Archive for December 2011

A ginormous idea, an amazing list

December 31, 2011

I’m willing to bet that most of my readers have never heard of Lake Superior State University. Well, I’m sure it’s a really great institution, but actually for now I’m not interested in what it does, except for this one thing. Every year it publishes a list of ‘Banished Words’ (their upper case, not mine), or ‘List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness, an amazing list that is bound to generate some blowback’.

The list itself is compiled from submissions made by members of the public, through this online form.

Anyway, the results for this year are out, and the banished words are led by ‘amazing’ and ‘ginormous’. In fact, some are phrases rather than words, including phrases I had never heard of, such as ‘win the future’. If you want to look at the complete list from all previous years, you can find it here. It contains some unexpected entries (unexpected in the sense that they seem harmless enough), such as ‘aromatherapy’ and ‘ever’.

Actually (and, oddly, that’s not a banned word), this list is not a bad idea; and certainly it’s a good PR wheeze for Lake Superior State University. But it falls down because it just contains too much, perhaps because of an excessively indiscriminate approach to word- and phrase-banning. Why on earth would you want to ban ‘accident’,  ‘journey’ or ‘male’? And while I certainly am happy to banish ‘multidisciplinary current awareness product”, has anyone ever used the expression, and anyway, what on earth does it mean?

There are certainly words and expressions that should be banned, and I’ve mentioned some of them before in this blog. I would start with ‘going forward’, unless it’s describing the movement of a car. But the Lake Superior people need to focus a little more on words that are really annoying, rather than on ones that are merely there. And stick to expressions that people actually use, excessively. Do that, and the whole thing is ‘cast in hat’ (whatever that means).

So, is research bad for education?

December 27, 2011

Those working in universities regularly come up against the question whether it is possible to balance teaching and research so that both are valued and neither undermines the other. A recent contributor to the debate on this issue, the Washington Post higher education reporter Daniel de Visé, had this to say:

‘Whether we intend it or not, the university serves scholarship and scholars before students. Students at traditional universities get significant consideration, but it isn’t responding to their needs that makes these institutions expensive relative to for-profit universities and community colleges. The traditional summer break is a leading example of per-student costs being driven up by faculty preference. Another is the time and money spent in research, much of which adds little to the quality of student learning while raising its effective cost. The scholarly view of knowledge, though valuable in its realm, also creates an implicit cost to the majority of students: Because many courses and majors are designed primarily to prepare students for graduate study in the same field, students headed to professional school or directly in the workplace may finish college under-prepared.’

This issue is important for all sorts of reasons. First, it is all about what constitutes a ‘university’; more particularly, it is the question whether all universities need to host high quality research programmes, or whether teaching-only institutions can also be recognised as good universities. Secondly, there is the issue of higher education pedagogy: should students be exposed to experienced researchers in their studies, or does this not matter? On the other hand, there are the really complex issues to do with academic career development, and whether promotion in the end is always determined by research output; and if it is, whether careers are therefore pursued at the expense of students? And finally, there are questions about whether research organisation and funding take up too much institutional energy and time, as some argue.

In some countries the approach to higher education research has defined institutional hierarchies, with research-intensive institutions being promoted as premier league universities, while other, largely teaching-oriented, institutions are seen as second tier. Daniel de Visé may argue that the focus on research short-changes the students, but then again, ambitious students always make research-intensive universities their first choice, because the research under-pins the institutional status and reputation.

The answer to all of this probably is that in order to be recognised as an academically significant institution, a university must have a good deal of high value research. However, that does not mean that it needs to be pursued in exactly the same way in each place. Some universities, with age, traditions and resources, may opt for an all-round research profile; but actually very few can afford to do this well. Most should find their own specialist areas or niches in which they wish to excel and which they prioritise, and in which they intend to compete with the best  in the world. Such areas should typically be interdisciplinary. But all should recognise the pedagogical value of the pursuit of discovery and analysis, and the need to bring this close to the student. And seen in that way, research is certainly not bad for education.

I’m dreaming of a commercial Christmas

December 26, 2011

Everyone is at it, so I suppose it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see the Pope on the bandwagon. According to news reports, Benedict hit out at the commercialization of Christmas and asked worshippers to ‘see through the superficial glitter’. Alrighty, I guess. A bit of a cliché, but then again, don’t we all want a Christmas when happy families come together and, after church and Christmas dinner, play games and talk?

Well, yes. Sort of. But the reality is that if we all did this, and stopped buying presents, having dinners and indulging in treats at this time of year the economic consequences would be serious. Of course we should try to see festivals such as this as community building opportunities, but I am inclined to think that quite a lot of what goes on around Christmas does just that: presents are an opportunity for us to try to understand and then give pleasure to people close to us, and parties bring us together. Christmas also often brings out the best in people, as support for charities and for good causes increases.

So, I think the Pope would do more good by reminding us of the ways in which we can all help to sustain each other. And as it happens, a bit of commercialization is one of them. Not least because it secures employment.

Happy Christmas

December 25, 2011

I would like to wish all readers of this blog a happy, peaceful and refreshing Christmas holiday. For those of you wanting some relief from Christmas gatherings and meals, there will be more posts here today and tomorrow.

In the meantime, I wish you all every happiness and fulfilment.

Why not just study for free?

December 20, 2011

As tuition fees rise across the developed world, often at a pace that significantly outstrips inflation, some are now predicting that the new trend will be to look for higher education remotely, for free. In fact for some time now universities have been making their course content available online. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) started the trend 10 years ago, and it now offers 200 courses on its MIT Open Courseware website. Not only can you get free access to programmes from Aeronautics to Writing and Humanistic Studies, but if you complete the online programme you can also get a certificate that you have done so successfully. So, why bother paying $40,732 (the standard MIT undergraduate tuition fee) when you can get the programme and a result for exactly $40,732 less, i.e. for nothing?

Other universities have similar offerings, and indeed there is Apple’s iTunes U that acts as broker of free higher education programmes offered by some of the world’s best universities.

How all this will go may depend a little on how higher education is able to present itself to communities across the world. On the whole, the assumption has been that university programmes have a value based not on their content or available expertise, but on the reputation of their qualifications. A Stanford University degree certificate gets you a better job, or at least a better prospect of one, than one awarded by, say, the University of Northampton. So what the institutions are ‘selling’ is the qualification. But what if society increasingly doesn’t see it that way, and if people come looking for knowledge (in other words, content), and employers for an assurance that this has been acquired (without worrying too much whether it involves a degree)? This will not necessarily mean that open courseware is suddenly all that is needed, but it may mean that the heavily controlled degree programme with its relatively inflexible pathways to a qualification and resulting professional success may lose value.

And if that happens, it may be worth pointing out that the whole funding edifice just created in England may fall apart, because the financial assumptions on which it is based will prove doubtful.

For higher education, these are interesting and unpredictable times.

Higher education performance

December 13, 2011

The statement usually attributed to the author and management consultant Peter Drucker – that ‘what gets measured gets done’ – has nowhere been as enthusiastically adopted as in higher education over recent decades. Anyone working in a university across much of the world will be aware of performance criteria which govern everything from institutional funding to personal career development. So we assess the student’s ‘learning outcomes’ and examination results, the professor’s publications, the university’s attrition rate; in fact, anything we believe we can measure. The statistical outputs from all this, unmediated by any coherent analysis, then get themselves published as some table or other that, in turn, will determine resources.

It is hard to argue against league tables, because these present an assessment of performance, however imperfect, and thereby allow interested onlookers to form a judgement about institutional quality. Those putting forward a case for universities to be left alone and find their own way of delivering good quality without external interference are not going to find a sympathetic audience: it is not the spirit of the age. Nevertheless, there is also evidence that the search for performance indicators has distorted strategy and sometimes incentivised very questionable policies. For example, it has led to a serious downgrading of teaching as against research. So what should be done?

First, if we are to have performance indicators, we should have fewer. In a recent presentation to a meeting on higher education strategy, the chief executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, listed 32 key performance indicators that could be used to inform strategy. Another example is the list recently proposed for Portuguese universities (in this document, at page 10). However, the impact of such lists is to reduce strategy to ticking boxes (to use that rather annoying expression); it is no longer strategy, but risk management, the key risk to be managed being the risk of losing public money.

Secondly, if you are setting up performance indicators, keep them consistent. In the Boland list inputs are mixed with outputs in a way that is unlikely to produce anything coherent. Also, relatively trivial indicators are found competing with more fundamental ones. Looking at them all together you cannot get any sense of mission or direction, you just have a list.

Thirdly, keep them relevant. Just because something can be measured doesn’t mean that it tells us anything if it is. Yet there is a lot of evidence that reporting on certain aspects has been required not because it is useful but because it is possible.

Overall, it is hard to resist the suspicion that the whole culture of performance indicators has been more one of bureaucratisation than of transparency. And yet, clarity about purpose, mission, priorities is important; as is the capacity to report on how successful these have been. It’s not that we shouldn’t do this, we just need to do it better.

The Tevez anguish

December 7, 2011

Argentine footballer Carlos Tevez is out of favour with his manager in Manchester City FC and wants to move. He is deeply unhappy, perhaps depressed, and is desperate to get away from Manchester. ‘Oh dry the starting tear’, as WS Gilbert once wrote in a poem, because a solution is in view: Italian club AC Milan is prepared to take him on loan and pay him his salary of, wait for it, £200,000 per week. That’s £10.4 million per annum.

So let’s see where that places him in the general league table of millionaires. It is, as it happens, almost exactly the same pay as is earned (and I’m using the word with a straight face) by the chief executive of Barclays Bank, Robert Diamond. But it is much more than the paltry £2.2 million earned by the chief executive of Ireland’s largest company, the Smurfit Kappa group, Gary McGann. Furthermore it is three times what Tevez’s manager at Manchester City, Roberto Mancini, earns, and 20 times the pay of Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew.

It may seem that highly paid university heads should stay clear of this subject, but I’ll venture forth anyway. Football is becoming crazy, and we are setting up conditions in which over-hyped prima donnas (even when talented, as Tevez is) destroy themselves and others around them while burning an amount of money that they do not, in any objective sense, actually earn. This in turn feeds from an over-priced system of television rights and season tickets, and it is turning a people’s sport into something that is as much soap opera as it is football.

I do not object to high salaries for footballers. They only have so much time in which to earn it. But £10 million p.a. is way beyond what is needed to set them up for life. In the meantime, this extraordinary business model is subverting the ideals of the game.

I know I’m not saying anything new here. But I’m saying it anyway. This cannot go on, or at any rate it shouldn’t.

Irish higher education and the 2012 Budget

December 6, 2011

Throughout my time as President of Dublin City University the annual statement of public expenditure – the so-called Book of Estimates – was a nail biting event. It was also an odd one, because this was how I found out, nearly three months into the financial year, what allocation I could expect from the government for that year. It was never a process that made much sense.

Anyway, here I am in Scotland, but there goes the process again back in Ireland: yesterday the government announced, as the first stage in the annual Budget dance, what the public expenditure estimates are to be for the coming year; though on this occasion it has also announced what sort of thing will happen in the two years to follow. And overall it is not a pretty picture for the universities.

Last year the government allocated €1,177,032,000 to the sector. For 2012 the allocation is €1,119,694,000, which represents a cut of 5 per cent. This is a larger cut than that applying to education overall, at 3 per cent. The government has also announced that there will be further (albeit smaller) cuts in the two subsequent years.

The government has also declared that the ‘student contribution charge’ will go up by €250, but this will not come anywhere near compensating for the funding cut.

Irish higher education is already dangerously under-funded. Every survey conducted has found the same thing: that substantial additional money is needed to allow Irish universities to compete on an international stage. We have now been told that there will be continuing cuts over the coming three years. It has to be emphasized that this is not an environment in which Irish higher education can carry out the tasks necessary for economic and social revival. To avoid a major collapse in morale, the government needs to declare now how it intends to handle higher education through the rest of this decade, and how it will enable the sector to meet expectations made of it. Otherwise Ireland will slip into a third world higher education system by stealth. There is very little time.

Capital city: photo of Edinburgh

December 2, 2011

I confess I find Edinburgh, which I now visit regularly as part of my job, to be a fascinating city. But above all it is fascinating because of its complex layout and architecture. It is easy to see how JK Rowling might have developed the mood of the Harry Potter novels from her experience of living in this city.

The photograph below is a small section of the view from the Waverley Bridge just outside Edinburgh’s main railway station.

Edinburgh, November 2011

Tradition, deference and collegiality in universities

December 1, 2011

When I was a student in the mid-1970s, I was elected class representative and had the pleasure of attending staff meetings in my department. This was an era that still had traces of the spirit of 1968 and student revolt, and I saw my role as being one of asserting student rights and generally questioning tradition. So what struck me most immediately when I attended my first staff meeting was the extraordinary level of deference and formality. The head of the department was addressed by all staff by his surname and rank, and indeed occasionally just as ‘Professor’.  When he showed a desire to speak everyone else fell absolutely silent. When he declared (as he sometimes did) that ‘I think we have now decided this issue’ (when, more often than not, there was nothing resembling agreement) everyone murmured assent, even those who moments earlier had expressed a contrary view.

When I became a lecturer a few years later my experience was similar, though it has to be said that my head of department did not particularly expect deference or formality – but he often got it anyway. Much more striking still was what happened when the head of the university – the Provost – appeared: there was a hushed silence, and it would never have occurred to anyone to address him as anything other than ‘Provost’.

Recently I attended a meeting in another university and was astounded to find these traditions still in good health: formality and deference were still much in evidence; except that now there were signs of a cynical undertone that accompanied the deference.

In my own case I strongly discourage anyone from addressing me as ‘Principal’, and indeed was equally discouraging of the address ‘President’ when I was in charge of DCU.  If we are to be a real university community we should not maintain such symbols of hierarchy. In any case, formalities and rituals may also be signs of a dysfunctional organisation, in which outward deference masks inner hostility, and in which tradition hides interpersonal strife and aggression. A senior academic in an English university has pointed out that, in their own interests, university communities need to get better at recognising the legitimacy of the roles played by their members, including senior members. He then adds:

‘If that also means a little less phoney deference and a little more genuine dialogue then that might also be the sign of universities maturing into the 21st century. The alternative – an increasing polarisation that leaves us ever more vulnerable to external intervention – will make it much more challenging for us to nurture those values that brought us into academe in the first place.’

Universities need to recover their collegiality. Or perhaps more accurately, they need to discover it, because I am not convinced it was ever really there in the first place. Not really.


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