeed has made it twice (including yesterday) on to the BBC’s political programme Question Time.

Anyway, Katie Hopkins has a Twitter presence, and a couple of days ago she issued the following tweet:

‘Sky sports – can no one have an opinion anymore? Can no one have a giggle? Must everything be so sanitised and magnolia? Equality mania.’

She also delivered herself of a limerick on the same subject, but I am certainly not going to repeat it here as it is wholly objectionable. Why bother with her at all? Because, alas, I suspect she does speak for more people than just herself, and it’s a serious matter.

For those who may not know what her tweet was referring to, it was the comments made by Sky Sports football commentators Andy Gray and Richard Keys about a female assistant referee, amongst other things expressing the view that women are unable to understand the offside rule. As people started digging they found that both pundits had form, and that they had been recorded making other objectionable remarks previously. At first it was thought that Gray was the worse offender, but since then Keys was shown to have made horribly lewd comments to a fellow pundit, referring to a former girlfriend as ‘it’ in the context of obscene suggestions about sexual conduct.

Sky Sports and the two commentators have parted company, and it would be nice to think that this has addressed the problem; almost certainly not. But the more worrying aspect for me has been the willingness of others outside the world of football, like Hopkins, to come to the defence of the two idiots and suggest that this was nothing more than just a bit of banter. Online debates about the affair also have tended to have plenty of contributors taking the same line, though in fairness most express strong disapproval.

But those who think that this is ‘just’ a case of wildly inappropriate and sexist comments are also wrong. There is more to this. As more information has been revealed, it has become clear that Gray and Keys were known as bullies who regularly abused their positions as veteran pundits. This is not just about maintaining decorum, being fair or keeping the language clean. It is not even about recognising gender equality. It is about combating abuse and harassment and bullying.

For those who think that this is just typical of football and that the rest of the world has moved on, I’m not so sure. Recognising the dignity and equal worth of all people, regardless of gender, race, origin, sexuality or other characteristics is still not something we always manage, in various walks of life. And that is one of the reasons why I was being vigilant in the political context earlier this week.

In the meantime, football is better off without Gray and Keys (and I hope they don’t re-appear elsewhere). I hope the lesson is being more widely learnt. I much prefer to be writing about the just cause of Newcastle United than this kind of idiocy.

How should the academic community respond to critical public opinion?

January 27, 2011

Here is a comment from the United States about how the wider public views the academic profession:

‘”Across the country, public education is under siege,” Lisa Vollendorf, chair of the Romance, German and Russian languages and literatures department and of the academic senate at California State University at Long Beach, said in an e-mail, summing up the sense of acute concern felt by many faculty members in her state and elsewhere. “At a time when the global economy depends on brains and not brawn, public support for education is at an all-time low.”‘

On this side of the Atlantic, that sounds awfully familiar. As society tries to come to grips with a totally changed economic environment and as governments try to make ends meet, expensive public services have come under fire from all quarters, and higher education is right there amongst them. Two common threads in all this criticism are the charge of under-performance (or rather more accurately, the neglect of students and of frontline teaching), and complaints about allegedly excessive pay for academics. This mood asserts itself almost whenever academics appear in public debate: the response in the letters pages of the Irish Times to the recent meeting in Dublin on academic freedom makes the point, as have some recent articles in the British media.

As I have argued regularly in this blog and elsewhere, there is very little evidence of widespread underperformance by faculty. On the contrary, most lecturers and professors work exceptionally long hours and demonstrate genuine flexibility and goodwill in carrying out their jobs. But while we know that in the universities, we have not persuaded the public, and there is evidence that hostility towards higher education staff is growing, and may persuade politicians to promise or take measures that will seriously damage the system.

Academics often and rightly emphasise that policy should be evidence-based. Anecdotes are not a good basis for strategic reform. On the other hand, however, we are ourselves not good at assembling hard facts that will support our case for support. We are too often unable to prove our assertions about academic workloads, for example, though we know them to be true.

One activity within higher education, therefore, that really is of the utmost importance, is the gathering of hard data. This is now policy across institutions, but is sometimes resisted; though maybe the nature and purpose of these exercises is not always communicated well. We need to be able to document much more precisely what work is done, how it is done, when it is done, and how much it costs. The purpose of this is not to develop new controls, but to assemble reliable information on the basis of which institutions can plan properly and can defend themselves effectively. If we are unable to do this, we may soon find ourselves in genuine peril.

Elections and the search for a political brand

January 27, 2011

Like many people in Ireland, I spent yesterday evening observing the outcome of the Fianna Fáil leadership election and watching the new leader, Micheál Martin, give his first press conference. The obvious question to ask at this point is whether his arrival in this position will make a difference to his party’s fortunes. Of course we don’t know, but here are some observations.

First, if you believe that Twitter in any sense reflects directions and shifts in popular opinion, then he is already making a difference. Until yesterday and over the past few weeks, the Twitter world was wholly hostile to Fianna Fáil; the tone in tweets on the party was dismissive, angry, sarcastic. It hasn’t all changed overnight, but yesterday evening the trend was more balanced. If Twitter sometimes sets a tone (as it did for Joan Burton, as covered here the day before), then the tone for Martin might give his party some slight occasion for hope, or at least less fatalism.

Secondly, the tone of his own statements was markedly different from that of his predecessor. Gone was the hostility towards ‘the media’ (which I always thought was a very unwise approach for Brian Cowen to take), gone was the somewhat grumpy aggression, in came a kind of engaging willingness to accept some blame and look forward with optimism.

But it’s very early days, and for now we don’t really yet know what the Micheál Martin ‘brand’ might be – though we shall need to find out quickly if it is to make any difference. In the end, effective politics is all about finding a brand that resonates with the public. American political analysts tend to suggest that political success is based on identifying the correct issues and associating them with popular values. The issues in Ireland right now are easy enough to identify – they are all about economics and the associated social consequences. But what are the values? And how will the values of one party be capable of differentiation from those of another? And how easy will it be to communicate the resulting brands?

It is part of political leadership to communicate this, and Brian Cowen failed because he couldn’t. I would still have serious doubts as to whether Enda Kenny, once placed into the political crossfire of the election campaign, has what it takes either.

However, the odds must still be that the election will produce a decisive outcome that propels us towards a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. It is still almost inevitable that Fianna Fáil will spend the next four or five years in opposition. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Sinn Féin or the independents will do as well as some are predicting.

But I don’t think that all this is totally inevitable, or that the precise outcome is predetermined. And that makes it more interesting.

PS. Here is my favourite tweet on yesterday’s events in Fianna Fáil, which I think sums up the position perfectly:

‘Anagrams of Micheal Martin (sans fada): “Miracle Man Hit” Or “Am the Criminal” It could go either way!!’

A woman’s place is in parliament

January 26, 2011

As Irish readers of this blog will perhaps know, over the past 24 hours or so there has been a lot of comment on the internet, particularly on Twitter, about the performance of the Labour Party’s spokesperson on Finance, Joan Burton, on a late night television programme. The programme was maybe 10 minutes into its allotted time when tweets began to appear suggesting that she was not handling herself well, was being too aggressive, was showing hostility towards a fellow panelist, was shrill, wasn’t listening, and so forth. I was working on something else at the time and wasn’t watching the programme, but as the initial trickle of tweets began to turn into a flood I became transfixed by it. Here, apparently, a well known member of the Irish parliament had spun out of control and was in meltdown. By the end of the programme, on the basis of the tweets, it appeared her career was over.

The next morning I decided to watch a recording of the programme on the TV station’s website. As far as I could see, Ms Burton was indeed highly assertive, she did focus strongly on the particular panelist mentioned, and she rather doggedly pursued a few issues, perhaps beyond the point where it made sense to do so. But the impression given by the tweets that she had become hysterical and had lost it seemed to me to be very wide of the mark. Furthermore, she didn’t show any greater aggression than had been shown a couple of weeks earlier by party colleague Pat Rabitte on another TV programme, and he had on the whole been praised for this approach.

I cannot help wondering about all this. In the course of this week’s programme Ms Burton had herself at one point voiced the suspicion that an assertive woman is still not always respected in politics. She may be right. In fact, the atmosphere of our parliamentary proceedings, both in Ireland and in Britain, has still not shaken off the male-only atmosphere of the Victorian era. Proceedings are quite unruly and often seem childish and puerile to the casual spectator, with insults and taunts thrown across the floor as a matter of routine. Working hours are bizarre and, for practical purposes, make it impossible for a member to exercise family responsibilities. Some reforms have been attempted, but not enough. Women still leave politics because they cannot adapt their lives to the male bachelor traditions.

Experience in other countries should enlighten us a little. Finland, with a century old tradition of female parliamentarians, seems to have got it about right. Even in the United States Sarah Palin’s ‘Mama Grizzlies’ can enter Congress without much bother (though for other reasons one might wonder about them). It is time to stop instinctively thinking of women politicians as intruders in a man’s world. It is time to show that we are not all like Sky television football reporters.


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