Archive for November 2012

Regulating Scotland’s universities

November 30, 2012

Following its pre-legislative paper on post-16 education of September 2011 – Putting Learners at the Centre – the Scottish government has now published the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill. Much of this is concerned with further education, but there are some important provisions affecting universities. The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, has also confirmed his intention of introducing in due course a wider piece of legislation on higher education governance and related matters.

The new Bill addresses universities mainly by attaching new conditions to public funding channelled through the Scottish Funding Council. The first of these imposes a new condition ‘that the Council must, when making a payment to a higher education institution …, require the institution to comply with any principles of governance or management which appear to the Scottish Ministers to constitute good practice in relation to higher education institutions.’ This is a reference to the proposed code of practice to be issued in response to the recommendation made by the Review of Higher Education Governance that I chaired and which reported in January of this year. A code is currently being drafted by a working party established by the Scottish university chairs of governing bodies, and if accepted by the government this will become the source of the ‘principles of governance or management’ mentioned in the Bill.

The second relates to widening access to university by disadvantaged socio-economic groups. The government will under the terms of the Bill be able to make funding contingent on the implementation of a ‘widening access agreement’ entered into with the Funding Council. Such agreements will encourage increased participation by members of disadvantaged groups whose participation in higher education is ‘disproportionately low’.

Finally, the Bill sets a formal fee cap for students from the non-Scottish parts of the United Kingdom. This cap is not to exceed ‘the maximum amount of fees which that person would by virtue of any enactment be liable to pay if attending any higher education course provided elsewhere in the United Kingdom during that year.’ This applies to United Kingdom students only; there is no cap for non-EU students. Scottish and EU students do not pay tuition fees.

Universities Scotland – the umbrella body for the university sector – has come forward with a cautious welcome for the provisions, saying that ‘the Bill’s broad principles align with university values but that the detail of the provisions will require careful consideration’. In the political arena there has been a less positive response from opposition parties, with some politicians talking about a ‘power grab’ by the government.

On the whole I would regard these provisions as sensible. If we are to have a framework of good governance, it is reasonable to suggest that adherence to this should be a condition of public funding. Equally, the need to pursue greater participation in higher education by the disadvantaged is important, not least because the story so far is far from perfect; though equally it has to be remembered that the problem is rooted in a wider setting than just higher education.

It is hard to see these provisions as an attack on autonomy; they are in essence part of a strategy of tying public funding to good practice.

How specialised is your university?

November 27, 2012

What makes a university a university? A few years ago I had this discussion with a group of academics, and two of them suggested that, in order to be a legitimate university, an institution had to address a number of academic subject areas, which would have to include history and mathematics. At the time I was President of Dublin City University, and while we had a School of Mathematical Sciences, we didn’t cover history. Now I am Principal of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, and we have neither. Does this mean we aren’t a legitimate university?

But while you’re grappling with that, things can get much narrower still. The newest kid on the university block in the United Kingdom is what will be known as the University of Law (formerly the College of Law). As the name suggests, this is a one-subject university, covering only law. All its courses are for practising or aspiring lawyers, and while some of these courses are offered at a postgraduate level, there are no research degrees, and no particular evidence of a research culture amongst staff.

So then, is the University of Law a university? Yes, say the authorities – by granting it university status. And moreover, waiting off-stage is the firm Montagu Private Equity. If their takeover succeeds, the University of Law will be a for-profit undertaking.

It is clearly not my intention to suggest that having a rich subject mix covering all traditional disciplines is necessary to make anyone a university. I believe that the future of higher education will involve much more in the way of institutional specialisation. But the essence of modern academic life lies in trans-disciplinary knowledge and discovery, and it is hard to see how a single-issue college can cover that. It is unlikely that the college intends to be a player in new analysis and knowledge generation, either.

I am not doubting the value of the University of Law, or the quality of what it does. I used to work with them quite closely when I was Dean of the University of Hull Law School in the 1990s. But I am doubting whether it is a university, and I find it difficult to see what benefit is derived by anyone from this change of status. What this change does do, however, is to make it much more difficult to see what meaningful criteria, if any, should govern the granting of university status. Time will tell, perhaps.

Chewing it over

November 23, 2012

I took the photo below the other day as I was walking down a city street. I won’t say where. Just say it’s on your street, because wherever you live, if you look down and study the pavement, this is what you are likely to see. And what you are seeing is discarded chewing gum that people have spat out.

the chewing gum street

I have increased contrast levels on the photo to make the gum more visible, but there it is. Of course as we know this wouldn’t be the scene in Singapore, because former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew banned the importation and use of chewing gum in the city state. While not particularly wanting to espouse Lee’s somewhat authoritarian form of government, you might wonder whether he had a point.

Nor is this just a minor aesthetic complaint. The cost annually of removing chewing gum from pavements can be astronomical. It is estimated that London spends £10 million a year on this operation.

Let’s chew this one over and do something.

Coming to grips – or not – with university autonomy

November 20, 2012

When I undertook the task in 2011 of chairing the review of higher education governance in Scotland (the report can be read here), one of the recurring themes in submissions made to us was the imperative of university autonomy. It was often remarked that the world’s top universities are all highly autonomous, and conversely that highly controlled and directed systems of higher education tend not to feature much in global rankings. This explains, for example, why at least until now German universities have generally not received much international recognition.

However, it became very clear to me that ‘autonomy’ meant different things to different people. For some, it was the ability of universities to maintain the integrity of their decision-making structures in the face of government intervention. To others, it was about the freedom of managerial action. To others again it was all about intellectual freedom.

This difficulty in nailing down autonomy was not a new problem to me. In 2010, just before my term of office as President of Dublin City University came to an end, I was present at a meeting at which Irish government officials resisted the idea that university autonomy was about the freedom of individual institutions to decide their own strategy. To them, autonomy was about the freedom of universities to choose the means by which to implement government strategy. When I put it to them that autonomy could only be meaningful if universities could decide their own strategic direction, I was told that such a view had not occurred to them.

On the other hand of course, where public money is used to fund higher education, it is not unnatural for the government to expect certain outcomes. The current focus in Scotland on delivering better access to higher education for the disadvantaged (which universities support) is an example.

So where is the line to be drawn? Probably not where it is currently being sketched into the picture in Ireland. Amongst the more worrying developments there is the now published report by the so-called ‘International Expert Panel’ on A Proposed Reconfiguration of the Irish System of Higher Education. This report has come up with what it calls ‘an optimum configuration of the system’, consisting of ‘a small number of large, fit for purpose autonomous institutions with the critical mass necessary to determine achievable and flexible missions.’ Not visibly attaching much meaning to the word ‘autonomous’, the panel suggests that this outcome cannot be achieved by voluntary means and must be forced on the system. Leaving aside entirely the very doubtful proposition that larger (‘critical mass’) institutions are likely to gain more global recognition (when Caltech, the world’s number 1 university, would, if placed in Ireland, be the smallest institution in the system), it is notable that the panel attached no significance to the desirability of strategic autonomy.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, has indicated he is not in favour of these recommendations. But then again, the government has just issued a new Bill – the Universities (Amendment) Bill 2012 – which, according to an analysis by Brian Lucey in the Irish Times, will allow the Minister to extend government control over payments and salaries within universities. While restraint in payments made by universities to senior staff would undoubtedly have popular support, allowing governments to control this centrally tends, as the horrible Employment Control Framework has demonstrated in Ireland, to stifle initiative and undermine strategy.

University autonomy must be used wisely by the institutions, and must not undermine public confidence in their decision-making. But on the other hand, subjecting universities to central control is not the right response. Governments need to engage in constructive dialogue with higher education to determine how public priorities can be supported within a framework of accountable autonomy. There is no worthwhile alternative. A Soviet model of higher education is not the way forward.

New York, New York

November 19, 2012

The photo I published here two days ago  of a New York scene prompted an interesting discussion on this really extraordinary city, and its capacity to be so many different things in so many different ways: its capacity to be poetry, tragedy, mythology – or whatever it is we are seeking. So here are three other photos from that recent visit.

Fifth Avenue

Metropolis

Encounter

Gotham City

November 17, 2012

I recently spent two days in New York, and while most of my time was taken up with meetings, I did have an hour or two to stroll down the streets and take some photographs. New York can be all sorts of different things, depending on where you are, when you are there and what you make of it. Here, it was Gotham City.

Gotham City

Cruel principles?

November 15, 2012

Some readers commenting on my last post drew attention to the appalling news just in from Ireland, of the death of a woman in a Galway hospital, where she had been taken as she was experiencing a miscarriage. Medical staff, apparently, were unwilling to terminate her pregnancy even though the foetus was inevitably dying and the delay in forcing the delivery was placing the mother in jeopardy; in the event both mother and baby died. According to the report in the Irish Times, the patient, Ms Savita Halappanavar, was told that no termination could take place while there was still a foetal heartbeat because ‘this is a Catholic country’.

I have never believed that abortion is simply a human rights issue; it seems to me to be far more complex. But nonetheless what appears to have happened here is outrageous and horrible. As far as I know we have not heard yet from the hospital, so we don’t know for sure what the medical staff believed they were doing; nor have they confirmed that Ms Halappanavar was told what I have quoted above. But if it is all true, then so-called ‘pro life’ principles, which in any case seem often to have a curiously limited view of ‘life’ and of quality of life and which may be more about opposition to social liberalisation, are being conscripted into a campaign that in cases such as this just seems cruel.

One must absolutely accept that doctors and nurses sometimes have horrifyingly difficult decisions to take in extreme medical cases. But pro-life groups, and those who  allow themselves to be bullied by such groups into enacting or enforcing extreme laws, need to be reminded that life is complex, not simple, and that to elevate abstract principles above people is to abandon the values that make us civilised. It is time to ensure that whatever may have happened in Galway cannot happen again.


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