Archive for August 2011

Coaxing university leaders into the social media

August 31, 2011

I spent yesterday at the annual conference of CASE Europe – the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on blogging and tweeting by university heads. That, I might say, is a space I am used to being in on my own. When I was in Ireland I was, as far as I ever discovered, the only blogging and tweeting university president, and I am now the only university principal in Scotland doing so. There are some in England (including one of my fellow panelists yesterday), and there are by now a good few in America, but none in Scotland apart from me, and I think none at all now in Ireland.

In the course of the discussion one of my fellow panelists (not the university head) suggested that it was enough for a university head to come to understand the potential of social networking; they didn’t need to grasp the techniques in any detail or become active themselves. However to be frank, I am not sure about this. Universities are in the business of communicating, whether through teaching or through research, and it seems curious to me to suggest that presidents or principals – or for that matter lecturers – should be able to stay away from today’s channels of popular communication. We really should not be quite as other-worldly as that. Universities are not historical theme parks; they need to engage with contemporary society.

It is my view, therefore, that university heads should dip their toes into this particular water, and should try out forms of communication that will make them seem less remote to others. And we should welcome their efforts when they do.

The continuing decline of languages in education

August 30, 2011

Figures released last week on GCSE examination results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland show a continuing decline in the popularity of languages in schools. For the past few years the number of students taking French and German has been in steep decline, and this trend has now also affected Spanish. Perhaps unexpectedly, religious studies is now the most popular of the traditional humanities subjects, followed by history.

What should one make of this? Despite regular warnings that fluency in languages supports international trade and gives a better understanding of global cultures, students are continuing to move away from language learning. This is a trend replicated across much of the English speaking world, while in other countries the learning of English and, to a lesser but growing extent, Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese is becoming more popular.

In a world where English is becoming more entrenched as the language of business this may not seem to matter very much, but considering the complexities of multiculturalism and the importance of understanding and cultural awareness the decline of language learning should be a cause for concern. There is also a need to develop the menu of available languages, notwithstanding the cost.

The great benefits of chocolate

August 29, 2011

It is always good to come across those moments in which the value of research is re-affirmed again. A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, led by Dr Oscar H. Franco, has found that eating reasonable amounts of chocolate is good for the heart and the brain, and protects against diabetes and high blood pressure.

Some of us always knew that…

Assessing continuous assessment

August 29, 2011

In many ways, notwithstanding technological advances and social and demographic changes, education is still much the same in 2011 as it was a hundred years ago. Today’s student’s experience, from first entry into school to the final year at university, is not fundamentally different from that of previous generations. However, in higher education there has been one major shift: when I was a law student my degree result was based totally and exclusively on my performance in a number of written end-of-year examinations. Furthermore, these were all closed book exams. How I was marked depended on what I was able to remember from my courses and my analytical ability. Well, if I’m honest, analytical ability wasn’t that significant in the mix of things, and I know for a fact (because the examiner told me) that my inclination to add some critical assessment to my answers was held against me in at least one paper. ‘Better people than you,’ the examiner told me frankly, ‘have passed the laws and written the judgements. Your views on them are not material.’ Indeed.

But that’s not the case any longer, and for the past couple of decades there has been a growth of continuous assessment as part of the examining framework. Nowadays between 20 and 100 per cent of a student’s final result in a module may be based on their performance in projects, essays and exercises carried out as part of a continuous assessment programme throughout the year.

Furthermore, in a number of countries this practice has spread to schools. Increasingly the central or exclusive role of examinations has given way to some project work that is counted for the final results. Plans by the Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, to reform secondary education in this way have however run into opposition, particularly from the trade unions. The latter have argued that this is not the time to undertake such reforms (given current budget cuts), or that the reform is misguided anyway. Others have suggested that developing continuous assessment in schools prompts the earlier onset of plagiarism, particularly as sources are freely available online.

At one level it seems to me that it is not the role of the teacher unions to have a veto on education policy reform, though of course they are entitled to defend their members’ material interests. But more generally, examination-only assessment in the education system undermines society’s need for educated citizens with critical and analytical abilities and a capacity for lateral thinking. It is time for a proper combination of memory testing (which is also still relevant) and the encouragement of a more intellectual engagement with the subject matter of the curriculum. It is time for these reforms.

The Bard as burden?

August 28, 2011

I recently took part in a conversation that I found extraordinarily troubling. Those taking part were two schoolteachers, one university lecturer and two businesspeople. The topic of conversation was secondary school reform. And the consensus of all those taking part, except for me, was that it was time to retire William Shakespeare from the curriculum. The arguments given in favour of this proposition included the amount of time given over to Shakespeare that could be spent on more contemporary drama; the way in which highlighting Shakespeare perpetuated an ‘English’ perspective on the world at a time when many other cultures needed more attention; the difficulty in making students understand the archaic language; the obvious problem inherent in the white maleness of Shakespeare.

So are these good points? Should we see Shakespeare as just one more dead white male taking up too much of our cultural attention?

In this anniversary year of the Authorised Version of the Bible (the ‘King James’ Bible), it may be worth recalling that this translation of scripture and the works of Shakespeare together more or less created the sound and flow of what we now know as English. Shakespeare was not just another author, he was a designer of what became the world’s primary language. Nor was his work focused on England, or even on an English understanding of history, culture and politics.

I am strongly in favour of encouraging today’s students to engage with modern literature, in English and other languages. But to imagine that this requires us to abandon Shakespeare seems, to me at least, to be absurd.

Entirely principled

August 27, 2011

At the risk of sounding like a spelling and grammar commissar, I was somewhat taken aback when I saw this headline on the BBC news website: ‘Student leaders urge university principles to restrict fees.’ For the avoidance of doubt, this was entirely a BBC mistake, as the substantive article showed that the ‘student leaders’ of the title used the correct spelling. But then again, about 5 per cent of all communications addressed to me suggest I am the Principle of RGU.

Of course nobody should get too worked up about one spelling mistake, or two similar sounding words confused. The world will go on, regardless. But precision of language and accuracy of spelling and grammar are being eroded, and when that hits the gold standard (the BBC), we may sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, I have recently heard experts in the history of English point out that the kind of precision I am talking about is not part of the historic culture of the English language. Consistency of spelling in English is quite a recent development, and Shakespeare was able to do what he did before we reached that state. So, is it perhaps time for us to let go of all this spelling pedantry and let people do whatever they want to do? Is that the more principled approach?

The ethical dimension

August 26, 2011

Just after I stepped down from my post as President of Dublin City University, I received an email from someone who described himself as ‘an interested and concerned member of the public’. The email in question was by no means short, but I can summarise the burden of it as follows.  His message to me was that I had failed to observe high ethical standards as a university head. Mind you, he added that this did not make me unique; he wrote:

‘Universities seem to be unable or unwilling these days to provide a clear moral as well as an intellectual compass. Morality matters not a bit to them, unless that is something you measure in money. You were just following the herd, but I really wish you had been better than that.’

So what had disappointed my correspondent? Two things, mainly. First, that I had not taken a personal stand in support of the ‘pro-life’ agenda, and that I had allowed the university to engage in some forms of research that did not value the human person sufficiently, from conception to the grave. Secondly, that I had not challenged the rampant materialism of society, and more particularly the growing materialism of the student body.

In fact universities are not as unconcerned with ethics as my correspondent suggested. Not only has ethics become a major academic area of study and research, but universities are also increasingly concerned with policies and structures that assess their conduct from an ethical point of view; research ethics committees being a particularly important example. I may also have been just a tad hurt that he did not apparently regard the establishment of DCU’s Institute for Ethics during my tenure as important.

But then again, we tend to regard ethics as very complex territory in which a difficult balance may have to be struck. My correspondent on the other hand appeared to regard it as the determined defence of a stronghold under attack from barbarians. But am I right to dismiss him so easily? Maybe I don’t altogether share his frame of reference, but should I not take seriously the contention that universities should in their actions uphold the highest standards of ethical behaviour, and expect to see this reflected in the actions of their members?

These are difficult questions, and universities need to be seen to be engaging with them. I do not believe that we should see ourselves as having a role in preaching to students about complex private morality issues, but we should take seriously the expectation that we will behave with integrity and responsibility. That should be our moral compass. We’re probably not always good at following it.

Follow the money?

August 25, 2011

Here’s a thing. YouGov-Cambridge recently carried out a survey of 4,000 people exploring British attitudes to higher education (though this may have been English rather than ‘British’).  When respondents were invited to identify the word that most closely described higher education, this is the world cloud that came up.

What should concern us in this is not just the identification of cost as the most important factor, but the fact that ‘knowledge’ and ‘learning’ are amongst the almost invisible terms.

Of course England has its own specific issues in the aftermath of the funding reform there, and some might argue that this would play differently elsewhere. I might have some doubts that it would. Money has become the key point of discussion, and while funding is of course necessary in order that universities can offer excellent programmes and research, it is the means rather than the end.

It is vital that the public debate around higher education is not just seen as money talk. For that to work, of course, the major money concerns of the sector must be addressed. But the universities themselves need to ensure that what they are putting into the public domain is not just all about funding. It is time to expand the debate.

At the head of the class

August 24, 2011

Universities are exceptionally complex organisations, and for their smooth operation they rely on the contributions and goodwill of many people whose names often do not appear much in the PR reports heralding great academic successes. One crucial category of staff consists of what, in this part of the world, we usually designate ‘Heads’: those people in charge of the key academic units to which lecturing staff belong (most commonly departments, or Schools).

When I was a student, and still when I became a lecturer in 1980, a department Head was typically a professor who ‘owned’ the headship for the duration of his or her (usually his) tenure. Some would have held the post for years, decades even. I vividly recall the Head of my School as a student – a God-like figure with what appeared like absolute power to steer all decision-making.

Those days are gone, and the typical model now is that someone will occupy the headship for a limited term and will then hand the torch on to another colleague. Typically a Head will be a professor, or maybe a senior lecturer, and they will be appointed on foot of a process probably led by the Dean or similar university officer. An appointment to a professorship, or associate professorship, will now normally involve an expectation that at some stage the person appointed will make themselves available for the headship.

Heads are still the persons to whom most academic staff will turn for key decisions, or for personal support. But at the same time their duties are now often ill-defined, and their responsibilities will sometimes be opaque, set against the roles of Deans and other senior academic managers. But they remain vitally significant, as they will have much more direct insight into how a department is functioning and will be able to represent the interests of staff in university decision-making. Then again, too many layers of decision-making bureaucratise the system and complicate strategic progress; and Heads who have not been carefully chosen or properly trained can wreak havoc.

In the course of my tenure as a university president/principal, I have come to the conclusion that getting the headships right is one of the most important conditions for overall institutional success. This includes getting the appointments process right, clarifying the terms of appointment and the responsibilities that go with the post (taking care also that the contributions of Heads are valued and respected), and ensuring that holders exercise their role responsibly. Overall, I am not at all sure how well the academy is performing in this regard, nor am I sure that we recognise the importance of headship, and the damage caused when it all goes wrong. It is time to stop neglecting Heads.

Education and obesity

August 23, 2011

One of the biggest social and health problems facing the developed world is obesity. Obesity has implications for the health services, for insurance, for social policy and welfare, for transport, for public safety, for the fashion industry, for economic performance. In the United States it is estimated that obesity costs the economy some $75 billion annually, and affects such things as the size of clothes, the design of cars, even the average width of coffins and graves; 25 per cent of American adults are thought to be obese. But apart from the material costs there are also the psychological issues, including questions of self-esteem and self-confidence.

While obesity has an impact on almost every corner of society, it has particular significance in education. In Aberdeenshire it has been estimated that 8 per cent of primary school pupils are obese, and as these and other young people progress through education the problem gets worse. Across a number of countries serious questions can be asked about catering and eating in the education system. In Ireland there is generally no school catering, and as a result students leave school at lunchtime and, typically, eat crisps and chocolate, or junk food. In countries where there is a school catering service the quality of the food is often very questionable.

Nor does it get better, necessarily, at university, where catering is often built on what one might call the fast food culture.

However, as the problem gets worse, there are now university research centres on obesity. Some of the leading ones include centres at Yale University, Sydney University, Bristol University, and my own Robert Gordon University. One of the notable aspects of the work of these centres is that, apart from research, they also do outreach and public education in relation to obesity issues.

Obesity is one of the key health and social problems of our age. Universities need to harness their expertise to support drives for management of this problem and the search for solutions. At the same time, educational institutions at all levels need to ensure that their students enjoy appropriate and healthy diets. The future is at stake.


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