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.

A vision of Ireland at the crossroads?

November 13, 2012

I have now lived outside Ireland for the best part of two years. However, I am a frequent visitor and I keep up with things as best I can; and as I do so I am becoming increasingly intrigued by the direction of the national conversation. There appears to be a near consensus, in some circles at least, that the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years were all one big mistake and that the country should never have left the spirit of a previous era; though I am not always sure which previous era might be held up as a model.

Among those leading the discussion is Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins. The President has been forthright in rejecting the assumptions of the Celtic Tiger era, and in particular in rejecting the primacy of markets in economic affairs. His analysis has been interesting. In his lecture at the London School of Economics in February this year the President suggested that Ireland’s recent economic boom was a failure because ‘leaders and people had all but lost connection with the cultural and political elements of national revival’. What they pursued was the intellectual brainchild, he felt, of writers such as Friedrich von Hayek who promoted a ‘single hegemonic version of the connection between markets, economic policy, and life itself.’ This led to ‘extreme individualism’ supported by ‘unregulated markets’. A little later, in April of this year, the President spoke about ‘the folly of overweening material ambition’.

Pursuing this particular reference, I was a little struck that nobody appeared to have picked up the similarity of tone to that of a previous Irish President. In 1943 Eamon de Valera (admittedly when he was Taoiseach and therefore before he became President), made a speech mainly remembered for a reference he did not actually make (his alleged but never expressed yearning for ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’). However he did say:

‘The Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul.’

At a recent gathering of psychologists Ireland’s current dissatisfaction with itself was attributed by one speaker to a ‘narcissistic system’ based on its colonial past, and which caused people to have a negative view of themselves and of the nation. What she was referring to was the country’s sense of flawed nationhood as it accepted responsibility for what went wrong in the national finances, including the problems caused by reckless banking behaviour. The implication was that this acceptance of responsibility, by political leaders at least, was part of a distorted self-analysis and an obsessive desire to please others (the ‘others’ here being the IMF and the European Union).

What picture of an ideal Ireland can we discern from all this? An insecure country that wants to reject its recent past? A country that is keen to renounce material possessions and return to a rural frugality? A country that thinks that what happened to the Irish economy was part of some aberration in the national destiny?

No country and no society can turn the clock back. For those who may remember, say, the 1950s and 1960s, and for those who have just read about those decades, there should be some hesitation before concluding that those were better days. Does Ireland want women back into the home, could it accept now the lack of social and physical mobility, or large-scale emigration? Not to mention child abuse.

Nobody can doubt that the recent past was not all that it should have been. But the way forward is forward. The last two decades brought Ireland a much greater liberal acceptance of human rights, greater access to scientific and technological progress, much better national infrastructure, a better awareness of the potential for global communication and interaction. There was much more good than there was bad. Those who believe that Ireland needs to reject all of its recent history should, really, think again.

On the record?

November 12, 2012

A few years ago, when I was President of Dublin City University, I took part in what was a somewhat difficult meeting on a sensitive topic. Those present held, and expressed, a variety of what one might call robust views. A few days later I received, from one of the participants, what was described as a note of the meeting. Except that this wasn’t what I would recognise as a note; it was clearly a full transcript. Not only did it contain, fully verbatim, what everyone had said, it even included, precisely, everyone’s linguistic infelicities and ramblings. It seemed to me that the only way this transcript could have been assembled (not least because the person who sent it to me had not during the meeting visibly written down anything other than very occasional notes) was if the meeting had been secretly recorded. I asked a question, and received a strong response along the lines that no recording had been taken. I didn’t believe that for a moment, but decided not to pursue it, though I also felt that if a recording had been taken it was completely unacceptable.

Of course I am not alone in this experience. Last week Scotland’s Herald newspaper reported an incident in which a meeting addressed by the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, Michael Russell MSP, was secretly recorded by one of those taking part. The recording was subsequently distributed to a select group of people who had not been present. The Cabinet Secretary took exception to this, and has asked the person who took the recording to consider his position. I have to say I fully sympathise with the Cabinet Secretary.

Of course today’s technology makes taking such recordings very easy indeed. I am often at meetings in which those present have their mobile phones lying on the table in front of them, and setting these to record is very simple, and more or less impossible for anyone else to detect. I will hazard a guess that the incident above is not the only time I have been recorded without my knowledge.

But is it acceptable? I might say, for the avoidance of doubt, that nobody has ever been recorded by me without being advised and asked first. I would then add that I regard making a secret recording to be ethically totally unacceptable, except possibly at a public and open meeting. But can it be stopped or controlled? Or do we have to accept that the available technology is dictating acceptable practice? And in that context, is it acceptable for students, without first seeking permission, to record lectures or classes? And if the answer is no,  does that in any way contradict a desire for openness and transparency?

The horrors of easy access to information

November 6, 2012

Nearly 45 years ago I submitted a school project at the end of the term. I thought I had done a pretty good job. On the whole the teacher marking it agreed, but he added the following qualification. ‘I really didn’t like your use of Encyclopaedia Britannica as source for some of your facts.’ I thought I had better see him and find out what was wrong. Had my use of the encyclopaedia corrupted the analysis in any way? Were the facts taken from it incorrect? No, none of that. He just didn’t like Encyclopaedia Britannica, largely because, as he put it, ‘using it is just too easy.’

Before you rush to judgment, remember I was 13 years old and not exactly producing an article for a refereed journal. So, as he told me he had deducted nearly 10 per cent from my marks for this use of sources, I felt I had suffered something of an injustice; not least because I had assembled other sources as well.

Fast forward to 2012, and for Encyclopaedia Britannica substitute Wikipedia; in fact, add the whole internet. There is now part of a whole generation of ageing  academics who on the whole seem to think that, with the internet, research has become too easy for students; or maybe, they have so much easy access to information that they are ‘distracted’ by it and do inadequate work as a result. That, as it happens, is what a survey of teachers conducted by the Pew Research Center found in the United States. I suspect the results would be similar over here.

Of course easy access to information is not always a straightforward benefit. But it is still a benefit. I am not a supporter of the view that information is too precious to be made openly available to the uninitiated, or that it should only be used with the accompanying analysis of someone older and wiser. Indeed, when the printing press first became popular very similar arguments were made then. The task for teachers is not to persuade themselves that all this information and data ‘distracts’ students, but to ensure that students are trained and guided in its use. But we should avoid giving the impression that knowledge is too valuable to be openly shared. That is not what the academy is about.


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